Part Two Talking about the Virtual Pillow

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Ella Baff, Artistic and Executive Director of Jacob’s Pillow visited Carnegie Mellon on Tuesday February 28.  The following addendum to last week’s blog post is a result of online conversations with Jacob's Pillow General Manager Connie Chin. Andre Bouchard:  Could you talk about the development process of the Virtual Pillow? How did you decide what features to put in? How did the process unfold?

Connie Chin:  Under the umbrella of the Virtual Pillow initiative, each project advanced our goal of developing an online audience for dance and the Pillow.  Some projects took advantage of sites that had built-in desirable audiences.  For example, we partnered with FORA.tv, putting our PillowTalks content up alongside partners such as the Aspen Institute and the Commonwealth Club.  The broadest audience was found of course on YouTube, where we increased our presence with a branded PillowTV channel organized by topical playlists, so that you can see many facets of the Pillow’s programming across one topic such as Tap and Percussive Dance, or Resources for Educators.  PillowTV has had over 750,000 video views since its inception in 2008 and has resulted in over 1,000 referrals (links followed) to our home website.  Other social media and online fundraising efforts aimed to amplify our presentation of artists, inform about our many program areas, and encourage conversations with our audiences.

Developing Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive went a step further in originating a new website, and then making it appear seamlessly integrated to a our home website, like building a new wing to a building.  The development required a cross-functional team process, with expertise contributed by a variety of folks from both within and outside the staff.  Our Virtual Pillow Project Manager, Lisa Niedermeyer, played a key role in bringing her own expertise, integrating all the information and keeping the development on track.

The predecessor standalone physical kiosk was created by our Director of Preservation, Norton Owen.  Of course you had to travel to the Berkshires or one of the physical sites it toured to in order to view it.  We were all tremendously excited by the prospect of sharing it with a global audience in their own homes via the internet.  We built on Pillow core competencies in audience engagement and dance video documentation.  Norton continues to curate the fantastic, rich, and often quite rare content, and adds substantially to it on a monthly basis.  The collection ranges from the 1930s to today, and the rare early films and videos are among the most popular.  For example, a 1942 silent film featuring Anna Duncan, one of the adopted daughters of Isadora Duncan and a member of the group known as the “Isadorables” was not only digitized but had a soundtrack added to it.  There is no authenticated footage of Isadora Duncan herself, so this little-known film fragment is of enormous importance to the dance field.

We considered our observations of visitors using the physical kiosk.  For example, why were people attracted to it, how long did they spent on it, and what aspects did they gravitate to?  We focused on their sense of discovery and play, and the idea of “guided curiosity”. To avoid anyone feeling intimidated and not knowing where to start, there is a feature called “Dive In”, and for playful fun, the “Guess” game, which randomly offers up a video clip and asks you to identify it.  We decided what attributes to keep and how to translate them onto a website, such as the visual simplicity, and Pillow branding.  One very important feature, which the public does not see, is the capability for non-technical staff and interns to easily load new content.  The firm Clearmetrics had been advising and ideating with us from the start, and it was then seamless for them to move into the technical Drupal build of the site, creating not only the website visitors see, but the sleekly user-friendly back end, and resolving questions such as storage space and hosting along the way.  We also made sure to do independent user testing, which was good learning and gratifying to hear in detail what complete outsiders were experiencing.

AB:  Now, one year after the launch of virtual pillow, what are the metrics of this interactive tool? How have people been using the tool? How are you tracking user experience?

Connie Chin:  Dance Interactive was launched March 28, 2011, so it’s not even a year old.  Our Google Analytics tell us it has had over 200,000 page views from 184 countries, with a 3.02 minutes average time spent on the site (versus under a minute average for all websites in general), and 25% return visit rate.  All our metrics exceeded the goals we had set.

We have received terrific subjective feedback on how people are using Dance Interactive.  For example, immediately upon launch, The Washington Post proclaimed Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive as

“…perhaps the closest thing the dance world has to an online museum….  A priceless treasury of history and art, this movable feast could very well suck you in by surprise. The format is irresistible: Each clip is just a minute to a minute and a half long. You can find them by genre, era or artist….  What makes the site so addictive is that the performances are expertly edited, with close-in camera work, and each is accompanied by a pithy biographical write-up.”

The New York Times heralded Dance Interactive:

“Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival has long been known for eclectic lineups….That breadth becomes apparent perusing the Pillow’s new online archive of video clips….The cleanly designed site lets you sort performances by era, genre and artist….The clips speak to the festival’s place in American dance over nearly eight decades and how it has documented that role all along….While historians may be interested in clips like the rare 1942 footage of Asadata Dafora, known for his landmark presentations of African dance in the United States, the archive isn’t above having a little fun. Click on “Guess” and you get a video and a list of five possible artists. You don’t need to know much about dance to feel like an expert here….”

We have heard that Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive is a resource for the arts field, and, importantly, it also is bringing new people to dance.  We have received a great deal of feedback from many people who are deeply engaged with the content.  More than one user even called it addictive and their favorite time waster! Many unsolicited advocates have described Dance Interactive on their websites, blogs and social media in depth and provided their constituencies with links to it.  For example:  a Massachusetts dance festival projected Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive onto the wall of their theatre lobby to illustrate their festival theme.  An arts nonprofit service organization in Canada described the site as a model in their blog.  A choreography project used the collection as inspiration for their online group of stay-at-home-moms to create new dances.  A retired woman used it as a demo site to teach an iPad how-to course to fellow retirees.  And on the other end of the age spectrum, an advocacy website for girls aged 8-15 pointed to female choreographers on Dance Interactive as role models. (Our social media team responded with a female choreographer playlist which they then published.)  A dance educator said they threw out all their classroom dance media because Dance Interactive was better.