Beware of technology for technology’s sake.
Every few years, the cultural industry seems to come to life with buzz – followed by lemming-like execution – of a new, technology-based trend that promises engagement-based salvation. “Finally,” some professionals all but declare at conferences and to executive leaders, “the magic bullet to getting new people through the door and keeping guests happy forever and ever!”
The tool cultivates a nearly religious following of industry professionals and – for one to three years – asking even baseline questions about the efficacy of the tool or highlighting a need for strategy around it is regarded as blasphemous. How dare you even suggest that the tool needs any thought beyond how to market it!
You know what I’m talking about…
Pokemon Go. QR codes. Sometimes it’s bigger. We seem to be finally ending this phase with mobile applications.
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned working with cultural executives regarding market research, it’s that we may desperately seek and believe in magic bullets to engagement issues… but they don’t exist. Success comes to cultural organizations that work hard on ongoing engagement strategies, not one-off tactics. Or, those that integrate rather than “add on” solutions. So when there’s a new tool or topic touted as a magic bullet and even asking about its strategy makes some peoples’ brains explode in defensive fury, it’s a clue that it’s time to strap on our thinking caps.
On that note, let’s talk about virtual reality.
The buzz may be warranted! It’s an exciting tool that could help cultural organizations to accomplish great things! But in the rush of romance surrounding conversations about virtual reality right now, I hope that we’ll remember to approach this tool strategically.
Technology for technology’s sake is not an engagement strategy.
I’m not saying that virtual reality cannot be engaging and that it won’t help fulfill certain goals. I’m saying that if we don’t take the time to think about it strategically, it cannot be engaging or fulfill certain goals. Like anything else, VR can indeed be deployed in ways that do not accomplish anything meaningful at all.
…I fear several industry examples forthcoming if we’re not careful.
Virtual reality could be replaced with anything. Any new tool or initiative touted as a buy-and-benefit one-stop shop for never-ending engagement could stand in its place in this article. Anything that cultural organizations pursue for any reason may benefit from careful consideration.
Here are four things to keep in mind when considering the investment and deployment of virtual reality within cultural organizations:
1) Consider the phenomenon of mobile applications within cultural organizations
Perhaps the best example of what can happen when organizations drink technology kool-aid without a meal of strategy to settle their stomachs can be seen in the development, deployment, and then general flop of mobile applications as engagement tools for cultural entities.
In a nutshell, organizations rushed to develop mobile applications that did not necessarily help people or resolve any engagement barriers. (Basic facility map on a mobile application, anyone?) People were unimpressed, and now the market is disinterested in these mobile applications. Generally, mobile application use onsite does not increase visitor satisfaction. Using a brochure onsite increases satisfaction more than using a typical cultural mobile application. Not only that, despite the fact that a majority of mobile apps are designed for onsite use, more people open cultural mobile apps offsite than onsite, and then don’t use them onsite. Downloads aren’t at all a measure of application use. They are a best-case ceiling, and there’s evidence that people check them out before their visit, and say, “No, thanks” to their intended use.
The lesson here is not that mobile applications are bad! Certainly, there are very successful mobile applications! There are simply many more unsuccessful mobile applications. Because audiences were saturated with apps that did not solve a problem or actively engage them, these tools now have a perception-based barrier to usage.
A person may need only to download one, “meh” cultural organization app to see another and say, “No thanks. I know what that’s like.”
It’s a shame for those organizations that may have more thoughtfully developed the tool and now face these barriers. Of course, it’s also a shame for the many, many visitor serving organizations that spent valuable resources on technology for technology’s sake.
If we’re not careful, this may happen with virtual reality as well. If too many organizations take up a tool thoughtlessly or without meeting audience expectations for its usage, it loses its appeal.
Similarly, a person may need only to take part in one, “meh” cultural organization VR experience to see another and say, “No thanks. I know what that’s like.”
2) Virtual reality is not a strategy on its own
In many ways, it’s a tool. A hammer can be used to build a house! But it could also be used to bang on walls for no reason. That’s technology for technology’s sake: Getting so excited about the fancy, new hammer that we forget that we bought it to actually do something. You don’t just buy a hammer and then have a house appear. You need wood, manpower, and a solid blueprint for that hammer to be helpful. Indeed, the right hammer can truly have value in the right situation!
Like other initiatives, VR could potentially play a meaningful role in the achievement of critical goals for cultural entities: facilitating shared experiences, cultivating positive word-of-mouth endorsement, facilitating face-to-face interactions with staff (which increase visitor satisfaction), increasing perception of trust and expertise, and providing opportunities for personalization are a few.
Simply deploying VR onsite does not do any of these things. They require integration and consideration of how the type of VR you are deploying – and how you are deploying it – helps to accomplish these goals on an ongoing basis. And, is it the best way to accomplish them? (For instance, positive face-to-face interaction with organization representatives can significantly influence visitor satisfaction regardless of if it is a friendly volunteer pointing out a fun fact or a smiling staff member adjusting fitted virtual reality sensors.)
Whether it is virtual reality or anything else –including the development of programs, performances, or exhibits – considering how the engagement method fits into the bigger picture and what it aims to accomplish may be beneficial.
3) There are more pressing technological opportunities facing cultural entities
As it turns out, a “lack of virtual reality onsite” is not a barrier to visitation to cultural organizations and not having it doesn’t make the list of worst things about a visit, either. (Fun fact: Broken/malfunctioning exhibits is a major dissatisfier for visitors to collection-based organizations, so if you have technology onsite, make sure it works!)
“Of course lack of VR isn’t a major barrier to visitation! Technology is a value-add!”
No, it’s not. When it comes to engaging audiences, onsite technology like VR is an opportunity. Improving offsite technology is a necessity – and our misunderstanding this manifests itself at the door.
A primary barrier to visitation for people who have interest in attending a cultural organization but do not attend is access challenges – difficulty planning, having a hard time purchasing tickets in advance, and being non-responsive to questions (posed largely on social media or digital platforms). These are all based upon offsite technology including social media, web information, and mobile and web ticketing.
The leading reasons why people do not come to cultural organizations in the first place involve fixable, offsite technological barriers. The data are clear. People cannot even buy tickets the way they’d like, figure out how to plan their visit, or get answers to questions (from usually already overworked social media managers).
…And yet, here we are “magic bulleting” advanced, computer-generated simulation of three-dimensional environments that can be interacted with in seemingly real ways by a person using specialized electronic equipment with fitted sensors.
If yours is an organization that can afford to invest in improving functional barriers to visitation and also invest in other technologies, go forth! For organizations with more limited resources, this is a discussion worth considering.
I get that virtual reality is sexy! I’m excited to see all of the things that cultural organizations do with VR! But you know what may be even sexier, if we have to pick? Listening to the humans who we are trying to serve and prioritizing our missions to get people in the door to be educated and inspired in the first place.
4) Cultural entities are the creators and protectors of their own experiences
An organization’s reputation matters. It plays a major role in how people make decisions – such as the decision to visit or support an organization. Similarly, visitor satisfaction matters. It plays a major role in value-for-cost perceptions, endorsements, and re-visitation.
Ultimately, it’s up to your own organization to determine what initiatives are worthy of your resources – and worthy of influencing your precious reputation and onsite experience.
To date, the article I’ve written that has received the most hate mail was an article sharing market research on how visitors actually use (or rather, don’t use) mobile applications and how they influence visitor satisfaction. (Generally, they don’t). Most of the messages were from angry mobile application developers who had not, apparently, put in the time or energy to determine if their applications would be helpful to people. Some of it was from angry consultants specializing in mobile applications. Nearly all of it was from people who make their money off of cultural organizations investing in technology for technology’s sake. Many were literally banking on entities not considering – or just guessing – audience needs and behaviors. And that makes sense! Hey, if our wishful thinking creates for-profit business opportunities, then it’s one more thing that we could add to our economic impact reports, right?
I don’t think it’s necessarily the same with virtual reality. (And I certainly do not think all mobile app developers are inappropriately opportunistic. There are some successful mobile applications and great brains on the scene using data to create engaging experiences.) I bring this up because virtual reality may be a solution – but it’s up to your organization to determine if it’s the right solution for the challenges facing your organization.
Organizations deserve to ask themselves these questions with regard to anything (VR or otherwise) that comes onto the scene:
- What am I using this tool to do?
- How does this tool help us achieve our goals?
- Is this the most effective and efficient tool for the job?
It’s up to cultural organizations to be their own advocates and super sleuths when considering any new idea. Case study envy is a thing.
In my opinion, the recognition of the need to evolve engagement practices and consider what makes people eager and excited is refreshing! Our industry is in need of a business change, and the way to get there may involve questioning, exploring, conversing, challenging outdated ideas, and thinking outside of the box.
Here’s the point: Virtual reality is exciting and may provide great opportunities! Like everything else, let’s approach it strategically and thoughtfully.
Go ahead and strap on those virtual reality glasses…Just don’t take off your thinking cap to do it.