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Digital storytelling in the museum: Inspiration from Van Gogh Museum

Bedroom in Arles” original painting by Vincent van Gogh (1889)

We museums are generous. We collect and exhibit objects and spread their stories, often to make lessons of the past tangible and to inspire people around us. Many museum objects have digital counterparts: entire collections and their stories can be found on museum websites. For free! This approach was questioned when online became the only place to experience art during the pandemic, and museums were missing out on ticketing income. It no longer made sense to give our content away for free. Surely, there had to be way to get more out of our stories?

This article takes 8 minutes of your time, to share practical insights on how (free) storytelling can be beneficial in a ‘give and take’ strategy.

Digital storytelling lessons from Adriene

During the pandemic I tried to meet weekly with my favorite online yoga teacher Adriene, along with some other 11 million subscribers. Yoga with Adriene is one of the most popular yoga channels on YouTube, consisting of free 15-20 minutes yoga videos. New lessons are uploaded weekly: how can she make a living out of this?

Still of a ‘Yoga with Adriene’ video

In a TED-talk that is sadly no longer available, Adriene revealed her secret: all free content is part of a bigger channel strategy. The free videos on YouTube function like a dangling carrot. They tempt the viewer to hop from one platform to another, until you’ve reached the one platform where Adriene wants you to be: in a place where she is in control of data and content. Let’s take a closer look at this approach.

It starts like a gentle embrace with no strings attached: if you like the yoga videos you can subscribe to her channel to receive notifications of new lessons. When you are a frequent participant on the channel, you might be interested in taking classes that last a bit longer than the usual 20 minutes. Luckily, Adriene has thought of that: when you subscribe to her ‘love letters’ (a fancy name for a newsletter), you gain access to behind-the-scenes content and on top of that you’ll get to know Adriene better. Not by chance, the newsletter is also a great tool to promote longer mediation videos which are available to members only. A monthly membership costs $12.99. If a membership is not to your liking, but you would like to connect with the community, you can always opt to attend the annual yoga-festival that Adriene’s team organizes. This is a one-off face-to-face event where you can say hi to Adriene, meet up with other like-minded people and well… practice yoga.

In Adriene’s channel strategy, YouTube functions like a breeding ground to maximize her reach among yoga-minded people. The more people you reach, the more eventually might stick around as a member. However, for this strategy to be successful, Adriene must play by the rules of the YouTube algorithm, constantly optimizing her content. Meaning:

  • Users hardly watch a video until the end. The perfect duration of a video depends on the type of content, though Adriene has found a sweet spot for yoga videos between 15-20 minutes. The more your videos are fully watched, the more they are pushed by the algorithm, creating visibility for content in return.
  • Stories need to fit a format. The titles of Adriene’s videos fit the so called ‘Yoga-for’ format. Yoga for lower back pain, yoga to feel good, etc. These easy-going titles are accessible, people don’t have to be familiar with yoga slang to pick the right workout. Also, thanks to the format, it’s easy to remember what the Yoga with Adriene platform offers. Next time you feel a headache, you figure: maybe Adriene has a video for this? More importantly, the titles Adriene uses correspond to search queries that people are using on YouTube, making the algorithm work for her.

Adriene is not unique in her approach. Once you learn the ingredients of her strategy, variations can be found all over the internet. Many influencers prefer Instagram to YouTube as their breeding ground, yet your content is King if you want to turn it into a dangling carrot.

As museums are experts in creating content, it merely requires a shift of perspective to make existing stories more beneficial.

Going like Adriene

Jo van Gogh-Bonger with er baby son Vincent Willem on her lap, 1890

At the Van Gogh Museum we didn’t have a membership program to promote, nor do I feel like that’s  the way to go for museums. Yet, the idea that free content can serve a greater purpose stuck with me. We noticed that newsletter members are keen readers of our website stories. What if we could use a story to generate newsletter subscriptions? Not any story would do, it had to be something special. Luckily, International Women’s Day was just around the corner in 2021.

Within the museum, a female star was rising. New research showed the immense role that Johanna Bonger had in Vincent van Gogh’s success after his death. Her exact contributions were studied by one of our researchers, resulting in a biography that was published in September 2019[1]. Johanna (Jo) was married to Vincent’s brother Theo, and when Theo died soon after Vincent, Jo was left with their one-year-old son and a great deal of Vincent’s paintings, drawings and letters. Thanks to her efforts in publishing the correspondence between Theo and Vincent and by strategically setting up exhibitions and selling works of art to museums all over the world, Vincent became well-known and appreciated. International Women’s Day offered a wonderful opportunity to pay tribute to Jo while, simultaneously, we could shed new light on Vincent’s path to world fame. This story was our carrot, and we weren’t going to give it away for free. All we wanted in return was for our audience to leave their e-mail addresses.

We then had to pick a format to cast the story. The popular listing format (X things you need to know about) offered sufficient depth to do justice to the story, while at the same time it would keep the topic light. Along with Jo Bonger, we selected two other women who contributed to Van Gogh’s artistic development and we called it: ‘Three Important Women in Vincent van Gogh’s Life.’ International Women’s Day is actually part of an entire month known as ‘Women’s History Month’, and we used that to our advantage. On the first of March, we posted the following on our social channels:

‘Behind every great man is a great woman’. But does this apply to Vincent van Gogh? Sign up to our newsletter and be the very first to receive our new story.

This type of copy was quite new for us, as we usually would have posted a brief summary of the story along with a ‘find out more’ button. This time we wanted to create some secrecy. Posts on various social channels would lead to the same newsletter subscription form on our website. After a few days, we sent out a dedicated newsletter to recent members only. From the 8th of March onwards, we made the story publicly available, as we felt it was not in line with the museum’s mission to keep such a gem of a story private. We just gave some people the privilege of being the first to know while in return they ‘paid with data’.

The results

A painting of cherry blossom on the wall of the Van Gogh Museum

Photographer: Tomek Dersu Aaron

We first noticed high engagement rates on the social posts (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter). People loved the secrecy and the way we celebrated women in Vincent’s life. On Facebook we saw 88% more link-clicks on this post than similar posts. The Instagram Story lead to 663 link-clicks which is quite high as social media algorithms try hard to keep people on their platform. The post on Instagram had less reach.

In total, we gained 554 new newsletter members in just a couple of days. 73% of them accepted the mandatory double opt-in, leaving room for improvement. Although we were happy with this result, the numbers are hard to interpret, as we didn’t have a similar project to serve as benchmark. Compared to our newsletters in general, we saw a very high open rate on this specific item. Rather unsurprising, considering applicants were asked to apply to get the answer to a pressing question; the answer was in their inbox, only one click away. After the newsletter send-out, we saw a spike in website traffic on the specific story page. About 50% of the readers finished the story (Jo came first), which was best read on mobile devices. When the story became freely available to everyone from the 8th of March onwards, we saw a second spike leading to the story.

Looking back, we realized our data plan to define success wasn’t detailed enough. We have plenty of data of all the individual channels, yet combining those numbers to gain insights in their attribution to the campaign was much harder. It didn’t help that in the heat of the moment of trying to get this pilot off the ground, we didn’t create a UTM code to mark our campaign traffic (rookie mistake!). Also: when it came to interpreting the number of new newsletter subscribers, we were missing a proper benchmark. For a future project, I’d definitely want to set-up a drill-down graph to get a grasp of how many people we reached, ended up subscribing to the newsletter, and reading the story. In conclusion: along with a channel strategy, you need a proper tracking strategy. For example, a funnel flow like this:

Digital Storytelling: Lessons learned

The way Yoga with Adriene connects & combines various channels to lead towards a higher goal, was the inspiration behind this pilot. Although we used her principle, we adjusted the channels and goals towards our own needs. A brief summary of the things we learned:

  • In a channel strategy, free content is about reach. You play by the rules of the social platform to get the most out of it. Creating suspense by raising questions without giving away the answer just yet, for example, usually works well on social media.[2] Also, ‘teaming up’ with a specific historic event helps to give your story extra visibility and urgency. For Adriene, it means adapting the duration of her videos towards the YouTube guidelines.
  • Choose a principle of influence to convince your audience to take a specific action. Whether that’s Adriene asking people to subscribe to her YouTube platform to receive notifications of new yoga videos, or to ask Van Gogh fans to subscribe to the museum newsletter. There is a ‘be the first to know’ principle behind this that works.
  • People have a strong sense of community, even (or especially) online. It feels good to be part of a group of like-minded people, when getting to know your favorite artist or yoga teacher.
  • Data is currency. It’s precious as it helps you to better understand your audience and the way they behave, so that you can further optimize your content to improve results.
  • Experiment and track: the best way to learn is by trying out new things. However, make sure to define a tracking strategy to evaluate your progress and make sure to have a ‘definition of success’ before you start. This will help you to tweak and optimize your approach in your next project.

Hopefully, this article gives you some fresh ideas on how to use your stories in a more strategic way. Learning by doing (and measuring) is key! Feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn if you would like to keep the conversation going.

[1] The biography ‘Alles voor Vincent’ is available in Dutch only. An English translation is being prepared.

[2] Not to be confused with ‘clickbait’, a well-known and often annoying tactic, which raises questions that are misleading and often go unanswered.


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About the author – Fransje Pansters

As one of the Van Gogh Museum website managers, Fransje is responsible for content creation and website optimization. Being immersed in a story is one of her favorite ways to spend time and she has a never-ending curiosity to find out how stories are putting a spell on its readers and how museums can use that in their advantage. Fransje’s work is at the intersection of online marketing and storytelling: the storytelling formats on the Van Gogh Museum website allow the museum to adopt vividly to ever changing user needs and user behaviours. Also, she has launched new ways of structuring stories to hook the reader. More recently, she is fascinated by strategies to stop giving away storytelling content for free.

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