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In conversation with: Chris Cloud, Director of Communications and Marketing, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego

“This crisis has really forced museums to evaluate all aspects of their brand and marketing. From their values to their audiences to their channels . . . We really have to understand who we are trying to reach and why they want to hear from us, especially during these critical times.”

As a “creative thinkdoer” and marketing leader, Chris Cloud has built a reputation as a valued voice in US museum circles. Formerly Marketing Content Director at immersive art experience, Meow Wolf in Santa Fe and now Director of Communications and Marketing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego. Chris’s perspective on marketing – and particularly social media – is widely respected.

But as has so often been the case in recent times, even those with the best laid plans and the most agile approach have found themselves blindsided by the size and scale of the Coronavirus pandemic.

“To be quite honest, I was grossly unprepared for this kind of crisis,” Chris says candidly. “It’s not the most comfortable thing to admit but I think a lot of my museum peers would say the same and I would say it’s ok for us to look back on March 2020 and say that we didn’t have all the answers.”

Recounting his own experience of Covid-19’s first wave, Chris says:

“Last spring I was working as the Marketing Content Director at Meow Wolf in Santa Fe and we had planned some incredible activities and exhibitions for Spring Break – one of the busiest times of the year for the immersive art experience. The most immediate challenge we faced was the uncertainty about how long this would go on for. The initial messaging we put out as part of our crisis communications stated that the experience would be closed until March 30th. Here we are nearly a year later and Meow Wolf Santa Fe is still closed.”

As it became ever clearer that the lockdowns in the USA were more than just a short-term challenge, there was an urgent need to move marketing messaging away from promoting in real life (IRL) experiences to providing truly engaging online ones. Chris explains:

“Museums had to show a sensitivity to their audience and work hard to share the right types of content. From my perspective, it took us about three weeks to get into a content groove.

“As we began to reset our targets we had to come up with a new playbook essentially. It’s become an overused term, but we really did have to ‘pivot’ quickly and look at how all of our prior plans could be repurposed for an online audience.

“There are successes and failures from that time that we’ve all experienced as a museum community, I’m sure. I hope we’ll be able to look back in 3, 4, maybe 5 years and have some clarity on how all this played out. But right now, I’d say as marketing and communications professionals we’re still taking the temperature of the audience and, to a certain extent, guessing how we can serve their needs.

“There’s plenty of talk about analysing online data and planning around current user trends – but I really don’t think that habits have been established yet. We’re still in a turbulent time and the phases of this pandemic are still playing out. What we can focus on, however, is how we serve the needs of our audience in this moment. Our role now is to capture what we see in front of us and be more current than ever before – and that’s something we should consider before just packaging up what we have in the archives and putting it out.”

Asked how Covid-19 has shaped marketing strategy, Chris says,

“Normally, we can look a couple of years out or more. But that isn’t how we’re functioning right now – especially in the context of touring exhibitions. What I feel we can do is give people something to put in the calendar as they sit at home; something to look forward to . . . because for many there isn’t a whole lot else to do.”

The evolving role of social media

In Chris’s experience, he sees that the role of digital platforms, particularly social media, has shifted dramatically in recent months. Once seen purely as a broadcasting tool to promote exhibitions and collections, social media now forms a part of the cultural experience being offered by museums.

“For many years I’ve thought of the social media platforms I’ve managed and developed as being part of the programming. I feel we’re curating the social space. But I think it’s only now that we’re truly appreciating social because it’s become a core channel for exhibiting. What I think we’ll see as IRL experiences return is that IRL and URL programming will become an extension of each other.

“Perhaps the best way to express it is: we traditionally thought about programming and curating first and everything else followed. In this moment we are maybe now leading with storytelling, relevancy and engagement instead of a gallery, platform or channel.

“Without the buzz of daily life – visiting pubs, going to cafes and concerts – we’re in a time of self-reflection where people are looking for a sense of belonging. That’s a powerful driver and a void that museums have a really crucial responsibility to fill. It’s also an incredible opportunity to reach new audiences; people who aren’t frequent visitors to museums but who are eager to find something new and interesting to fill that space in their lives.”

Above: Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego

Asked whether Chris believes this growth potential needs to be a strategic one, he says that, in his experience at the Museum of Contemporary Art at least, it’s more about assembling the right toolkit, being in the right conversations and looking at what is the best content to open a door for a new audience – rather than using ad targeting for a land grab.

He says, “We need to be in the conversations and share the content that we believe is authentic and will attract attention. But I don’t think that now is necessarily the time to invest in untapped audiences or try to manufacture a viral post.

“What I will say is that we have the digital tools – such as a Facebook Pixel – to maximise the potential of any new eyeballs we get on our content in the future. Right now we are focused on adding value; the retargeting can come when we open our doors again.

“It may sound like it conflicts with what I’ve just said but I feel like this ‘big pause’ also gives us the opportunity to experiment and try new things. People are more forgiving of experimentation right now and I think that if there ever was a time to try a different approach via a website or social, then now would be it.”

Reflecting on 2020 and setting goals for the future

Asked what the experience of the last 12 months has taught him, Chris says: “The biggest thing I’ve learned over the last 12 months is to expect the unexpected. I know that sounds cliche but it’s so true. I think it’s easy to find and fall into safe, predictable rhythms. We need to open to the fact that anything is possible.

“I think we’ve now experienced some fundamental changes to society, and museums have changed along with it. IRL and virtual experiences have been fused and become intertwined. A lot of communications and marketing work in the museum/exhibition field was previously centred around driving in-person visitation. I see a near future where it’s centred around cultivating and engaging your community where they are. As of now, that is mostly at home.

“That’s not to say that digital experiences and online museum work will replace or reduce demand for IRL visitors. When it’s safe to do so, I see a lot of folks wanting to gather in meatspace again. But the power of online in cultivating communities and the appetite for content has been laid bare by the pandemic.

“I believe it will be a lot easier to generate a sense of anticipation and make people want to visit in person if they feel a sense of belonging and community. And we maybe need to embrace the fact that museums function as cultural attractions.”

Chris also believes that there’s a huge amount to learn from others across the museum community. With so many different challenges and experiences to unpack from the past 12 months, he says that the MuseumNext Digital Summit is a perfect opportunity to take stock and share learnings.

“I’m super stoked to hear from all my museum peers. I’m especially excited to hear from Shakia M. Gullette from the Missouri Historical Society on Maintaining Your Creativity During a Pandemic and from Suhaly Bautista-Carolina from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Museums, Communities & Civic Engagement.”

In his own talk at the Summit, Chris will discuss the theme Social Media is People Media. He says,

“It’s centred around how to humanise your museum in the age of social media. It’s going to be GIF heavy. GIFS do wonders! It’s how people communicate these days. As museum professionals, we must be aware of how our visitors are communicating and work towards communicating to them in ways that make them feel comfortable, included and engaged.

“One thing I don’t always feel we do very well as a museum community is let people see what’s going on under the skin of our professional, knowledgeable institution persona. What I want to convey is that there is something to be said for being personable: being kind, being emotional and even being vulnerable. Where we have historically approached things as an institution, we also need to understand the value in empathy – something I want to discuss in the context of micro-engagements.”

Want to hear more from Chris Cloud and a host of other speakers from the museum sector? Sign up for the MuseumNext Digital Summit in February 2021.

Tickets are available here.

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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