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In conversation with: Josh Dyer, Director of Marketing, Myseum of Toronto

Josh Dyer

“We had a strategy to capture, repackage and present digital content in dynamic ways . . . Covid forced us to execute that strategy much quicker”

Ahead of his talk on “Getting more out of your livestream content” at the MuseumNext Digital Summit, Josh Dyer shares his learnings from the last year.

Looking back to Spring 2020 in order to reflect on his own experience with Myseum of Toronto, Josh Dyer recounts how the first lockdown in Toronto unfortunately coincided with their flagship annual arts and culture festival. About to embark on a four-week long festival in April, involving activations right across the city, Josh and his colleagues suddenly found themselves quarantining at home with only the museum’s digital platforms to work from. He says,

“For 2020 I believe we had 12–15 exhibits planned in various sites around Toronto. But of course, two weeks before the festival was set to launch we had a moment of realisation that it just wasn’t going to happen.

“The term has been used so much that I almost hesitate to say it but, essentially, we were forced to ‘pivot’ at speed. In our case there were a few things that worked in our advantage during that time.

“We are not a space or collection-based museum. We don’t have a building nor do we have a collection. The programmes we offer follow a pop-up model connected to the community and so we are fortunate to be nomadic in this sense. We focus on bringing our museum to the people.

“One of the key requirements of my team is to capture museum experiences in a way that is lasting. Too often in the past I’ve found that if I miss a cultural exhibit or event in real time, I go to the museum’s website and all traces of what has happened are gone.”

Josh and his team were already working hard to tackle this particular issue before Covid hit. Yet the pandemic served to show the true value and flexibility of archived digital content.

“We had a strategy to capture, repackage and present digital content in dynamic ways across our website and social platforms. What Covid-19 forced us to do was execute that strategy much quicker.”

Looking back on how his own workflows and processes have developed in the last 12 months, Josh admits that the learning curve has been steep but that the insight he and his team have gained will be immensely valuable for the long-term future. Sharpening up all aspects of both pre and post event production has helped the museum to successfully engage a rapidly growing audience in 2020.

“On reflection I would say we did well in our initial pivot. On very short notice we got some good content out of what would have been our big arts and culture festival. But looking at the content we’ve developed in the second half of the year and the work we are doing now in 2021 and I would say it’s clear that we are getting better at it.

“Certainly, there are still many obstacles created by the pandemic. To create great digital content we can’t always get the production levels we would want and our teams can’t interact as they usually would – but hopefully those difficulties won’t be with us forever. There are many adaptations that we’ve made that we should have been doing already and will definitely continue going forward.

“So, for example, we are working hard on the accessibility of our content: we are building in ASL interpreting, as well as using captioning and transcripts of event recordings – things like that.”

The Arts and Culture sector is learning on the job

Having been with Myseum of Toronto for 5 years now, Josh says that he’s seen a noticeable shift in the way that digital has been perceived by institutions. While museums have, of course, moved towards online content and technologies at a different pace, Josh says that there is no doubt that Covid-19 has accelerated this process.

“I think that there were obviously some institutions that took some time to embrace digital and perhaps didn’t see how online could be harnessed within a museum context. On the flip side there were larger institutions that were investing heavily in infrastructure and shiny new products: not all of which have been proven to drive engagement.

“Perhaps what we have seen as the most dramatic shift in the last 12 months or so is the willingness of organisations to go and find their audience where they are spending the majority of their time during these lockdown periods. Places like social media.

“I wouldn’t say that museums have solved the problem of how to engage a young audience and I think that will continue to be something that requires work. But the digital experimentation that many institutions have tried has maybe given them a foothold or a better grasp of what is possible.”

Asked if the digital transformation of 2020 should shape future goals and metrics for museums (and particularly marketing teams) Josh says that it is very difficult to know where measuring progress starts and finishes – and what it will enable us to predict about future trends and demands on museums.

“2020 and 2021 are going to stand as outliers, I think. But that doesn’t mean that the lessons we’ve learnt aren’t of value, in terms of digital programming. Those lessons will stay true but the benchmarks will almost certainly need to change.”

Harnessing the power of Google Ads

In his talk at the MuseumNext Digital Summit, Josh will also be explaining how the use of Google Ads has supported Myseum of Toronto’s efforts to broaden and deepen its audience over what has been a challenging 12 months. Speaking candidly about the utilisation of Google’s NonProfit advertising allowance (the initiative which provides $10,000 of free advertising spend each month), Josh says,

“We simply weren’t getting value from our allowance. We weren’t managing it as a priority and we really didn’t have the volume of content to get the most out of Google’s ad platform. But at the start of 2020 we already had a plan in place to remedy that, as part of our broader content and digital marketing strategy. We went from using it very passively to using it very actively in April 2020.”

Asked if the ready access to digital data – particularly in terms of views and visits to successful online content – is now shaping the efforts of the programming team in the future, Josh says that this isn’t typically the case.

“Not necessarily. Our programming team still retain the freedom to explore ideas and exhibitions that are authentic and important to us as a city. Rather, having access to digital advertising and analytics tools enables my marketing team to ensure that whatever we choose to do is marketed to the right audience.”

While some institutions may have a very clear audience and visitor demographic, Josh explains that the nature of Myseum of Toronto makes the target audience entirely different from programme to programme.

“Given what we have achieved in the last 12 months, I’m fairly confident that given a programme and a clear vision of who the intended audience might be, we can create a strategy to reach them using the platforms and channels at our disposal.”

Leaving space for reactive programming

Based in one of the most diverse cities in the world, Myseum of Toronto has built its stellar reputation for exploring different historical narratives and shifting the conversation away from the archetypal colonial narrative.

A key part of the museum’s engagement activity – even before the pandemic – was to seek out authentic and potentially marginalised narratives using social media and other digital channels.

As Josh explains, this mature engagement strategy has also enabled the museum to run a reactive programme alongside scheduled events and exhibitions. In 2020, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement led Myseum of Toronto to explore the city’s own experience of inequality through a programme entitled: “Over Policing Black and Indigenous Lives”.

It was the first time that the museum had voluntarily cut planned programme in favour of a reactionary approach. As Josh explains:

“We knew we needed to facilitate a conversation and be part of something that was of great importance. We felt it would be a disservice not to facilitate some critical dialogue in light of what we were seeing in society at the time. If we’d run with our initial programme it might have felt out of touch.

“Part of the ‘Over Policing Black and Indigenous Lives’ programme’s success was undoubtedly down to being the right conversation, in the right place, at the right time. It’s very difficult to plan for what will hit the zeitgeist and it’s not always wise to do so, but in 2020, for the very first time we decided to tear up our plans and address an incredibly important subject that was right in front of us and was really consuming everyone’s thoughts.

“In 2021, we are now choosing to leave scope for reactive programming. The exciting thing about this approach is that we can have fast-turnaround discussions about things that are happening in our city in real time – something we would maybe never have considered or been able to facilitate before. Through our digital platforms we can engage in a meaningful and authentic way, making our museum experience more about being in the moment and not just appraising the past or the future.”

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