Storytelling, experience design & digital revenue: Smartify and the future of museums
Here’s something that I am very excited about: I have joined Smartify as Head of Content & Learning. You might already be aware of this, but Smartify is the world’s most downloaded museum app. Sorry to boast, but this is pretty cool if you ask me. So if there was ever a good time for me to put something like a ‘vision’ on paper, this is it.
Now, I am not going to start this blog by stating something unimaginative like: ‘these are unprecedented times for museums’, and how these institutions should all transition to digital first business models — with Smartify, obviously — in order to survive. Maybe it’s just me, but this message is getting a little old after almost a year of COVID-19.
So let’s talk about something more fundamental. Let’s talk about what it means to be a museum and how we (‘museum people’) can better serve, educate and inspire humanity if we make a clear distinction between practice (what we do) and purpose (why we do it). Because if we have a deeper understanding of the museum’s place in society — whether it’s online or offline, we will be more resilient in crises like the one we are in right now.
So, what is a museum?
Remember that heated discussion at the ICOM conference in Kyoto in September of 2019? Hundreds of members (all experienced museum professionals) tried to formulate a new and improved definition for the word ‘museum’. Needless to say, this exercise turned into a disaster. And this is not surprising, if you ask me. The same would probably happen to teachers, if they were to settle on a single definition for ‘school’. Or to doctors trying to find that one-size fits all description for ‘hospital’. You get the idea.
My point is this: anyone reading this will probably have a personal definition of what a museum is. And so will museum visitors. And that is totally okay.
To me, a museum is an entity that facilitates meaningful interactions between their collections & narrative and humanity. This is my personal definition. I have intentionally left out the word ‘building’, because I believe that the building is just one area where these meaningful interactions can take place. This definition helps me in the work that I do, but I understand that this might not be so for you. And again: that is okay.
The most important thing is that we have a mutual understanding of the purpose of museums. Museums are here to educate and inspire society and build bridges between cultures, ages and era’s. If we can agree on this basic principle, then it will be easier to move forward to how we should do that.
The ‘how’: experience design
So, for me a museum is no longer just a building. Museum visitors can now choose to have an on-site experience — the lucky ones that is -, or engage with museum content online. But how do we make sure that an online experience is as rich and unique as an on-site experience? The answer is quite simple: by focussing on the needs of the visitors and the unique properties that the each online medium offers. In other words: don’t try to copy the physical experience and turn it into a digital one. An online visitor has completely different needs and expectations. Just imagine what could have been created at the beginning of the pandemic for instance if instead of focusing on recreating the physical museum experience (e.g. 360 museums that are less relevant once museums reopen) we had used that time to create educational YouTube channels. Then we would have met the continued needs and expectations of our audiences.
I remember a particular moment when I was completely awestruck by a unique experience myself, back in 2017, when I worked at the Rijksmuseum. I pointed my phone at random art works, and the information from our own database immediately popped up. This was my first introduction to Smartify. Since then, Smartify has grown from a small start-up into the most downloaded museum app in the world. Here are some numbers just to dazzle you: Smartify has reached over 1.8 million downloads, with more than 160 museums on the platform and around 2 million objects in its database for anyone to discover. On top of this, Smartify grew over 300% during this pandemic.
All pretty cool, but here is where it gets really interesting. It is the only platform to successfully enrich experiences both inside the walls of the museum (through tours, AR- and scanning technology), and outside the walls of the museum (on the new platform smartify.org). So you can imagine my excitement right now as Smartify’s new Head of Content and Learning! I will be working with the team to shape our vision of a hybrid museum experience and spearheading development of the new online platform, taking it to the next level as a cross-museum and cross-collection storytelling platform. We will not only be creating loads of engaging new content ourselves — we will also be offering partner museums the tools to build their own meaningful online & digital experiences. And not just for our own platform! As a first step we have already launched our own digital and content media service to transform the museum experience — physical, digital and everything in between.
The issue of revenue
All very exciting and fun for me personally, you might think, but let’s not forget one very pressing issue. Perhaps THE pressing issue for museums right now: with the visitors gone, there is hardly any money left. As a consequence, an entire generation (mostly digital natives) is being cut from the museum sector. The very survival of many institutions is now at stake because, as it turns out, the sector was too focussed on the physical experience. But that makes sense! For most of the museum’s history there wasn’t anything besides the physical visit.
As a consequence, museums are very well equipped to make money within the walls of the museum (e.g. tickets, tours, gift shop, loans, donations & sponsorships), but not so much online. I can’t really think of a sector where the gap between on-site revenue and digital revenue is as big.
Now, it did not help that over the last decade, the big tech companies — sorry, Google Arts & Culture — expected museums to provide them with loads of free content to enrich their platform and gave nothing in return. But if there is one thing that the dynamics of the internet have shown us, is that users are willing to pay if the content is worth it. Just think of all the subscription based models that are a part of our everyday lives. And one thing is for sure: museum content is definitely worth it. Digital revenue models for museums could look like subscriber only content, virtual courses taken by audiences all over the world and e-commerce showcasing local artisans. What is clear is that like the digital and physical museum visit — hybrid revenue models are key. We shouldn’t be thinking about digital vs physical but automatically think of digital as an integral part of the full museum experience and strategy.
So in all this lies another important mission of mine: increasing the digital revenue for museums.
Wrapping up, I wanted to end with something deep and inspirational, but I can’t really think of anything. So let me use the rest of this space to make my new employer happy: join Smartify, and let’s create some meaningful museum experiences together! And perhaps make you a little bit of money while we are at it.