How to build a video program
From 2015 to 2018, I developed and led a video program at The Museum of Modern Art. When I joined MoMA in December 2014, its YouTube channel had just over 35,000 subscribers, but this Spring, it nears 250,000. It is the largest museum-led arts channel, and it continues to acquire subscribers at a monthly rate at least twice as great as other museums, and equal to non-museum arts & culture channels like Dazed Media’s Nowness and Vice’s The Creators Project.
I left MoMA in May 2018 (with the channel nearing 180,000 subs; more on why later), and in leaving, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes such growth possible — and how more cultural organizations can do the same. Art has capacity to effect change by modeling ways to look and think about the world. We need arts and culture programming now more than ever, and there is room for better, smarter, and more impactful storytelling.
This post is an attempt to share my approach to strategy, production and creative direction from the program’s early days as an individual effort. It is the first post in a series on how to build a video program from the ground up. If you are a producer, filmmaker, or video-program stakeholder at an arts or cultural organization, I would love to hear from you. What challenges are you facing? What topics would like to explore in-depth? Share in the comments below, or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Remind the world what they love about your brand. A museum may have many reasons to want to invest in a video program. Particular audiences may be in decline; membership renewals might be stagnant. Video is a proven way to reach certain audiences, and when done well, the format can resonate more profoundly than other media. But a successful video program must be grounded in a vision that is greater than ticket sales. Why? Video is expensive, and time-intensive to produce. In fact, there often are other (less intensive, equally measurable) ways to achieve audience development goals. Internal clarity about why the investment matters is critical. That clarity may not come from a museum’s mission statement alone. For me, it was a personal vision, grounded in a reality that more first and only encounters with art take place online, and two steadfast beliefs: that there is an artwork for everyone (our mission would be to help you find it!); and that, as a filmmaker, I have a responsibility to both the film medium and the artwork. This vision guided my advocacy for what films I commissioned, and what form those films took.
- Short form content is a long-term investment. I am often asked how much budget is required to start a program. A dedicated budget is key, but the figure is somewhat arbitrary. Start with a first hire: a seasoned, creative producer. An expert producer can be imaginative in how a budget is applied and amplified via partnerships and collaborations. What is critical, however, is a multi-year commitment from an organization. A staff hire. A committed budget. (I advocate for at least three years.) The reason why is that we live in a rich, albeit fragmented, digital media ecosystem. A single film will not shift a brand’s perception, but a number of films, over time, might. A three-year commitment allows a producer enough time to scale production, develop storytelling skillsets internally, and build trust amongst staff to open an institution to innovative approaches.
- Success equals an engaged online community. Too often marketers reward high views (“x% views in two weeks!”), but views are a sign of interest, not engagement (“I stuck around to watch it because it was good”). Building an engaged community starts with making films people want to see (track: watch time) and if you deliver on this experience consistently, you will see more subscribers. As you continue to develop programming, track subscriber engagement to make sure content aligns with audience interest. Always invite audience feedback. Pro-tip: It is okay to start with short films. (Our very first films at MoMA were just under 2-minutes!) As you get better at producing films as an organization, and are able to maintain audience watch-time, you can increase your running time to tell more complex stories. In subsequent posts, I’ll explore how to design single-year and multi-year strategies to advance audience development goals steadily and sustainably.
- Know your user. Building a community starts first with imagining a user. At many organizations, this is a demographics exercise (“We need more young people!”). Admittedly, during my first two years at MoMA, we also described it as such: 18–34 year olds, with YouTube as our primary platform. While this was an intentional strategy to signal to stakeholders that forthcoming content may not appeal to them, a demographics-led approach is an oversimplification of the task at hand. YouTube is the second largest search engine, and equally relevant to diverse audiences, from millennials to Baby Boomers. Each audience may use the platform in unique ways, but some ways are more consistent than you might think. Say, learning. You’ll want to take care that the stories you pursue are of interest to your target audience(s), and are presented in a format and tone that resonates with them. In subsequent posts, I’ll explore ways to design audience journeys that reconcile diverse target audiences, business needs, and creative aspirations.
- Frequent and consistent publishing is key, but contrary to many studies, the frequency is yours to set. Many studies report brands must publish 3-4 times a week in order to stay relevant. This is not be feasible for many brands, let alone, museums, but it is not a reason to despair. In subsequent posts, I’ll explore ways to reconcile an on-site exhibition calendar with an online publishing rhythm and an annual production budget.
- Design serial narratives, or narratives that unfold over time. The advantage to serial programming is simple: it helps your audience develop a sense of expectation, which, in turn, makes audiences comfortable, and compels them to return again and again to formats they like and are familiar with. Ultimately, it increases fan loyalty. In subsequent posts, I’ll explore creative (read: lightweight, nimble) approaches to serial programming.
- Benchmark video: your performance, and your competitors. Tracking monthly subscriber growth and views across related channels allows you to measure and communicate the health of your vertical to stakeholders. How fast is your museum’s channel growing in comparison to other museums? How fast is the for-profit sector growing? Secondly, monthly reporting clues you into when another organizations may be changing up their strategy, and what impact that strategy has on their audience. For example, when we began releasing our “In the Studio” series in May 2017, our monthly subs skyrocketed. (If other museums were tracking monthly growth, they may have realized audience demand for arts-related “how-to” programming. In fact, Tate may have been studying MoMA’s channel too closely, as they released their own “How to paint like Picasso” two months after MoMA’s.) We’ve seen similar exponential subscriber growth with The British Museum and their runaway-hit host Irving Finkel. Identifying their success allowed us to further illustrate the impact of host-led, serial programming to our video-program stakeholders.
- Benchmark video against other museum programming. Video content will always appear to be more expensive than other storytelling initiatives, until a museum considers the cost, time, staff and impact of other content. A year and a half into my time at MoMA, I was invited to join the Museum’s Public Program Review Committee. The committee is tasked with developing public programming proposals with curators and educators. When films were suggested as alternative storytelling approaches to public program proposals, some stakeholders would underscore how expensive artist profile documentaries were — that is, until I was able to remind the team that a single film cost as much as a single panel program, with a fraction of the audience and reach! Increased visibility into cost and impact of non-video programming helped me guide and justify programming decisions.
- Think big. Act small. A program starts with a vision — and whatever else you may have. Embrace scrappiness. The largest organizations have to remember to act small, whereas you may have no other possibility. Be confident and creative in imagining quarterly milestones that bring you nearer to your goal. Leverage your strongest platforms to build a relationship with your audience(s) and to pilot content. Our tentpole series ,“At the Museum,” was inspired by a turn of phrase: tour-de-maison. Our museum director, Glenn Lowry, would use the expression in all-staff meetings as an invitation to senior directors to share updates from their teams. I dreamed of it as a documentary series, but it would never have been green lit as such: too much risk, too much investment! Instead, it was produced with our existing budget and team in an agile manner, starting in the Fall of 2016 as a series of weekly “scenes.” (Scenes may be a generous description: some episodes were a single shot, or three: a staff member installs a disco ball in advance of New Year’s Eve; a visitor enjoys the first snowfall in the Sculpture Garden.) However, the same care and intention was applied to each scene as if it were a part of an film documentary, and with this vision, my team flexed to the produce the first season one year later. Through word of mouth, we received a write-up in the New York Times.
This post is a preview of my approach to strategy, production and creative direction from the video program’s early days as an individual effort. I hope to share more case studies and tutorials in the weeks forthcoming, exploring questions like: How do I know who my target audience is? How can I make a pitch for a first video-team hire? How did MoMA produce and release its “At the Museum” series? Can a museum launch a YouTube channel if it doesn’t have budget for original programming? How can organizations foster and develop storytelling efforts amongst its staff?
If you are a producer, filmmaker, or video-program stakeholder at an arts or cultural organization, I would love to hear from you. What challenges are you facing? What topics would like to explore in-depth? Share in comments below, or email me: email@example.com
Eva Kozanecka is a New York-based filmmaker and producer specializing in content strategy, creative direction and film development. She currently co-leads Artists and Machine Intelligence, a program at Google that brings artists, researchers and engineers together to realize projects with machine intelligence. Previously, she developed films for The Museum of Modern Art, and produced commercials for Google, Microsoft, Macy’s, and Royal Caribbean.
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