The MET CDO on Bridging Digital and Physical

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Sree Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer at The Metropolitan Museum, on blurring the lines between in-person and online.

(UPDATE: In August 2016, Sree Sreenivasan was named Chief Digital Officer of New York City, or NYC.gov.)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the most-visited art museum in the United States and second only to the Louvre in that category on a global scale. Impressive as that is, the museum aspired to do even more by reaching out digitally. To that end, in August 2013, it hired its first Chief Digital Officer (CDO), Sree Sreenivasan. Sree, as he likes to be called, held the same title at Columbia University where he also served as the dean of student affairs and professor at Columbia University's Journalism School.  The following is an edited transcript of Sree’s recent phone conversation with Straight Talk editors.

You speak about the future of business depending on “blurring the lines between in-person and online.” Are most businesses aware of this?

I think they increasingly are. They know that it’s no longer enough to do good or even great work; you have to get the word out about what you do. There are lots of opportunities to bring this connection together, but they have to work to make it happen.  In a place like the museum we already have a physical space, and in trying to connect to the larger world, we need to establish our digital presence. The plan is to have the two feed off each other. We want to make the digital experience so good that those who see us online want to come to the physical museum, and we want to make the in-person experience so good that the visitors seek to extend the connection in digital channels.  In general, businesses have to think about building up those kinds of connections.

How do you define the role of the Chief Digital Officer or CDO, and why do you say that it is a transitionary one?

The CDO is there to help the CEO and others understand the digital landscape, to get them used to thinking in new ways and to adopt new ways of working. But there’s no secret sauce. As the next generation of CEOs comes up through the ranks, among them will be many who are very comfortable in the digital realm, and they will not need to be guided in this way. It can happen pretty fast. It all depends on the industry and the makeup of CEOs.

What was the Met after in hiring a CDO?

The Met has been working digitally for over a decade. The goal of bringing me on as CDO was to accelerate the pace of what was already happening. The director is very keen to build and grow the museum’s digital presence and prepare it to transition to the "post-digital" world, at which point digital is no longer in its own category but a mainstream business activity. By tracking what was happening online, like the fact that China was the biggest source of incoming traffic, we gain insight and are able to adjust the business strategy accordingly.

Which social media outlets do you use?

The Met has two people dedicated to social media. They can’t be on everything, so we have to select platforms and plan according to the ways of thinking for each ones. We have different reasons to use YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. We also experiment within the platforms. For example, we found that we gained more video views on Facebook when the videos were embedded within the platform than when they linked to YouTube.

While these are the platforms the Met uses, they aren’t necessarily a fit for every brand or the person associated with the brand. You want to be on a platform that makes sense for you and your audience. The CEO at the Met, for example, elected to use Instagram because it worked well for the way he wanted to communicate but did not go on Twitter. 

What makes a social media post effective?

It’s all about “thumb stoppers.” Picture your standard person today with a smartphone in hand. Many are on their screens all day, thumbing away. To capture these people’s attention, the posts have to have something that is eye catching enough to make a person pause over it.  My advice is to pack as many of the following qualities into the posts as possible: helpful, useful, timely, informative, relevant, practical, actionable, generous, credible, brief, entertaining, fun, and occasionally funny.

What do you recommend for a mobile strategy?

Here’s how you should think about it: try to make it as simple as possible, not cram your entire site into a mobile platform. The three principles that shape the Met’s mobile app are: useful, simple, delightful. We don’t try to put an entire museum in your pocket, just a few things. My inspiration was the New York Times Now app.  It doesn’t pack in the whole paper but only 30% that capture the highlights that appeal to readers. Mobile apps have to be selective in the same way. Analytics on web search, traffic, and clicks can be very helpful in identifying key content for mobile. 

Can you talk about the team dynamics you see in your role as CDO?

Yes, I work very closely with the Met’s CTO, Jeff Spar. The CDO team’s work depends on deep, meaningful collaboration with the CTO’s team. Another important member of the team is Elena Villaespesa, Digital Media Analyst at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, who tweets under the handle @Elenustika. She reports on quantitative and qualitative Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and other key metrics across all digital channels. That’s very important to help us understand what’s working and what’s among our digital outreach efforts.

What about reaching out to those outside the tech space?

It’s very important to be willing to listen and try things – even when they go against conventional wisdom. For example, all the cool digital media people feel that you have to just make WiFi available to visitors without demanding anything in return because it should be free like air and water. So when my boss suggested we collect emails of people using the museum’s free WiFi, I really thought it wouldn’t go over. But it did, and we got over 200,000 emails addresses as a result. That was a very valuable addition to our digital efforts because we have great click through rates and open rates on emails.

Can you offer another illustration of something that goes against conventional wisdom that works?

Definitely, the conventional wisdom for a museum’s image is literally picture perfect. We challenged that in sharing what goes on behind the scenes in preparing for viewing “Everhard Jabach (1618-1695) and His Family” by the 17th-century French painter Charles Le Brun. Instead of just announcing the acquisition but keeping it out of sight until it was ready for exhibit months later, we showed pictures of the painting’s arrival, and the preparation for restoration work with some of the key steps along the way.  By sharing this we built up our audience ahead of the official unveiling, raising the anticipation, participation, and excitement about the picture.

This applies to other businesses, as well. When they share what goes on behind the scenes, their audience feels more connected and more interested in the business. The Internet is the perfect medium for sharing the imperfect states that are rarely seen in person through pictures, videos, and blogs. Sharing what’s happening and getting people to want to be part of it, helps you build your community.

Which benchmark of social media success are you after?

We’re trying to be at the center of the museum’s conversation as much as possible. And we have achieved that on Twitter. A study by the digital agency La Magnetica found the Met to be the most influential museum on Twitter. This is not in terms of number of followers, as it came in seventh on that score. But I’d rather have influence than followers. Businesses also should be thinking in terms of quality rather than quantity.