Picture this. As you walk through the gates of a National Trust property, your phone buzzes in your pocket. A welcome message directs you to a mobile web page where you can find extra information about what to do during your visit and download an audio guide. No need to search for your membership card either – your phone, with online access to your membership details, will do the trick.
As an NT member myself, I use their website to find out information about properties, but currently this information is limited to basic details such as opening hours and facilities. I get a guidebook posted to me each year which contains similar information.
To hear that they are to invest in modern information systems is great news. I have always thought that, given the Trust’s portfolio of properties, there is fantastic potential for creating a kind of social network to go alongside it. To be able to explore more in-depth information about each property would be fantastic, but there are benefits beyond simply making more information about its properties online.
I am sure that this approach will help to boost NT membership. It will attract more younger people to join the Trust, which is essential for its future. Am I alone in thinking, when I read the NT magazine, that the adverts are mainly aimed at the retired? I would like to see more balance, and this could be a good step towards achieving that (he says, knowing little about their membership demographics).
What kind of approaches would I like to see in this new “visitor experience”? The information on the Professional Fundraiser website talks about mobile phone ownership amongst current members. I would not necessarily associate mobile ownership with computer literacy, but it does say that they are “more likely to use the internet”. Mobile data is still expensive, and location-based services are in their infancy, but if this is a long-term goal, there is fantastic potential for development here.
Location based services
Many of the Trust’s properties have extensive grounds. Using an internet-connected device with GPS (like Nokia’s N95, forthcoming GPS enabled 3G iPhone, etc) rich content could be delivered directly to the user as they wander around (or follow a suggested route on their device). Websites like Socialight already offer this kind of functionality via a Java applet than can be easily installed on your phone. I have experimented with this to good effect in Salisbury using a tour of prominent medieval buildings put together by Wessex Archaeology. You can even theoretically choose to be alerted when you walk past something in your list of interests. I’d love to see it used more widely.
Social networking is all the rage at the moment. It almost seems as if a day doesn’t go past without another one popping into existence. Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Ning, etc etc etc. Some of the smaller, more specialist networks are already fading away under the deluge. So why a social network for the National Trust? If they were to foster one, it could be a real, thriving success. Why? Because it has a winning formula.
What the Trust has going for it, is it’s key asset: it’s properties. Hundreds of historic houses, and hundreds of miles of coastal and countryside landscapes. It has people who visit and use them. And many of them use the internet. Scattered across the internet are photographs of Trust land, houses, objects etc, blog posts, forum discussions, etc. People are already interacting digitally in their own ways. A National Trust social networking site could act very effectively as a hub for all of this information, as well as providing its own interpretive information.
There are tools out there to make this achievable quite quickly and effectively. Google Friend Connect, for example, could be used to build a social network around properties. It would allow people to plug in to other networks such as Facebook, as well as discuss and rate properties.
User-generated content could be submitted, perhaps using a series of Flickr groups for photographs of properties that could be integrated back into their website via the Flickr API (there is already an unofficial National Trust Flickr group). Videos via YouTube. Integrate events with Upcoming, webcasts via ustream.tv could be utilised to show special events. Knit it all back together into the new NT website via web services. Visitors, potential visitors, and those who cannot get to the UK would all benefit.
The Trust’s own content could be made available in numerous ways for people to use on their own websites perhaps under a Creative Commons license.
The Trust would benefit in return from a massive boost in awareness of their work, and hopefully help to give them a new image that appeals to an even wider audience.
The possibilities are boundless, and I’m quite excited to see what they come up with.