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In conversation with: John Swettenham from the Canadian Museum of Nature

John Swettenham, marketing director for the Canada Museum of Nature

Born and bred in Ottawa, John Swettenham has worked at The Canadian Museum of Nature for eight years having previously headed up the marketing function for Canada Post.

Ahead of his upcoming talk at the MuseumNext Digital Marketing Summit, John gave us a preview of what we can expect from his presentation – Flavours of Virtual Tours to Build Engagement – and how the efforts of the last 18 months have generated valuable evergreen content.

“Coming into the museum sector from another industry I could see that The Canadian Museum of Nature had a very strong brand and real status. The great thing about museums is almost always the strength of brand. We work hard to combine that strength with the operational requirements of getting people to purchase tickets. As a team we’ve had a ton of fun with that over the last few years.”

One of the areas where this is most evident, John says, is in media relations:

“Here at the museum, media relations is incredibly important and our perception in the community through that channel is critical. We can’t move as a museum without people watching us: they watch because they care; they care because they feel like they’re part of it. That’s what brand’s all about!

Asked about how the role of The Canadian Museum of Nature has changed as a result of the pandemic, John says,

“People have looked to science over the last 18 months. And I think they will continue to do so as we deal with the next two global challenges of climate change and loss of biodiversity. In a world that seems to be increasingly full of disinformation and misinformation we are fortunate that people have found institutions like ours to be trusted sources; places they can have faith in.

“I do think we’ve seen people find that they need us more during this period. They really value what we have to say so help them grow understanding and help them get their bearings.”

John adds that this sense of trust is borne out in the response the museum has seen from visitors since reopening after months of lockdowns:

“People have considered us to be providers of safe spaces. In fact, we’ve never had more positive feedback forms than we have right now. People are taking the time to show their appreciation of what we offer them.”

Quick wins

Once your doors are closed and you can’t welcome half a million annual visitors into your galleries any more, what do you do?

That was the challenge that John and the rest of the team at The Canadian Museum of Nature faced in March of 2020. John responds,

“Well, it was totally new. We’d never had our doors closed before. It was obvious that we had to go online but we had to ask ourselves how hard and how fast we should transition to digital, given the uncertainty around how long the pandemic would last.

“Our first step was to roll out what I call our ‘finished work inventory’ – all of those assets that are already online and in digital format that were ready for use. We just went through a process of looking at what we had and how it could be repackaged or formatted to make it relevant during this period.

“What we really put a lot of effort and time into – and what I will be talking about at the MuseumNext Digital Marketing Summit – was our virtual tours. I’ve given plenty of in-person tours during my time here; I do it all the time with various visitors. So, it really felt like a good idea to create a 30-minute video tour that could be enjoyed while people weren’t able to come in person. I think that video has now been viewed 20,000 times on YouTube alone. That’s not to mention the short, digestible clips we’ve created gallery by gallery for social media.”

The value of partnerships

After putting their first video tour live in April, John says it was their partnerships that really helped them to develop fresh and interesting content as the year progressed. As he’ll outline in his presentation, collaborations with other venues and cultural institutions was critical at a time when none were open to the public. By combining resources to create high quality content it was possible to not only drive significant engagement but also to cross-market between organisations.

As John will share in his talk, projects like the concert video tours developed with the team behind the Ottawa festival, Music and Beyond, have served to keep the museum relevant and valuable to audiences in the digital space.

Another important collaboration during this period was with Matterport, the creators of 360-degree immersive tours.

John says, “The Matterport tour is really interesting because we don’t know when we would really have got round to mapping the spaces if we hadn’t been forced to close. But with virtually no one on site for several months, it was a great time to get Matterport in.

“Now that this is completed, we have the museum in digital format and in great detail. This dramatically enhances our accessibility and inclusivity, enabling us to look at new ways to deliver guided tours in the virtual space in the future. We can already see that this tour will help to support our in-person educational tours and the work we do with schools in Canada.

“As I’ll discuss in my presentation, one of the most exciting things we’ve been able to do is add layers of interpretive content and rich media to the 360-degree tour – this time in collaboration with GHM Academy – to offer highly engaging and informative virtual tours.”

Although John suggests that part of the success of some of these initiatives may be down to good fortune, he does acknowledge that the museum’s standing within the Ottawa community, the strength of the brand and also his conscious effort of nurture those relationships over the years has stood it in good stead. While steps hadn’t necessarily been taken to prepare online content in the event of a closure, the success of the museum’s digital pivot represents a valuable lesson in the benefits of brand building, collaboration and communication during times of challenge.

“We understand that we are an attraction within a broader ecosystem. To market the museum we must also support the overall value proposition of Ottawa and Canada as a whole. Partnerships have always been part of our work. But they really did come to the fore and show their value during this period.

“If there’s one thing I’d perhaps like to get across in my talk at MuseumNext, it is probably that, while we initiated lots of projects and campaigns ourselves in the last 18 months, it’s the projects we didn’t initiate that we should perhaps be most proud of.

“That’s because people thought to come to us and wanted to partner with us. That speaks of strength of brand and the way others perceive our ability to add value – not just in the last year and a half but over a much longer period of time.

“If you want to be part of the visitor attraction and culture community, it’s clear that you really need to get out there and connect with those organisations. If you do that, you’ll probably be rewarded because people will think of you in return.”

A pivot, stop-gap or just progress

Asked how he reflects on the changes that have taken place in the museum’s approach over the course of the pandemic, John says,

“For sure it accelerated many of the things we knew we already wanted to do . . . because there was a real sense of urgency and we didn’t have many of the other marketing responsibilities that would usually get in the way. I think we’ve also managed to generate some new content that we might never have generated without the closures: quite simply because they wouldn’t have been a priority.”

“I’m proud of how we’ve stepped up our video production and digital content as a whole during this period, too. Our marketing teams and programming teams have come together to find new and interesting ways to add value to our audiences. In particular, our schools programming obviously didn’t have an outlet for many months so we’ve worked to develop better online schools assets. There is no doubt that these will continue to be valuable long beyond the pandemic.”

Asked about whether he and his team implemented key performance indicators or metrics to measure success on their journey through the pandemic, John says,

“To be honest we struggled to find the right metrics. Of course, we tracked how our social accounts and website performed during the last 18 months but, honestly, the barometer we’ve really used is how our audiences responded when we opened once again. And the most important metric when we welcomed people back was that we sold out; and we were sold out for months.

“If we ask ourselves what our ultimate goal was when undertaking all of that digital engagement work after closure in March 2020, it would have been to achieve just that. To me that was fantastic, it meant people hadn’t forgotten us and they still felt connected with us.”

Looking for new ideas

Asked about what he hopes to get from the MuseumNext Summit himself, John says, “Whenever I attend conferences or museum events I always like to think that I’m going to come away with at least two bright ideas; things that others have thought of and that I haven’t. It’s nice to then be able to come away and try those ideas out for ourselves.

“I have to say that MuseumNext’s events have always been great for that. There are plenty of people with lots of insights that always prove valuable to people like me.”

Hear more from John and an exceptional range of other museum marketing professionals at November’s Digital Marketing Summit running 22nd–24th November 2021. Find out more about the conference here.

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