My 2020 Digital Engagement Resolution: Rethink Audio

Momentum is a tough thing. There’s a tendency that if something seems to be working, we don’t question whether it could be better, or more efficient, or we keep doing it because “that’s what we’ve always done.”

I spent a lot of early January asking questions and looking at data, specifically around audio at the museum.

  • How many people really listened to our audio tour?
  • Did they listen more onsite or offsite?
  • What types of tours do they tend to prefer?
  • Do they make it through the entire tour or just a few stops?

Museums are challenging what type of audio belongs in a gallery. Podcasts are making their way into these spaces. A great example of this is the Guggenheim’s new tour by Roman Mars of 99% Invisible. Listening to this tour made me rethink the types of audio we share and how we do it. I found the tour of the museum riveting, even though I wasn’t physically on site. And it made me wonder, would people prefer to listen to audio tours if they were a 10-15 minute podcast instead of 10 1-2 minute stops? Would they prefer if there was a host that introduced multiple voices rather than the curator or artist?

I started asking friends, co-workers, family, basically everyone: do you listen to audio tours in museums? Would you listen to a podcast about that museum instead? Basically everyone, regardless of age (though I admit my totally non-scientific anecdotal data gathering was primarily Gen Y and Z) preferred the idea of listening to a podcast on their way to the museum or after their visit, to actually listening to something in the gallery.

Using this as a starting point, I went to our audio data. We use OnCell and SoundCloud for our audio tours. When I started digging into the data, I noticed that over half the people who listened to the OnCell version you get through a mobile website were listening off site, perhaps before or after a visit, or because they wanted to experience the exhibition and couldn’t visit.

We’ve also done some experimental tours. For David Levinthal: War, Myth, Desire we chose to do a podcast with chapters instead of a traditional audio tour and we hired a podcast team to produce it. That tour has nearly three times the amount of listeners than our other tours.

The second most popular tour featured stories behind the works produced by Eugene Richards, and the third was a variety of artists who shared what memory meant to them in relationship to photography, some told stories, some crafted definitions, and one even wrote a poem.

This year, I want to use what we’ve learned and what we’ve seen works with our audience to test something new: a podcast preview of our exhibitions. It will feature a “host,” include multiple voices such as the artist and local experts, and will offer guests an audio introduction to the artist, their process, and the experience they will have in the exhibition.

The evidence shows this is a direction we should investigate, but there will be challenges:

  1. This format takes more work to create. Unlike our traditional audio tour that has only some editing to remove breaks and “ums,” this would require thoughtful editing of audio to produce a coherent single discussion.
  2. This format will take more funding. To get high quality audio, we’re going to need recording equipment that is better than what we have. It won’t be much money, but it will take some.
  3. We need buy-in from the staff. If we’re going to invest in this format, we need to really make it part of the experience, create something worthwhile, and promote it well. That requires everyone to be on board with this new experience.
  4. It also means being ok with giving up the whole one… this may be the most challenging. I think there’s a perception that some guests will be upset that there isn’t a traditional tour. But honestly, I think running this as an experiment will give us a lot of important data. Maybe we do have a bunch of guests say they don’t like this: GREAT! Then we’ll have that data to back up doing the old method.

Now, I’m off to read Hannah Hethmon’s Your Museum Needs a Podcast.

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