Tate’s Digital Makeover Transforms the Traditional Museum

What happens when the traditional museum-going experience meets the world of digital marketing? Meet the Magic Tate Ball and other wonders from the online version of the Tate museums. HBS senior lecturer and museum expert Jill Avery guides the tour.
by Michael Blanding

"Shake Me," the pink triangle reads, hovering in the middle of the Magic Tate Ball—a smartphone app mimicking the popular Magic 8 Ball novelty.

When shaken, the virtual prognosticator reads "Choosing Your Artwork" for a dramatic moment before disappearing, replaced by a painting or sculpture from the Tate collection, chosen based on the location, weather, and ambient noise surrounding the shaker.

“Often there isn't a lot of strategic thinking behind their decision to be in social media”

The provocative app is just one of many ways that Tate—a London-based collection of four museums, including the acclaimed Tate Modern—has pushed the boundaries of what an art museum can be. Its journey may be both a road map and a caution for many institutions—cultural and business—as they begin to explore the promise of digital technologies for reconnecting with traditional audiences and attracting entirely new ones.

Rethinking A Trip To The Museum

A museum trip has traditionally been an intensely physical experience: walking gallery floors, hearing footsteps echo off spacious halls, and seeing up-close the brush strokes and chisel marks left by renowned artists.

But that was then. Today, as entertainment becomes increasingly digital and spare time is in ever-shorter supply, art museums and cultural institutions have been put in a bind. Do they stick to their tried-and-true format and cater to loyal devotees to the brick-and-canvas museum building, or do they venture into the virtual realm to court new audiences, even if it means changing the idea of what a "museum" is in the process?

Tate personifies the latter strategy, conceiving of its online presence as a "fifth gallery" equal in stature to the other four. The singular focus put on digital programs has gone far beyond the marketing department to infuse everything the museum does, making it unique among its peers, says Jill Avery, senior lecturer in the General Management unit at Harvard Business School.

The Magic Tate Ball app is one effort by the museum to give visitors
a sense of fun about serious art. Source: Tate

"Most museums and cultural institutions are dabbling in digital and know they need to do something," says Avery, a former brand manager at Gillette and current board member of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. "They all say, 'We need to be on Facebook and Twitter'… but when asked why or to what end, often there isn't a lot of strategic thinking behind their decision to be in social media."

As apps, blogs, and social media have transformed the Internet in the past decade from the static content environment of Web 1.0 into the participatory conversation of Web 2.0, many museum websites have become increasingly antiquated, serving as little more than static virtual brochures for the institution. To remain current, museums must find new ways to digitally interact with audiences—a particularly worrisome prospect for many museum leaders, whose mission is built on the idea of curating artwork in a way that leads visitors through an intentional, physical experience.

"Web 2.0 is scary to some museums, and some companies in general, because it involves giving audiences a voice and an ability to co-create a brand," says Avery. "That means giving up control."

As Avery explores in the new HBS case The Tate's Digital Transformation, the museum's response to that challenge was to jump in with both feet to craft an "interactive platform for engaging with audiences [that] allows multiple voices to contribute to the conversation."

From 1.0 To 2.0

The museum's head of digital, John Stack, and head of content and creative director Jane Burton, recruited curators, conservators, and archivists to blog about their behind-the-scenes experiences in a way that would offer visitors new ways into the collection, including interactive quizzes such as "How Bauhaus Are You?," self-guided tours for Valentine's Day, and a video on women in art with a star of HBO's Girls. It created online-only exhibitions of art, and allowed visitors to create their own virtual galleries to share over social media.

“The response is predominantly awe at the magnitude of what Tate has been able to pull off”

It also created the Magic Tate Ball and a dozen other apps and online games to tie-in with exhibitions, available on iTunes and Android stores for free or a small fee. Several online communities were opened to entice kids, teens, and art students to interact in online forums. On social media, Tate created no fewer than 16 Twitter feeds, 8 Facebook pages, 2 YouTube channels, a Google+ circle, and a Pinterest board, making it one of the top cultural sites and garnering more than 700,000 Facebook "likes" and 1.2 million Twitter followers by early 2014.

Producing such a staggering amount of content, says Avery, meant pouring in substantial resources and upending traditional boundaries between marketing and other departments to cede more autonomy to frontline staff.

"We can't just have the same processes in Web 2.0 that we had in 1.0," says Avery. "To be successful we have to be timely and current and pick up on the conversations unfolding around us. We can't do that if we have a big bureaucracy slowing us down and a lot of rules that limit our creativity and freedom to engage in a natural, conversational manner."

One of the biggest challenges Stack and Burton faced was training Tate's hundreds of employees to produce digital content. They started with a dedicated digital crew, who worked with curators and staff to show them how the Internet could draw attention to their exhibitions. As they began to see the benefits, staff members increasingly generated content themselves.

"They were able to sell the idea of digital throughout the organization and get people to see it as an opportunity, not a chore," says Avery.

Once dozens of people were expressing themselves on the web and in social media, however, it raised the additional challenge of maintaining consistency of voice. The Tate put guidelines in place on how staff could present themselves in keeping with the Tate brand, while giving authors enough leeway to be authentic. In toeing that line, says Avery, it is essential for organizations diving into digital not to give in to the temptation to farm out blogging and social media to outside companies.

"You have to be confident that whoever is speaking on behalf of the institution has internalized the brand enough that they don't contradict its voice. Outsourcing social media content creation is often a bad idea."

A Re-tweet's Worth

Despite the obvious success that Tate has had in engaging new audiences, determining the actual return on investment of its new online presence from a business standpoint is not easy. Digital activities can be tracked through clicks, page views, and time on the site, as well as through a host of other metrics. But, says Avery, "there is often still not a direct link to the type of customer behavior we want to measure, such as ticket sales. What's the value of a Facebook like, or a re-tweet, or a blog comment? There is no magic formula we have for linking this type of digital activity to the actual sale."

In addition to the presumed increase in ticket sales, Tate has found value in the information users have provided online, which has saved the museum costs in marketing by allowing it to target its efforts toward specific communities and around specific visitor interests based on their clicks. Tate has also experimented with monetizing digital content directly, by either charging for apps or linking content to suggested products at the online gift shop.

For a cultural institution whose mission is to expose the public to art, this aggressive digital marketing and selling raises uncomfortable questions about the difference between disseminating artwork and profiting from it.

"Museum marketing directors are walking a fine line," says Avery. "If they are putting free content out there, boy are they delivering on their mission, but when does that become financially untenable, given the cost of producing and disseminating digital content? On the other hand, if they charge people for digital content, they can afford to put more of it out there, but when does that become too commercial and risk alienating parts of the public who are unwilling or unable to pay?"

Along with that risk of overcommercialization, the push into new online realms also carries with it the danger that the museum will cheapen its position in the art world in order to bring in new audiences.

"Personally, I love the Magic Tate Ball," says Avery. "It reflects my own sense of the art world—that it doesn't need to be so serious. Art can be a place for people who need a lighthearted respite from a hard day. But it can be challenging for museums to find that line with new technologies, so they are not interfering with the display of art or being frivolous with an art collection with which they've been entrusted."

When Avery teaches the case to cultural organization directors through executive education programs, they are invariably impressed with the totality of Tate's efforts. "The response is predominantly awe at the magnitude of what Tate has been able to pull off," she says. Still, some leaders remain skeptical. "There is a minority view of, 'Oh my goodness, we could never do this,' because there is still a very traditional approach to what a museum should be. You don't see most art museums rushing to duplicate what Tate is doing, at least at this point in time."

Both Honoring And Expanding The Brand

The success of Tate's digital efforts provides a model not just for cultural institutions, but also for any business in how to integrate Web 2.0 into a brand in a way that both honors and expands the brand into the world.

"I hope the big message coming out of this case is strategy before tactics," says Avery. "Being digital does not mean being on Facebook. It means thinking about digital as a strategic priority and thinking about what your objectives are for it, and how you are going to measure success before you jump in."

The keys to Tate's success—embedding digital in corporate strategy, pushing for widespread participation across the organization, and being unafraid to change organizational processes—are good advice for any brand diving into the digital realm.

And while ceding control over voice can be nerve-racking for any brand, Tate's experience has shown that it can yield results far from those that show up on the quarterly balance sheet.

"It's a little scary, but it's also fun," says Avery. "And it can open up new possibilities."

About the Author

Michael Blanding is a writer based in Brookline, Massachusetts

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    • Sean Kennedy
    • Strategic Relationship Manager, Harvard Business School Publishing
    The Tate's decision to create Minecraft maps of select works is also really sharp. In a world where many traditional fine and performing arts organizations struggle to get visibility with younger demographics, the Tate is reaching out to kids where they (virtually) live.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMAE( India) Private Limited
    This is a place where digital revolution is visible.

    It is interesting to read what is available to entertain viewers and let them get a bit wonderstruck with all on offer.

    A visit to Tate would indeed be exciting.
    • Carl Parks
    • Learning, OD/Management Consultant
    I agree with Senior Lecturer, Avery: "They all say, 'We need to be on Facebook and Twitter'... but when asked why or to what end, often there isn't a lot of strategic thinking behind their decision to be in social media." Most individuals/organizations believe that social media is an imperative (based on an implied need for likes and followers...). But, endearing as a social media presence is, it means nothing if there are no recognized strategic vision/planning steps (explicitly for that of an organization). Without qualification, and confirming your reasoning - you are at risk for failure (whether you can recognize it, or not - will be the defining question).

    That affirmed, I applaud the Tate's decision to expand into the digital/social media market place. To take on an advanced "strategic" endeavor within such a non-traditional arena - is progressive, and seemingly ground breaking; to say the least. Again, I believe that web 2.0 technology has a definitive place within any organization, when: researched, analyzed, implemented, and curated appropriately (with core specific definitions of what/how an organizations' ROI will be realized). Note: the performance evaluation of such a technological endeavor will be subjective to the individual organization and its participants (e.g., cost benefits, revenue stream, increase patronage...).
    • JChong
    Haven't played with Tate's apps yet.

    But I have taken personal photos of museum objects that I've visited in person and use the objects to spin a modern story that launched from the object's original "story". I get great commenter's comments who appreciate seeing a museum object with new meaning.

    Museum's object d'art, art great opportunities to spin a one liner or your own story, that doesn't need to denigrate the object's original meaning.

    So go to it: spin that story in 2-3 lines.