Monday, 6 February 2012

Can you capture visitors with a steampunk arm?

Credits: Science Museum
This may be familiar to you if you've worked on a museum website: an object will capture the imagination of someone who starts to spread the link around, there's a flurry of tweets and tumblrs and links (that hopefully you'll notice in time because you've previously set up alerts for keywords or URLs on various media), others like it too and it starts to go viral and 50,000 people look at that one page in a day, 20,000 the next, furious discussions break out on social media and other sites... then they're gone, onto the next random link on someone else's site.  It's hugely exciting, but it can also feel like a missed opportunity to show these visitors other cool things you have in your collection, to address some of the issues raised and to give them more information about the object.

There are three key aspects to riding these waves of interest: the ability to spot content that's suddenly getting a lot of hits; the ability to respond with interesting, relevant content while the link is still hot (i.e. within anything from a couple of hours to a couple of days); and the ability to put that relevant content on the page where fly-by-night visitors will see it.

For many museums, caught between a templated CMS and layers of sign-off for new content , it's not as easy as it sounds.  When the Science Museum's 'steampunk artificial arm' started circulating on twitter and then made boingboing, I was able to work with curators to get a post on the collections blog about it the next day, but then there was no way of adding that link to the Brought to Life page that was all most people saw.

In his post on “The Guardian’s Facebook app”, Martin Belam discusses how their Facebook app has helped archived content live again:
Someone shares an old article with their friends, some of their friends either already use or install the app, and the viral effect begins to take hold. ... We’ve got over 1.3 million articles live on the website, so that is a lot of content to be discovered, and the app means that suddenly any page, languishing unloved in our database, can become a new landing page. When an article becomes popular in the app, we sometimes package it with content. Because we know the attention has come at a specific time from a specific place, we can add related links that are appropriate to the audience rather than to the original content. ...when you’ve got the audience there, you need to optimise for them
As a content company with great technical and user experience teams, the Guardian is better placed to put together existing content around a viral article, but still, I'm curious: are any museums currently managing to respond to sudden waves of interest in random objects?  And if so, how?

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