More Than Just A Backdrop: Creating Meaningful Experiences For The Instagram Generation.

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Toronto may not be one of the most Instagrammable cities in the world (anywhere tropical probably has us beat) but there are still quite a number of spots in the city that make for a great post. Some notable ones include the CN Tower, the “Toronto” sign outside of city hall and (now) the many Toronto Raptors murals

But when a pop-up experience comes to the city… well, let’s just say that Toronto loves to line up for stuff, whether it’s novelty food, artist merchandise, or a photo-up. Although I’m not a fan of long lines or crowded spaces, I appreciate the fact that people go through great lengths just to be able to say, “I was there.” 

Several months ago, a friend asked if I would go with her to a pop-up museum in town. I won’t name which one, but I will tell you it travels through multiple cities and I had already seen it all over Instagram. I was excited to go see what all the hype was about. 

The tickets were $32.50 per person, and it would have been nearly $40 if we went on the weekend. When you buy your tickets, you also schedule a time to visit. No problem, I thought. It was the same when Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors exhibit came to the Art Gallery of Ontario. They have to schedule you in because of the sheer amount of visitors. I figured it would be just as beautiful and immersive.

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Boy, was I wrong. 

Maybe my expectations were too high, but I was expecting more than a dozen backdrops meant for the Instagram crowd. I didn’t sense that there was any intention behind the pop-up besides cashing in on hopeful Instagrammers. A lot of the installations were timed in order to keep people moving through the building. The most popular installation had a time limit of 90 seconds. Snap a pic and get out. All in all, the museum takes about half an hour to get through even if you’re lining up for pictures.

I’m not alone in my experience. Ticket prices for these pop-ups usually cost between $20-$40 and it’s recommended that visits are scheduled ahead of time to avoid long lines. The people behind the pop-ups are generally a mix of artists, entrepreneurs, and brands. 

In the age of Instagram, visually-striking cities and spaces are experiencing an influx of tourists. Many of the locals in these spaces have expressed concern about managing all the visitors. For example, residents of Choi Hung Estate, a public housing apartment complex in Hong Kong, began posting notices around the complex asking people to stop taking photos on the property. And a family-owned sunflower field in Ontario had to deny visitors altogether after thousands of people trespassed without paying for entry. 

While it’s easy to focus on the annoying negatives, there are some positives too. Museums around the world have decided to be more photo-friendly, changing their policies to reflect the values and attitudes of a younger generation and attract more visitors. Some, like the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, have designated areas for photos but ask that the rest of the exhibits be photo-free.

It’s not hard to see why the business of ‘experience’ is changing. Every visitor with a phone and a social media account generates free promotion for these establishments. And there’s nothing wrong with taking photos to document life experiences. But the question is, are we actually engaging with immersive experiences in a meaningful way?

A research study conducted by Alixandra Barasch, a marketing professor at NYU, found that participants who visited tourist destinations with the intention of taking photos to share on social media enjoyed their experience less. They were also more likely to include photos of themselves in albums and experienced increased levels of anxiety around portraying themselves in a positive light. 

In the age of Instagram, how will brands and institutions find a balance between creating meaningful experiences and attracting visitors to increase awareness about their establishments? After visiting that pop-up exhibit and feeling disappointed, I began thinking about how brands could improve their “experiences”. 

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In an article for Fast Company, Jordan Ferney, the founder of Color Factory, details how she designs memorable experiences. I thought, Finally, someone who understands! Here are some of those tips:

Partner with local talent

At the pop-up exhibit I attended, the different rooms were cool and visually striking, but I didn't see any mention of artists that contributed or collaborated with the exhibit. I wanted to learn more, but there was no opportunity for that. Color Factory makes sure to feature the names of all the artists, collaborators, sponsors, and non-profits involved with the project. There’s more of a community element and it encourages visitors to seek out more information about the work. 

Be fully immersive

Instead of small, cramped spaces that consist of only a backdrop and (if you’re lucky) a prop, why not create spaces for people to see, hear, and play? Instead of counting down 90 seconds from the time a guest steps in front of a backdrop, let people explore and experience the space. At the Color Factory, “nearly everything is designed to be touched, and invites play, from a room of xylophone chimes to a disco-themed dance room that plays tunes.” 

Think of the people

At Color Factory, there is something for everyone. Inclusive design, from kid-friendly activities to areas that only adults can experience, has added to the exhibit’s popularity. 

“As a mother of three, Ferney was also sensitive to a particular annoyance of photo-friendly spaces… The installations take this into account with photo booths built into the space; similar to photo packages offered at amusement parks, visitors are given a card to swipe at each station, then receive the images by email at the very end. The system doubles as a convenient way to manage crowds, get everyone in the photo together, and temporarily get them focused on the space, rather than their smartphones.”

By blending aesthetically-pleasing elements with thoughtful curation, artists and brands can work together to create experiences that will stay with their audience for longer than it takes to upload a photo to Instagram.

Let’s make experiences about experiencing things again.