Tuesday, February 21, 2012

How to Attract an Audience? Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

Seacoast Science Center, Rye, NH.
One of my favorite online  images
of a patron interacting with collections.
Take a look at your web site. Is it visually interesting?

While I have always appreciated images and good design when I visit a web site, the importance of those things has been emphasized as I search for good images of cultural heritage topics to fill my Pinterest boards. Don't worry. This is not another blog post for Pinterest, but what Pinterest has made quite clear to me is the value of including fabulous, interesting, and provocative images on our web sites (and our blog posts) to attract patrons.

Archivists deal quite a bit with text. Many of us care for documents and words more than we think about images. Librarians have the same issue. Our professions value "information" - a "thing" that is difficult to define, much less ascribe visual labels to it. However, images can be a major selling point for our work. Museums seem more likely to know this instinctively. They include images of artifacts on their home pages and pictures of people interacting with them. Archivists and librarians need to pay attention to this and to find ways to make their sites more appealing -- so people stick around to actually read the information part. It is very easy for potential patrons to click off your site. If you don't capture someone's attention in the first few seconds, they are likely to just go away. A picture can draw someone in faster than a word by quickly pulling on a heart string, exciting artistic sensibilities, or quickly engaging curiosity.

I realized as I was pinning that the uptick in the use of this new pinning technology is a chance for cultural heritage repositories to encourage individuals to explore their actual web sites more fully through pictures. In fact, anyone who has a web page to provide information that aims to invite visitors to a place should pay attention to their imagery as well as their words. Through my Pinterest work and the browsing I did to write this post, I understand more fully that people who come specifically to check out our web pages because they are interested in our institutions will be turned off by BORING. If your web page is boring, why would I want to see your museum, library or archives in person? Why would I want to extend the experience you are providing to have it in person? Does your web site tell me, perhaps even on a subconscious level, that you are NOT worth my time?

Archivists, don't just put your finding aids online and wait for them to come, unless of course you are only seeking "serious" researchers and don't want to expand your user base. (I realize that this is preferable for some institutions for many reasons.) Libraries, please do more than post the hours you are open. Use your collections to visually explain why you are fabulous. Show your patrons learning and having fun.

  • Post pictures of your institution
  • Post pictures of your collections
  • Post pictures of your staff
  • Post pictures of people in your institution, interacting with your staff and your collections
Below is a list of a few institutions in New England that I think are doing a great job with incorporating images onto their site to explain who they are, what they do and why we would want to take part. I have not evaluated the sites themselves for usability or information, but I was impressed with the kinds of images they showed. I found them inviting. I also tried to choose places with varying budgets to show that you do not need a large budget to find, make, and use great images of happy people and places. You can have a fancy Java driven web page, a Flickr photo stream, or just a simple html document. Images help give each web site a little character and make each institution more alive and welcoming.
And now I'm off to scrutinize my own web pages....I know that they need a little help.


  1. Melissa, I keep thinking about your post the other day, in which you mentioned that you got a THOUSAND hits one day following a pinterest post you made. Funny you had mentioned a thousand--I struggle to get a thousand hits a MONTH and you place a well-selected picture and integrated commentary and drive that much traffic to your site in a day. Now, that is something to think about!

    I am not an archivist--nor a librarian--but I care deeply for the work of both. Your points about their future endangerment are well taken. I'm very interested in what you are saying in this series of posts and hope many from these professions join in the conversation.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to comment and for your interest Jacqi. Even though this post is aimed at museums, libraries and archives, I think it applies to everyone who has a web page or a blog and is trying to get a point across. For example, a few years ago, I kept a blog about garden photography. That blog got more traffic, more quickly than my archives blog did at first. At the time, I thought that the primary reason was that gardening was a more popular topic...but looking back, I realize that it was also because of the images that I incorporated. My garden portrait blog was very colorful and beautiful and I believe people responded to that. It is difficult for genealogists, archivists, etc. to incorporate such eye catching images, but I don't think it's impossible. I think the photo I included in this blog from the Seacoast Science Center is an example of what we should strive to do.
    And I agree with you, I hope that more professionals jump into this conversation!