Cuseum’s Quest to Revolutionize Museum Engagement Using Technology
Backed by some of the biggest names in tech, business and product leaders including founders of Kayak, iRobot, Techstars, Crashlytics and the former VP of Product from Twitter, Cuseum is definitely building some buzz and getting the required support in its mission to change how museums, public attractions and cultural non-profits approach visitor engagement. In this interview, we find out more about the company from its founder, Brendan Ciecko.
As we start the discussion with Cuseum’s founder, Brendan Ciecko, we are curious to understand what Cuseum is and how the startup has grown since its initial launch. “Cuseum was founded to help museums, public attractions, and nonprofits operate more successfully. We build software focused on visitor engagement as well as member acquisition and retention,” he says.
Acquisition and retention are definitely some of the most mentioned words with all kinds of startups. The challenges that come with trying to acquire customers and getting them to stay long enough to indicate their value has always been a challenge to young companies – and from Brendan’s description of Cuseum – museums too.
Cuseum has come a long way trying to convince museums and interested parties that there is a problem with the acquisition and retention of members. “In 2015, we received over $1.4M in seed funding to develop our first product, Mobile Engagement, and bring it to market and went through Techstars to accelerate that goal.”
It’s not just the funding that was a positive to that period. Customers come in handy when trying to prove your concept in accelerator programs. “We’re proud to say that over 100 institutions have used our software and our family continues to grow. Most recently, we launched our second product, Digital Membership, which has enabled us to drive even more value to our customers and partners.”
Curious about their time at Techstars, we ask Brendan what that experience was like. “Our time at Techstars was incredible. We reshaped our team, shifted product goals, and evolved to operate at a completely different speed. We loved the mentor-driven approach, peer group of founders and CEOs, and the extreme focus on KPIs. During our three short months at Techstars, we went from working with five museums to 35 museums!”
MUSEUMS AND TECHNOLOGY
At this point, what we are wondering is when people think of museums, do they think of technology? Most definitely not. Even if they did, they would probably be thinking of technology in terms of lighting, security, and safety. However, Brendan’s opinion is that things are not the same anymore.
“This perception is starting to change. While museums have typically been deeply-rooted in tradition and legacy, the past few years have transformative for the culture sector,” he says. This has helped them overcome the challenge. People are starting to perceive culture not just in its most raw format, but what technology could do it to it and for it.
“The widespread adoption of mobile and social media have reshaped most institution’s need to leverage channels to reach and engage their visitors and members. As the consumer demand and expectation skyrocketed, museums have placed a much higher emphasis on strategies and tools that unlock the power of digital.” This is by far the social media age. Everything shifts when social media takes charge. The adoption of social media has definitely made the concept a lot easier to work through because museums too need social media to reach more people, as well as interact with them.
However, Brendan is quick to admit, “While this change has been undeniable, the transition certainly has had its challenges, mainly in the area of speed, managing expectations, and overall change management.” How so? We ask. “New technology can generate buzz, but shiny objects can be distracting and disorienting.”
ROOT NEEDS OF MUSEUMS
It is increasingly clear that Cuseum was not launched to patch things up, because there is mostly nothing to patch up when it is a whole new journey. Very few museums, if any, had adopted technology 5 to 10 years ago. Cuseum’s intention is not to patch, Brendan says, “At Cuseum, we focus on the root needs of museums and the benefits we can deliver together as quickly, efficiently, and cost-effectively as possible.”
It is possible to be carried away by everything one could see in a museum and totally forget so many other aspects of the whole experience. This is definitely not the intention, as Cuseum’s founder puts it while elaborating on the company’s mission and how technology will change it. “We want the museum visit to be as educational, personal, and seamless as possible. Technology helps in increasing access and breaking down the barriers for all types of audiences.”
With so many changes happening in tech, and social media making us spend half or more of our days on mobile phones, the museum experience is compromised but Brendan believes it is just a matter of catering to that itchy need to touch your phone every other time. “In an era where people use their phone to learn, socialize, and see the world, museums can meet their visitors right in the palm of their hands,” he says.
“Our vision for the museum experience is one where you enter the museum, and our greeted by name, provided with suggestions of new things to see, or a tour that caters to your interests or preferences,” he continues. Interests of the visitors to museums is something Cuseum wants to put in the forefront of this revolution. “As you approach a point of interest, content is effortlessly delivered to you in your preferred language, length, and format. As you continue on your way, the museum learns what you like best and adapts and reacts accordingly.”
MUSEUMS ARE EXPERIENCE FACTORIES
We see such experiences on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and indeed the entire Google phenomena. It’s all about your interests and content is served to you depending on how much attention you feed it its type. Cuseum wants to bring that experience into museums – that your interests determine what is shown to you rather than just being shown anything that is on the display. Brendan is passionate about the experience, “Museums are ‘experience factories.’ People crave narratives and experiences, and the right pairing of technology can amplify the educational value and meaning of what’s on display at the museum.”
It is easy to design for either the physical experience in a museum or the virtual experience on mobile. However, combining both of these experiences into one design has got to be an uphill task. “Designing for the physical world is challenging and takes time to master. You’re designing for multiple, ever-changing contexts such as location, motion, orientation, intent, and all things in between.”
Startups get something wrong when combining the physical and virtual user experience. “With the introduction of location-aware technology, everyone leaped at the opportunity to roll out new, hastily-made features; ‘a hammer looking for a nail.’ While Apple & Android have very well defined UI and UX pattern standards… a new standard for building experiences in the physical world, leveraging ambient sensors, and location-awareness has not yet materialized.”
Despite that as a big hurdle, Cuseum is not relenting. “We want to make sure that every feature aligns with the physical experience and has a clear and practical use case. We take a visitor-first approach and are always iterating upon the look, feel, and function of our software.”
FOR STARTUPS AND MUSEUMS BUILDING APPS
Nearly each and every mobile experience today is carried out through a mobile app. More than ever before, mobile apps have become an integral part of owning a company, or starting a venture. For museums too, apps are increasingly becoming a lifeline from access, to social awareness, and security. For museums and any startups designing their next app, improving the visitor experience is integral to staying in business. “Focus, start small, and iterate. There are so many bloated ‘Swiss army knife’ apps and tools out there; please don’t build another. Additionally, make it your goal to find ways to deliver 90% of the value with 10% of the effort.”
Sending the word out about Cuseum has not been an easy process. PR is a very integral part of startup growth. Equally important is the need to understand some of the drivers of modern public relations. This will help startups to build strong relations with the media by using the right strategies.
For the last 3 months, Cuseum has used Pressfarm to get help with the company’s PR efforts. “As a busy founder & CEO, I’m always looking for ways to help share my company’s story with the least amount of time and effort. With Pressfarm, I didn’t need to schedule a series of calls – the whole process was very easy!” he says while trying to elaborate on the features he found useful. “If I can fill out a form to provide some foundation and direction, and get back a campaign and target list of journalists, it’s a win. And, if I can get that after investing no more than 15 minutes… count me in!”
After getting some funding, more than 100 museums on the platform, what next for Cuseum? The startup doesn’t want to stop innovating. “In addition to some exciting launches and a big leap into augmented reality, we’re in the midst of launching our third product!”
In the near future, he promises that more changes, features, and announcements are coming as we end our interview. “We always have our ear close to the ground when it comes to needs of the museum and nonprofit sector, and came across a few pressing pain-points that we’re confident we can solve. We’ll be enhancing our product suite; great things come in 3s! Be on the look out for some announcements in the upcoming months!”