Museums and the Web 1999

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If you build it they will come∑won't they? Marketing a web presence

Katie Streten, Science Museum, United Kingdom

Museums on the web

Museums have embraced the web. There are few now who do not have a site even the very smallest museums have recognised the potential of the medium. While this is not the place for an exhaustive discussion of the role of museums in the community and the aims and objectives of the museum community it is safe to state that their aims include the following: the care and conservation of objects for the public and posterity; putting these objects in such a context as to communicate their many meanings; informing and educating; providing interest and entertainment; allowing access to the collections; conveying clearly to sponsors and opinion formers (press, government officials, social commentators etc) the work of the museum. The Web is a constantly developing medium which offers opportunities in all these areas. Through 3D technologies such as VRML web users can view objects in ways that are unavailable not to say unadvisable in Museums themselves. For example at the Natural History Museum's site you can change the aspect of a conch shell, looking underneath it turning it around. Museums can use the virtual space of the Web to display objects which cannot be displayed in the museum either through constraints of conservation or simply space. They can see objects in new settings through online exhibitions, examining them in new contexts creating their own paths through information which can open corridors to a deeper and more personalised understanding of the information we provide. Moreover, since the Web is viewed as an entertainment medium similar to television or film museums can make the link between learning, responsible care of objects and entertainment in the Web users mind through the Web. In such a space they can communicate the more serious aspects of their responsibilities, conservation, research and education in an atmosphere of relaxation and personal choice. A good example of this can be seen at the National Museums and Galleries of Wales in the simple conservation game which enables participants to see good and bad methods of conservation for a Roman Coin. Finally of course, the Web enables museums to reach audiences usually beyond their reach either geographically or demographically. We need only look at the statistics for US visitors to UK sites to confirm this. For example, during March 1998 the percentage of US visitors to the Science Museum web site was 43.48% compared with 34.96% from other countries.

It is a powerful medium enabling us to communicate and to build relationships with important audiences who can bring their own experiences to our collections and contexts in projects such as the Dialogues project at the National Museum of Film Photography and Television (http://www.nmpft.org.uk/) which enables school children in South Africa and West Yorkshire to explore each other's lifestyles and communities.

The Web also offers opportunities for Museums to provide information 24 hours a day. Prices, events, exhibitions and location can all be conveyed. Museums web sites offer a huge information resource and, at their most basic level, a means of increasing the footfall into the Museum itself. We know all this, but does our audience?

Statistics show that at the end of 1998 35% of the US population and 15% of the UK population were online. The total number of users worldwide including those who access at work was estimated to stand at 151 million at the end of December 1998 with a projected 327 million people the millennium. This is a formidable number and a great opportunity and the community has seen it as such. Museums realised the potential of the Web in 1993/4 earlier than many in the commercial sector. At that time there were an estimated 3,212,000 (July 1994) of domains. Amongst such a number of sites the profile of an information providing site such as that of a museum would have been high not only in the search engines but also in the minds of the public. While there was press coverage of the development of museum sites and web marketing was still emerging as a discipline a considered marketing policy for museum sites was not seen as necessary. In fact, the medium was so young and new that marketing for any site was considered second to the construction of a site in the first place.

The situation is now rather different. The current estimate for the number of domains stands at 36,739,000 (July 1998). This represents a growth of c.1000%.

Not only has the number of sites increased, but also the means to find them have changed. Search facilities now encompass both the directory system of submission, validation and display and the automated search engines running on robots independently of your submission. Your site is now competing with commercial, government and entertainment sites often with the same audience. One outstanding example of this for science museums can be seen at the PBS website in their "Science Odyssey". This is a site which offers clear scientific explanations in a fun and innovative way making the experience interactive. The site was linked to a television series which ran in January 1998. These organisations have development budgets which allow them access to the latest technologies and web users are becoming more and more demanding in the kind of experience they want from a web site. While we can offer these experiences we may not be seen immediately as the kind of site to do so whereas our competitors, particularly in the entertainment sector may be. These organisations will have organised marketing policies, they will have budgets and they will have the imperative to direct traffic to their sites for they too have information to communicate. Our information may be just as relevant and interactive, but is it easily accessible?

It is important for us to remember that we bring to the web a wealth of experience of using the web. Many of us were online before 1994; we may remember Mosaic and the days when image maps were the last word in design. With this background comes a complacency about the experiences of the new user and an assumption that they will be au fait with the navigation and communication systems peculiar to the web. The truth is that many visitors will come to the web through a structured environment created by their service provider. This is even more true as we witness the development of WebTV and digital television. Many users may find exactly what they need in these interfaces rarely venturing beyond the safe environments of their cosy front screen unless directed to by their providers. Should they escape from these confines they are likely to look for sites by guess work, urls rather than search engines. The nature of hosting of museum sites or our preoccupation with internal structures and acronyms may mean that this is far from the best way of finding our sites for new web users.

Of course, if your site exists people will visit it. This is especially true of the larger museums. There is a loyal audience who will automatically look for your site and may even bookmark it, but there too you have a problem. Visitors come but visitors go and how do you encourage them to return? This problem is even more applicable to the casual browser. They will visit, but the need is for them to return to experience new information, new objects and bring new experiences to light. Placing the date when something was last updated on your pages does not let your visitor know how long it will be before the next update, nor does it let them know what that might be, it won't pique their interest or give them an imperative to return.

It would be assumed ridiculous for a museum to put on a new exhibition and not to inform the press, the public and the community about it. A web site is equally an investment of time, energy, creativity and money on the part of a museum as an exhibition and can even be part of an exhibition. Such an investment should be exploited fully.

We have real value to offer to the web community and we need to ensure that our audiences know about it. We are now competing against leisure and business sites which will have budget and plans for marketing and similar audiences. We are competing against the unfamiliarity of the web to new users and the wealth of information present to existing users. In short, if we are to continue to attracting and re-attracting visitors online we need to develop marketing policies for our websites.

Whose job is it anyway?

The position of web site manager or web master is still ill defined and nebulous in many museums. The trend is towards creating a post specifically to deal with the daily management and development of the web site; however, this trend remains at present with the larger museums who have budget and resources to fund such a post. It should be that such museums usually have larger sites demanding such a full time position. For those within the community whose current position incorporates both their original duties and their web site management role, the question of marketing may appear secondary to the immediate demands of running the site. In addition, it may seem this way to those responsible for marketing the museum as a whole whose knowledge would undoubtedly benefit the profile of the site. The web site needs to find its role within the outreach and public profile of the organisation. The aim of the following suggestions is to ensure that the basics of web marketing are laid down and the possibilities for creative thinking and profiling are discussed. With such a backbone museum sites will keep pace with their competitors in the commercial arena and evolve a healthy backbone of marketing skills linked directly to the web site.

Web marketing basics

At the most basic level, and even on a larger scale, publicising your site is free. The majority may already be established at your institutions, however, it is well to reiterate them here in view of their importance. The museum will undoubtedly have existing channels of communication to the various sections of its audience, whether these are high or low profile. It will also have personnel responsible for marketing and publicity. Working together with such personnel and with the whole staff of the museum will ensure that the free opportunities available are fully exploited.

  • Include your web site address in the signature file of your email and ensure that all members of the museum staff do the same.

  • Make sure that the web site address and a general contact email becomes part of the address on headed paper at the next reprint.

  • Ensure that the web site address is placed on every corporate publication or information document produced by the museum from now on for instance on information for friends of the museum, corporate sponsors and the regular events leaflets if you have them.

  • Request that significant updates to your site be detailed on such information together with the URL of that page.

  • Include your web site address on any pr or press releases regardless of their content. If the release relates specifically to an event, exhibition or gallery publicised on the site then try to ensure that the URL included refers specific eg http://www.museum.edu/currentexhbition.html.

This will ensure that you reach all sectors of your audience from researchers and press to the visiting public, at the point of communication most personal to them.

Working with your press officer

Working with your press officer or press agency to create specific releases for the site is another free means of publicising your information. Press officers know what makes a good story, have contacts in the local and national press and understand the right time for publicising information. Newspaper listings for online sections eg. The Guardian Online on a Tuesday, are keen to receive information about interesting new projects or web site redesigns especially if given plenty of prior warning. When the National Museum of Film, Photography and Television in Bradford launched their site redesign their press officer sent out releases to the local and national papers resulting in publicity in The Guardian for the relaunch this resulted in the hits for that month rising by N%. Thus it is evident that such cross publicity can be an effective method of raising the profile of your site.

A second way of working with the press office or officers is to consult them periodically on the types of subjects or stories which are of most interest to the public and consider ways of building this into the content of the site. An example of this from my own site is the use of the Museum's bi-annual MORI poll to discover the most popular gallery choices and subject areas for visitors to the Museum. Accordingly I then developed a system of in depth mini-sites which compliment the temporary exhibitions we put on at the Museum in time to coincide with an update on John Glen's return to space. This section received the same number of hits as the main gallery page of the site, proving its interest to the general public.

Web based publicity releases

There are often web sites which compliment newspapers and have their own listings features. These may be more comprehensive and more frequently updated. These sites will have contact information from which you should choose the most appropriate recipient for your information. Sending press releases by email is an effective way of alerting such sites to the developments on your web site. This can be done in one of two ways: -

  • Sending a digital version of a press release put together by your press officer
Or
  • Sending a specially written press release for electronic publications.
The virtue of the first option is that you can be sure that the information given is relevant and eye catching as you are making the most of a specialist contribution. However, there is a danger that your release may seem impersonal or inappropriate to a web audience. On that note, do not be worried about sending unsolicited emails to large organisations such as this although it may be wise to adopt an informal tone in the release and possibly to personalise them if possible.

In addition, such bulletins can be used to contact other sites such as those of enthusiasts, local area guides or events webzines. They can be used to build contacts and to ask for links perhaps as part of a link campaign. Reciprocal links continue to be an easy and effective method of building traffic. Sending out a request for links combined with a press release about a new site development or special feature is a way of ensuring that site managers have an incentive to visit your site sooner rather than later to judge whether it is appropriate or of interest to their audience. For those launching or relaunching sites the combination of press release and link request demonstrates a commitment to information provision and to regular updating and raises the profile of the site within the web community simply and effectively.

It is important to remember that your press release should be relevant and draw the attention of your audience to something worth seeing. This is particularly true of sending releases to large national/international sites. The information should be short and to the point. Include, the url, title, subject of the section/web site and any special features which would be of interest.

The success of such releases can be judged by the 'on-line only' publicity campaign which I ran for a new feature on the site "Challenge of Materials", launched in March 1998. The site was designed to compliment the Challenge of Materials gallery in the Museum and makes extensive use of Java and Directory based applications. It has an easy to use, bright design and I felt it would be popular with the web community. I sent releases to all the major British newspapers online plus any Internet related magazine sites. The site was mentioned in The Guardian and as a result it was picked up on by a number of Internet awards and listings sites. The comparison of hosts accessing the site together with information downloaded demonstrates the power of the publicity: -

  January 1998 February 1998 March 1998
Hosts served 16,399 16,161 20,823
Successful requests 86,656 85,000 115,570

One interesting spin off from the publicity of the site was that I was contacted by a national paper and marketing publication regarding our web and Internet activities at the Museum and we were featured in two articles. This is another kind of publicity that can't be bought but may result from day to day marketing of your site in this way.

Search engines and directories

The use of search engines and directories is the most obvious of all promotional methods. They are the means by which the Internet community navigates the web The simplest way to use them is to ensure that you get listed and it is important to understand the different approaches of the two. Directories, like Yahoo, rely on you to submit your site to the right category and then review the site for content and relevance; search engines, like AltaVista use robots to trawl the web constantly searching for new sites and revisiting old. For success in using these two types of site to promote your homepage you will need to adapt your pages.

When submitting to directories such as Yahoo or specialist sites such as the Virtual Library of Museums (http://www.comlab.ox.ac.uk/archive/other/museums.html) it is your job to add an interesting and accurate description of your site. It is your job too to determine the most useful category for your museum for instance, Regional:Countries:United Kingdom:Science:Museums and Exhibits. It is a good idea to submit the site to as many categories as appear relevant so that it can be found more easily, for instance the Science Museum might be found in the above mentioned category and also in Science: Museums and Exhibits. The great benefit of being able to submit your details personally rather than having them picked up by a robot is that you can submit sections of your site as well as the site as a whole. This is particularly relevant if you house more than one museum or one museum site. The Science Museum server houses the web pages for the National Railway Museum and the National Museum of Film, Photography and Television. All the sites are housed under the address www.nmsi.ac.uk and then follow directory or file path names, eg. http://www.nmsi.ac.uk/nmpft/. Certain search engines, such as Lycos, (http://www.lycos.com) do not separate content and address. This results in problems submitting hosted sites (there is a simple solution to this problem discussed later). However, Yahoo and directories like it focus on the content and title of the site submission which means that I could submit the Challenge of Materials resource and have it listed. However, directories such as these do not automatically list new sections or pages in their own right, only as they are part of your main listed site. For more dynamic listing you will need to prepare your site for search engine robots from directories such as AltaVista.

The robots which seek out information for the search engines can easily be given the information needed for them to record your site. You will need to ensure that you employ META-TAGS. These html tags sit in the <HEAD> of your html document, are read first by the bot as it passes through the page and used to define the content of that page. They comprise keywords and description. "Keywords" are the most common words that will be used to search for your page and it is wise to include variations of the same word, for instance, plurals or UK spellings. The "description", contains a more descriptive explanation of the content of that page. The format of the tags is as follows: -

<Meta Name=keywords content="content, content," >

And

<Meta Name=description content="description of the site">

Be aware that these engines also rely on the content of your page to determine the relevance of your page to the query received by the browsing visitor. So, a page which has only the address of the Science Museum and a little information on it may come up higher than the Science Museum homepage - which in fact it does on AltaVista. However, using meta-tags increases the likelihood of your site being further up an appropriate search. Theoretically, you could now sit back and let these search engines find you amid the morass of other pages on the web, but realistically I recommend actively submitting them at the search engine's main site too.

There are services which you can buy to get your site registered such as Register-It! (http://www.register-it.com) which can submit two urls to 400 sites for you. The cost is only it is only $39.99(c£25.00). However, the same site offers 10 free submissions to search engines and directories, which, combined with your own personal efforts, should ensure that you are listed with the main directories and engines and occasionally also with awards sites. Of course, another thing about relying on the services of such submission engines is that they are highly unlikely to submit you to site which is less than automated. For instance, special interest group sites or local interest sites, you can reach more easily by the personal contact suggested above under the discussion of press releases.

Domain name registration

As discussed earlier, when one domain name houses multiple home pages search engines may refuse to register each homepage as a separate web site, but may instead class all the sub-sites as merely pages with the central domain. This can obviously be a problem for those of us wishing to market such sites effectively. However, there is an easy way around this. Adapt the existing domain name or buy new names.

If you do not own a domain name for your museum site I would urge you to buy one. It is the easiest method for the interested public to find you. It increases the relevance of your site to certain search facilities and should enable visitors to find you more intuitively. So useful is the ownership of the right domain name that corporations have gone to law in order to regain domain names already bought by other parties. Aim to use a name which is short and memorable. Domain names should be easy to remember not only for visitors but also for museum employees so that they can participate in the marketing of the site by word of mouth and the inclusion of the site address on all their correspondence.

You can buy your choice of name through your service provider or online using either Nominet (http://www.nominet.org.uk) for UK domain names, JANET if you are on the UK academic network (http://www.ja.net) or InterNic (http://rs.internic.net), providing of course that someone hasn't beaten you to it.

If you are already the owner of a domain name you will be able adapt it as more appropriate for your dependent sites, for instance, nmsi.ac.uk could become, sciencemuseum.nmsi.ac.uk. This is a simple low cost way of adapting your domain name. You will simply need to contact your ISP or reconfigure your domain name server to read the addition to the name. However, probably the most useful way is to buy a dedicated name for any sites hosted on the server for whose publicity you are responsible.

Buying advertising space online

The circumstances of web advertising make the medium unique in the ease with which you can target specific audiences. This is of great benefit to organisations such as ourselves. We can be more certain of reaching the right audience at the right time in this medium than we can in others. This in turn gives an assurance that the money that we have spent is well spent. Examples of specific targeting are advertising on local web sites or special interest sites. For instance, the Science Museum advertises on the web site of the London Tourist Board (http://www.londontown.com) in the directory section under museums. The particular benefit in advertising at that level of detail is that the people looking there are interested in museums already. They will not find an advertisement about our museum irrelevant or uninteresting. For this reason it is money well spent though the figures accessing from that site are c.100 visitors per month.

Although such specific advertising is rarely available on local sites it is an option on directories such as Yahoo. You can even link your advertisement to a keyword search so that if, for instance, a visitor enters the words "museum", "railways", "trains", an advertisement for the National Railway Museum can come up.

You can reduce the costs of producing a web advertisement if you produce the copy in house. I would recommend Gif Construction Set, Animation Shop (which comes bundled with current versions of Paint Shop Pro) and Fireworks by Macromedia for the purpose. These programs offer custom made procedures for creating banners including sizing and animation, you only need insert your chosen images to produce simple, clear and effective web banners.

Being creative

Successful web marketing employs many of the skills needed for creating a web site in the first place. You will need determination in putting together budget requests and creating an effective marketing plan; persuasive skills when explaining the benefits of the free publicity options outlined earlier in this paper; an ability to view content in different ways and reinterpret its relevance for different audiences, in order to determine which website "events" are of interest to which visitors. If this all seems too dry I would like to conclude with a plea for creativity in marketing your site.

The Web offers the opportunity of creating a community around your site. Many of you will already have "Friends" of the museum and may know the value that they bring. They become part of a community focused on benefiting and benefiting from the museum and its activities. Such a community can also be created on the web and will offer the opportunity of reaching a far wider audience. An easy way to do this is to use email lists.

Email lists enable visitors to the web site to sign up for a regular brief on events, forthcoming exhibitions and other interesting news about the museum such as additions to the collection. From my experience with a commercial company I know that lists such as these build loyalty and engender a sense of involvement in the activities of the parent organisation. They are an excellent way of ensuring that people who are very interested in your activities know about them first.

Here again there is a free option and a cost option. There are a number of sites which will offer you free email lists for instance OneList.com (http://www.onelist.com) and the Web Site Post Office at Register-It.com (http://www.register-it.com). This is a good option if you don't have direct access to your server. If you would rather pay to have a slightly better service without the advertisements that inevitably fund these free lists then you could try the service provided by Lyris (http://www.lyris.com). A final alternative is to install a list server on your machine. You can use the Lyris engine for that or another engine such as MajorDomo (http://www.greatcircle.com/majordomo/) which is probably the best known of the list servers.

The only caveats I would make about running lists such as these are:

  1. That you make sure that the list is an announcement list, not a discussion list. While such lists can be useful in generating interest in your site they need careful monitoring and are more related to exhibition activity than marketing activity.

  2. Ensure that you send out the list regularly. If the list is erratic and uninteresting it will alienate rather than attract visitors.
Building communities like this may result in special offers you can give to community members, events or "give aways" such as museum screen savers.

This is another creative method of promoting your site. Creating a screen saver that can be downloaded free both offers something fun and interesting to the visitor, but also constantly reminds them and everyone who works around them of the museum. You can approach a design agency or use one of the programs which are available (mainly for PC) from the net such as Animated Screen (http://www.pysoft.com).

Conclusion

There are many ways of marketing your museum web site from small additions on existing publicity information to full-scale advertising on international web sites. It is important to pick what will be the most useful for your museum and to be prepared to expand either budgets or minds (or sometimes both!) to achieve a coherent and successful plan regardless of its compass. The power of marketing should not be under estimated and nor should our need to understand how best we can employ it. The web is growing exponentially. Museum web sites offer a unique information resource and can be a means to interact on a new level with our visitors bringing new interpretations and contexts to the objects and information for which we are responsible. How can they bring us their experiences if they can't find us?

References

Virtual Reality at the Natural History Museum, 1995,1996,1997,1998
consulted January 11, 1999
http://www.nhm.ac.uk/VRendeavour/index.html

Henry‚s Big Adventure, 1997,1998
consulted January 11, 1999
http://www.nmgw.ac.uk/forfun.html

Dialogues, 1998,1999
consulted January 11, 1999
http://www.nmpft.org.uk/education/online.html

The CyberAtlas 1998, 1999
consulted January 11, 1999
http://www.cyberatlas.com

NUA Surveys, 1997,1998,1999
consulted January 11, 1999
http://www.nua.ie/surveys/how_many_online/index.html

Network Wizards Internet Domain Survey, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999
consulted January 11, 1999
http://www.nw.com/zone/WWW/report.html

A Science Odyssey, 1998, 1999
consulted January 11, 1999
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/