As the ASK Team gears up for the app’s Android launch in April and expands to two full-time members and four part-time members, it seems like an appropriate time for us to refresh our thinking about visitor engagement through our chats. Engagement is a topic that’s always on our minds, but a more focused reflection feels particularly appropriate right now.
Since every ASK visitor chat is archived within the system, both as an entire conversation and as “snippets” tagged to individual works of art, we can easily look back and review past interactions. We’re building a monthly discussion about chat strategies and pedagogical approaches into our team’s meeting schedule, and we talk about engagement on a day-to-day basis as well. Some of the conversation is pretty straightforward—Which collection areas seem to be drawing the most traffic lately? Are we getting many chats in a new special exhibition? Has any particular work of art recently challenged us in terms of content?
We’re always studying the collection as a team, and we try to anticipate visitor interest in specific shows or objects, but we’re also responsive to ongoing chat results. Sometimes these findings motivate the team to expand an existing wiki page or to create a new wiki for an object that doesn’t have one yet. And if we get complex questions about a special exhibition, we can follow up with exhibition’s curator and then incorporate his or her replies into our reference materials.
Some engagement issues require more reflection as a team. For example, we’ve been honing our use of opening messages since the app launched last year. We originally spent more time greeting the visitor and thanking him or her for trying the app. Now, however, the visitor is welcomed by a photo of the team and two intro messages that ease him or her into the app, plus two auto-fire replies in response to his or her first sent message—so we cut to the chase by offering a concise yet personable response. Making the chat as specific and, well, as human as quickly as possible also helps us to overcome the lingering challenge of some users assuming we’re a “bot” with a logarhythm.
As Shelley recently mentioned, another issue that we all deal with is user anonymity. On our end, the ASK team wants to provide a personalized experience for each visitor. Sometimes a visitor will volunteer information about his or her age, occupation, or knowledge of art history, but usually we glean what we can from the person’s texting style and choice of words. However, if we’re trying to get an even closer read, should we ask the visitor directly about himself or herself?
We experimented with this approach by asking early questions like “Is this your first visit to the Brooklyn Museum?” or “Are you here with friends/family today?” When we often didn’t receive a reply, we realized that the visitor preferred to maintain privacy. However, we also found that if a chat was progressing in a friendly manner and we were starting to have a hunch about the visitor, we sometimes could throw out a casual (and complimentary) remark like, “You know a lot about printmaking techniques! Are you an artist?” or “That’s a really great historical point—you could be a teacher!” Comments like these were well-received by visitors, whether we had guessed correctly or not, and then they sometimes went on to offer more information about themselves after all.
We also keep track of specific chats that deserve review as a group. One case emerged last August, when we suddenly noticed that we were getting requests from summer-session students who wanted help with their final assignments. On one hand, we want to act as a helpful source of reliable information. On the other hand, if all we did send factual answers to a student’s questions, would that really be the best way for the student to learn?
We pondered our approach and decided that we would push the students to look closely and think critically by guiding them with questions rather than simple answers. And if a student sent us a photo of her or her homework assignment instead of an actual question (something that happened more than once) or confessed that he or she was actually sitting on a bench outside the Museum (our geo-fence includes the plaza!), we humorously but firmly encouraged that student to come inside, follow our directions to the art, and get up close and personal with it.
One type of chat that originally frustrated us wasn’t really a chat at all. At least once a day, a visitor would send us a sequence of photographs without any text attached. At first we tried to draw these visitors out with our own questions (“Did that work catch your eye for any particular reason?” “What do you think of that artist’s use of color?”). However, when we didn’t receive replies, and the photos just kept coming, we resigned ourselves to sending back interesting factual information about the works.
For a while we were bothered by this kind of exchange, because we felt we weren’t meeting our goals of engagement. Then we realized that we had to shift our way of thinking. If the visitor was sufficiently involved in the app to send us photos of three or four (or often more) works of art that she or he had viewed, then the exchange actually was a rewarding experience for that person.
Any form of reflective practice is a cyclical and ongoing process, and the ASK team will continue to refine its techniques for engagement as we enter a new phase of the project this spring. We’re continually making new connections across the collections, keeping up with the content of changing installations and new exhibitions, and learning more about our visitors’ expectations. We hope they enjoy learning along with us.
Jessica Murphy, Manager of Visitor Engagement, joined the Brooklyn Museum in 2015 as a member of the ASK team. In her current position she leads the team in their interactions with the Museum’s visitors through the ASK app and coordinates their ongoing training and development. Jessica received her B.A. from Fordham University and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Art History (with a concentration in American Art) from the University of Delaware. She previously worked as Research Associate at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (contributing to exhibitions and publication such as “Alfred Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O’Keeffe” and “The American West in Bronze”), as Contractual Educator at the Met, and as Curatorial Assistant at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She has also worked as a freelance writer on cultural topics. She welcomes any opportunity, in any medium, to connect people and art.