What do people want from online collections?

Putting your collections online can be a great way of reaching out and engaging with new audiences. Content-based marketing means we are building relationships with customers or visitors by giving them information that is useful to them in their life. Collections information is a valuable asset to raise the profile of your venue with current and new audiences.

However, everyone’s different, and not everyone is looking for the same things from your collections information. Not only that, but people want different information in support of different activities. Museums can develop their collections information to meet all of these different needs.

Government Design Principles

As part of its commitment to help more people get online and use the internet to engage with public services, the Government has published a set of 10 simple ‘Digital Design Principles‘. These are:

  1. Start with user needs
  2. Do less
  3. Design with data
  4. Do the hard work to make it simple
  5. Iterate. Then iterate again.
  6. Build for inclusion
  7. Understand context
  8. Build digital services, not websites
  9. Be consistent, not uniform
  10. Make things open: it makes things better

Even though they weren’t invented for museums, these principles provide really valuable guidance when thinking about sharing your collections online.

Start with needs

This seems like such an obvious point that it shouldn’t need making, but it is always worth remembering that every decision we make about our online collections (or our museum, for that matter) ought to be designed around a clear understanding of the user need we are meeting.

Sometimes it’s easier said than done. Users change all the time, have different preferences and degrees of skill. So how can you start planning your online collections to meet their needs?

One really useful way is to have a look at the ‘Digital Engagement Framework’ developed by Jasper Visser and Jim Richardson. The Framework is freely available here and it is a great way to get started in understanding how people behave and react to your online content.

Grouping users by what they do

It can then be useful to group user needs into 3 broad sets of activity:

  • The needs of incidental users and social sharers – these activities include things like pinning on Pinterest, blogging, sharing on Facebook, tweeting and generally making and distribution content to be shared over social networks;
  • The needs of museum-goers – these activities include things like finding out about your museum, finding interesting things to do or personal research;
  • The needs of researchers – these activities include using your collections information in support of research, grouping sets of information, making connections, adding new knowledge and generally going in-depth into a particular subject area

These groupings suggest 3 connected approaches to putting your collection online:

  • Providing short, sharp content – usually visual – which has an immediate appeal and which can easily be shared over a social network. This is sometimes referred to as ‘snackable’ content (or ‘kick’ content). Sharing content this way may not give you much opportunity to share real insights into the subject of your collections, but it is a great way of raising your profile and encouraging more people to find out what you do. A great example of snackable ‘heritage’ content is the hugely popular Retronaut website;
  • Providing richer narrative or editorial content about the themes covered by your collections which provides a user-friendly ‘point of entry to your organisation for real and virtual visitors. Many users say that the experience they are really looking for is being taken by the hand by a friendly expert and hearing the ‘hidden histories’ – the stories and connections not usually included on the label!
  • Providing deep, authoritative information and search tools so that researchers can find, save and make use of the rich knowledge in and about your collections.

Deciding which of these needs you’re going to prioritise really depends on your organisation – some of them revolve around audience development, others around fulfilling the public mission of your organisation.

Do less

Doing less is hard – for most organisations, the aim is to get as much of their collection as possible digitised and available online. Yet the evidence suggests that piling more content onto a museum website often makes it harder for people to find the information and experiences they really want.

By doing less, but focusing more on what really works, you can use your collections to create strong relationships with your online and onsite visitors. If you give them stories, interesting facts and new insights into things that matter to them, they will keep on coming back for more!

As a simple example, if instead of putting hundreds of thousands of your object records online you put your efforts into a smaller number but ensure that they can be discovered through search engines like Google, you will ultimately reap the rewards in terms of new audiences.

Design with data

One of the wonderful things about the internet is that it is really easy to capture information about what people like and dislike, how they behave and what they keep coming back to, so that you can continually find ways of improving the relevance and value of your online information.

This information is sometimes known as ‘web analytics’ or ‘web metrics’ and it is one of the most valuable tools you have when developing your approach to online collections information.

A great introduction to the world of web analytics is the ‘Let’s Get Real’ project led by the team at Culture24 with a network of UK and international museums.

Date created: 2015

Author: Collections Trust

Publisher: Collections Trust