Sometime in 2011, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City decided that it could not rely on its 150-year history to acquire new audiences—they needed to launch a massive digital initiative.
Two years later, they made an unconventional hire for their first Chief Digital Officer with Sree Sreenivasan, a veteran professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism with very limited experience in the world of art history.
Sreenivasan leads their content marketing arm like it’s a full-blown media company, running a 70-person “newsroom” that focuses on topics he loves: digital, web, social, mobile, video, apps, data, geolocation, email, and more.
“I believe that the future of every business is storytelling and finding the right way to tell the right story at the right time,” he says. “What I’ve learned in my two-year tenure at the Met is that the lessons we’ve learned here apply to every business. That includes the importance of mobile, social, and video. It’s also the importance of not thinking of your audience as millions of people, even though that’s what we have, but thinking about the right people following you for the right reasons.”
With over a million artifacts at his disposal—and every one of them with its own story to tell—well, let’s just say that’s a lot of potential content.
But even if you’re not lucky enough to have that many storytelling opportunities, Sreenivasan believes every company can find the interesting stories behind the scenes that get people interested in its narrative.
“If you’re going to be a media organization, then you have to behave like one,” he explains. “The digital experience must be so good that people want to stay connected to your emails and come to the museum. You have to think like your audience and participate in the conversation—that’s why being social is so important.”
Sreenivasan believes that many organizations have a false notion that they can simply buy an audience by spending a few hundred dollars for tens of thousands of followers.
“The problem [with that approach] is that they’re not real, and they disappear. You have to build your audience one person at a time, and you keep them one person at a time. I’d gladly trade lots of audience for influence—because that’s what marketing is. It’s not that you are just trying to get a thousand people to read your email. It is rather trying to get 30 [of the right] people to read your email,” he says.
“You want to build your audience when you don’t need them so that they’re there when you do need them. That means thinking about your audience first, and connecting them with the right messaging, at the right time, and in the right sequence.”
Building a media company within a broader organization is a difficult task to accomplish without the support of the entire organization.
Sreenivasan admits that he’s lucky to have support for their digital initiative from the CEO and Director Thomas Campbell who has the mindset that every visitor, whether in a physical location or a digital consumer, is of equal value.
“When our CEO said that, it was kind of shocking, but it’s exciting for a digital department, so our question [to ourselves] is, ‘How do we make those connections really strong?’”
One of their answers came in the form of recruiting Campbell to be on Instagram, where he posts daily about art as he travels around the world.
“We want him to tell the story as it happens behind the scenes, and he doesn’t just talk about the Met all day. People love that because he talks about art as he encounters it and our audiences have responded enthusiastically.”
As with any media company, the Met’s executive team grants some editorial independence to Sreenivasan’s content team. He recalled an instance where they posted something on Twitter that didn’t go over too well, but because they post 3000 times per year, it didn’t matter.
“We didn’t get it this time, but it doesn’t matter. We’ll get it next time. When you’re running a media organization, you have to have a little bit of latitude in terms of what you are able to do and how far you are able to push the envelope.”
Sreenivasan compares successful content marketing efforts to playing baseball with the strategies of many small market teams—by playing “little ball.”
“Everybody thinks you need to hit home runs and grand slams to be a successful content marketer, and I don’t think you have to. I think you have to hit a lot of singles, and doubles that can stretch into triples, with maybe an occasional inside the park home run. Of course, the occasional grand slam is fine but don’t be all about the big hits.”
The Met’s digital marketing team works closely with their traditional marketing department, but everything with a digital face flows directly through them, including their own separate public relations team—and everything is measured.
“I’m a big fan of analytics,” he says, discussing the recent recruitment of his department’s first analytics expert, tasked to dig into the numbers and track what is working and what isn’t. “We’re interested in what people are reading, when are they reading it, how are they reading, what are they not reading, how are they consuming it, and in what format? It’s been very helpful for us to understand what kind of visitors we have, and we use a lot of testing and research in the galleries online to understand. That’s why our data analytics people are so important.”
Sreenivasan also warns content marketers not to reinvent forms of communication. “Our job is to find the right forms that work for our content.”
Taking a cue from Netflix, for example, the Met has produced five different video series called The Artist Project, where 100 famous living artists talk about their favorite pieces in the museum.
“We released them at the same time because some people want to binge watch, like House of Cards or Orange Is the New Black on Netflix. I think we just saw this as the way we can communicate and connect with people.”
When asked what he would say to companies that view this interview and say that the lessons don’t apply because the Met is a huge organization with big budgets, he answers, “It’s absolutely a fair question, but I would start by saying that I don’t think we have enough budget. I think of my team as a startup inside of a 150-year-old company, and so we are really thinking about being nimble and figuring out how to get things done.”
Further, he notes that “what you can learn from us is that marketing with content to a B2C audience is the same process as in B2B marketing—it’s just that a CEO becomes the consumer [of the content]. I would also say that the lessons that I have learned here apply to any industry: What are you doing about mobile? What are you doing about video? What are you doing about social? What are you doing about getting your content seen?”
“One of my favorite ways of thinking about this is a quote from a friend named Jim Rosenberg on Twitter and he says that your ‘social media is your embassy, a good website is your home country’—it all points back to you.”