As the first Chief Digital Officer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Sree Sreenivasan leads the charge in managing and producing digital content — which means storytelling for a global audience. “My job is to tell a million-plus stories about a million-plus pieces of art to a billion-plus people,” he says.
Sree Sreenivasan has one of the plum jobs in the intersection of digital technology and the creative arts: He is tasked with bringing the works of the world that are housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to a truly global audience.
In the 2013 press release that introduced Sreenivasan as the first Chief Digital Officer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the museum’s director and CEO, Thomas P. Campbell, noted that Sreenivasan’s “work in traditional journalism, his role as a commentator on technology and media issues, and his expertise in websites and social media will all be key to the Museum’s work in the digital space.” The big goal, said Campbell: “Leverage mobile, in-gallery, and online platforms for the Met’s collections.”
Sreenivasan came to the Met from a 21-year career as professor of digital journalism at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He also served as Columbia’s first Chief Digital Officer and as Dean of Student Affairs. He is cofounder of the South Asian Journalists Association, a networking and resource forum for journalists of South Asian origin based in the U.S. and Canada.
In a conversation with Gerald C. (Jerry) Kane, an associate professor of information systems at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College and guest editor for MIT Sloan Management Review’s Social Business Big Idea Initiative, Sreenivasan talked about the ways that digital business and social business tools are disrupting the museum industry, and what directions the Met is heading.
My first question is, why does an art museum need a chief digital officer? What does your work look like?
It’s a very good question, and people ask me that all the time. I look at my work in a couple of different ways. One is to build what I call a virtual circle, connecting the physical and the digital, the in-person and the online. In my mind, the future of all business is making that physical and digital connection.
The way we look at it at the Met is that if you do such a great job with your online presence, people want to come and see you in person — and if you do such a fabulous job in person, they want to stay in touch with you through social, digital, and mobile. That circle is what we’ve got to keep going.
The Met is the largest tourist attraction in New York. We have 22 million visitors in person and about 40 to 45 million people who visit us online. We want to increase both those numbers. I tell people that my job is to tell a million-plus stories about a million-plus pieces of art to a billion-plus people. One danger in giving your boss metrics like that, though, is that he can turn to me once a week and say, “Hey, where’s my billion people?”
So it’s not just about online or offline. It really sounds like what you’re trying to do is create an interaction between the two.
That’s correct. Jeff Spar is the CTO here. He’s been here for a long time and we are basically connected at the hip. We work very closely together and are partners in this effort. He’s responsible for all the infrastructure, the networking, all aspects of the bones of the place, if you will.
What we do in digital media is to do all the forward, audience-facing digital work. Anything digital that touches our audience, we’re responsible for. That includes video, a media lab where we’re looking at the future of the medium, social media. We send out 55 million emails a year. We are building apps, we have a mobile program, we have an audio guide. These are things that I’ve obsessed about for a long time.
Can you give me some specific examples of how digital tools are changing the way the Met works?
Well, the first example is of the way people plan their visit. People are going online to discover what’s on at the museum. They do that on the web, as they do with many places, but they also do it on our app. We launched The Met App just last fall, and it was the result of a lot of serious work by many people across the museum to understand what it could be and then really make it as simple as possible.
I’ve worked on and built apps before, but this particular app really showed me where business is going. We focused on this idea that there are three principles for an app: It should be simple, useful, and delightful.
Is The Met App changing the way you understand your customers? Is it changing the way your customers are interacting with you?
The answer to both is yes. We are now able to see what they like, what they favor, what they’re sharing, what they’re putting on their calendars. The data that’s coming back is very important. We’re also learning things through our audio guide data. Now we know when people walk into the museum, where did they go? What are the top places they visit?
We did audience research in the past and we continue to do it, but these kinds of digital metrics are bringing the details into focus in such a strong way. We are in the process of hiring our first digital media analyst at the Met, and she’s going to help change the culture of the place.
Let’s talk about what you’re seeing through the data.
The biggest insight for us is really what we need to do with some of our programs. For example, I can tell you that we benchmark against the Louvre and the British Museum. The British Museum has about 200 audio messages on their audio guide, of which 80% have been translated into multiple languages. The Louvre has 800 audio messages translated 100% into multiple languages. The Met has 2,600 audio messages and less than 1% are translated into multiple languages.
So what does that tell you? We don’t need more messages. We need more translation of those messages and that’s immediately. We have started to work on that, to have more multiple-language audio messages.
We know what our long-term goals are: Diversifying our audience and changing the demographics of museum-goers generally, and getting more donors and more support. What we’re looking for are simple, actionable insights.
You talked about changing the culture. What are the challenges you’ve faced trying to digitize a 100-plus-year-old organization?
I tell people that I run a 70-person startup inside a 145-year-old company. Most people are shocked that there are 70 people doing digital media at the Met. The scale at the Met is continually fascinating to me, and that’s why it’s a job I love.
Whatever the challenges are, I also believe that the Met has been so enormously successful for the last 145 years. So it’s not that someone comes in and then changes everything. I do very little grumbling about things the way most people in my position do at most companies today because I have very little to grumble about. We have enormous experience in digital projects and we’ve been doing it long before I came. But I did dare to say that not everyone understands or has even thought about the digital possibilities. Changing while you’re in motion is difficult, as you know. That means not alienating the people who love us already, who already made us one of the great museums in the world.
There are so many opportunities for us to enhance the visitor experience. For example, just going back to the audio guide. It turns out that most people don’t take an audio guide. Even at those museums that give them away for free, it’s hard to get more than 10% pickup rate because people don’t want it. They’re not interested and instead they just try to wing it.
What we have learned from surveys is that in fact, when people do take an audio guide, they have a better experience. What that means is we need to get this audio content to them even if they don’t want to take the guide. So, one of the biggest things we’ve done is that starting this spring everybody and anybody who enters the Met Museum can get the audio from their mobile phone and can listen to all 2,600 audio messages about our collection for free.
That’s the kind of action that we can take because the museum was, and is, willing to try new things. We have enormous buy-in from our boss, Tom Campbell, and that has made all the difference.
How does your digital team of 70 compare with the overall size of the organization?
There are 2,200 people who work at the Met, including 600 security staff and 1,100 union employees.
You said that there was a lot of support. What does it take to convince an organization like the Met to make that kind of investment?
A lot of this has happened before I came. I wouldn't have gone to a place where there wasn’t this kind of support. So this is a lot of careful work over many years, creating a digital media seed from many different departments. But our director has understood that to be a successful museum today, you have to be global in visitorship. That means you have to be digital and global in your presentation, and that’s what we’re doing.
Last year, for instance, we announced the launch of 400,000 instantly downloadable images for non-commercial use. We’re very active on social media. We have Twitter and Facebook, et cetera, but also we hope to launch a Chinese social media account because we know that China is our biggest market. Chinese visitors have replaced all other countries as the number-one set of visitors to the museum. There’s a museum a week opening in China and there are now something like 300 million Chinese with passports.
One of the things I say about chief digital officers’ roles is that it should including being a chief listening officer — listening for new ideas, listening for talent, listening for people who can help us and working in partnership with other organizations. One of my proudest things we’ve done is launch a partnership with Sal Khan from Khan Academy. I consider Sal to be one of the 10 most important unelected people in the world, and he has done some fabulous work in changing the world of education. We’ve launched 100 videos on Sal’s platform. Everything doesn’t need to be on our website, on our channels. We want to be out in the world where people already are. Of course, we’d love to increase the number of people who see our work on our website, but we’re much more interested in getting the word out further and further on other platforms as well.
What do you think the Met is going to look like in, say, three to five years as a result of the transformation that you’re ushering in? If you could bring about some of these changes, what would it look like?
I think it would be a much more multilingual place than it is today. It would have many more visitors than it does today. Five years ago, it was at a little over four million and now it’s over six million, and we want to continue that upward direction.
We want many, many more people involved with the museum. That’s a specific thing that is a challenge for us. The museum has been very good at getting support from traditional wealth: Wall Street, real estate, things like that. But we haven’t engaged the technology community as well as we could. A lot of entrepreneurs haven’t necessarily thought about art and the support for it. They prefer to support things that can be quantified, like you give money for a mosquito net, you feel like you’re preventing malaria right away. There’s a kind of metrics that they need, and that’s what we’re now able to provide, some data. How people are engaged — those are the kinds of things we’re thinking about.
In terms of talent, too, we’re competing with Wall Street and with places that can give bonuses. Unlike the curators and conservators who come here and whose life mission was to work at the Met, many, many digital and technology people who should be working at the Met may never have even been to the Met. They have never heard of the Met. So how do you get them there? How do you energize them? I spend a lot of my time on recruitment and retention of technology talent. It’s the thing I love to do, but it is a challenge.
When you’re looking for technology talent, what are the most important skills or traits you’re looking for?
It depends on what the job is, the particular role. But at the heart of it is, are you good at telling stories. It’s our job to tell a million stories. What do you bring to the table? What can you put on the table today that will help me tell my stories better, our stories better, in a smarter way? That’s what we ask for.
Imagine you’re an executive at a traditional company reading this interview. I hear you say storytelling and I think, “Yeah, but does my organization need to be storytelling?” What would you say?
The answer is absolutely. Whatever your business, people are interested in stories and even if you’re not consumer-facing, you need to be telling stories.
The biggest battle we’re in for now is the battle for attention. You want to stand out in different ways. You want to intrigue people so that they listen to whatever your pitch is, even when your salesman walks in the door selling something that’s not consumer-facing. And even when your customer is just one person, you’ve got to get his or her attention over everything else that’s happening in their lives. That’s where storytelling can help.
I’ll just mention a company that you can look up called Contently. My former student Shane Snow raised $2 million for this startup that does help companies sell stories. Within three or four years now, he has 50,000 freelancers working for him, telling stories of businesses. GE will hire one of his people to go interview the AirBus mechanic who’s been there for 65 years, whatever, and then write a story. That’s never going to go to the public, but it’s going to go to the one guy or gal who might buy that particular plane order this year.
We’re hearing a lot from many companies about the importance of storytelling. Everyone seems to start to understand the importance of it, but nobody seems to know how to do it well, and on a shoestring budget.
That’s where I think a company like Contently can help you for much cheaper than hiring a production team. Shane has really got it down to a science so quickly and it works.
But I would also think about how you empower your own people. Authenticity is big online. Transparency is big online. For instance, the Met has a video series online called Connections, where our staff talk about their own reactions to various works in the museum. One of our most popular stories in Connections was by one of our security guards talking about his day.
We put our boss, Tom Campbell, on Instagram (@ThomasPCampbell) and he is doing unbelievable work there. I believe there’s less drama on Instagram than on Twitter — I believe no boss, no CEO, should be on Twitter unless you are like a Mark Cuban because you can do a lot more damage on Twitter than you can on Instagram. I think that what Tom is doing on Instagram is an example of how you tell stories as a CEO. I believe this will be a case study in the months and years ahead. He’s going groundbreaking work.
Now, everybody comes back to me saying, “Oh, of course. He’s at a museum. He’s got all these beautiful things,” but I believe that you can tell stories from the most dull-sounding companies because at the heart of it, it’s about your product and it’s about your people. There are stories to tell about them. What it requires is being smart about finding those kinds of ideas.