I was the primary lead on The Met’s website relaunch 2009-2012. We called it a “relaunch” rather than a redesign or rebuild because it really was about the whole site–strategy, design, technology, workflows, marketing, fundraising, everything.
In 1999, The Met launched a website that made a lot of news and broke some new ground. There was some art on it–it wasn’t just a brochure, a visitation guide. There was the artwork of the day, and if I recall, about 50-100 artworks from each of the 20ish curatorial departments. So a very small fraction of the collection, but enough for anyone to spend some time looking through it all. Nonetheless, by the time I started as General Manager of the Website in 2006, there was a strong sense among curators that the site was focused too much on the “mercenary”–donations, marketing, etc.–and too little on the “missionary”–i.e., the good work of the museum.
I took over the existing website department and we did our best to update the site while I began the groundwork for a full scale relaunch. On the existing site, I encouraged my team to say “yes” to everything a curator wanted to do. We would handle the “how,” but the “what” was up to them. In the course of those few years we added tens of thousands of artworks to the site and launched hundreds of special exhibition sites. We also founded and ran The Met’s social media program, which had 2 million followers by the time I left in 2012, and continued to run the 350,000 member email program that raised millions of dollars annually.
The groundwork for the site was more or less getting a lot of important people on board. At first, I reported to the President’s Chief of Staff–essentially the administrative side of the organization. So that meant getting Emily Rafferty on board. I remember having lunch with her in the Museum’s nicest restaurant, and telling her we’d need almost a million dollars. It ended up coming out to more like $5 Million. (Why? Sites don’t need to cost that much. It’s more or less a function of how many people are going to be involved. With hundreds of stakeholders at The Met, its site cost probably five times what the same site would cost at Brooklyn Museum.)
Emily wasn’t the only one. During my tenure, a new Director and CEO, Tom Campbell, replaced Philippe De Montebello. Tom and I sat down for lunch–this time, in the staff cafeteria–and he asked where I thought the website belonged in the structure of the organization. I said it needed to be on the Director’s side so that it could do the missionary work–what we needed was a site that reflects the institution, that does the good work of the museum. Would that always need to be on the Director’s side? No, of course not, but given the history I thought it was essential in this case.
The rest of the story is long and detailed, but I’m going to keep it short for now. With both Tom and Emily on board, we did this:
- 1. Got buy-in from the IT Department, and a partner in Douglas Hegley, who was Deputy CIO at the time
- 2. Named Morgan Holzer project manager
- 3. Organized a few committees: the Steering Committee, which consisted of Morgan, Douglas, me, the COO, the President, the Director and CEO, the Deputy Director, the CIO, and the President’s Chief of Staff, Missy McHugh, as well as two curatorial representatives; the Content Advisory Committee, with 30 representatives from all across the Museum; and the Curatorial Committee, which was essentially all the curators, conservators, and librarians, represented by about 8-10 most of the time (but there were also times we met with 100+ curators)
- 4. Started a selection process. This was in multiple steps. First, a request for comment (RFC) that we sent to about 15 web design firms. Second, a request for proposals (RFP) that we sent to six firms, and a seventh we added later for political reasons, followed by presentations by each of them to the Content Advisory Committee and Steering Committee. Third, and maybe fourth, some additional steps that went on for another 9 months while we worked the final few vendors to death. Finally, the selection of Cogapp as our vendor. This was, overall, an 18 month process. Most of that time was spent getting The Met to understand how to do the selection. While it was painful at the time, it also helped a lot with buy-in–and maybe was essential to it.
- 5. Began work with Cogapp. Hopefully someone has written this up already, because I just can’t. It was a huge amount of work. For three years my team ran the existing website while building a new one.
- 6. Worked internally on what, really, the website needed to do. Again, keeping a long story short, this is The Met so generally we opted for more rather than less; making everybody happy rather than forcing compromise; and caring not just about how valuable the site was to visitors but what it meant to funders and other significant people. As a result, we did more than we needed to do. But that was probably easier and cheaper than fighting over what few things not to do.
- 7. Worked on the technology. We needed a real CMS, and the IT department required that it be Windows Server compatible. We went with Sitecore. It’s a beast; I don’t necessarily recommend it but we did things with it that would have been hard to do otherwise. We also needed integrations with a half-dozen internal systems. Adam Padron in IT was instrumental in getting a lot of this done.
- 8. Worked on publishing the entire art collection. Again, this merits volumes and I believe has been written up more than once. I wrote it up at least once, for conference presentations–maybe I can find that somewhere!
- 9. Fought about how best to raise money on the new site. We hired Blue State Digital to help with this. They were great. We on the project team, with Cogapp’s help, implemented every one of the recommendations. But it was a big change; there were people who thought the right approach was to ask for money everywhere, where what we really needed was to stimulate donations with great content, and ask for money at the right times, when that stimulation was at its highest. How, exactly, to do that led to some difficult but productive discussions.
- 10. Launched the site. It had some issues at first, meaning we launched at the right time (if you try to wait until it’s perfect, you’ll wait forever). It was a huge success with visitors, colleagues of all kinds in other institutions, and the intelligentsia. Ed Rothstein wrote the first review of a cultural institution website launch ever published by the New York Times.
I’ll probably come back and add more to this later. The final word I’d like to leave for now is this: Fred Brooks, in The Mythical Man Month, wrote that projects increase in size exponentially as the number of people involved grows. Ultimately, it’s because there’s so much more communication to do–one person needs to talk to know one, two people need to talk to one person each (two conversations), four people need to talk to three people each (twelve conversations), eight people need to talk to seven people each (56 conversations). (Is that exponential? I don’t really know). So at the beginning of something like this, you may think, as I did, that involving as few people as possible is the right approach. The problem is what happens when someone isn’t involved. They will demand to be involved, and you will involve them, because without buy-in, the project will fail. So focus on that communication. Build the committees, schedule the meetings, and keep that project chart up to date.