National Museums Scotland: how we tell stories online
With hundreds of people and literally millions of objects, grappling with all the potential stories National Museums Scotland has to explore is no small task. How do they harness the raging content river’s power instead of being at its mercy? And how do they produce content that matters? Russell Dornan tells us how.
These are just some of the objects in National Museums Scotland’s collection, all with a story to tell. Our key challenge as a Digital Content team at a large, multifaceted organisation is, well, covering all subject areas across all of time. Not too ambitious, eh?
We are also responsible for the wider website, including functional information, and the promotion of events, visiting, facilities, offers, membership, research, community work and more across our digital estate. We need to balance this work with the equally important storytelling, aimed at engaging online audiences, including people all over the world who may never visit. But as might be obvious now, covering all these bases is hard.
With more than 12.5 million objects in National Museum Scotland’s care across four subject areas and four different sites (including a working farm and an airfield), the sheer number of potential story threads is intimidating. And if you liked those numbers, here’s another! We have over 400 members of staff in our organisation, from Visitor Experience to curatorial and beyond. Many of whom are unearthing, researching or stumbling upon those stories. We want to get them out there in various forms, without getting too tangled up.
Something kinda ooooh
My team’s aim is to tell stories. Finding connections between people, objects and places can tell us so much about our world, how we live in it and what it means to be human. We want to find the best ones across the organisation (and externally) and decide how best to present them for our audiences so that they’re accessible and relatable in terms of format, platform, phrasing, relevance, timing, and so on.
We also come up with our own ideas for content that riffs on the organisation’s core values and themes, sometimes written by us, sometimes by people outwith our museums. Most of this usually means uncoupling ourselves from the objects’ stories and thinking outside the box. We want to make people go “ooh”!
Doing all of this in an ad hoc way is a real challenge. It takes time, planning and coordination to do it well. This is especially true for an organisation with so many people offering or supplying a whole range of content, both in terms of subject and quality.
When I first joined National Museums Scotland in early 2021, content was being produced and it was getting out there. But COVID had brought even more pressure to the Digital Media team: balancing the need to broadcast updates with engaging content was hard, especially since the museums closed and digital became the only output for the museums’ many activities.
The Digital Content team were flying by the seat of their pants and understandably reacting to things around them, rather than being able to actively shape the content.
100 different ways
My first thought as a newcomer to all of this was to look at the bigger picture. I wanted to stem the flow of content a bit and be more tactical in the stories we developed and shared. There are a hundred different ways to do that, so I wanted to find a feasible approach.
To reduce some of the randomness, I shared the subject matter out among the team, appointing digital leads for each strand. For example, someone looks after all of Scottish History and Archaeology content while someone else takes on Natural Sciences, and so on. They are responsible for that strand, looking for storytelling opportunities, developing relationships with the curators, editing their more functional online information, and so on.
This gives members of the digital team a focus which means they can put effort into a concentrated area and think about those stories more strategically over time. It also ensures each subject gets fair representation, because someone in the team is actively looking for opportunities instead of that balance being dictated by each department’s capacity to collaborate.
Having dedicated subject leads gives us an organic content rhythm. By aiming for one or two stories (blogs, Explore pages, social posts, etc.) per week per person, we have a foundation of pulsed content that we work towards. Last-minute and otherwise unexpected content (unavoidable) can be slotted into this framework. It’s much easier to deal with ad hoc requests when most of your content is planned out.
Crucially, our new approach instigates more contact with the curatorial departments. The leads for each area meet with the departments regularly to talk through upcoming content. Instead of being the recipient of finished blog posts or stories, we now speak to the curatorial teams directly and talk through their ideas to apply our audience thinking to make sure they have the best chance of success. We also pitch our own ideas to the whole department and see what sticks, what’s possible and how to further develop ideas together.
Here’s a selection of content born from this more collaborative approach.
This initial shift towards more focus and planning ahead was developed in tandem with our new Online Content Plan. I originally joined National Museums Scotland in a secondment capacity, and this was the one thing Rob Cawston (cawston), erstwhile Head of Digital Media, wanted to complete before I left (spoiler: I’m still here).
A recently conserved Blaschka model.
This plan had been in the works for a long while. I was the third Digital Content Manager to add my thoughts and dreams to it (shout out to my predecessors for also trying to make sense of the noise, Elaine McIntyre and Georgina Brooke).
Rob and I were keen to produce something useful: something that made sense of our work, both for us and for others in our organisation. This content plan wasn’t about ‘what’ and ‘when’, but rather ‘how’ and ‘why’. At the centre of the plan sits the beating heart: our five content principles.
- Storytelling: We tell stories
- People: We place people at the heart of our process
- Intent: We create content that “radiates intent”
- Voices: We call on a plurality of voices
- Insight: We are guided by data
These principles create a framework for what we do and offer a way to sense check what we’re planning to make sure it aligns with our aims. It also arms us with a tool to inform decision making. A reason to say yes or no to ideas. This is done in the open, with us sharing insights and the Content Plan itself, hopefully demystifying ‘Digital’ across the organisation.
We use the Online Content Plan to inform and anchor our content, but it sits in the centre of a wider solar system of tools and processes. We have a detailed spreadsheet to plan and schedule content for the months ahead; a simple one-page guide for writers covering things like tone, wordcount and accessibility; and Trello for taking content through from idea to execution.
As a team, we share work with each other for sense checking to make sure everyone can feed in if necessary or point out any issues or improvements, from blog articles to social media posts. This helps with tone and consistency across our work too.
Our daily content plan.
At the other end, we share content highlights with the rest of the organisation and present some top-level analysis of the impact our stories have had. Despite our work being among the most visible and accessible in the whole organisation, it still pays to spoon feed our busy colleagues and tie our activities to KPIs.
Rolling back the rivers in time
Over the last year, I’m pleased we’ve moved away from a last-minute, reactive approach to content and towards a more considered, paced out and collaborative process. But if the former situation was like a rushing river of content we had to try to make sense of, we’ve now split the river into many (albeit smaller and more manageable) streams. While we’re more or less on top of things, we want to flip this on its head.
We’ll never remove the challenges of time, demand and resource. But, without beating the metaphor to death, I’d like us to effectively dam the river and harness its power instead of being at the mercy of a relentless flow of content. Insights about what our audiences want and need should inform everything we do. Much like a Comms team understands which stories are likely to make a splash in the media, digital teams understand the kind of content we should be producing, both tacitly and through analytics.
So. Much. Content.
Call the shots
Too often, digital channels are seen as somewhere things can just…go. No room for that story in an exhibition? Put it on the blog! Want to shout into the void about your research? Just put it on the website! Struggling to shift tickets for that event? Do a tweet! Instead of being a vessel for everyone’s stuff, I want us to play a more active role in shaping these stories while creating opportunity and space for others to do so too.
We still want content from across the organisation, but we should be discerning. Our expertise can help inform how to approach that content in the right way (or not use it at all in some cases). Which of the stories coming out of the research, for example, are suitable for our audiences (and not just our Strategic Objectives)?
We should be able to whack stories in an ACME Relevance Machine (patent pending) and see what comes out the other end. How can we collaborate early to create engaging content that aligns with our audiences’ needs, the platforms we use and the team’s capacity? What should a museum’s digital content even be? And what will people care about, especially when the world is burning around us?
We’re on our way to understanding some of these questions a little better. From bringing in external voices and perspectives; to moving away from our activities and objects always being the starting point for content; to experimenting with new content strands. Next step for us is to use the research we’ve done recently to inform how we can keep switching things up over time to get to where we want to be. And instead of chasing the algorithm, concentrate on building a long tail of great content.
Sneak peek of a new, exciting project for us. Coming in 2023!
Being part of Frankly, Green and Webb’s Insights for Change or Culture 24’s Let’s Get Real projects, for example, has been insightful. We now know quantitatively that our audiences actually enjoy our digital content. They find it informative, entertaining and engaging. Great! But it also confirmed that our core audiences are very white, local, highly educated. This wasn’t a surprise but presents us with an opportunity to think about the content we create and for whom.
We’re also looking at things like SEO; how we currently present editorial content; the impact of the changing social media landscape; and more. That’s a lot to be thinking about at any one time.
Ultimately, we want to know what our audiences want and need that they can get only from us. And how do we harness that among all the other demands on the team’s time? We hope to find some answers to these questions, and others I’ve raised in this article, during 2023 (stay tuned!).
As we interrogate the data and listen to our followers, we want to get closer to understanding who we are, what a unique bit of National Museums Scotland content even looks like and, crucially, how to capture and share that magic something.
Thanks to Girls Aloud for supplying the headers to this post.
Russell Dornan, Digital Media Content Manager, National Museums Scotland