One Year Into the Pandemic

It’s hard to believe we are now a year into this COVID-19 world. We got ourselves past the initial panic and have now settled into this ever-shifting new normal. For those of us in the cultural/natural heritage sectors, it has been a rough ride. One of the hardest aspects of it was the panicked call to action from our superiors:

“Quick! We need to take everything online!”

And so we began our forced descent into Zoom purgatory, creating webinar after webinar, with our kids and pets and messy offices on display for all. To our credit, some of the live video work has been stunning. I have seen award- worthy performances of live programs that were translated to Zoom with grace and elegance. I have gone on the most wonderful and whimsical live video tours of heritage sites; I really felt like I was there.

So kudos, all.

The next phase is all about pushing that digital creativity just one or two steps further. But before we get to the cool stuff, we need to go back and ask a couple of questions we never had time to address a year ago. Questions like,

“Um, why are we doing this? And how do we know if we’re successful?”

I’m an interpretive planner; it’s my job to ask those inconvenient questions. And when I talk to my colleagues about their digital outreach work, it seems they’re hard pressed to answer them.

As I see it, digital outreach can fulfil a few different functions.

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Which of these is important to you? If you don’t know, you can’t really declare your work a success or failure. In interpretation, your work is successful when it meets its goals. If you and your organization don’t know where the goalposts are, you can’t really succeed, and you’re not going to be able to chart a course through this painful time of “put everything online!”

So if you haven’t done so, there’s still time to start that conversation with your superiors and your colleagues. The giant pivot to digital outreach isn’t going to go away, even when/if we get back to normal.

And while you have that conversation, allow me to make a recommendation:

Relationships are the most important thing.

The loss of relationships—the daily soul-sucking alienation and solitude—has been the greatest collateral damage from the epidemic (after illness and death, of course.) We’re alone; our heritage sites are in many cases deserted, and that is no fun. In fact, it’s deeply harmful to the personal and collective psyche.

Digital outreach can help change that. It can reconnect you with your visitors; it can provide a holding place for your relationships with your community until you can see them face-to-face again. It can bring you new relationships with people around the world. It can generate revenue along the way, if that’s important to you.

Here are a few guiding principles as you dive into the world of digital outreach:

  1. Concentrate on what you do well. If you have kickass presenters, take those kickass presenters online. If you have wonderful trail cams, use them. An awesome bank of photography or videos? That’s golden. If your biologists or historians hate presenting but love writing, put them to work generating meaningful content. Think of your existing brand, your existing program, your existing community. Take the best of it online.
  2. Don’t compete with the entire internet. Don’t take on YouTubers and Insta Influencers who have been doing this for years. You won’t win. For now, concentrate on nurturing your relationships with your existing community. If the entire internet starts to show up, so much the better.
  3. Give yourself time and space to master this tech stuff. Don’t leave it to the last minute, and don’t foist it all off on that one volunteer because they look like they’re under 30. This is a core interpretive function and not a techie job, and interpreters need to be at the helm. That means you. The techies can help you along the way.
  4. You can do this. Start small, slow, and easy. Take the maximum time you think a new task will take, then triple it, and then give yourself that time. You will get faster as you progress. Stop telling yourself you can’t do tech; the tools you will encounter in this workshop range from the very easy to the decidedly tricky. Start at the easy end. Be kind do yourself.
  5. Understand economies of scale. Digital outreach takes time and expertise to put together; it will almost never be worth it for a one-off program for 12 people. Create the digital product, pilot it with a small group, and then spin it forward to contact dozens or hundreds. That’s how digital works. Economies. Of. Scale.

The above is an excerpt from the course “Relevance in a Time of Change” that I am currently running with the Ottawa Museums Network. Stay tuned for an opportunity to participate.

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