Why long-form written content is the perfect way for museums and art galleries to build an audience online

Long-form writing is an immersive medium for people to connect with our heritage and culture — and there’s a great return on investment.

My own early experiences of visiting museums remain vivid — particularly the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle-upon-Tyne — built to house the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s collection of taxidermy, ornithology and osteology. I loved the Ancient Egyptian ethnographic collections and the Greek archaeology and during school holidays, I would often make the trip into the city with my cousin, which involved a series of many buses, to spend the morning absorbed.

Great North Museum: Hancock

Like with real-world exhibition spaces, the question of how objects and stories are presented online so they’re as immersive as their real-world counterparts is compelling, and as museums and galleries have been forced to close their doors during the pandemic, the question of how the public might continue to engage with their stories and artefacts has become more urgent.

Furthermore, there’s the question of how these stories are told. Today, we’re sensitive about the some of the issues raised by the real-world spectacle of collection and exhibition and the decline of imperial hegemonic metanarratives has undoubtedly prompted the curated exhibition space to change. Equally, there has been a shift in how interpretive content is framed: authoritative, didacticism has been replaced with a more inclusive narrative, inviting the visitor to participate and to reflect on how their own lives and experiences entwine with the narrative of history.

Tiina Roppola, specialist in design-led education at the University of Canberra, has traced the evolution of the museum visitor experience as a series of seven phases or acts, from ‘staging curiosity’ to the ordered curation of knowledge through the reconstructive, the participatory, the inclusory and the experiential. She suggests the seventh stage, characterised by the influence of convergent technology and social networking, will provide opportunities for viral engagement and immediacy, if not for deeper, more enduring connections.

More than ever before, museums and galleries have a range of tools available to present material: images, video, social media engagement and the creation of user generated content. During the first wave of COVID-19, York Museums Trust explored ways for people to enjoy their objects and stories through its websites, social media and other digital partners. The most popular idea has been #curatorbattle, which the Trust has been running on Fridays on the YMT streams since the lock-down started. ‘Every week,’ explains the Trust’s Lee Clark, ‘museums and visitors are invited to put forward objects from a set theme, such as ‘dullest’, ‘prettiest’ and ‘best egg’, essentially creating an online ‘exhibition’ of objects from museums big and small, in one Twitter thread. #creepiestobject took the battle to a new level, with museums all around the world taking part and garnering news coverage on CNN, The Washington Post and BBC One’s Have I Got News For You. So far, the Tweet has been seen by more than 2.5 million people with 1.5 million engagements. The Yorkshire Museum’s Twitter has more than doubled its followers since the start of the battles.’

The Yorkshire Museum

Although social media engagement is a great way to spotlight interesting items and the stories behind them, it’s not necessarily the most effective way to encourage visitors to return or to grow traffic organically through search. Web search is still essentially driven by written content above all. It is through words that people find what they’re looking for, and long-form content ranks well in long-tail search queries. The most popular, single word search terms account for around 20% of searches. Slightly more specific searches with two or three words account for around 10%. The remaining 70% of searches are highly specific phrases, which allows content writers to really make the most of search engine optimisation.

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

As well as being searchable, long-form written content is also evergreen. Although the flash-gun effect of a wildly popular social media post might cause a surge in traffic, it’s valuable to create long-lasting, durable, content that performs well over time. It ensures a lasting engagement with material that people will return to again and again. Museum Next founder Jim Richardson says that ‘long-form written content is still hard to beat for its ability to deliver long term value’.

There are lots of examples of good long-form content from museums and galleries. The British Library has an impressive collection of resources which utilises items from its collection as part of an immersive, valuable learning experience. The British Museum too has an extensive blog to engage visitors to its website with objects, ideas and stories.

However, despite the ubiquity of the blog as the go-to form for the purpose of driving traffic and creating engagement, the word ‘blog’ doesn’t necessarily connote the absorption, insight and affective responses we hope our online visitors might enjoy.

Nick Faber of digital strategists Cuberis has argued that the word ‘blog’ is itself part of the problem: it’s a catch-all for long-form writing online: its origins as a weblog, the ubiquitous lifestyle blog post and the marketing-driven ‘how to’ format. Although many museums have successfully used their blog as a vehicle for a variety of formats (the historical travelogue, recipes, ‘everything you need to know about…’, ‘things you didn’t know about…’, ‘a profile of…’, ‘the mystery of…’) these tend to be fairly short and might utilise more superficial structures such as the ‘listicle’.

Jim Richardson points to the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis, which has established an editorial team to create and publish content. ‘In doing so,’ he says, they transformed their website from being about marketing what is happening in their museum… into a place for anyone interested in art to find interesting stories, interviews and links.’ The content is media-rich and elegantly presented; it’s also updated regularly, well-written and often employs the best strategies of creative non-fiction.

Rather than deliver visitors to the museum, museums must now deliver themselves to the visitor.’

David Resnicow

The Victoria Cross Trust, based in Doncaster, primarily maintains memorials and grave markers to commemorate the lives of holders of the Victoria Cross, for the benefit of the public and for posterity. It also aims to educate the public about the lives, citation details and last resting places of Victoria Cross holders to perpetuate the memory of these brave soldiers. The Trust’s educational activities were centred around Ashworth Barracks Museum which closed earlier this year. Although some of the collection is set to be exhibited in Sheffield and Stockton-on-Tees, there’s clearly an opportunity for the Trust to capture some of the objects and stories digitally. I’m working with some of the Trustees to create long-form written content that doesn’t just drive traffic, but which creates genuine engagement through the power of narrative, that makes an enduring impact on visitors and which serves as an investment in the Trust’s future work.

In the media, the influence of the web and the convergent device has undoubtedly re-energised long-form content as a way to tell stories. Although the modus operandi of the ‘mojo’ — the mobile journalist — favours the immediacy of images, video and the flow of social media feeds, the two journalistic disciplines can be complementary: The New York Times, The Guardian and National Geographic have pioneered digital long-form, when written content is combined with a multimedia UX. This provides a highly immersive experience for the reader, but to find it in the first place, it’s the words that count.

Further reading

Faber, Nick (2018) Blogs Need a New Name. Museums Can Make it Happen’, The Cuberist Blog.

Resnicow, David (2020) ‘Museums Have Moved Online, But They Must Reinvent Themselves to Thrive’, artnews.com.

Richardson, Jim (2020) ‘Long-Form Digital Content? Here are three museums doing it well’, MuseumNext.

Roppola, Tiina (2012) Designing for the Museum Visitor Experience, New York: Routledge.

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