Cats, Content, and Community: a year of long tails on walerart.org
Nate Solas (@homebrewer), Walker Art Center
Nate is the Senior New Media Developer and Head Technologist at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN. In that role, Nate leads the team responsible for back-end development and database work for all Walker web properties: walkerart.org, artsconnected.org, and mnartists.org.
A technology leader at the Walker since 2003, Nate has helped shape the direction of the institution’s web presence and developed strategies for multidisciplinary content online. In 2011, Nate and colleagues launched the new Walker Art Center
website, walkerart.org. Awarded 2012 Best Innovative/Experimental Site and Best Overall Site by the International Conference of Museums and the Web and nominated for a Webby Award, the site has been hailed as a ‘game-changer’.
In this talk, Nate thinks about cats, content, and community: a year of long tails at walkerart.org. Launched at about the same time as last year’s NDF, the site caused a stir felt as far away as Wellington. What made it unique? And how can its success be measured a year on, once the lustre of launch has worn off? What difference has the site made on the internal culture at the Walker and to its local audiences? And what of the cats?
New website a significant approach from brochure-style, marketing-based, to a content model. Nina Simon described as “not about the Walker Art Center. It is the Walker Art Center in digital form”.
More measuring. Less guessing. –both to be more transparent and more accountable.
Walker recognised as multidisciplinary contemporary arts centre. Wanted to drag web presence along with the physical.
Site is content-centred – more like museum than website. No longer an island on the internet. Why content-centred? World is changing. Taking message to audience, telling our story. Add context to conversation about arts.
Betting: People will engage if you provide content that delivers value. We can do this in physical but not good at transitioning to web or retaining it.
Heat map of views – people don’t always scroll down but often do – and of clicks – hotspot right at the bottom: “jobs”. People do scroll if they’re looking for something!
Pull in art news from elsewhere (big sites and small), changes throughout the day and keeps the page fresh. We don’t try to trap people – we’re not the destination – we let them go. Minnesota arts news, artists’ voices, archives connectable with current events — all this is on homepage which is very long, scrollable. Like a magazine
Many users just want to get in and out, only want to know the hours so put that at top left. Visit menu is on every day – hover over and it shows hours and map. Similarly on mobile hours and today’s exhibitions show up at the top.
Search includes spelling corrections. “More like this” features even if doesn’t link only to own website. “404 not found” and “Server error” pages show materials from collection. Events page includes animated confetti; one exhibition page has a bees appearing at 7-second intervals.
“Huge webteam” — well, compared to what? The team is this big because something else is smaller. Not rolling on money, it’s a tradeoff. Wanted to run as a content hub but didn’t have staff. Managed to get a new hire. Much development then presented in-house and got feedback….
What designers say: “This isn’t quite finished yet.”
What clients hear: “Oh good, there’s still time for them to add our programme above the fold.”
Need to entice locals as well as engaging those who can’t visit.
Is it working?
Yes. Visits up 35% (year to year). Immediate shift when site launched – 200% increase of people going straight there by typing in address. People staying for 3 pages are up 30%. 50% more visitors return within 2 weeks. International visits up 32%. Paid gallery admission up 12% – nothing to do with the website – or does it?
What about content? Harder to compare year over year. But can say it’s hard being a content producer – “shaking the content tree” going to departments to try and get content to put online. 6-8 pieces of content per day. Includes links to other sites which aren’t written but are read and approved to link in. A couple of original pieces per day.
Assumption that articles would have long life on line but hadn’t tested this.
Long tail of usage of individual bits of content. Looked at individual bits to get graphs, overlaid all and got a long tail. How many pageviews would we be getting in the longterm? Calculated as 1.5views/day. Turns out for their content usage in head (first 2 weeks) = usage in next 9 = tail (usage in next year). Interestingly when page is fresh people glance at it; but when less fresh, people who get there spend more time on it. At the longtail – after about 80 days – it’s less “Please read this thing we wrote” and more them searching out a resource they need.
Ran same analysis on blogposts. Blog content getting less usage. Why? Articles written better? How do you measure this? One measure is the Flesch-Kincaid measure, counting syllables in words etc. Found when blogposts are well-produced – peak at grades 12-13 – it’s used in the longtail. (OTOH there’s a spike at grade 6-7: this turns out to be things the internet loves, eg top ten lists, interviews with artists, and technology how-to posts.)
External search drives the long tail especially where it’s quality content; people need it.
Online community exists in the intersection between authentic and interacture. Eg on every page include the weather. It says, “We have a building.” Shared experience, even if just the weather, is a pillar of community.
Use Facebook comments with the new site. Scan list and look for question marks.
But don’t get comments on their events pages. Why? Shows graph of 90 days before event and 90 days after: the long tail goes the wrong way – leads up to and peaks on day of event. The day after the event you have to search to find the page. Might as well not exist – but people are interested in this. They are looking for it. Maybe want to talk about it. What if after the event we gave them an opportunity to discuss it? Light it up with links to everything we know about artists, become a hub for discussion. –This is the biggest gap on their site right now.
Big tip: cat videos. Irresistible. Wondered what could we do with an open field? Screened an hour’s worth of internet cats. 10,000 people came, spilled out onto freeways. Number of pageviews on day of festival doubled compared to day of site launch. OTOH it turns out that cat lovers aren’t fans of contemporary art. However people landing on catvidfest page make up 3% of all visits to the Walker site. A few people do explore the site a bit (though they may just be lost).
But you can’t trick people. If they came for the cats, don’t try to make them look at contemporary art. Leave it around the edges. If they want it they’ll find it.
Highlights Rijksmuseum – a mobile-first site. Mobile site has three things in navigation; website has three things in navigation. Will this be successful? If so, who’ll be the first to flat-out copy it?
Stop inventing, start iterating.
Don’t just copy unless you can add value. If someone else is doing something well, just link to them. Get back to the basics of what only you can do that no-one else can do.
Q: Impressed by making web its own thing, not just copy of physical.
A: Need to recognise a big chunk of world is interested in this but won’t come to build it. How do we balance serving local audience with distance audience especially with limited budgets? Depends on what you care about – make sure you measure that.
Q: Metaphor of intersection – what about revisitation? Audience might be able to come (physically) once a year but maybe not three times a year. Barrier of charging may reduce visits.
A: Not sure if web presence has impacted this. Local traffic hasn’t changed much – still want to know how to get there, when they’re open.
Q: Have you brought any of the online into the physical?
A: No but have thought about it and a possible space. Tempted to even just throw website up to let visitors know but space not consumption-friendly.
Q: Plans for resurfacing content from the long tail? Eg annual, biannual events?
A: We do – “from the archives” section on homepage, “here’s more like it” section, search.
Q: Events page with long tail ‘the wrong way round’ – is the marketing making effort to get more interaction including before event?
A: Don’t want to put more resources than needed to sell out!
Q: Do you have comments on collection pages?
A: No space for that to happen. Has seen comments in a separate tab which hides them and ruins the point. Would be most compelling in connection to an exhibition.
Q: Any thoughts on how to advocate for value of the size of the team going forward? Is it sustainable – any post-success pressure to now reduce size of team?
A: Yes, always pressures. Some grace period now, giving them time to educate, lobby, sustain development. “So much of job not just doing the good work but defending the good work.”