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Published: March 15, 2001.

Papers

Towards a Virtual Community

Giuliano Gaia, National Museum of Science and Technology, Italy

Abstract

The Internet is primarily a communication tool. This is easy to forget in a web-browsing era. We should remember that the web was created only in 1990, while the first Internet email message was sent nearly 20 years before, in 1971. Exchanging messages via email, chat, or instant messaging, is the most important activity for the majority of Internet users. Communicating can be very important for a museum too. By using email, you can establish a direct relationship with your public. You collect important feedback from actual and potential visitors. Newsletters can strengthen this relationship. Professionals can be involved in discussion mailing lists about specific themes. Discussion forums and guestbooks can enliven a lot your website. Of course this is not for free; you have to dedicate much time to this activity. At the Science Museum of Milan we have used many of these communication tools: email, newsletters, forums, chat events, guestbooks, discussion mailing lists, online surveys, etc. Our aim was to create a sort of virtual community with our visitors. The paper will describe this effort, together with an evaluation of the results.

"How beautiful it is to talk with a Museum!". In my opinion, this e-mail we received two years ago states the key concept perfectly. In Italy most museums are focused more on conservation than on communication. This reflects the situation of the whole culture, often seen as a separate kingdom, far from the ordinary life of people. Museums are the temples of this "high" culture.

In recent years, however, something has started changing. On one hand, interest in museums and exhibitions from media and people has increased; on the other hand, public funds have diminished, and museums have found themselves forced to adopt some marketing and communications practices in order to survive.

The Internet has proved to be a powerful tool for this new attitude. Writing an e-mail is easy and cheap. This makes people write many e-mail messages to museums. But a side-effect is that this people expect a quick response from the museum. Finally people can really "talk" with museums, and they want to.

The Science Museum on the Web

The Science Museum opened its website on January 26, 1998. It was the same day that the Museum announced its transformation from state-owned institution to private Foundation. The website opening was significant of a new direction in the museum attitude towards its audience.

During the last three years, the website has grown considerably, passing from the initial 100 pages to the 1300 pages of December 2000. A relevant fraction of the website has been translated into English, while only a few pages are in French.

The audience of the website

During the year 2000 the Science Museum website received 500.000 visits (2.500.000 pageviews, which means an average of 5 pageviews per visit). Going deeper, nearly half of the total visits resulted on the English section (Pict.1)

Pict.1  Visits per section
Pict.1 -- Visits per section

Since the museum is not very renowned outside Italy, we can explain this data only by the presence, in the English section, of an important section about Leonardo da Vinci. In fact, two main audiences can be identified: one, mainly international, interested in Leonardo , and another one, mainly Italian, interested in the Museum itself. This fact is very important for the Museum's communication strategy, since we can use different tools to communicate with one audience or another, or both. For example, so far the newsletter has been addressed mainly to the audience interested in the Museum, while the forum on Leonardo has proved more appealing to the international audience.

E-mail

This is one of the most classic ways of communicating with users. Most websites have a public e-mail address. Every website with a public e-mail address faces two main problems:

Stimulate or discourage email from visitors?

We have decided to stimulate e-mail; this was done by publishing the general e-mail museo@museoscienza.org directly on the Home Page. Moreover, the address is repeated in many pages of the website and in a specific section, called "Contact". In the Contact section you can find, together with the e-mail, a page called "help the museum". In this page we ask our visitors to send us suggestions, drawings, photos, anything they think could refer to our collections. If they own a website, we ask them to put our logo on their website, an online promotional campaign which has proved successful (Gaia 1999).

Who answers the e-mail?

Our policy is: every e-mail, except spam advertising, should get a personal answer in no more than two working days. The webmaster is in charge of answering e-mail messages. He reads the e-mail daily, answers all the messages he can directly, and forwards the other messages to the appropriate staff member. In this case, he also answers the forwarded messages, just saying "we have received your message, which has been forwarded to.. (name and function of the person)". Some websites use auto-responder software, sending an immediate "acknowledgement message" to sender. We prefer to have the webmaster doing this acknowledgement manually, since a personalized message from a real person is much more satisfying for users. So far, the answering process has worked quite well, generating satisfaction from our users, as witnessed by numerous e-mails thanking us. Moreover, it is useful for the webmaster to read all the e-mail in order to understand better the needs of website users. For example, many requests were about admissions, opening hours, how to get to the museum, etc. All this information was already on the website, but messages proved that it was not visible enough. Of course, so far centralized reading by the webmaster has been possible because the amount of the e-mail to answer has been reasonable. For example, during the month of October 2000, we received 84 e-mails. 17 were unsolicited advertising, something you don't need to answer to. Of the other ones, 25 were forwarded to our museum staff members, while the webmaster answered directly to 42 messages. This means 3-4 messages being processed by the webmaster every working day, something you can cope with. If the amount of the e-mail rises to much more than this, we will rethink our answering process.

The relationship with our audience has proved very important. Certainly, the percentage of people writing is low; during the year 2000, we received around 1000 messages, compared to a total of 500.000 visits on the website. Among these 1000 messages, however, there were some useful contacts; for example, we got important information about some of our pieces, sometimes from descendants of people who actually used them. We got donations: a motorbike, old computers. Some messages led to important link-exchanges, or to mirroring of interesting websites, or to new material to publish in the website. Sometimes messages were moving, like the message from Rumania, from a man whose child was passionate of trains. "I hope one day I'll be able to take him to your museum. Now he is not in: he went with his grandfather to the railway station, to see trains leaving..."

Newsletter

Since the opening of the website we have offered our visitors the possibility to subscribe to our newsletter, to receive by e-mail our news (conferences, exhibition openings, new sections of the websites, etc.). On December 2000 our newsletter counted nearly 1400 subscribers.

The frequency, size and format of messages all aim at a single goal: not to annoy subscribers, with messages which are too frequent, or too long to download. Frequency is reduced to a message every 2 or 3 weeks. Messages are text-only, without attachments or HTML formatting, to make them readable by all users. Messages are composed of 3 or 4 short news items with links to web pages with deeper descriptions; this is to keep them short, and to increase visits on the website.

Messages are signed personally by the webmaster, who often writes a short preface in a more personal style. This is done to help establish a more friendly atmosphere between the museum and subscribers.

Obviously subscribers cannot see other recipients e-mail; this is obtained easily with mailing list software like Majordomo, (a widespread free mailing list package, WEBSITE), but also with the "BCC" option of every e-mail software, like Outlook or Eudora. In fact with Outlook or Eudora you can manage even long lists of addresses (up to more than 1000).

In order to understand who our subscribers are, the Marketing Studies Institute of the Catholic University of Milan prepared an online survey about themselves and their attitude towards the website and the Museum. The survey was submitted to our subscribers on June 2000. It produced some interesting results. First, people were willing to participate: more than 20 % of subscribers answered the survey, most in the first 48 hours. Second, it was a mainly local audience: more than 50 % of them were from Milan. This is quite interesting for us: while the main audience of the website is international, a newsletter is a good way to keep in touch with a local audience. We also found that a majority of them visited the website only after having visited the Museum. They used the website to deepen their visit, and the newsletter as a tool to establish a relationship with the Museum.

The survey was intended also as a tool to build a sense of involvement in the web site development; for example, many of the subscribers indicated a site map as a tool they would have appreciated on the website. After the survey the map was created, and announced as a direct effect of the survey (and partly it was).

The survey was the last of a series of steps intended to reinforce the sense of involvement of the subscribers. For example, in July 1999 we changed the Home Page of the website and asked for their opinion, raising a fair amount of comments, mainly positive. Again, during 1999 we had five concerts at the Museum. One of them was especially dedicated to our subscribers: we wrote them that the concert was not going to be promoted on the website but only in the newsletter. It was our gift to them for their fidelity. Only a few of them went to the concert, but we received many e-mails thanking us for the idea.

In January 2001 we have prepared a T-shirt of the website to be sold online, in partnership with an e-commerce website. This T-shirt was proposed to subscribers at a special discount rate, and a few of them were sent for free to the oldest subscribers, as a "fidelity reward".

Newsletter results are definitely positive. We know we can promote for free any initiative to a significant number of users certainly interested in Museum activities. This has proved useful, for example, in negotiating sponsorship for small events. People from news websites subscribed to the newsletter, and we often see our news published on other websites or newsletters. This has convinced us to think about specialized newsletters, aimed at journalists, teachers, international audience (news in English about exhibitions and books on Leonardo). They will differ in content and frequency of messages (for example journalists need news much more in advance than the general public), but they will keep the same familiar tone of the general newsletter.

Discussion Mailing List "Musei-it"

During 1999 we created a mailing list to discuss the use of Information Technology in Italian museums; its name was "musei-it". In December 2000 the mailing list counted 133 members with an average of 20-30 messages per month. We created this mailing list to achieve different goals:

  • Get in touch with other people working in the same field (for example, museum webmasters)
  • Strengthen the position of the Museum in this field
  • Get new information and ideas from discussions between subscribers
  • Select a high-level target audience for promotion of specific initiatives (like conferences)

After some initial difficulties, the mailing list took off during the year 2000. The creation of a website dedicated to the list has proved very useful. The website had links and materials deriving from the discussions, and a web interface to past messages. The website worked also as an effective promotion of the mailing list subscription.

In September we thought the mailing list was mature enough to try a more complex project: joining the VLMP project. The VLMP, acronym for Virtual Library Museum Pages, is a big international directory of museum websites (www.vlmp.org, see Bowen 1999). The directory is divided into national sections, each one followed by a volunteer; we have decided to host the Italian section, asking mailing list subscribers to help us in maintaining the directory, searching for new museum websites and checking outdated links. Online projects are very suitable for volunteer work, since they do not require physical presence or fixed working hours; therefore, organization of volunteers is simplified.

Discussion mailing lists require much more care than unidirectional newsletters, since discussion is a fragile creature, which has to be nurtured continuously. On the other hand, of course, you get a lot from your users: ideas, feedback, materials, cooperation, and sometimes a true sense of community.

Communicating on the website (guestbook, discussion forums)

The main difference between e-mail based communication tools (e-mail, newsletter, mailing list) and website-based tools (guestbooks, discussion forums) is visibility. When you send an e-mail, nobody knows, except you and the Museum. When you post to a forum, everybody can see your question, and the answer you get. It is a powerful feature, because it enables visitors of a website to "see" each other. You know that other people visited the website, and left their comments. This decreases the sense of loneliness, characteristic of web-browsing, and can then be a good way to help the birth of a community.

On another hand, visibility is the weak point of these systems, especially from the museum's point of view. If you do not get enough messages, your forum will appear empty and unsuccessful; if you get nasty messages, they will appear at once on your website.

During 1998 we had a guestbook working, where people were encouraged to leave comments about the website. It was a successful experiment: we received a fair amount of messages, mainly positive. When we received messages criticizing the Museum, we decided to keep them on the website, answering them with a message from the webmaster. This showed we did not censor messages, and made the guestbook lively.

In 1999 we tried to open a discussion forum about the future of the Museum. Our goal was ambitious: we asked our visitors to suggest to us what new pieces or new directions the Museum should have taken in the next future. It was interesting, we thought, to make people reflect on development of technology. But we got only a few messages, and the forum was definitely unsuccessful. We cannot say whether it was due to the subject, or to the scarce visibility on the website, or to a poor management of the forum (for example, many forums start their activity with some fake messages to ignite discussion, something we decided not to do).

During the year 2000 we opened another discussion forum, structured in a different way. It was called "Questions and answers about Leonardo". People could pose questions about Leonardo, and a Museum expert would answer every question.

This time the forum was successful. We got a lot of messages asking every kind of question, in Italian and in English (the same forum was linked from the two sections). The only problem was that questions were very different one from another: some were very easy and fast to answer, other were high-level and required studying the problem, and other ones were too generic to be answered shortly. Questions appeared at once in the forum, but some of them remained unanswered for a long time, since we could not take up too much of our expert's working time for the website. To solve this situation we have transformed the forum into a "frequently asked question" section. Visitors pose questions with an e-mail form; our expert chooses the question to be answered, and then the question and its answer are published in the same time on the website.

Real-Time Communication

Only during the year 2000 have we started to experiment real-time communication tools, such as chat systems. In April 2000 we hosted a chat event in partnership with Webscuola ( http://webscuola.tin.it ), a website sponsored by Telecom Italia. Webscuola studies how students and teachers can be involved in cooperative learning experiments using Internet tools. Every year Webscuola organizes many chat events: experts answer questions from students on specific subjects. In April our energy expert joined one of these chat events. We were satisfied because students were very involved, but it proved nearly impossible to discuss complex subjects, due to the fragmentation typical of chat discussions. It was clear that chat should be used in combination with other tools, like E-mail, to take advantage of its best feature: its nature of "warm" medium, capable of rapidly creating relationships between people.

This year we will try a more complex project with Webscuola: a website created by students from different part of Italy, coordinated by our staff, with chat and e-mail as the only way to communicate between them. The project is called "Create your own museum": students will have to search their houses for old objects, and create a virtual museum with photos of the object, organized in different sections.

During 2001 we will also try to use chat to communicate with users of our website. We already have a real-time system, Leonardo Virtuale, which has been described extensively in past Museums and the Web conferences (Paolini et al. 1999). Using this system users can join a 3D world and chat with other users' avatars, and operate some of Leonardo's machines. Users who enter the system tend to remain there for long (Barbieri et al. 2000). What we want to experiment with this year is how the system can help to spread culture. A museum guide will connect at predetermined time (for example every Friday morning) and will offer "virtual guided visits" in the system, chatting with users, and offering explanations about Leonardo's machines. Something similar will be done for the normal website, using tools like Humanclick ( www.humanclick.com ) or Gooey ( www.gooey.com ). These tools combine web browsing and chat; a person from the Museum will contact users browsing our website, and will offer real-time answers to their question, or address them to a specific section of the website.

Conclusion

Communicating with users is a very demanding task. You have to dedicate much time and passion to this task. But a proper communication can produce valuable results. Customer satisfaction is the more evident, but not the only one. You also collect valuable data from your users, explicitly (suggestions, ideas, desires) and implicitly (attitudes, needs). Moreover, you establish a direct relationship with your audience, which can be very satisfying for you too. After all, the possibility of communicating directly with people is one of the things that make our job so interesting.

References

Barbieri T., Paolini P. (2000), Cooperative Visits for Museum WWW Sites a Year Later: Evaluating the Effect, In D. Bearman & J. Trant (Eds.) Museums and the Web 2000, Selected papers from an international conference (pp. 173-179). Pittsburgh: Archives & Museum Informatics http://www.archimuse.com/mw2000/papers/barbieri/barbieri.html

Bowen J. (1999), Time for Renovations: A Survey of Museum Web Sites, In D. Bearman & J. Trant (Eds.) Museums and the Web 1999, Selected papers from an international conference (pp. 163-174). Pittsburgh: Archives & Museum Informatics

http://www.archimuse.com/mw99/papers/gaia/gaia.html

Gaia G. (1999), Promoting a Museum Website on the Net, In D. Bearman & J. Trant (Eds.) Museums and the Web 1999, Selected papers from an international conference (pp. 230-238). Pittsburgh: Archives & Museum Informatics

http://www.archimuse.com/mw99/papers/gaia/gaia.html

Paolini P., Barbieri T., Loiudice P., Alonzo F., Gaia G., Zanti M. (1999), Visiting a Museum together: How to share a visit to a virtual world, In D. Bearman & J. Trant (Eds.) Museums and the Web 1999, Selected papers from an international conference (pp. 230-238). Pittsburgh: Archives & Museum Informatics.

Rheingold H. (1993) The Virtual Community, online version on the website http://www.rheingold.com