For a 145-year-old institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has cultivated a hip and energetic presence on the Internet. Its digital media game includes SoundCloud museum tours, art history lessons on the free education site Khan Academy and contemporary video critiques of centuries-old art. It's also creative on social media, with hashtag campaigns, such as #MetKids, #MetGala and #EmptyMet converging on its multiple platforms, including Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.
All of this is thanks to chief digital officer Sree Sreenivasan and his team of 70, who have made the Met one of the most influential cultural brands on the web. We caught up with Sreenivasan, who is about to give a talk at the DesignThinkers conference at Toronto's Sony Centre on Nov. 12 and 13.
When you started at the Met in 2013, was your first order of business?
The social media team had already been in place and were doing great work. My work was to … build what we call a virtuous circle, where we have such a great online experience that people want to come in person, and give people such a great in-person experience that they want to keep connected to us, online, on social, on mobile, on apps, et cetera.
You're repackaging 5,000 years of human creativity on new digital platforms. What is one of your favourite ways that you've merged the physical and the digital?
Well, I'll give you a very serious and not-too-serious example. We did a thing called Meow Met: it's a Google Chrome extension that every time you open a new tab on your browser, you get a new cat from the Met. It's a fun way to get people thinking about the Met when they're not at the Met. Another is that we took all our audio content and put that out on the mobile web so that people can access it anywhere they are in the world.
People ask: 'Who's your biggest competition?' It's not other museums. Our biggest competition is Netflix, Candy Crush – life in 2015, that's our competition. That's how we want to think about that.
The Met is particularly active on Instagram – and even won a 2014 Webby Award for its Instagram account. Can you tell me about some of the activity there?
#EmpyMet was an initiative by my colleague Taylor Newby, and he wanted to bring Instagram influencers to walk around the Met [after hours] to understand what's happening here. Our director Thomas P. Campbell is on Instagram where he's doing some really original storytelling. For him, we were looking at which platform would make the most sense – and obviously a very visual one. But there's also less drama on Instagram. Many CEOs go on Twitter and don't participate in thoughtful and smart ways, but Instagram gives you that opportunity, to be thoughtful and smart.
Is there a proper way to Instagram an artwork – a Kim Kardashian pose?
Make sure that you take enough pictures that you have the content as well as the beautiful picture itself. You always take a second photograph of the label so you can write a serious caption. That makes a big difference.
Every Met exhibit now has a hashtag.
This is because our visitors were asking for hashtags. They want to communicate, they want to share what's happening at the Met, which is very cool and exciting.
What will you be speaking about at DesignThinkers?
We're going to be sharing some of the lessons of what we've learned, and how that applies to people in any business. You have to think about your brand as something you work on, and not just during a branding campaign. You earn your brand every day. And you have to be authentic and transparent and accessible online. All it will do, really though, is amplify who you are. If you're good in real life, you can be great on these platforms. But if you're bad in real life then you're going to be awful on these platforms.
Does design play a big role in what you do?
Absolutely. It's not enough to tell the story. You have to tell it in the right sequence. You have to design what it looks like and how it plays out. There's a lot of science around that and a lot of art, too, and it's really fun to put the two together.
This interview has been condensed and edited.