Become the friendly librarian of your content

One of the analogies I reach for when talking about content discovery on the internet is something that happened when I was a child. I lived in a suburban town with a large library and I was a voracious reader.

One day when I’d finished every book by a particular author (I forget who) and was searching for something to read, I was faced by shelf upon shelf of tightly packed books showing nothing but their spines. There wasn’t enough information on those spines to enable me to choose and, overwhelmed by choice, I found it impossible to select a new book. Fortunately, libraries have librarians whose job it is to help out frustrated nine-year-olds and my childhood reading career was gently guided in a new direction.

I often remember that experience when reading the internet. Overwhelmed by choice, I’m unsure of what I’ll be getting by visiting a new site and I don’t know what content experience I’m committing myself to, so I retreat into familiar brands. When I do step out of my comfort zone and visit a new site, it’s usually for transactional reasons. I’m not alone, according to Nielsen, the average person visits fewer than 100 websites a month from the many millions that exist.

The challenge to discovery

This challenge to new discovery can be doubly tricky for arts and culture organisations. There’s lots that can get in the way of new discoveries for users of arts and culture sites. Content can often be seen as out of reach, too highbrow, or not presented in a context the audience understands. It could be that the audience think it’s aimed at someone else, or no one at all. Although the transactional sections of cultural websites perform well, traffic to editorial or creative content is often very low. The Head of Digital at one major UK museum told me recently that 50% of the traffic to most museum websites goes to the ‘how to get here pages’ rather than to any of the expensive digital content they’ve created.

Indeed Culture24 reckon that a cross-section of the top 40 cultural institutions only generate around 0.04% of traffic to UK websites. While there are some problems with that analysis, it’s a good illustration of how little traffic there is to many cultural websites and although the data is from 2011 the position is likely to be even worse now.

So, do cultural websites need the digital equivalent of a friendly librarian? A mechanism for pointing out that you might actually quite like this thing over here.

Put your content in their library

This was part of the thinking behind the Digital Public Space project which unfortunately seems to have gone away – or at least be in abeyance. It seems clear that the realm for public discussion is being increasingly privatised and exists primarily in places like Facebook or YouTube. But this is where the audience choose to be, and is to them a comfortable and familiar space, somewhere where they might be tempted to try something new, if it appears in their stream. Research from early in 2017 shows that people are spending 40 minutes a day on YouTube and 35 minutes a day on Facebook. While Facebook was recently caught out having got its stats wrong and significantly inflating the number of times videos are viewed on its platform, the numbers are still impressive; 100 million hours of video is viewed every day on the platform.

If there was any residual doubt it should now be clear that these are the places where cultural institutions should be following the example set by broadcasters and newspapers, using the social platforms as a mechanism for taking content to where people hang out. After all, as storytellers they know how to connect with mass audiences, and have been using social platforms as a kind of friendly librarian for years.

As soon as digital services such as iTunes emerged that challenged the BBC’s market share, it started creating content such as podcasts that could be delivered via iTunes right onto the device that was in a user’s pocket. The BBC also engaged with social platforms, publishing content on to YouTube and Facebook as well as on its own site. Even though the BBC is by far the most-visited UK website, videos on YouTube often get many times the number of views as they did on the BBC site.  The reasoning behind the BBC’s embrace of competitive platforms was that short clips could be classed as ‘promotional material’ which would drive visitors to the valuable stuff – i.e the full programmes. If someone finds a clip of a baby marine iguana evading a snake on You Tube they might go and watch the whole episode of Planet Earth.

You don’t have to be the size of the BBC to make this work – the Royal Opera House uses YouTube as its video platform, embedding the video back into its own page, a good example is here on the page giving information about the current performance of Turandot.

Meanwhile friendly digital spaces offer the opportunity for ever deeper engagement with audiences. The Culture White Paper published in 2016 talks about how ‘Everyone should enjoy the opportunities culture offers’ and while the White Paper is conspicuously short on mentions of digital it’s not a great leap to work out that delivering content where and how people want it will foster curiosity and increase their engagement. This goes back to the point above that content published on a cultural institution’s own site can often appear remote or difficult to many people, but publishing it in the context and format they understand in a space they regularly use will make it much more meaningful for them.

Losing control to create new connections

The big change that cultural institutions need to make when they adapt to digital is psychological.

Cultural organisations often want to control the context their content is presented in, it is almost a duty of care in their eyes. This presents a real challenge for them, in the physical world the focus is on getting visitors in through the doors where control can be maintained, but in the connected digital world it looks increasingly likely that you have to let go of some of that control to be where your users are. The social platforms of Facebook and Twitter might look a narrow space to deliver rich arts and cultural content, but they are the key spaces for your content to be re-personalised and shaped to briefly hold a moment of attention, which for some will become the spark of a new journey of discovery.

As the boundary between what is educational and what is enjoyment shrinks, arts and cultural organisations should use social platforms as a mechanism for encouraging curiosity in their audience. Delivering content to people in their own spaces and their own streams can draw some of them into becoming committed consumers, and they can become your most powerful advocates and recommenders; Nielsen again found that 83% of consumers trusted their friends’ recommendations. If content can in effect be released as a gift, it can in turn be gifted by your audience to their audience. This process of turning your content into their content means becoming part of a huge network of amateur, accidental, friendly librarians.

There are opportunities too in formal education. Teachers need help finding good stuff for their lessons but they haven’t got time to search dozens of cultural institutions’ websites to find it. A survey by the Arts Council in 2015 found that teachers are desperate for good quality digital materials to use in lessons, with most of them searching for content every week. But teachers need to be sure the resources they’re using has been used by others, so they need accreditations, ratings and recommendations. They need to be sure that the content fits the curriculum, so they need evidence that the material has been developed with teachers. And they need to find it easily, so it needs to be search optimised so it can be found by Google.

Other research shows that teachers return to the same sites to find their resources – looking for material on YouTube, Wikipedia, the TES and on the BBC, be it Bitesize/Class Clips, the news site or even on iPlayer. A point made simply when I interviewed a Deputy Head at a SW London Voluntary Aided school earlier this year: “We always use BBC stuff as we trust it” he said. This is where partnerships with organisations like TES or MOOCs such as Futurelearn or Khan Academy could deliver your content right where teachers, lecturers and students can find it. There are plenty of other alternatives as educational content is a huge growing market; Of the 899 exhibitors at BETT 2017 in London January 2017, 328 were categorised as providers of ‘classroom materials’.

This closing analogy may be lost on anyone without a seven year old daughter, but as my eldest puts on ‘Matilda’ yet again, I can’t help wondering whether some cultural websites are modelling themselves on Miss Trunchbull when they should be channeling their inner Mrs Phelps.

Richard Leeming is a consultant specialising in digital and content strategy, mainly in the heritage and arts sectors. Before setting up on his own he was a digital producer at the BBC working on social media channels, apps, podcasts and a linked open data platform.

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