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Film: When your Museum’s community does the blogging

This presentation on getting the local community to blog for a museum was presented by Lori Byrd-McDevitt from the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis at MuseumNext Indianapolis. In it she talks about the museums blogging programme, which since 2013 has provided a platform for families to share their experience of the museum.

Lori : Alright, so I’m Lori Byrd-McDevitt and I’m the Manager of Digital Content and Social Media at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. In my role I also manage the museum’s blog, which is what I’ll be focussing on today, and I’ll be sharing about how we’ve involved our local community in the blog, and I’ll share ways other museums can do the same.

I love my role as social media manager and blog manager because it allows me to directly interact with our online community and really get to see what they think. I get to see what they think things to tweet, Facebook comments and even blogs that they write on their own websites, and all this made me think about the role of the museum’s blog as a platform for community participation, which tied into my own research, interest as a museum study student.

So for my Master’s research I established this term, ‘open authority’, which is the coming together of museum expertise and community contributions. Museums are unique in their potential to be this confluence of cultural resources and diverse community perspectives. By inviting in varied points of view museums can use our inherent authority to open up the interpretation of content, making it more inclusive to all.

So I like to use this spectrum to show what open authority looks like. Many museums use crowd sourcing as a way to connect with their online communities, but really there’s a lot more nuance to open authority than just crowd sourcing. The spectrum shows that there are more conservative approaches to community participation and then these can lead to more progressive approaches here on the right side.

Contributory projects are what we consider crowd sourcing and they’re usually more passive for participants and usually involve the museum taking a more active role whereas collaborative projects can be described as community sourcing, and that’s what’s here in the middle. Community sourcing involves us making bigger asks of a more committed community where they have more motivation to be involved, and these projects require more active contributions from this community and that’s why community blogging falls here.

On the far end of the spectrum are co-creative projects which involve true participatory interpretation coming equally from both the museum and the community. This is a topic really for a whole other talk but today we’ll be focussing on community blogging as a community source project.

So now let’s dive into community blogging at the children’s museum. Our blog started way back in 2010 when we kicked things off with multiple posts a week written by staff across the museum. Staff blogging has gone on so long that it’s gotten quite involved. Pictured here are our creative director and our director of collections, who have repeatedly collaborated on funny posts for us about their divergent perspectives on exhibits, if you can imagine. Over the years we’ve incorporated more posts from guest bloggers, and these are often experts or artists that help us out with the exhibits.

Falling between guest blogging and community blogging, pictured here on the right is a photo from a 2013 blog post. You can tell that’s probably an Instagram post. It’s from the founder of our local Instagram community and he’s shared about his experience at our first museum-led [unintelligible 00:03:34] and our relationship with this community has just continued to grow since.

From early on we also used the blog to feature visitors’ stories that were submitted as part of contest. These were just one-off contributions so they’re a good example of an early crowd source approach. We didn’t truly experiment with the idea of community blogging until late 2013 when we began to think about how museum families could write for the blog over an extended period of time, and the renovation and expansion of our beloved Playscape [gala] was a great opportunity because the local community was so excited about its unveiling.

So we really wanted our families to be able to take a part in reintroducing Playscape to the world so we created the Playscape 5, considering it a pilot for a future broader community blogging programme. For the Playscape 5, we directly reached out to three families that represented the age span of the pre-school audience that Playscape encompassed and the parents were also known social media influencers in the city.

Over a period of six months each family blogged for us once a month and beyond the blog, they used the Playscape 5 hashtag to share about their experiences, their Instagram, Twitter and even [Vine] on both in the gallery and also when things extended into the home, when they’re learning extended into the home. The result of this blog series was that readers could follow along on the Playscape 5 journey and they could really see the gallery through a family that was just like them.

The success of the Playscape 5 allowed us to confidently move forward with a formal recurring and branded community blogging programme, which we call the Children’s Museum Blog Ambassadors. Shown here are the various branded graphics that we use on different social platforms which you can see are personalised for each blogger. We select our ambassadors through an application based callout to our local blogging community.

We reached out this time, in our first instance, to 75 active bloggers and we received 24 applications back, which a third of the community we were thrilled to receive, we did not expect that level of interest. In the application we specifically ask about their personal passions and their unique perspectives, and also a sample of their writing and we selected our applicants to create a mix of points of view, ages of children, and unique experiences. Their personal social media reach and influence did play a role but this was not the main priority in the selection. And similar to the Playscape 5, that each blog for us once a month, for six months, using their own hashtag, the blog [GCM] hashtag, both during their visits and when their learning extends into the home.

More bloggers. After our first class of blogging ambassadors wrapped up in early 2015, we began planning for round two right away. This time we received 18 submissions and selected four for our second class and those are who are up here right now. They are currently blogging for us from May through October, and we also went ahead and selected our third class of ambassadors which is three bloggers that will begin blogging for us in November. And this time we were also happy to receive a number of submissions from daddy bloggers of which three were selected.

We’ll get more into the logistics behind the blogging ambassador programme here in a second but let’s first chat about why you should try community blogging. First of all, it provides an invaluable inside look into what your audience is thinking and experiencing over an extended period of time. I like to say that it’s a direct line to your community’s brain.

Our evaluation staff especially love these blogs because they provide such unprecedented insights, and our bloggers often will join in focus groups where the evaluation team can ask additional questions of them and their experiences. And the blogs also provide an endless supply of photos, quotes and memorable moments that we can repurpose around our website and social media. We all know that it’s not always easy to gather these sort of authentic moments around our museums.

The second reason involves radical trust which calls for a quote from everyone’s favourite Colleen Dilenschneider: Radical trust is the confidence that a museum has in their collaborations with online communities. Institutions display trust in these communities by being transparent, open and honest. And I love that quote because it ties in directly to open authority which seeks to have an open dialogue between a museum and its community.

You show radical trust by empowering community bloggers to take the reins of your museum’s platforms, and I know it seems scary to hand over control of the blog because this is seen really as this epicentre of a museum’s authentic voice but that’s why the community perspective is so valuable. It’s authentic.

We’re lucky at the children’s museum, to have such incredibly loyal, enthusiastic families and so community blogging is really our way of showing our appreciation and our trust really of a community who are so gracious with their support. If you value what your community has to say, give them wings, let them say it on your blog.

Colleen’s quote also mentioned transparency which is expected now in this digital age where institutional responses can be made quickly and openly. Transparency forces an organisation really to be okay with laughing at itself and to know its strengths, as well as its weaknesses, so opening up the blog to a community perspective not only increases transparency but it shows that you’re confident with who you are.

So now that we’ve gone through the why, let’s get into the how. And it all starts with connecting with your community. If there’s a specific audience or goal for your blog programme you’d want to consider how to connect with that relevant subset of your community. For us, it started with connecting with our local mommy bloggers and this soon expanded, as I mentioned earlier, to dad bloggers, and also because of our content areas at the museum, geek and pop culture enthusiasts as well.

We began to build our lists of contacts employed by keeping the information from bloggers who reached out to us for tickets in exchange for reviews of the museum on their blogs. When this happens we always ask if they’re interested in being on our list of bloggers and they almost never say no. We don’t use their emails for any other promotional purposes. We are strict in contacting that list only if it’s a direct email from us and if it involves an exclusive blogger opportunity.

So these blogger opportunities brings me to my next point which is influencer previews and all these fun perks we provide for them. So to grow our list we throw these special blogger previews and we pull out all the stops. For larger exhibits they get a full dinner and goodie bags in addition to a first look at the gallery, and for every exhibit, whether it’s just a small temporary gallery, we always host a [tweet] up with fun giveaways. This was our initial way to invite this audience in and to show them that we value their support, and it also makes them feel like they’re part of the museum family. We found that events like this establish good will and really if you give a little, you get a lot.

Moving from connecting to collaborating isn’t always easy but we found that being prepared helps, and the only way we collaborated with a unique community was through our social media lifeguards contest, which is where our local influencers were given tickets to a popular adults-only event at the museum in exchange for them sharing about it on their social channels. So even though they were using their personal accounts for this programme we still always have to be careful about how the museum’s represented, especially when it comes to being family friendly. So for the lifeguards we did have specific guidelines for their content, which actually has worked out really well every year that we’ve done this.

Likewise, when it comes to community bloggers, we found that beginning with more structure was key to success, so for the blog ambassadors we meet with each blogger ahead of their timeframe that they’re going to be blogging with us, and we lay out expectations, we talk about topic ideas and we confirm what scheduling is going to be happening, and then afterward I maintain an open line of communication with them and they know that they can come to me with any ideas, questions or concerns at any time.

For now, our blog ambassadors do have an overarching theme for their posts within which they have free creative reign, so for instance right now we always ask that every post illustrate a way that their family has been inspired by the museum to extend their learning elsewhere. This is, for instance, they can be inspired by our China, particularly the China exhibit, to maybe do a craft, a receipt, another trip elsewhere or sharing a memory, and this applies to any of our exhibits and they can take that and run with it.

Recently a blogger shared about her family’s love of our iconic Chihuly glass sculpture and what it’s meant to them through the years as they’ve found other Chihulys in their travels. Another way that, when it comes to collaborating is how much do you edit. So I never heavily edit their blogs as I feel like this defeats the purpose of being authentic and transparent. I only do light editing if there’s truly misinformation about an exhibit, like an exhibit title is wrong or if there’s glaring grammatical errors, and people tend to appreciate those kinds of edits.

A big part of collaborating is, let’s face it, compensation. This is always the big question I’m asked when it comes to community blogging, and we’ve discussed this extensively with some of our more professional bloggers that we’re involved with, and we have decided, on multiple occasions now, to not financially compensate our ambassadors. We found that they consider blogging for us an inherent value because it raises their own social media profile and also adds to their experience. We found that the application process, in particular, motivates those who become blog ambassadors to do their best and to value the opportunity. They receive a branded, personalised badge for their own blog, and they’re also able to re-share and repurpose any content that they write for us on their own channels as well.

And we show appreciation in a lot of other ways, including an annual membership for the year that they are an ambassador. They receive really fun welcome and thank you gift packages from us and free tickets to special events that may occur while they’re ambassadors and other unique opportunities. Everyone also always likes a good button. If you have not yet invested in a button-maker I highly suggest that you do so. It’s another example of a little going a long way.

More recently we have begun using a memorandum of understanding with our bloggers so that we can further clarify the expectations on both sides. This mostly just lays out the logistics that we discussed in our initial meeting, but it also includes a section on legal concerns with how we can use their content but also best practices and properly attributing ideas and content that are from outside sources so, believe it or not, we did have an issue with one of our bloggers lifting ideas from other blogs and so this is what led us to adopt an [MOU] and we’re now very glad that we have one, and so is our lawyer.

While we feel like we’re in a really good routine with our ambassador programme, there’s still, of course, a lot of room to grow, both loosening the structure of the suggested content, and especially when it comes to increasing diversity and perspectives and an audience representation, so in the future this will call for wider recruitment from outside our typical blogger community.

We’d love to see more participation from neighbourhood members, grandparents, families who adopt, families who have experience with special needs and other cultural perspectives, but no matter who participates, the most important thing is that our blog empowers members of our community to share their unique points of view and to have a renewed sense of ownership over their museum experience. So that brings me to the end. I’d be happy to chat more with anyone about this so come find me, and thank you so much.

Question: Hi, I’m just curious – you said with the social media lifeguards, that you had specific guidelines for them but it didn’t seem like you had for the other bloggers. What type of guidelines did you put on them specifically?

Presenter: Mostly it’s just reminding them, kindly, that we are a children’s museum even if they are there to drink and have fun all night, and just pointing out broadly that they are representing the museum in that timeframe even though it’s on their personal channels. That was a pretty large contest as well, so similarly to the applications for the ambassadors, they took their role pretty seriously and when we just made that kind of broad reminder, they understood what we meant. They should kind of keep it a little bit on the family friendly side, please.

Question: I was just curious how you measured success.

Presenter: We don’t necessarily measure quantitatively when it comes to the ambassadors. We’ve kind of been in a mode of just getting the ball rolling and getting the programme running, and we think of it more as just building that goodwill in the community. I don’t specifically track the specific social posts of every single blog ambassador on our end because really we’re just excited to have their voice on our platforms at all. It’s not necessarily about them having that perfect phrase for the social media poster, that perfect picture. We feature their photos, we feature their language so that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be truly the most engaging content on our platforms but we’re just happy to have their voice there.

Question: Hi, do you think going forward there might be some target audiences you wold like to have blogging for whom access to blogging and being online is, in itself, a challenge?

Lori: Yeah, definitely. As I mentioned at the end, we really want to open it up to more perspectives and we’re not necessarily there yet with our blogger pool. We’ve kind of been reaching out to that low-hanging fruit right now, but especially when it comes to accessibility in our museum, that’s a top priority right now. We have lots of resources and opportunities for families that have various special needs and we don’t have a lot of ways to articulate that publicly, so we definitely want to make sure that we incorporate that in the future and it won’t be easy. We don’t have a solution yet.

This presentation on getting the local community to blog for a museum was presented by Lori Byrd-McDevitt from the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis at MuseumNext Indianapolis. To stay informed about our International Museum Conferences follow MuseumNext on Twitter or like MuseumNext on Facebook.

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