Brad Dunn, The Field Museum

Brad Dunn has been a storyteller for much of his career, whether working in advertising, digital marketing, improvisation, filmmaking, game design or stage directing. He’s used a combination of storytelling and technology to help forge connections with people of all ages and backgrounds.

Dunn draws on these skills and experiences in his current role as web and digital communications director at Chicago’s The Field Museum, one of the leading natural history institutions in the world. By creating a range of interesting experiences for museum visitors spanning the digital and real world, he seeks to first spark their scientific curiosity and then encourage visitors to start ongoing conversations with museum staff, and in some cases, with the exhibits.

Customer Relationships Start With Imagination

“At the museum, there are objects and specimens that are (sometimes literally) the vessels of the content,” Dunn said. “We have an enormous depth and breadth of areas of study to draw from.”

The Field Museum houses more than 30 million artifacts and specimens including SUE, the largest and most complete T. Rex. SUE is also active on social media, maintaining a lively Twitter account which has over 30,000 followers.

“Underlying everything, we’re trying to do something very basic: Remind people that the experience of learning is joyful,” Dunn said. Staying curious and continuing to learn are important skills to cultivate at any age. For organizations, being able to spark an audience’s imagination so they actively seek to interact with you can help build a foundation for long-lasting customer relationships.

Dunn will be speaking at CMSWire’s Digital Customer Experience (DX) Summit taking place Nov. 13 to 15 at the Radisson Blu Aqua hotel in Chicago. He will give a session titled “Curiosity and Audience Engagement as a KPI” on Nov. 15. We chatted with Dunn about storytelling, what organizations can learn from the museum’s approach to digital customer engagement, and his advice on how to spark audience curiosity.

Don't Always Be Selling 

CMSWire: In today’s DX world, we talk a lot about the importance of storytelling. In your opinion, what makes for successful storytelling?

Dunn: I think it comes down to basics. Stories must be relevant and relatable to your audience. That’s definitely not an original idea, but it’s surprising to me how easy it is to forget that.

In my career, I often have witnessed people in a room only talking about us — our product, our experience and not about why this matters to our audience. I forget this too, sometimes.

I also think one of the most interesting things is to show where we are, and where we might go. This comes straight from the classic ideas of storytelling in writing, theatre or film.

There are a lot of great books about how to construct stories, but for those less inclined to read a book on writing, check out "Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences." Author Nancy Duarte, along with her team, do a great job of bringing a lot of story fundamentals into the business world, or at the very least, out of the theatrical and filmmaking world.

CMSWire: What can organizations in other industries learn from The Field Museum’s work in multi-channel customer engagement and creating digital experiences?

Dunn: Something we’re trying to do more and more is look at the entire customer journey, what I like to call ‘from couch-to-couch.’ Consider your audience’s daily life rhythms, consumption patterns, device usage, needs, family structures, commutes, favorites donuts, you get the picture.

Try to understand them as people rather than as users of your site or buyers of your product. They’re customers, but more importantly they’re people. I think the industry does a good job of building personas, but I think you have to go further and understand their contexts and rhythms.

CMSWire: Where do you look to for inspiration or leadership in multi-channel customer engagement and the creation of digital experiences?

Dunn: Like many people I try to take in a diverse set of influences. From retail brands and movie studios to food trucks on the streets.

Keep your eyes on small companies that don’t advertise because they don’t have the budget. The whole necessity being the mother of invention thing. Digital gives that mantra new leverage.

CMSWire: How should businesses try to spark their customers’ natural curiosity which can then help to facilitate more two-way communication?

Dunn: Be honest and genuine. Don’t always be selling, Alec Baldwin be damned! I’m sure some businesses probably should always be selling. They don’t need to read this. But I think most business need to talk with their audience, not at them. It’s a relationship, and digital has made things a conversation. You no longer get to talk at them.

If you’re not sure what aspects of your product or service you can talk about with your audience, you might need to pause and really look at your business.

CMSWire: As organizations embark on deeper levels of customer engagement, how should they strategize and prepare for what’s ahead?

Dunn: Listen. Listen to customers on social media, ask them questions. Get them involved in your product design process. Learn what they care about, do rigorous user testing. Sometimes, lead the way, surprise them with something they may not have known they wanted, but then still test it, observe them, ask them questions.

And don’t silo your digital engagement efforts from your more traditional customer service people. Everyone in the organization is in charge of engaging your audience.

CMSWire: Your museum’s T. Rex SUE is on Twitter. What do you see as the pros and cons of equipping exhibits with their own social media profiles and personalities?

Dunn: It’s risky, especially if the subject is temperamental and has 8,000 pounds of bite force! It’s not about anthropomorphism, it’s about finding your organization’s voice.

What is your personality? Most importantly, why would that be your personality as an organization? What do you genuinely sound like, regardless of what you want to sound like. SUE is not our entire voice, but we have a lot of ground to cover and having fun here and there never hurts. Fortunately, she agrees!

CMSWire: Which of the Field Museum’s collection of over 30 million specimens are your favorites? What are so appealing about those particular specimens?

Dunn: There is a collection of masks in our Cyrus Tang Hall of China that I love. My favorite mask is this one. There is also a beautiful shadow puppet film in that same gallery which captivates me.

I love our small but mighty meteorites exhibit, especially the video and story about the meteorite that landed in Chelyabinsk, Russia. In our meteorites collection we have a six-billion-year-old meteorite but it’s not on display for the public.

Also, SUE. Obviously! And all of our dinosaurs, for that matter.

Editor's note: Learn more about the DX Summit here.