We've written previously about the challenges of information architecture at the British Library.

And now we've caught up with Head of Digital and Marketing Operations, Graham MacFadyen, to get some fascinating insight into how the organisation prioritises content and measures success online.

Here's what Graham had to say...

How does the British Library prioritise web content? There’s so much you could cover.

Having 150m things to talk about is a blessing not a curse but it does present challenges.

Our starting point for web content development is: what do we want to be known for?

That’s easy to start with (literature, history, religion etc.) but it gets harder the deeper you go so we have other inputs like, what are our users searching for when they hit the website? 

Or, we look to our cultural engagement strategy – if we’re holding a major exhibition on West African literature and music then we really want to bring this to life online and create some kind of surrogate digital experience for people who can’t make it to the real thing. 

Image from upcoming exhibition: West Africa: Word, Symbol, song.

West africa: word symbol song

What are your KPIs online?

The Library’s mission is to make our intellectual heritage accessible to everyone, for research, inspiration and enjoyment. In the digital realm we boil that down to five KPIs:

  • Audience reach: Measured in visits/visitors.
  • Engagement: Number of people coming back more than once.
  • Collection usage: Number of digital items getting looked at.
  • Ecommerce revenue: Value of shop products, ticket sales, and donations made online.
  • Customer satisfaction: Percentage of people who say it’s easy or very easy to find what they’re looking for.

What challenges are presented when linking together disparate websites and catalogue data? How do you build a business case?

The online user experience had become so fragmented at the British Library (with over 100 websites) that the business case was irresistible.

The websites had become unmanageable – impossible for our web team to keep up to date, and un-navigable for our users. Customer satisfaction was nose-diving.

When we developed our strategy for linking it all together we had to focus on things there should only be one of (like Hogarth’s ‘A Harlot’s Progress’) and things that there should be many of (like all the different things we’d want to say about Hogarth’s ‘A Harlot’s Progress’).

Once we had that cracked everything started to fall into place and we realised we could continue to create new sites like Art and Anarchy in British Comics or Georgian Britain or Discovering Literature which refer to Hogarth’s ‘A Harlot’s Progress’ without compromising the overall user experience.

Image from 'Art and Anarchy in British Comics', British library website.

art and anarchy in british comics

What have you learned about your customers online and in the library?

The main thing we have learned is that our audience is not as siloed as the organisation was.

Time and again our users have told us they want similar things regardless of the label we stick on them.

They want to feel part of the British Library from the moment they walk through the door (online or offline), whether they are researching a PhD, coming to see the Magna Carta, starting their own business or making a school trip.

Our customers have a low tolerance for the clunky ‘joins’ that are sometimes noticeable in a big, devolved organisation like the British Library so it’s our job to make those invisible. 

When targeting new users, which personas are most important?

In the last couple of years we’ve moved to a more behavioural segmentation of our audiences which recognises that the same person can move fluidly from doing things we’d consider ‘cultural’ to things we’d consider ‘research’ – and back again. 

So, putting people in a bucket and only ever talking to them about one part of our product offer was self-defeating.

Now we try to attract new users who are exhibiting a behaviour we can support such as focused research, discovery, cultural curiosity or simply visiting the Library.

Does the online world influence exhibition choice?

In a way. It influences how we position our exhibition experience. We’ve become much more disciplined about demand analysis and we have much better insight tools to help us make good decisions.

Search keyword analysis helps us understand what people are looking for out there in the real world and tie that into the product we’re developing.

Do product owners always put this insight into practice – no – but Rome wasn’t built in a day.

For more on this topic, read:

Ben Davis

Published 14 October, 2015 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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