Digital Strategy: Inspiration

Many of us are attracted to Museums because of the way they feed our curiosity and interests. We understand that giving people insights into and context around those interests help us to make sense of our own world. It helps us be inspired to learn, change what we think and, as a result, what we do. And that means that, as museum professionals, we are often people who are curious about our own practice and the wider museum world. 

This is critical when we develop strategy as we seek to broaden our understanding of what is possible. One of the ways we feed this professional curiosity is through case studies. But although museums share similar characteristics, there is also diversity – in location, audience, structure, collection and finances. We can get overwhelmed with case studies – particularly at conferences – that look like they address one or two of those elements but often what we hear is how they aren’t quite right for our own challenges. 

With this in mind, we developed a framework for inspiration for the BMT strategy team – a set of questions to allow the team to focus in the right areas, with the right amount of detail for their needs.

The questions were:

  • How can data-driven decision making transform our organisation?
  • How might we use digital technologies to offer the greatest value to our communities?
  • How might we support digital technologies to meet the needs and motivations of audiences that represent our local population?
  • How might we use digital technologies to support long-term sustainability to our organisation?
  • How might we harness and promote constructive creativity?

We had two opportunities to use this:

  1. MuseumNext Digital Summit

An online conference where organisations share case studies on the innovative digital activity they’ve been carrying out over the last 12 months

The good news was that timing was on our side and the week before we began our strategic work just happened to be MuseumNext Digital Summit and Linda Spurdle had made the smart choice of buying organisational access to the conference. (As an aside, Linda and I first met at MuseumNext in Newcastle back in 2009!) 

We curated a list of sessions that addressed the research questions to enable them to listen and dig deeper into what was important for them right now.

  1. Internal Inspiration sessions

These were specially commissioned interviews with people from both inside and outside the sector focusing on projects that take a strategic approach to digital experiences, services and products.

For these sessions, we wanted to give the team a chance to get more bespoke and intimate insight that isn’t possible in a conference presentation. We wanted people to speak about their strategic approach to different areas of digital activity. We were looking for a balance of hard truths and positive but realistic outcomes. The video interviews were supported with live Q&A sessions with the participants.

You can take a look at the videos below:

We had Lawrence Chiles from National Gallery, London talking about their work becoming a more data-driven organisation and the impact it is having on their approach to audiences and income generation. 

We spoke to Jenn Phillips-Bacher about her work at Wellcome Collection about the development of a user centred, data driven approach to digital on-site and online.

Michelle Melendez from Leaf Partners and Cafe Con Leche Collaborative spoke about what it takes to create and develop strategic partnerships with funders and donors based on a shared purpose or social impact.

In addition, Pete Law from Flying Objects talked about an online first approach to connecting with communities – seeking out existing online communities, connecting with them where they are, honouring and working with them to inform programmes and physical installations. He asked the team a great question about “What would it feel like to make the audience feel ‘seen’?”

You can see case studies of the relevant Flying Objects projects here:

By Lindsey Green, co-founder of Frankly, Green + Webb.

Making a Splash with Unsplash

When Birmingham Museums Trust made the decision to release its out of copyright images into the public domain in 2018 we were realistic in knowing that this didn’t mean that there would suddenly be a huge demand for our images. We knew that our images weren’t easily discoverable unless people knew exactly what they wanted. They weren’t likely to stumble across our images online, or have them suggested to them in image searches.

The situation improved when we acquired a digital asset management system with the ability to make selected folders live online. Images added to the DAMS are keyworded to improve discoverability. From the time this went live in May 2019, we were very impressed by the numbers viewing and downloading BMT assets. In the first year we had over a million views and 23,628 downloads. It was great to see both people and organisations self service from the DAMS, for instance Watercolour World took BMT’s watercolours and added them to their website.

We wanted to encourage people to creatively use our images, and to that end we ran a number of events such as hacks, remixes and workshops 2018-2019. We followed this up with the Cut Copy Remix project, working with Cold War Steve and the Black Hole Club 2019-2020. This was a great success and has had a high profile thanks to the great popularity of Benny’s Babbies, a celebration of Birmingham and its people by Cold War Steve that was released during lockdown in April 2020. However in terms of numbers, it is our partnership with Unsplash that should be grabbing the headlines.

Unsplash approached us about becoming a “brand partner” in late 2019. We didn’t know much about them, but a quick Wikipedia check revealed them to be “one of the largest photography suppliers on the internet”, allowing people to freely reuse, repurpose and remix photos. They sounded the perfect partners for us! And so with a bit of a splash, in Jan 2020 we joined Unsplash along with New York Public Library, Europeana, Library of Congress and Museums Victoria.

From the very beginning we were amazed by the numbers of people viewing and downloading our images! Since joining we have had over 200 million views and 1 million downloads of the 265 images chosen to be featured by Unsplash. Museums often talk about their reach, and although that isn’t all about numbers, you have to admit that those numbers are HUGE! And it was wonderful that our images were being discovered and used by people in such a difficult year. With lockdown so many people found themselves stuck at home, and for some, becoming more creative and taking up new hobbies were positive ways to try to get through this experience.

Unsplash have good analytics information, and one of the interesting things for me is seeing what is popular, as people aren’t searching for Birmingham’s images, they are searching by keywords to find something that is perfect for what they are writing or creating. As a result the usual suspects, the BMAG favourites, have dropped down the pecking order. To me this shows how important it is to get keywording right for museums, it isn’t enough to rely on Title, Artist, etc – we need to think more like a supplier of stock images if we want people to find our images.

The Phantom Horseman,1870-93 by Sir John Gilbert. 3,386,727 views and 23,965 downloads on Unsplash.

People often ask “how” people are using our images, and of course that is hard to answer unless we notice or are told. We don’t require attribution (it is optional) because it isn’t something we would want to (or be able to) police. So it was exciting to see a tweet from Luke Chester Co-founder and Head of Product at Unsplash to say that we’d now be able to see some of the online uses of our images in the stats area. It really is a great new feature, especially for someone as curious as me! There is something about seeing the images used numerous times in blogs, articles, etc that is very satisfying – and nice to see that in many cases BMT is credited.

Linda Spurdle, Digital Development Manager, Birmingham Museums Trust.

Digging into digital at Birmingham Museums Trust

Over the last five months, we’ve been working with Birmingham Museums Trust to deliver their digital strategic plan. Last week we introduced the project. And over the next few weeks we’ll be sharing what we did in each phase. First up, the Discover Phase.

Why do discovery?

Museums are complex organisations – both mission driven and income generating. A mixture of archive, academic institution, education establishment, visitor experience, retail outlet, hospitality, publisher and membership organisation.

A museum’s digital offer is often an expression of this.

The complexity for those both inside and outside of an organisation can be overwhelming, distracting and quite easy to pretend it’s not even there. And yet, we need to acknowledge and understand the complexity in order to deliver a strategic project. This is what we do during our discovery phase, we make sense of this complex context and ensure the effort is focused on the most vital areas.

For this project, we’re identifying what’s the vision for digital compared to the current reality, helping the team understand what are the blockers to delivering the vision and where the opportunities to excel. This allows us to shape the strategic plan to focus on these vital elements and provide knowledge and inspiration for the areas it needs to address.

What we did?

We carried out workshops with people from different departments at different levels. We looked at existing data to understand how digital activity was defined, initiated, developed, distributed, maintained and measured.

We also carried out research into the online audience to understand who the organisation was currently reaching and not reaching, identifying what was the opportunity to develop those audiences.

Finally, we looked at the gap between ambition and reality. What was happening inside BMT and how was affecting the impact on the organisation’s capacity to connect with audiences, deliver their mission and be more sustainable.

This can be hard for any team to go through, an uncompromising look at what’s going on can feel harsh. But with new leadership and new ambition, we heard from the team an appetite for things to change.

What did this tell us?

1) Who needs to be involved in co-creating the plan?

As a collaborative planning process, it’s important that the people in the room making the plan are the people who will have both an impact on, and be impacted by the activity. Digital is so far ranging across an organisation that different departments are represented and people from different levels of the organisation. We identified 10 team members who would be involved in all the sessions to create the plan – this included directors through to those at the coal face of commissioning and delivering digital experiences.

2) What did we need to include and just as importantly exclude from the plan?

What is and isn’t digital is one of those philosophical questions we all want to avoid. However, it’s important to set the boundaries of what the plan will and won’t address. When we spoke to the team there was an acknowledgement of how broadly the term “digital” was used within the organisation.

There was already work planned to review and realign technical systems and platforms so although the plan needed to be aware of the systems and platforms, the plan would inform rather than address these. There were also some significant needs to improve organisational systems, however, without digital leadership in place and an organisational strategy – we agreed the plan would focus on a vision and direction that would be about delivering externally-facing digital.

We also heard about the ambition and the challenges. 

  • An excitement to be digital first along with the tension of limited resources 
  • A passion to support local communities and wanting to put Birmingham Museums on the map as a key part of Birmingham’s tourist offer, particularly during the upcoming Commonwealth Games
  • A need to open access to collection, knowledge and heritage with a need to develop offers that were sustainable
  • A need to do focus on more impactful work while continuing to deliver what has already been agreed

3) What time horizon should the digital strategic plan cover?

The insights from the discovery made it clear that this plan needed to be limited to just a couple to two years. The organisation is in a big transition phase, moving from the previous way of doing things to a new future facing horizon. However, that new horizon hadn’t yet been decided on and there was still key work to be done. This plan could then focus on addressing some of the fundamental digital needs while the organisational strategic plan and digital leadership were put into place.

4) What are the gaps in what the team at BMT wanted and what they did?

Where did they need new inspiration? New voices and ideas? The discovery raised these five areas to explore

  • Use data and insight more effectively to make decisions and priorities – In the past, data has been used to monitor performance. Moving forward, BMT wanted to use data more strategically to inform how to make the right thing, not just to make the thing right.
  • Connect and deepen the effect you are having with communities – the research showed that the current online audience was incredibly niche. Web was a more concentrated version of the in-person audience and social an even more concentrated version of the web audience. None of these audiences currently represent the diversity of the local community, but also online was not attracting new audiences beyond the Trust’s physical sites.
  • Meet the needs and motivations of local citizens – the research also showed that the organisation’s online and in person audiences were local. Yet the online audiences were an even narrower group of local audiences than the in-person visitors – more culturally motivated, very white, very highly educated. How might BMT reach a wider group of local audiences that better represent their Birmingham communities?
  • Focus on long-term sustainability – BMT current digital activity was driven by available funding and/or access to low to no-cost services. The impact was a small team pulled by the agendas of funding bodies and generous supporters rather than a focus on what was needed at that time. The digital strategy needed to address this challenge, and the team needed some insight into what addressing these issues might look like.
  • Use our creativity constructively – like many museum teams, the BMT staff are not short of ideas – in fact, as the team came on board we used the term “the ideas factory”. This is a vital skill to have in the team but focusing and executing these ideas to make sure they delivered needed a new approach.

We also created the first draft of our focus question for the digital strategic plan. This is the question that the strategy has to answer.

How can we collaborate over the next two years to use digital technologies to increase our financially sustainability, reach more of our local citizens and do the preparation needed to engage a national and international audience in the future ?

By Lindsey Green, co-founder of Frankly, Green + Webb.

Delivering a digital strategy in uncertain times

Over the last 15 years, we have been developing digital products, services and experiences at Birmingham Museums Trust (BMT). The approach has grown organically, experimenting with new approaches and technologies. However, as the pandemic hit we knew it was time to take a different approach. With limited resources and lots of different types of digital work to do. Like many of our colleagues in many other cultural organisations, we found ourselves overwhelmed and stretched to capacity. With new CEO’s joining who both know about the power and value of digital, it became clear that there was an opportunity to get more strategic about how we approach developing, delivering and maintaining digital products and services. Thanks to Arts Council England funding, we’ve been able to develop our digital strategy.

We’re going to let Frankly, Green + Webb, our partners on this project describe the approach we’ve taken over the past few months and then in the coming weeks we’ll share the outcomes of the work.

Frankly, Green + Webb

Can you deliver a digital strategy in the middle of such uncertain times? This was a question asked of us during our interview at BMT. Our response? This is exactly when you need a digital strategy.

When everything around you is shifting, you need to know what you should and – just as importantly – shouldn’t be focusing on. You need to set your course to your desired destination and yet, you also have to be responsive to the changing weather around you. As the saying goes “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best is right now.”

However, strategies get a hard time. Too many of us have come across a strategy two years into the five year plan and it’s completely irrelevant and unloved. Developed by someone (often a consultant) after a series of workshops. A laundry list of goals, objectives and tasks shrouded in the latest buzzwords and ideas – a set of pronouncements of what will change after you deliver the 12 point action plan.

Without buy-in, ownership not just from the project owner but the whole organisation, these plans are doomed to fail. For the project owner, attempts to change things meet with what feels like consistent resistance against the beliefs, behaviours and systems of the organisation. For the people “being changed”, there’s confusion and frustration at not being heard or understood.

So, BMT’s digital strategy needed to be ambitious, timely, responsive and owned by the organisation.

We pitched a co-designed digital strategy crafted by those that will deliver it. A participatory, bottom up, rather than top down method adapted from a Technologies of Participation model. The approach looks at whole system, acknowledges the complexity of the system, supports people to be both intuitive, creative, analytical and strategic. The plan is designed to remain adaptive as the people delivering the plan learn and understand what is needed.

We broke the project down into three phases, combining research, consultancy and co-creation to give the team the balance of input and control that they needed.

  1. Discovery – investigating what is happening internally and externally
  2. Insights and recommendations – using our experience and expertise to make recommendations of the opportunities and challenges
  3. Collaborative Strategic Planning – working with the team to create their own strategy. A set of strategic directions for the next years, with a 12 month road map and a 3 month action plan plus a set of digital principles.

The final question we were asked in our interview was will you be open and transparent about what you did and learned along the way. And we said, always – telling this journey and process from our point of view. So over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing the story of the last 5 months.

By Lindsey Green, co-founder of Frankly, Green + Webb.