Category Archives: Strategy

Digital heritage pros share top tips for developing strategy

You’ve probably heard for some time now that you need a digital strategy, but what does that mean? There can be many facets to developing a strategy. Really though, you only need to grasp a few key ideas to establish your mindset and focus first on the aspects that are most important to you and your audience. For this post, I asked some trusted friends in the field to share their top tips for framing a digital heritage strategy.

Don’t Confuse Needs and Wants

“Many times we come into the creative process with a really strong idea of what we want—or rather, what we THINK we want. More often than not we’ve been charmed by something we saw somewhere. Maybe it’s a new piece of hardware. Or a shiny interactive. Or a really generous check (with or without strings). We are lured by the siren song of a design idea that may or may not actually meet the needs of the place, heritage, or collection we are trusted to interpret. Getting clear about your goals, actual needs, and nice to haves up front will help minimize the pain of mismatched expectations as you move ahead in your development process.” 

Stacey Mann, Museumism

Invest in Visual

“For Mount Vernon, our key was investing in visual mediums that translate really well from our mission.  Our Virtual Tour was one of the first investments and it has paid off tremendously.  One of the second best investments was in video, particularly hiring for a few years someone to regularly create short form video on our YouTube channel.  At one point were were up to posting 95 videos per year and because the history and storytelling rarely changes those are all still paying dividends on views and driving subscribers.  One thing cultural institutions like ours overlook is YouTube is the second largest search engine.  Treat videos like SEO for your website and it will be a great strategy.”

Matt Briney, Vice President, Media & Communications, George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Start with Purpose and (Good) Data

“Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is a tool. A repository of the organization’s collective knowledge about its guests, members, and donors. Successful CRM implementations start with two things: concrete problems/needs data can help solve and… good guest data. An example of a concrete problem might be “After two years of Covid-19 closures, we need to retain members now more than ever. How do make ensure first-year members renew?” The data to drive this would come from an integration with the ticketing system to link ongoing membership sales, card scans, and renewals. You can then start chipping away at the problem by creating dashboards to monitor first-year member renewals and implementing email marketing automation programs to ensure members visit and use their benefits over a year, and build a sense of relationship with the organization.”

Steven Beasley, Field Theory

Invest in Flexible Platforms

“Many stories, objects and resources need to be strategically curated to tell history. Not only are there many different kinds of assets in digital storytelling, but the relationships between these elements weave a complex web. That’s why we focus so much on building flexible platforms that enable these stories to come to life. Where it’s the entire platform, a log form story page, or mini-site. the palette of content storytelling tools needs to be robust enough to express all aspects of these stories.”

Eric Holter, Cuberis

Leave Time and Space for Content Development

“In any digital installation project, it can be easy to become so enchanted by the technology that we forget what visitors really connect with: storytelling, content. Creating original content takes a ton of time and resources and needs to be planned into the project from the outset, whatever the intended technological solutions might be. Content has to come first. When it doesn’t, you’ll find yourself too late in the process and with too much of your budget spent and not enough time or resources left to create the story — the part that’s really going to capture your visitors’ hearts and minds.”

Jeremy Taylor, Project Director at GSM Project

Design with People in Mind

“I think when you hear the term “digital strategy” or “digital transformation”, you automatically jump to the technical aspects: what’s the technology and platforms that will be used. But digital strategy should start with people. It must have utility for those who’ll be using the technology and following specific processes. The first place to start is understanding the ecosystem of users and what their needs, pain points, and goals are. Often times, we think of “users” as the end user or customers. But we need to take a much broader view to include users as both customers and internal staff and stakeholders. Digital strategy within an organization needs to be considered from an internal and external perspective. Lastly, as ideas and solutions start to take shape, it’s important to take a “design with” approach to prototype, test, and refine ideas with users to ensure that their needs and pain points are addressed, and value is being delivered.”

Traci Thomas, Platinion Lead Strategic Designer (BCG Group)

You don’t have to start with an answer

And finally, a tip from me, which echoes the ideas above. There’s a fine line between prescribing something you want for your audiences and only creating experiences that are built up based purely on what they say then want. It’s alright to start out with an educated guess based on your visitor interactions and then TEST TEST TEST to chart a course to the final project. Set up a testing protocol, using paper prototypes if you need to. Have some type of spreadsheet or database to put testing results into and then use that to inform how the product develops. Make sure your development vendor is on board with this process, and committed to interpreting and iterating the results.

Hope these tips help move your strategy forward. I’ll continue adding to this post. In the meantime, if you have any tips of your own, please share them in the comments.


Information Technology: The less-fun, crucially important foundation of digital heritage evolution

In 2017, I was faced with an interesting choice: the cultural site I had been serving as a digital strategy consultant was willing to make my contracted position a full-time one. The catch is that I would have to manage the IT function too. My specialty and focus has historically been audience engagement and not the nuts and bolts of what makes everything tick. Additionally, I would have to supervise the institution’s migration from a County managed services model to a total new, internally managed IT infrastructure.

I loved the site and thought it had great potential, but didn’t want to drift off course of a career I both enjoy and have mindfully charted for the past 20 years. It was during this time of internal struggle a chance meeting with a guy named Matt Tarr at a Museum Computer Network conference cleared my mind on the issue. In response to the dilemma, he told me “if you control IT, you’re set with the rest of what you want to do.”

My mind knew what he meant. Struggles with IT departments past really took the wind out of my sails when it came to interactive development. Still, it took a while for my heart to catch up. A while meaning two years of getting the right people and partnerships in place, and then going through the mindboggling process of establishing and then actually migrating every conceivable communications system — radio, telephone, network, internet, etc., while with no service downtimes.

A year past that harrowing event, I can tell you Matt was absolutely right. Having systems that we can control and scale have made a recent grant project funded by the Knight Foundation much easier than it would have been otherwise. Having wireless access for visitors for the first time has made developing bring-your-own device experiences that we all pretty much now have to offer much easier. We also have servers we can scale and policies we can tailor to our needs. Thanks to that process, remote work platforms were already in place before the pandemic hit.

Sure there are pain points. Cybersecurity issues loom large in an era when even Microsoft and Solarwinds are getting hacked. I worry about it everyday. But that’s a fair trade off for gaining a greater knowledge of what makes tech tick, and the boundless creative possibilities that then present themselves.

The strategic linchpin: transforming digital tools into an interpretive platform

When you’re identifying what digital interpretive tactics work for your organization, eventually you will find one (or a combination of a few) that achieves a number of needs. This is called a strategic linchpin.

Linchpins are the result of beginning the strategic process, engaging experimentally, and giving your plans some time to percolate. The ability to focus more effort on fewer linchpin technologies is a sign that your tactical planning has truly become strategic.

The following are three examples of strategic linchpins specific to points-in-time and cultural organizations from my work in digital initiatives.

Strategic Linchpin 1: NCPTT Podcast

In 2007, the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training faced the difficulty of being a National Park Service agency with a mandate to serve a national audience, despite a decade of flat budgets and a relatively remote location in northwest Louisiana. The organization needed a way to show its impact, including the influence of innovative grant projects it funded to support the use of technology for historic preservation purposes. At the time, many of its audiences were cautiously curious about social and online media technologies. Part of this was that there were not really any topically relevant media to compel their participation.

NCPTT Podcast strategic linchpin

I started the Preservation Technology Podcast as a way to empower staff to showcase their successes, and for audiences to connect to a wider world of like-minded preservation geeks. For all, it was a first step into modern online media, short of the engagement platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which were still viewed as invasive at the time. The podcast’s objectives  included the following:

  • Give the staff a voice
  • Showcase grant products
  • Promote peer research
  • Connect with a national audience on no budget
  • Encourage adoption of digital media among audiences
  • Show digital media leadership within NPS

Almost ten years later, the podcast is the longest-running historic preservation podcast being produced. Moreover, NCPTT  is noted for its role in championing digital outreach technologies, especially within the National Park Service.

Discover more about the Preservation Technology podcast

Strategic Linchpin 2: Chemical Heritage Foundation GLAM-Wiki Program

GLAMWiki strategic linchpin

In 2013, the Chemical Heritage Foundation was looking for ways to publicly share its comprehensive collections and research related to the history of chemistry. It used a lower-end collections management system and did not have a public search function enabled. It had narrative histories on its website, but they were difficult to find. At the same time, many staff members expressed frustration about the lack of quality information related to these topics on Wikipedia.

CHF chose to participate in the GLAM-Wiki initiative that helps cultural institutions share their resources with the world through collaborative projects with experienced Wikipedia editors. A Philadelphia-area Wikipedia editor was hired as a Wikipedian-in-Residence. This resulted in staff training on Wikipedia, and a systematic upload of high-quality collections images to WikiMedia Commons, and the creation of a monthly onsite cybercafe that included Wikipedia edit-a-thons.

The Wikipedian-in-Residence position was subsequently funded for a four-year term through a grant with the Beckman Foundation, and the Wikipedia content continues to be a major driver of web traffic to CHF web properties.

Strategic Linchpin 3: Vizcaya Museum and Gardens 3D Documentation

Vizcaya Barge 3D model strategic linchpin

In March 2016, I had recently been contracted by Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami, Fl., to give strategic shape to their digital initiatives.  I reached out to David Morgan, a former colleague to brainstorm the evolution of a concept with which we had some common experience: 3D documentation. We both worked together several years at the National Park Service National Center for Preservation Technology and Training–an organization at the forefront of innovating technologies for heritage preservation. David has since moved on to become director of the NPS Southeast Archaeological Center in Tallahassee, Fl., and made several introductions to people who performed 3D documentation in Florida.

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens is a historic house museum and formal gardens located on Biscayne Bay in Miami. Its heritage resources are continually threatened from the climate (including sea-level rise) and inclement weather. It is also an extremely popular tourist attraction. Dual-purposing preservation documentation technology with visitor-facing interpretive technologies was an attractive idea for the institution.

Only a few people at the organization were aware of preservation documentation technologies. I wrote an explanatory document in summer 2016 that describes how the tech worked, what the advantages were and what partners could help achieve success (here’s a more general explainer based on that research). Among the benefits outlined were:

  • Preserve endangered heritage resources
  • Make resources accessible & tell their stories to visitors
  • Bridge preservation and interpretive technologies
  • Nurture academic/tech partnerships

Vizcaya formed a partnership with the University of Florida to prioritize laser scanning and photogrammetry documentation on resources that were of intense interest, but not accessible to the public. In January of 2017, UF completed scanning of the resources for preservation purposes.

In May 2017, the Knight Foundation awarded Vizcaya a grant for $100,000  to fulfill its vision to create visitor-facing virtual experiences based on 3D documentation of these resources. 3D documentation technology has come a long way in the past five years, and really, only now would we be attempting to make this visitor-facing element happen. This was made evident when I attended NCPTT’s 3D Documentation Summit in April. Many of the speakers there mentioned virtual experiences as the “next phase” of this technology. We’d already submitted our grant idea by then, but it was gratifying to know the leaders in this field were thinking the same way.

It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience seeing the idea take root at Vizcaya, knowing that the resources are being cared for, and the visitor experience as well. The values of Vizcaya’s leadership and staff, and the nature of Vizcaya itself, are what made 3D documentation its first strategic linchpin technology.