The Engagement Economy

I was recently interviewed in The Guardian talking about the use of mobile phone in cultural institutions - museums, libraries, galleries, etc.

I was talking about the QRpedia project I co-founded. During the course of the interview, a phrase fluttered into my head - "The Engagement Economy."

It wasn't a phrase I'd heard before - although Jane McGonigal wrote an excellent paper in 2008 with the same name. McGonigal's paper talks about getting people to work on a project. My idea of the Engagement Economy is around how to keep someone's attention in a world full of distractions.

Let's take a typical museum visitor - Alice. When she decides to walk in to a museum she experiences a range of possible distractions.

Her friends may want to chat, there's a movie playing down the road that she wants to see, Twitter keeps buzzing in her pocket, she wants to find out more about the exhibit she's looking at, noisy school-children are annoying her, there's a new podcast she wants to listen to, the list goes on.

Each exhibit in every room, throughout the museum has to compete for Alice's engagement. She may be standing in front of the Hunterian's collection of pickled penises yet her eyes are on Facebook, her ears are listening to the Pod Delusion, and her mind is in a state of Continuous Partial Attention.

How do we snap Alice back to make the most out of her museum visit? We could use the ideas of the Attention Economy - but this often means crudely interrupting Alice and forcing her down a path she wasn't willing to travel.

The "Engagement Economy" suggests that we place ourselves in the channels that Alice is already using.

Let me take four very good examples.

Social Networking

As well as making sure you're reading the tips and notes left by your visitors on FourSquare and FaceBook, you also need to respond to people talking to you on Twitter. Be proactive - catch them while they visit, engage with them on their platform of choice.

Dublin Zoo do this incredibly well:


Alice walks over to see the elephants in Dublin Zoo. Sadly, they're all asleep - which makes for a slightly dull few minutes. Engagement lost. Silly elephants - letting down a visitor like that.

Luckily, Dublin Zoo has uploaded some video of the elephants onto YouTube:

From the looks of that, it was probably shot with an employee's phone - or a cheap digital camera - then uploaded to YouTube. Almost zero cost to the zoo - but a great way to engage with visitors who may otherwise be left frustrated.

It's also "blipvert" length. Long enough to be interesting, but short enough to download on a phone and watch quickly.


Produce your own audio - let visitors download it. Everyone visiting your site will have a mobile phone. You don't need to rent out audio guides - give people the MP3 to download.

I saw this done last year - the Tracey Emin retrospective gave away an MP3 audio guide. Those who want to listen can do so using their own equipment (which will automatically pause if they receive a phone call, etc).

Emin MP3


What can Alice do if she wants to see more information on an exhibit? Most cultural institutions have a few lines on a card and, if you're lucky, a curator who can give more detail.

Alice is just going to go directly to Wikipedia on her phone. That's where QRpedia comes in. QRpedia puts QR codes on exhibits which then link to mobile Wikipedia.

The really clever part is that QRpedia codes do language detection, so Alice sees the English Wikipedia, no matter which country she is in. Similarly, Jacques sees the French Wikipedia even if he's at Dublin Zoo.
TCMI Carousel QRpedia Label
Your staff should be editing Wikipedia, improving the articles, uploading photos.

Wikipedia run an outreach programme for Gallaries, Libraies, Archives, and Museums (and pretty much anyone else!) which can help you make the most of Wikipedia.

It's the Engagement Economy, Stupid

Participating in the Engagement Economy doesn't mean disrupting people, it doesn't mean forcing them down a specific path, and it doesn't mean that you have to interact every visitor on every channel.

The Engagement Economy means you have to know what is diverting the engagement of the majority of your visitors. Find a subtle way to insert yourself in that channel, and produce content which will hold their engagement.

One thought on “The Engagement Economy

  1. Patrick says:

    Hm this idea is perhaps right for businessmodels, but in my opinion there is a overflow and a lot of people dont have the skills to order and structure all these informations. So to build up an idea under the subject of "Engagement" can be very tricky.

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