Website Analytics – Wish I knew more!

I just took a quick look at the IMA website through the Google Analytics.  I don’t do this often enough, probably because I’m not sure what to do with the information once I have it.  Nonetheless, I do find it interesting.  In one 30 day period the IMA website had 9,363 page views.  The most viewed page was the Career Center, followed by the museum search engine.  That’s good news – people are looking for both jobs and museums in Iowa.

Then I looked at where the traffic was coming from.  22.85% was direct traffic – to me that means those folks typed in the IMA URL so they were familiar with the website.  That’s great!  Another 25.8% came from referring sites such as the Association of Midwest Museums, Minnesota Historical Society and the like.  That’s also great news – I appreciate the support IMA receives from our colleagues and I enjoy the opportunity to reciprocate.  The other 51.35% came to the IMA website from search engines such as Google.  That’s great too – I’m glad they were looking for Iowa museums.  I noticed that 165 people went directly from the IMA Facebook page to the IMA website – I definitely want to encourage that!  I try to post an attention getter on the IMA Facebook page at least every week – in this economy, job openings are at the top of the “attention-getter” list.

There are lots more analytics I could use if I knew more about it.  Probably some (some?!) areas I could improve in.  How about your organization?  Does someone regularly review the website trends?  Is someone analyzing where your visitors are coming from and from what page they leave the website?

Perhaps this would make a good session at the IMA Annual Conference.  Let me know what you think.

New board members, staff, volunteers shake up status quo

New board members, staff, and volunteers come in full of questions.  Why do you do this, what if we changed that…sigh…they don’t know what happened when we tried this or that.  They come in full of new project ideas – they don’t know how hard the staff already works.  They come in with partially developed bold ideas for big changes – when would we have time to develop the idea?  It is difficult.  Besides, the organization is doing ok, right?  The doors are open.  The bills are (mostly) paid.  Sure, there are things that could be better – it would be nice to see more people coming in through those doors every day.  It would be great if more young people got involved.  The organization could use more community support.  But the doors are open so why should anything have to change?

Change is hard.  It disrupts daily routines, established working parameters, and efficiently set-up work spaces.  It creates tension between those who struggle against it and those who push for it.  A change once made may prove to be worse than the previous status-quo.  Change may bring disquiet to board meetings, donor relationships, and volunteer habits.  Change costs money and it is stressful to commit limited funds to an idea which may or may not be successful.  Staff time is limited and difficult to reallocate.

But change brings excitement, fresh outlooks, and new opportunities.  What is the alternative?  “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.”  “If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.”  There are all kinds of over-used phrases to describe the alternative and many of them are framed in the negative.  Let’s look instead at change from a positive point of view.  Start with the organization’s definition of success.

How does the organization define success through its mission statement, vision statement, and strategic plan?  Is the strategic plan up to date, with clearly defined goals and objectives, and action steps assigned to specific individuals in order to reach those goals and objectives?  Do the staff and board members understand how success is currently defined in those documents and work toward those goals?  If so, the organization is moving toward change through a measured, carefully thought out process.  Moving toward new goals in a pro-active way comes about when an involved board and staff are involved with and listen to their community and chart the organization’s future course to best serve that community.  This is positive change – even if not all the new goals turn out exactly as expected.  An organization working pro-actively toward change can accommodate unexpected results, re-evaluate, and set new goals.

If the organization is not moving toward change in a pro-active manner, this may be an opportunity for organizational growth.  This is also positive.  Schedule time for board, staff and volunteers to brainstorm what success means for your organization.  Think outside the box!   Set aside the preconceived notions about the way it has “always” been done or what “has to” be done, and foster an atmosphere in which innovative, creative ideas for the organization’s future are able to be articulated, embellished, polished, and potentially implemented.  Encourage a process that is creative, positive, and supportive of new ideas and new organizational goals.  Allow this to be a time when new board members, staff, and volunteers can safely share ideas without being shut down with stories of negative past experiences.  Allow them to help redefine what success is for this organization moving forward and how it can be achieved.

Prepare for change.  Share the strategic plan not only with members, staff, and volunteers, but with the community.  Create opportunities for asking and answering questions and for the community to make a commitment to contribute to the organization’s success.  Communicate the importance of the shared vision of the organization’s future.  Encourage supporters to embrace the new definition of success and to contribute to reaching new goals.

Implement change.  Change takes mental and physical energy.  Change requires an open mind and a willingness to try, evaluate, and re-evaluate.  Positive change cannot take place in an atmosphere of fear – reactionary change takes place out of fear.  Build a pro-active, creative, and successful organization – one that is not afraid to make changes, evaluate results, and change again.

Each year organizations experience turn over in staff, volunteers, and board members.  Each person who comes to our organizations has unique talents, ideas, and insights.  Allow them to share their skills, creative ideas, and energy.   Allow them to be a positive catalyst for change, a valuable contributing member of the team, a creative and energetic project leader.  Don’t be afraid of new ideas – view those new ideas through the lens of the positive creative energy they bring to your organization.

Conference Take-Away #1

I have just returned from the American Association of Museums Annual Conference – a great experience.  I attended primarily sessions related to administration, fundraising, grant, and management issues, and I have a couple major take-aways that I want to share.

The first take-away is a theme I heard throughout the sessions – everywhere I went I heard a variation on the same song – that in order to be successful, meaningful, and relevant to our communities, museums have to rethink their priorities and put the guest at the center of the museum experience.  What does that mean?  It means each of us has to figure out how our organization fits into our community.  We have to seriously consider what our organization has to offer that our community wants and needs.  We have to honestly consider if there are compelling reasons for the community to exchange their limited leisure time and financial resources to drive to our destination, find a parking space, and…what?  What are we offering in exchange?   Exhibits alone are not driving attendance.  Meaningful, community-driven programming in the museum space – events, programs, meetings, music – is bringing guests to community-centered museums.

In a session entitled “Show Me the Money: Straight Talk About Museum Business Models”, Nina Simon (Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History), Eric Siegel (New York Hall of Science), and Ellen Rosenthal (Conner Prairie Museum) discussed innovations and experiments at their institutions and the benefits of taking those risks.  All of them emphasized the transparency in communication and open-door policies that led to implementation of ideas about which their staff were passionate.  Nina suggested that museums think of their organization as a patron development business instead of thinking of the patron as ticket revenue.  How does that lead us to re-evaluate our front of house and hospitality?  Substitute the word “guest” for “visitor” and think about how guests at your museum are treated.  Can they park nearby?  Is the building well-lit, easily accessible, with clear signage indicating the entrance?  Once inside the building, are restrooms clearly marked and extremely clean?    In one session I attended the speaker reported that they had conducted surveys to find out why people were not visiting the museum and their audience was very clear – they would not return to the museum until, among other things, the restrooms were updated.

So one major take-away for me was that museums need to rethink why they exist and who they exist to serve.  They need to put their audience at the center of what they do and provide services and programming that meets the needs of that audience in order to be successful.

The second major take-away from the sessions I attended concerns the financial viability of the non-profit donor driven business model.  The consensus seems to be that the status-quo is not sustainable for most museums and we have to be willing to take risks in order to make transformative changes and ensure longevity for our institutions.  Change is hard, risk is scary, but this cannot be put off.  We have to be brave, bold, innovative, and change the way we operate in order to ensure the survival of our institutions for decades to come.  More on that another time.

Connecting Collections to Community

I just finished reading “Getting Personal: Making a Collection-Community Connection” by Joelle Sellgson in the March-April 2012 issue of MUSEUM magazine.  Joelle starts with the story of how the National Postal Museum used an object in their collection – in this case a preserved dog – to reach people on an emotional level.  She goes on to make the case that collections are underused as an outreach tool – that they should be used not only for exhibit, but for learning, for connecting with audiences, and for raising funds.

This case has been made before, most recently (in my memory) by Heritage Preservation in their publication “Capitalize on Collections Care” in which they make the case that collections can be used to generate contributions, increase support for the museum, and develop new audiences.

Both note that collections contain objects that resonate with viewers and that can be used to tell compelling stories, creating a real bond between the viewer and the object (and thus the museum).  Sellgson shares concrete ways that objects in a collection can be used, from making one item the ‘museum mascot’ to allowing visitors to ‘adopt’ an artifact, and more.  The ideas she shares deserve serious consideration.  Museums want and need to be meaningful in their community, and the ideas put forth by Sellgson and Heritage Preservation enable those meaningful connections to be made – one artifact and one person at a time.  People who feel a connection to the museum become volunteers, donors, and community supporters for the museum and its programs.

So look around your collection.  Think about your mission.  Can you identify a significant object that speaks to who you are and what you do?  Does that object have a compelling story to tell – one that will allow people to connect on a personal level to the object and your mission?  Give it some thought – like Owney the Postal Dog, you may have an object around which you can build a whole new following for your museum.

Life Long Learning – the three R’s

There is no excuse for disconnecting from a life-long learning paradigm.  Learning opportunities are all around us on a multitude of subjects and for every level of experience.  They run the gamut from one-on-one mentoring to national and international conferences.  A learning experience can be found to fit every learning style – from cuddling up with a warm laptop (or the more traditional book) and reading in solitude to a week-long travel/conference experience.

I’ve spent some time recently browsing conference offerings and have found the breadth and depth of topics offered almost overwhelming.  The Organization of American Historians and the National Council on Public History will hold their annual meeting April 18-22 in Milwaukee.  How I wish I could attend!  The sessions offered cover a wide spectrum of interconnected topics and such interesting events as a walking tour of downtown Milwaukee with a workshop on the creation of a local history nonprofit; a workshop introduction to large scale digitization projects; and a session on how historic sites and schools can work together. There are working groups that are sure to be inspirational – envisioning the future of public history education and imagining the future of public interfaces to cultural heritage collections are just two of them.

A week after the conference in Milwaukee, the American Association of Museums will offer its Annual Conference April 29-May 2 in Minneapolis, Minnesota and I will be in attendance.  Looking over the sessions offered I feel the same sense of excitement – awesome topics and speakers!  One of the first that caught my eye is entitled “A Walk in the Park – the Promise and Reality of Augmented Reality.”  This is a subject that our local historic preservation commission has been toying with and I look forward to what I can learn to share with my colleagues.  Another session that intrigues me is called “Engagement Tools for Building Creative Communities, Placemaking and Partnerships.”   I hope this session will inspire me to think broadly about partnerships between historical organizations and museums, community main streets, and members of the community.  While session titles range from descriptive to amusing, all the sessions are sure to be informative.

In the Fall, the Association of Midwest Museums will hold their conference in September, and the Iowa Museum Association will hold their Annual Meeting and Conference October 21-23 in Iowa City.  The IMA’s theme for 2012 is “Leading Through Innovation,” and the speaker committee has already begun to plan sessions that will inspire and motivate attendees.

If a conference isn’t your preferred method of learning, don’t forget the IMA’s annual workshop series.  The IMA Standing Professional Committees bring a variety of topics to IMA members each year, at a cost that cannot be beat.  These small group workshops offer a chance to not only learn but to network and really get to know colleagues on a personal level.

As I said – no excuses!  Get your three R’s in whatever format you prefer, but make time to get them.  Listening to others and learning from others offers new perspectives, fresh ideas, and an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others instead of by repeating those mistakes in your organization or community.  Sharing and discussing with colleagues offers a chance to think through big picture puzzles – a much needed opportunity when so many find themselves bogged down in daily minutia and unable to tackle those big ideas.  Make time for life-long learning this year – it will recharge your batteries, reinvigorate your efforts, and leave you refreshed.

Accessibility to Historic Collections

I’ve been reading about the National Portal to Historic Collections, a joint endeavor between the Association for State and Local History (AASLH) and American Heritage magazine.  The goal of the National Portal project is to create one website where scholars, students, curators, etc., can search many museum collections at once to find information and artifacts of interest.   It is just getting started and is already a fascinating site – I searched for “Iowa” and 45 items came up even though no Iowa museums currently participate in the project.

Access and visibility vs privacy and security – these are concerns all museums have to ultimately address, but let’s focus for a moment on accessibility and visibility.  Think about your audience in concentric circles, widening out from your museum.  The inner circle is your community.  How does your community access the museum?  If you have a regular open hours clearly posted they can walk in and see the exhibits and attend events.  The next circle out may represent the entire state, and the one after that the nation.  Think about HOW you communicate with the world past your city limits and WHAT you communicate about your museum.

The National Portal project addresses something that many museums are not communicating and have no means to communicate – what is in their collection.  Exhibits and events can be publicized, websites are a “must” in order to communicate who we are and what we do…but the “what we have” is seldom addressed in a public way.  The National Portal fills that need in a very exciting way – by providing one system that allows searches across many collections.    This increased accessibility and visibility may lead to exciting new “finds” as objects and documents hidden in collections for decades come to light.  The Portal is providing a way for registered users to comment on museum collections – imagine the information that may be collected about an object, photograph or document.  The Portal provides a way for curators to connect with objects that may enhance an upcoming exhibit – an object they would not have known about before.  And the heritage traveler could search the Portal for objects of interest and travel to museums and historic sites they would never have found otherwise.

It’s a fascinating project – check it out at

Building Blocks to Sustainability

It’s really hard to be objective about institutions we love.  WE know why our institution is important –  how hard the staff and volunteers are working – how meaningful the activities are.  We cherish the mission of our organization and the awesome collection that supports that mission.  We are proud of how much we accomplish with limited budgets, limited staff, and limited space.  WE can see that all this is important – why can’t THEY?

“They” might be different for each organization.  Perhaps visitation numbers are down – why aren’t they flocking to see the new exhibit or participate in the latest
activity?  Perhaps the budget has been cut further – why don’t they understand how much you’re already doing with so little?  Perhaps you are struggling to raise funds from community donors – don’t they know why this organization is important and needs their support?  And so on.  No matter who “they” are for your organization, pause and reflect on how YOU have communicated your organization’s mission, activities, and accomplishments with THEM.

Consistent, effective communication is a critical step in raising awareness of your organization’s relevance.

Relevance is critical to sustainability.

Organizations that are relevant in their community reach out to many constituencies.  They adapt, they innovate, they assume leadership roles, they communicate – and by these efforts their organization adapts, innovates and leads in the community, state and nation.  An organization is relevant and meaningful to those constituencies that it serves – and it regularly identifies and reaches out to new constituencies with new programs, exhibits, and events communicated through multiple formats.

As difficult as it is, take a step back from your organization.  Try to look at it with the eyes of a visitor or a newcomer to your community.  Ask yourself some tough questions – why does this organization matter?  What does this organization do that no other organization does?  How does this organization fill a need in the community, state or nation?  Who does this organization serve?  How and to whom does this organization communicate its role?

Identify why your organization is currently relevant and to whom and then adapt, innovate, lead and communicate –  expand your organization’s relevance to multiple constituencies and you will build a relevant and sustainable organization.