Reach through representation: story content at the Wellcome Collection
How Wellcome Collection creates compelling stories, amplifies different voices, and gets better reach
I recently spent a fascinating hour chatting to Dr Alice White about story content. Alice is Digital Editor at the Wellcome Collection, a museum in London that connects science, medicine, life, and art.
I got in touch after coming across the museum’s ‘Propose a story’ page. This is where people can find information on submitting a pitch for a story for Wellcome. (See the ‘Propose a story’ page.) It was clear loads of thought had gone into it, and I wanted to find out more.
This page and — as it turns out — the Wellcome Collection’s whole approach to story content resonated with me. It also speaks to questions I hear from clients about how to create compelling stories, amplify different voices, and get better reach.
You’ll find the interview below — I hope you get as much from this conversation as I did.
The strategy behind commissioning story content
“We took the view that the website is the organisation, not just a way of funnelling people to the physical organisation”
Alice started off by taking me back to the beginning of Wellcome’s journey with stories in 2017/18. “From very early on, we took the view that the website is the organisation, not just a way of funnelling people to the physical organisation. Otherwise why would we digitise our collections? Why would we do anything other than provide information that gets people through the doors?”
Seeing the website as just as much a part of the museum as the physical building was a big moment. It meant content could be a way to deliver on their mission to challenge how people think and feel about health. As Alice said: “Our reach is hugely extended if it’s all the people who have access to the internet, not all the people who have access to Euston Road.”
The idea for stories came from this realisation. “We decided that one of the best ways to do that was through telling compelling stories and having the kind of narrative you might have if you walked through an exhibition.”
Stories are also a more evergreen kind of editorial content. Alice explained that this had some advantages for the team: “Thinking about this long term and not anchoring it to the news is helpful. It’s hard to turn a piece around fast enough that it’s still timely when it makes it onto your website. And if you’re trying to link content to something like the news or a particular day, you’re competing with all the other voices on the internet trying to do the same thing. So instead we try to think about evergreen content that will speak to people for a longer time.”
The plan was to commission these stories out, rather than producing them in house. This was partly a pragmatic decision, because with a small team there were limits to how much they could do. But there was another critical element: representation.
How stories add perspective
Commissioning stories would give a different perspective on Wellcome’s collections. Alice told me: “Wellcome has these collections that are to do with health, but that only reflects a certain kind of person, one privileged enough to have their archives preserved and their voice on the record. One of the bigger organisational goals of Wellcome Collection is to think about whose voices we are representing. There’s a lot of lived experience that isn’t reflected there that tells an important alternative story.”
The team also decided to commission people to create the images that go with the stories. Alice told me “My colleague Ben is our image editor. He is so dedicated to finding the right artist to take an approach for a job because they need to connect with this subject. For instance, if you have a piece about racism in healthcare and you’ve got a white privileged artist, that doesn’t work.”
Another big influence on this process has been Wellcome’s Social Justice Curriculum. This initiative got the team thinking about the role of content in addressing structural inequalities.
Why broader representation = greater reach
A big benefit of commissioning stories from outside the organisation has been increased reach. “We were listed as a ‘hidden gem’ and we had a super loyal group of people who were really interested in us and who’d come to almost anything we did. But how do you break away from that core audience? One good way of finding new audiences is to have someone provide a way into things that people might be able to relate to in a different way” Alice said.
With stories, people are being introduced to the Wellcome Collection by someone who they know and trust, in the context of a subject they care about or an issue that affects them. They might never have known about the museum otherwise, but can end up exploring the collection or visiting as a result.
Alice added that guest editors are a crucial part of the process. They can connect with underrepresented communities that Wellcome might not be able to reach otherwise: “We can target it to particular exhibition themes that we have. Recently we’ve partnered with It’s Freezing in LA! who are a climate activism magazine. They produced some amazing pieces from some interesting perspectives. We’ve also worked with disability activists and we recently had one that I’m particularly proud of about eugenics. Those are some difficult stories but telling them is really important. Our guest editor, Subhadra Das, did an amazing job of bringing people together to give people an introduction to a difficult subject.”
See the ‘Toxicity’ series guest edited by It’s Freezing in LA!
See the ‘Eugenics and other stories’ series guest edited by Subhadra Das
Search engines love story content
It turns out that search engines love the Wellcome Collection’s stories too.
Alice told me: “We jokingly refer to it as Google Juice, but it builds up weight when it comes to search engine algorithms. We have some really solid pieces that we know draw people into our site. People are always excited by sex and death. Those are things well represented in our collections and are always going to do a steady trickle of traffic. But there are other things as well. There was huge interest in a piece that we published on autistic women’s experiences that really spoke to people. We had a piece that did surprisingly well about Chinese pillow history too — everyone’s interested in sleep.”
The visitor experience team is a very valuable source of insight about what people are interested in. Alice also uses Moz to find potential keywords that connect to the collection.
See “No you’re not” — a portrait of autistic women by Rosie Barnes
See Chinese pillow history by Yiling Zhang
“It’s a matter of accepting that people know better about their situation than we do and asking what works”
The team has put a lot of thought into the commissioning process too. They had a moment of realisation, sparked by one of their other content strands. “For our events and exhibitions copy, we’d already been thinking a lot about how to foreground things that people might need to know so they can decide whether they can and want to do something with us. Then we were thinking, well, we shouldn’t just do that for events and exhibitions, we should do that for writing with us” Alice said.
Before, things happened in an ad hoc way, with each editor doing their own thing. But they wanted people to have a consistent, fair experience from the start. So they took the same approach as with events: “With the pitching process if we put all the information right there from the beginning and are really honest about what we can’t do as well as what we can do, then at least that gives people the knowledge to not spend any extra time on something that won’t work for them.”
They carried out peer research and got feedback on the copy. This led to a commissioning page that’s very clear, but also very detailed. It gives the reader lots of information about what it will be like to work with the Wellcome Collection. Alice said: “The ‘Propose a story’ page was important to us in thinking about how much information can we put there at the forefront so that people know and feel more comfortable asking us for things that they might need.”
It’s not just about the commissioning page though — the whole process is participant-led. Whether it’s ghost-writing for people who have barriers when it comes to writing, offering different ways of handling feedback on a draft, relaxing deadlines, or different payment methods, there’s plenty of flexibility. “It’s a matter of accepting that people know better about their situation than we do and asking what works,” Alice said.
Paying storytellers is crucial. Alice explained: “One of the things that’s come out from talking to other organisations about our work is how privileged we are to have a budget to do that.” She added that organisations without a budget may be able to make a good case for the investment: “For a lot of organisations, it will fit in with wider strategic goals. You can and should put a budget towards it. And that actually, in the grand scheme of things, how much you pay to commission a piece of work is not necessarily as much as you would pay for some big advertising scheme or something.”
What’s next for stories at Wellcome Collection
All this great work doesn’t stop Alice and her team from wanting to do more. Audio content is one area they’re working on, so they can make content more accessible to visually-impaired readers, beyond just optimising for screen readers.
Another is bridging the gap between stories and the collection. Alice explained: “One of the things we’ve had feedback on is that people might be looking at the stories and engaging with them and thinking, ‘Wow, this is really lived experience led and thoughtful’. And then they’ll go through to the collections to look at something and bam, they’re confronted with this frankly racist or ableist or horrible stuff with very little context. One of the things that we’re doing across the digital team now is thinking about how we integrate things together so that people who might be interested in looking at stuff in the collections can do that in a way that doesn’t feel quite as jarring and difficult, without preventing researchers who are using historical terms from being able to find the things that they need.”
- Guest editors and storytellers can add new layers of perspective that writers from within your organisation don’t have, and that can make your content more inclusive and relatable.
- Those guest writers can bring an audience with them who might never interact with you otherwise
- Story content doesn’t have to be connected to the news cycle or seasonal events — it can be evergreen if you base it on topics people care about
- Ask your guest writers what they need from you to be able to participate and feel comfortable doing so
- Pay your contributors, but offer flexibility if it might affect benefits or other support they receive