What chatting with a dinosaur can teach journalists about engagement

Bridget Thoreson
Jun 25 · 5 min read

This is part of a series on engaging audiences outside of journalism. Got an idea for a project we should feature? Let us know!

Should they create a Twitter account for the titanosaur?

It was 2018, and staff at the Field Museum in Chicago were discussing how best to introduce Máximo, the museum’s new cast of the largest dinosaur ever discovered. The Field’s famous Tyrannosaurus rex, Sue, had been on Twitter since 2009 (Sue currently has over 55,000 followers). But what worked for Sue wouldn’t necessarily work for their new museum-mate.

“We basically decided no, no more dinosaurs on Twitter, one is plenty,” said Caitlin Kearney, digital content and engagement manager for the natural history museum.

“Twitter as a platform is so perfect for a sassy T. Rex but not as much for this large, lumbering herbivore,” said Social Media Manager Katharine Uhrich. “You just imagine Máximo getting on Twitter and totally getting beat up.”

Kearney and Uhrich recently shared their experience launching an AI-driven messaging service for Máximo at a webinar for members of Hearken’s engagement innovators community. Although they were talking about a fossil and not today’s headlines, many of the lessons from this museum project can also apply to engagement journalists — if we’re willing to dig beneath the surface.

What they did and why

Before even considering what platforms would work for this project, the team thought through what persona the dino would have, and how that would come through.

“That is really what breathes life into this project,” Uhrich said. “It’s not just a transactional chatbot, but it’s actually a character that we’ve fleshed out.”

As a platform, Twitter was out. But the team still wanted an open-ended way for people to interact with Máximo, that would work for both visitors and people who may never come to the Chicago museum.

They decided to build a chatbot.

They started small — three team members heading out on to the museum floor with a card sorting activity to test the idea. They worked with a web development agency to create the tech. And then came the content.

“You’re basically trying to work for infinity questions,” Uhrich said. “How do you create some responses that can capture those bigger, more vague inquiries but then also have some really specific responses so that if a 5-year-old is asking ‘What does your poop look like,’ they get an actual response.”

It helped, they found, to establish early on what areas Máximo was prepared to talk about. And so, after building up the chatbot library and launching early to staff and members, Máximo went live (for the first time in more than 100 million years) in May 2019.

Initial results

When your project goal is education and inspiration, how do you measure success? Right now the team is evaluating how often Máximo is answering questions correctly and how many messages are being sent to Máximo that indicate a friendly intent.

“I’ve been very surprised to see the number of people who are coming over and saying, ‘Hey, I talked to you yesterday, it’s me again,’” Kearney said.

Lessons for newsrooms

Even if you aren’t planning on building a persona for a sauropod anytime soon, the Máximo messaging project contains plenty of best practices for newsrooms with more recent artifacts to display.

  • Test, test, test. Originally the team was considering launching the project in Facebook Messenger, until user testing showed that very few people had Messenger on their phone.

“We also learned from this that you have to take this hypothetical user testing with a grain of salt,” Kearney said. “You ask people if they’d be interested in doing a thing and they’re like, ‘Yeah, of course I’d try that.’”

But it wasn’t until they had an answer-response prototype built that they were able to understand how people would use the platform.

“It’s worth doing user testing at multiple stages, for sure,” she said.

Join Hearken’s Engagement Innovators Community to see the full webinar.

  • Get buy-in within your organization. Uhrich and Kearney are in the marketing department on the digital team, which currently has four staffers. They worked to involve stakeholders from across the museum from the beginning of the project. Certain colleagues would care about which grade levels would be able to use the messaging; science staff needed to know it was accurate; docents needed to know if people were using it on the museum floor.

“The earlier you can involve collaborators in a project, the more they feel that they had a hand in shaping it,” Kearney said.

And the more people have a stake in the project, the more they will advocate for it.

“When it’s a new project, when it’s more cutting-edge technology, it’s really easy to get distracted, and go down different rabbit holes. And (our project manager) did a really great job of making sure that we accomplished what we set out to do,” Uhrich said.

By pausing to evaluate whether they hit the mark and then seeing how they can improve it going forward they were able to stay on track.

“This is never a project that’s going to be done,” she said, “you can always add more.”

If you enjoyed reading this, check out our engagement innovators community. You’ll get access to our full webinar library, Slack community, newsletter and much more. Learn more here.

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help: http://www.wearehearken.com/

Thanks to Hearken

Bridget Thoreson

Written by

Storyteller and audience advocate. Engagement strategist at Hearken, helping newsrooms pursue public-powered journalism.

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help: http://www.wearehearken.com/

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