Create and Measure Success: The Smithsonian Collections Blog

Rachael Cristine Woody
November 16, 2011


The Web 2.0 technology employed for this case study is a blog. Blogs (formally Weblogs) are often described as online publications in website format; however, the conversational tone and frequency of blog posts encourage visitors to engage in the conversation set forth by the content creator.1 Blogging provides a dynamic narrative format that shares content with visitors in a collage of text, photos, and videos. Blogs attract new people through suggestions provided by the platform, higher Google rankings, and the ability to be easily shared; these features allow blogs to feed and nurture existing communities while attracting new members. While a blogging platform can serve many different purposes, blogs have proven to be a popular tool with cultural institutions because they can convey their personality in tone, content information, and branding.

This case study examines the Smithsonian Institution Research and Information System (SIRIS) Members’ Smithsonian Collections Blog.2 The SIRIS Members represent over sixteen different archives and special collections units that share similar cataloging systems and standards. Members meet once a month to discuss current evolutions within the profession and across the Smithsonian in an effort to be informed, affect needed change, and provide each other support. SIRIS Members are not represented as a hierarchical authority, and participation in the group activities outside of following cataloging standards are completely voluntary. Membership strives to address common problems and create mutually beneficial opportunities for the staff and collections.

As a result of these meetings, in late 2009 increasing outreach and transparency through social media services and Web 2.0 tools became a frequently discussed option. SIRIS Members discussed ways of bringing the disparate collections and staff of the Smithsonian Institution to an online audience. Permission for Smithsonian groups to represent themselves on social media had been granted on an experimental level, and at the time no Smithsonian guidelines existed on choosing and implementing the various services and tools. After some initial discussion regarding staff time and expertise with various tools, it was determined that a blogging platform was the most appropriate for the sixteen individual units across the Smithsonian. In conjunction with choosing the Web 2.0 tool, SIRIS Members identified a mission for the project: increase the exposure of the collections, and engage new and returning visitors.

Description of the Web 2.0 Tool Used

A team from SIRIS Members researched various blogging platforms and narrowed the options to platforms that were free, had an intuitive Graphic User Interface (GUI), and had already been implemented at the Smithsonian. Of those researched, two platforms, WordPress and Blogger, were preferred because of their proven sustainability and demonstrated wide adaptation for both personal and professional use. The team ultimately chose Blogger because it could more easily be customized to match the branding of the Smithsonian Collections; in addition, Google’s ownership of Blogger indicated that there would be higher Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and increased stability. Blogger can link up to one hundred authors as contributors to one blog, an attractive feature for the Smithsonian Collections Blog, which would be made up of a multitude of voices, including guest bloggers. The GUI of Blogger was very intuitive and allowed rapid content creation and editing. In addition, new authors could be easily trained as they joined.

The ability to customize the display of the Smithsonian Collections Blog was essential to allowing SIRIS authors to brand both the content and theme as they wanted. The content information that was a priority could be controlled and conveyed by choosing which features (called gadgets) were displayed next to the posts. When placed on a blog, gadgets allow you to control the content, placement, and naming of the gadget. For example, the “List” gadget was used to illustrate the multiple Smithsonian units participating as authors. By adding the List gadget, customizing information, and choosing priority placement on the page, SIRIS authors could show that the blog was a partnership of multiple and diverse units with different subjects and perspectives to share.

Another gadget, “Labels,” helped to categorize the articles as doing so became increasingly important for the authors because of an increase in the numbers of published posts. By employing “Labels” and choosing a relatively small number of labels, the authors were able to highlight how their posts related to other posts on the blog. Labeling also became imperative when the SIRIS Members hosted campaigns and unit series that covered one topic regularly. By creating a label, authors and visitors could easily pull together all of the posts and be provided a shareable link.

Implementation of the Web 2.0 Tool

While there were several published opinions on implementing Web 2.0 tools in an archives setting at the time, there was (and still is) little information on how to choose and successfully implement a strategy, participate, and measure efforts. Therefore, when starting this project many areas needed to be examined, including what potential visitors would want on the blog; what skills, time, and technology would be required for participating on various platforms; how the efforts would be evaluated.

To begin with, SIRIS authors identified two main goals: increasing the exposure of the collections, and engaging both new and returning visitors. Members participated in operational discussions about resource planning and management, content and technology management, content standards, and how to publish. To implement the Smithsonian Collections Blog, meetings were held to establish Web content strategy initiatives and goals, provide training, coordinate a schedule, organize campaign causes, analyze analytics, and submit reports to SIRIS Members and upper management.

The SIRIS Office created the Smithsonian Collections Blog and a Google Analytics account3 and began branding the blog to look like the Collections Search Center,4 allowing it to appear as an integral part to the collections’ search options. As part of this initial effort, a considerable amount of work went into adding and customizing a number of gadgets that would articulate the blog’s mission, provide links and representation for all the involved units, and connect the blog to all appropriate Smithsonian Institution websites.

Fig. 1. Smithsonian Collections Blog to show branding identical to the Smithsonian Institution's Collections Search Center

Fig. 1. Smithsonian Collections Blog to show branding identical to the Smithsonian Institution's Collections Search Center

Fig. 2. The Smithsonian Institution's Collections Search Center

Fig. 2. The Smithsonian Institution's Collections Search Center

Finally, the participating SIRIS authors were invited to join the group. It was determined that each unit would contribute one post a month, for an average of three posts a week on the blog, and a schedule was set to ensure diversity in the content. Each authoring unit had a specific week to post and was encouraged to post more when they could to cover collection highlights, current events, and narrative pieces. SIRIS authors also teamed up with other Smithsonian blogs to have a collaborative Blogathon campaign for “October is American Archives Month” in order to increase visibility.5

Assessment of the Use of the Web 2.0 Tool

Web 2.0 (and social media services) started out as a tool to maintain relationships with friends and social circles; over time, these interactions began to include institutional entities as well. For an institutional interaction to be considered successful in a social environment, it must occur on a peer-to-peer level. Therefore, the most successful institutional entities are those that engage communities, not those that are silent or, conversely, those that send out large amounts of corporate promotion and propaganda. With this in mind, the established purpose of the Smithsonian Collections Blog was to share collections, discuss projects, and have conversations about the profession. As the SIRIS authors became more familiar with the blogging platform and experimented with topics and themes, we were able to define our mission: exposing the collections, and engaging new and returning visitors.

The Smithsonian Collection Blog fit neatly into the newly revitalized mission of the Smithsonian as an establishment dedicated to the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Many initiatives began to arise including testing and participation in social media and Web 2.0, increased transparency, and the digitization of all the Smithsonian’s holdings. Although SIRIS authors’ mission parallels the Smithsonian’s mission and newly emerging initiatives, it is still undetermined how the impact of participating in a blog fits into larger workflows and unit missions. Units are still testing out how to best incorporate blogging as part of their processing workflow and general outreach efforts. For example, many units have found it useful to have a volunteer or intern post as it finishes a collection, providing a voice to the hard-working person, closure on the project, and an immediately searchable link to the collection.

The blogging platform proved to be a good choice for the SIRIS Member authors. Authors who participated on Blogger did not have to learn it as an additional tool, even though for most it was their first experience with blogging. It is a good tool for anyone who wants an intuitive (and free) way to explore tapping into their communities. The blog tool was easy to set up, but at the time did not offer any statistics gathering. To get statistics and gauge the success of the mission, SIRIS Members decided to use another free Google tool, Google Analytics, which allows the tracking of a webpage owned by the analytics account holder. According to Google, “Google Analytics shows you how people found your site, how they explored it, and how you can enhance their visitor experience. With this information, you can improve your website return on investment, increase conversions, and make more money on the web.”6 Analytics is an important and integral component to any online project that hopes to secure its relevancy and longevity. SIRIS authors analyzed Google Analytics by post, week, month, and quarter to track popularity, exposure, and trends. The SIRIS authors learned how to read the analytics as the project went on and are developing a strategy for how to measure and adjust efforts accordingly.

To assess the blog’s performance, SIRIS Members implemented Google Analytics to analyze the different facets of our efforts. The main components reviewed on Google Analytics were Visitor Overview, which indicates the number of visitors (unique and returning) as well as their time on the site; Content Overview, which shows what the top viewed content has been and provides invaluable information on how and where people are entering each post; Traffic Source Overview, which provides the top keywords that led to the posts and an overview of the other social media platforms where the content is being shared; and Geography Overview, which provides a breakdown of visitors reached as specifically as by zip code. By tracking these numbers, authors can get a good sense of what’s working, what engages visitors, what visitors are interested in, where the visitor are located, and much else.

For the Smithsonian Collections Blog, the numbers provided important information. In reviewing the statistics, it was clear that the “October American Archives Month” campaign doubled the number of visitors in October, compared to any other month. When posts were published highlighting a collection from another country, viewership statistics increased in that country. And when there were posts about the professional arena, they were shared frequently across various social media sites. As is shown in these examples, it is possible to extrapolate what is meaningful to visitors from these statistics, which authors can then use to adapt the content to provide for the readership accordingly.

In addition to the Smithsonian Collections Blog serving the mission SIRIS Members set forth, the blogging effort fits into Smithsonian initiatives. Even though impact and implementation into workflow still need to be analyzed, the blog has served as a community builder for the individual archives and special collections. With analytics and the conversations on the blog, SIRIS authors have discerned what is meaningful to visitors.

The blog platform and Blogger as a tool were affirmed to be currently the best for SIRIS Members, and authors have continued to use Blogger past the inaugural year. Though it initially made it difficult to have coherent theme, having multiple authors across different units ultimately led to a strong diversity of material and perspective. In addition, it has facilitated sharing the burden of gaining exposure for collections and engaging with visitors at a time when resources are low. As a result, the blogging platform has encouraged and sustained cooperation as a way to maintain a higher outreach impact with lower efforts than would be possible if units were on their own.

Lessons Learned

SIRIS authors are still experimenting with content, workflow, and audience gauging; however, there are a couple of lessons have been learned so far. First, although collections-based content is always popular, conversations began when we covered behind-the-scenes projects and held discussions on the profession, which shows that experimentation with content is necessary to see what attracts audiences. Second, the difficult part of this project was learning how to measure the success of the blog. Comprehending and communicating analytics was, at first, overwhelming. It is important to evaluate the expertise and tools available since many Web 2.0 tools (recently including Blogger) now have measurement components that can offer a simpler suite than Google Analytics.

If there were to be a reconsideration of which Web tool to use, it would include revisiting WordPress as a possible blog platform as well as an investigation of two new Web 2.0 tools, Tumblr and Drupal. WordPress seems to have outpaced Blogger in developing user-created plug-in features, which Blogger does much more slowly. If the blog were more visual then an emerging tool to explore would be Tumblr due to its extensive presentation support. Drupal, although not currently approved for use in the Smithsonian, is similar to WordPress with its user-created features; however, it has the potential to fast outpace any current blogging platform because of its easy to assemble and display website functionality.

Overall, it is important to thoroughly consider the scope of the collection that will be covered and the intended audiences. An honest evaluation of time and expertise necessary to post thoughtful and regular content is also necessary, in addition to a consideration of how blogging may fit into the larger workflow. Any existing mandates or initiatives will need to be reviewed, and a mission statement for how blogging will help achieve those mandates will need to be constructed. Finally, a way to evaluate efforts will need to be put in place, either using a tool provided by the blogging platform or Google Analytics.

Future Plans

If additional resources could be dedicated to managing content creation, engaging with the community, and promoting the blog more consistently, the Smithsonian Collections Blog could evolve and attract even more readership. Eventually, work on the blog will become more efficient through the implementation of process workflows that include publishing a blog post at designated intervals within a project. Increased knowledge and awareness of statistics will also help the blog develop by helping to set benchmark goals and to adjust content production accordingly, for example, posting entries on campaign themes that previously resulted in visitorship spikes, increased levels of discussion, and proliferated content via social media platforms. Furthermore, the archives and special collections staff will better support their mission of increasing collections exposure, transparency, and visitor engagement by continuing to evolve and develop Web 2.0 skills and knowledge.


Analytics Resources

Google Analytics. “Top 5 Ways that Google Analytics Can Benefit You.” Google. (accessed July 8, 2011).

——. “What is Google Analytics?” Google. (accessed July 8, 2011).

——. “Installing Analytics.” Google. (accessed July 8, 2011).

Blogger Resources

Blogger. “Blogger Features.” Blogger. (accessed January 30, 2011).

Web 2.0 Resources

Handley, Ann, and C. C. Chapman. Content Rules! Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2011.

Daines, J. Gordon, and Cory L. Nimer. Interactive Archivist. Chicago, Ill.: Society of American Archivists, 2009. (accessed July 13, 2011).

Pearce-Moses, Richard. “Janus in Cyberspace: Archives on the Threshold of the Digital Era.” American Archivist 70 (Spring/Summer 2007): 13-22.

Prom, Christopher J. “Using Web Analytics to Improve Online Access to Archival Resources.” American Archivist 74 (Spring/Summer 2011): 158-84.

Samouelian, Mary. “Embracing Web 2.0: Archives and the Newest Generation of Web Applications.” American Archivist 72 (Spring/Summer 2009): 42-71.

Solis, Brain. Engage! Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2010.

Solis, Brian, and Deidre Breakenridge. Putting the Public Back in Public Relations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2009.

Theimer, Kate. “What is the Meaning of Archives.” American Archivist 74 (Spring/Summer 2011): 58-68.

——. Web 2.0 Tools and Strategies for Archives and Local History Collections. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 2010.


1. Daines, J. Gordon, and Cory L. Nimer, “Blog,” in Interactive Archivist (Chicago, Ill.: Society of American Archivists, 2009), (accessed July 8, 2011).

2. Smithsonian Institution, “Smithsonian Collections Blog,” Smithsonian Institution, (accessed November 16, 2011).

3. For information on how to install Google Analytics, please see Google’s page, “Installing Analytics, Getting Started Guide” ( (accessed July 8, 2011)).

4. Smithsonian Institution, “Collections Search Center,” Smithsonian Institution, (accessed November 16, 2011).

5. Rachael Woody, “Blogathon: October is American Archives Month” in Smithsonian Collections Blog, (accessed September 30, 2010).

6. Google Analytics, “What is Google Analytics?,” Google, (accessed July 8, 2011).

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