Powdered Wigs and Smartphones

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Published on October 8, 2017, at 4:39 p.m.
by Maggie Schneider.

Tricorn hats, horse-drawn carriages, flintlock muskets and … iPhones — all of these elements are now indispensable at Colonial Williamsburg, one of the premier living history museums in the country. Even though its purpose is to educate people about the past, the site has found ways to integrate cutting-edge digital technology and social media into its brand experience.

Of course, a couple hundred years before The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation was created, the area was indeed, as the foundation’s website puts it, “the political, cultural, and educational center of what was then the largest, most populous, and most influential of the American colonies.” Now the location of that center has been preserved to show the public what life was like at the founding of the United States.

Though the aesthetics of the area are stuck in the 18th century, the programming at the site has kept the revolutionary spirit of the era, encouraging visitors to return year after year.

The latest innovation: Colonial Williamsburg Explorer, the smartphone app that acts as a personal assistant, tour guide and publicist for guests. Those who download the app from the iTunes App Store or Google Play can purchase tickets to events, use interactive maps to navigate the town’s streets, access exclusive coupons and take colonial-themed photos to share with friends.

The app fits seamlessly into the museum experience, giving real-time updates on events and character appearances. Colonial Williamsburg and the app developers at SapientRazorfish have had to strike a balance between engaging tech-savvy visitors with a compelling platform and distracting them from the overall mission of the museum.

To find this balance, they took the unique aspects of Williamsburg — daily events, roaming characters and the 18th century period clothing — and created the key features of the app around  them. This approach can work for any company that wants to up its game in the digital or social media world.

When creating a social media or digital campaign, a unique idea goes a long way to help the campaign stand out in the virtual sphere. But the key is not just in finding an off-the-wall idea; it’s in finding the idea that takes the unique aspects of the organization and puts a digital twist on them. This has worked for other large organizations such as when the Girl Scouts leveraged Twitter to help people find cookies or when WWF used emojis to raise awareness of endangered animals.

Colonial Williamsburg may look like it’s still waiting for Benjamin Franklin to conduct experiments with electricity, but below the surface lies a team well-versed in the new digital world. So the next time you journey with them back to the past, make sure you bring along your smartphone — it’ll fit right in.

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