By Jim Spadaccini
From ASTC Dimensions
As the Internet continues to evolve, it seems like I hear about a new web site or software service just about every day. The vast majority of these are free to use. Many of these sites or software packages are produced by start-ups looking to gain first-time customers. Others are created by one of the giants—Google, Yahoo, or Microsoft—that are trying to achieve market dominance. Either way, they are essentially giving away their products, at least for now.
Whether you want to promote your events on the Web or expand your educational activities in social networking and file-sharing sites, there are web services and software you may want to consider. Here are nine free or nearly free ways to take advantage of these new developments on the Internet.
1. Start a blog
You can use a blog to promote events at your museum, support an exhibition, or explore an interesting topic. Try Blogger (www.blogger.com) or WordPress (www.wordpress.com) for free hosted blogs. You can also use the open-source software package from WordPress (www.wordpress.org), which is more flexible and can be installed on your own server. (Open-source software, as the name suggests, means the source code is freely available to other developers.)
Benefits: It is easy to get started. You will gain a presence in blog-only search engines, such as Technorati (www.technorati.com), Google Blog Search (http://blogsearch.google.com), and Ice Rocket (www.icerocket.com), and will likely connect with community bloggers. In addition, blogging software is increasingly used as a cheap content management system.
Who’s doing this? Lots of museums are blogging. Take a look at Museum Blogs (www.museumblogs.org), a directory of over 290 blogs.
Tips: Writing and managing a blog can take time, so make sure you have sufficient staff time, or plan to post articles and information from your existing newsletters.
Cost: Blogger and WordPress are free.
2. Create RSS feeds
Take existing content and turn it into RSS (or Atom) feeds. These web feeds are used for frequently updated content such as blog posts, podcasts, or even news headlines. Subscribers can read feeds using web and desktop feed readers. Blogging and content management software usually have built-in RSS capabilities. However, if your existing software packages don’t support RSS, try Runstream (www.runstream.com) to create a stream from scratch or RSS Calendar (www.rsscalendar.com) to make an RSS feed for a calendar of events.
Benefits: You can reach new visitors directly as new content becomes available. Because your content is “atomized,” it can appear in multiple places around the Web.
Who’s doing this? Lots of science centers have RSS feeds. You can subscribe to a feed of the online version of ASTC Dimensions (feed://www.astc.org/blog/category/astc-dimensions/feed). (Please note that you’ll need a feed reader or browser that is capable of reading RSS to view the contents of this link.)
Tips: RSS can be an alternative to e-mail campaigns and also can be used to list a calendar of events. You can use FeedBurner (www.feedburner.com) to promote and track your feeds.
Cost: Free or nearly free.
3. Start a podcast
If you have existing audio or video content or have the ability to record and edit, it is easy to post these recordings online to start a podcast. You can post your podcast on your own web site or make it available directly through Apple’s iTunes (www.apple.com/itunes/store/podcaststechspecs.html) and other podcast directories.
Who’s doing this? Museum of Science, Boston, Massachusetts, has a weekly series of podcasts (www.mos.org/events_activities/podcasts). The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), California, has taken things a bit further and even allows its visitors to create podcasts. Take a look at SFMOMA’s Artcast Invitational page (www.sfmoma.org/education/edu_podcasts_inv.html). You can also use the search function in Apple iTunes (www.apple.com/itunes/) to find other museum podcasts and see how they are formatting and developing their episodes.
Cost: Free or nearly free. You may want to buy Apple’s QuickTime Pro (www.apple.com/quicktime/download/) for $29.99 to encode your audio and video clips.
4. Share a video
The phenomenal rise of YouTube (www.youtube.com) gives science centers an opportunity to share videos with potentially huge audiences. Short video clips of exhibitions, events, educational programs, or other activities can allow you to connect with people who may never visit your main web page. You can also embed these videos into your own web page, essentially using YouTube as a video service provider.
Who’s doing this? The Ontario Science Centre, Toronto, Canada, has over 100 videos on YouTube and has received literally millions of views. Go to their YouTube page (www.youtube.com/user/videochick770) and sort videos by Most Viewed.
Tips: There are many other video sites out there aside from YouTube. Take a look at Wikipedia’s list of video-sharing sites (www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_video_sharing_websites). You may reach visitors more easily if you are featured in one of these sites than if you are one of millions on YouTube.
5. Share photos
Flickr (www.flickr.com) is the most popular photo-sharing site. As with YouTube, you can use Flickr to share images and connect with new web visitors. The photographs can be “mashed up” with your own web site, allowing you to post images to Flickr and your own site simultaneously.
Benefits: Flickr can be a great way for your museum’s visitors to share their photos with you and with each other. You can also start a group that other Flickr members can join.
Who’s doing this? The Youth Exploring Science (YES) program at the Saint Louis Science Center, Missouri, has its own Flickr group. They have mashups of their photos, along with videos from www.blip.tv, on their own web site (www.youthexploringscience.com).
Cost: Free, or $24.95 per year for an upgraded “pro” account. You can ask for a discounted account through TechSoup (www.techsoup.org/stock), a nonprofit that helps other nonprofits with technology issues.
6. Create a museum persona
Social networking sites like Facebook (www.facebook.com) and MySpace (www.myspace.com) are now among the most popular destinations on the Web. For many, especially young, web visitors, these environments are self-contained destinations—places to explore, socialize, and connect with others.
Benefits: Having a presence in one of these sites can increase your museum’s visibility. It also allows members to become Fans or Friends of your museum—making an overt, albeit digital, connection with your organization.
Who’s doing this? If you’re a Facebook member you can check out the Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul, profile (www.facebook.com/pages/Saint-Paul-MN/Science-Museum-of-Minnesota/5905048291?ref=ts). They are one of more than 40 museums that now have a presence in Facebook. There is also a group that tracks museums in Facebook (www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=8173798651).
7. Promote events
Event-based sites are a new development on the Web and they are resources that few museums have taken advantage of. Descriptions of exhibition openings and other community events can be posted directly on sites like Yahoo Upcoming (www.upcoming.yahoo.com) and MeetUp (www.meetup.com).
Benefits: You can let others know about important events at your museum and you can post an event in just a couple of minutes. You can also add a link to drive visitors to your web site.
Who’s doing this? The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, Portland, is posting events on Upcoming along with a few other museums (www.upcoming.yahoo.com/user/116843/).
Tips: These sites are just beginning to emerge, so set your expectations accordingly. If you’re in a smaller city or region, you might initially gain only a few attendees through these sites.
8. Build exhibitions, manage collections
For those of you who might be more adventurous and perhaps more technically savvy, there are a few open-source initiatives geared specifically for museums. Open Collection (www.opencollection.org) is a collections management and online access application. Omeka (www.omeka.org) enables museums to publish collections and exhibitions online. Pachyderm (http://pachyderm.nmc.org) provides templates to help museums create multimedia presentations.
My company, Ideum, in partnership with ASTC, is proposing our own open-source initiative, called Open Exhibits (www.openexhibits.org), for interactive, computer-based exhibits. Our software will be geared for science centers in particular. Pending funding for research and development, the first software modules should be available next year.
Benefits: You don’t have to start your project from scratch. The web sites of each of these projects contain help sections and can connect you to their online communities.
Who’s doing this? A number of art, history, and cultural institutions are listed among the users of these software packages.
9. Manage projects
With all these new web projects going on, you’ll need some help managing them. Basecamp (www.basecamphq.com) is an intuitive project management software package that is great for managing new web initiatives, as well as other projects.
Benefits: Basecamp allows you to manage all e-mail correspondence in one place and keep shared To Do lists, Milestones, and Writeboards (similar to wikis). The more advanced versions allow you to keep track of hours spent on a task.
Who’s doing this? Lawrence Hall of Science, Berkeley, California, is among the science centers that are using Basecamp.
Tip: Try the free version before moving up to paid versions.
Cost: Free for one project. $24 a month for the Basic version, $49 a month for the Plus version.
Museums are increasingly using the Web to advance their organizations at little or no cost. By familiarizing yourself with even a few of the services described in this article, you can easily manage projects or reach new audiences, all without leaving your desk or breaking the bank.
Jim Spadaccini is director of Ideum, Corrales, New Mexico.