Manifesto To Save The Audio Guide Industry

Having spent 8 years at Antenna Audio, I was recently sharing some thoughts about the audio guide industry with a friend and former colleague.

For years, audio tour providers forged themselves a niche market providing interpretive content to museums and historic sites (and other non-art attractions) by producing audio content in collaboration with clients, and delivering that content to visitors on portable audio devices (and more recently, multimedia players) for onsite use. That model lasted nearly 5 decades and is still predominant today.

However, the delivery vehicles are irreversibly shifting towards portability while content is becoming increasingly shared, open source and user-generated. And to add insult to injury, the economic climate is forcing many cultural institutions to bring this expertise in-house, further eroding the industry’s heretofore quasi-monopoly on such services. I’ve often wondered if the industry will demonstrate sufficient innovation to survive these trends that are eating away at its traditional model.

In “The Curse of the Mogul, What’s Wrong with the World’s Leading Media Companies” (By Knee, Greenwald and Seave, published by Portfolio 2009 – http://bit.ly/9yOBfb), the authors argue that traditional media companies have failed to deliver profitable returns and shareholder value due to a fundamental and consistent disconnect between the strategies (i.e. business models) pursued by their leaders and the structures of the industries in which they operate.

Granted the cultural audio industry is different from the film, publishing and news outlets sectors. Still, all are about the creation and the delivery of content, and to some extent, the epilogue in “The Curse of the Mogul“€ can be extrapolated to the audio industry in so far as the model employed by the main industry players is no longer adapted to the structure of the business because of the erosion of content creation and the diversification of delivery platforms.

So for the industry to remain competitive and adapt to the shifts in the business environment, it needs to replace an already high cost/low margin model with a sustainable and profitable one. Therein lies the challenge. Historically, audio tour providers offered a one-stop-shop-all solution to their clients: hardware and content. Hardware (R&D, manufacturing, maintenance, shipping and replacing equipment) is a huge drain on cash, while content alone, except for the now rare blockbuster exhibition tour (by and far, few), has never been a money making proposition.

So how to survive? First by letting go of hardware – all of it -€“ and outsourcing it instead or letting sites furnish themselves; and second, by focusing on content design. It is never about the technology. It is about the experience. The experience is the message, not the device. Providers should focus all their efforts by designing exciting content that can be fed into multiple delivery vehicles and across platforms. And the content should elicit learning and curiosity by searching for and discovering information as we all do when searching the web, and by allowing sharing and content generation from users themselves. Developing mobile apps is where the industry should invest.

But perhaps, interpretation per se ought to find a home with exhibition designers whose job then becomes not only to imagine the space but also to optimize the visitor experience, including such services as audio and multimedia content, in collaboration with content designers, curators, educators and the public.

Originally published in February 2010.

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