How to Create a World Class Audio Tour

Zak Martellucci - Senior Creative Consultant

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As a kid visiting museums, I approached audio tours with caution. I knew that the information on these devices would fill in a lot of the facts and details I otherwise may miss in the exhibits, but I also wanted to view the museum at my own pace and to not have to carry around an extra device.

Some of the beautiful, historic preservation seen throughout Charleston, South Carolina.

As the technology improved, audio tours became more in sync with the visitor experience; the devices generally became smaller, and you could “choose your adventure” with a number pad that correlated to the exhibits. Great!

And audio tour technology continues to develop. Today, many museums are transitioning their audio experiences to mobile apps, which allows for greater distribution and functionality of the material.

That’s why I was THRILLED when Historic Charleston Foundation reached out to Museum Hack to create an audio tour experience for visitors to the city. Today’s post is a case study on how we created that tour, including specific best practices we applied to create a world-class audio experience.

What You Don’t Know About Charleston

The Historic Charleston Foundation (“HCF”), founded in 1947, has an important mission: to preserve and protect the integrity of the architectural, historical and cultural heritage of Charleston, South Carolina.

To “preserve”, taken literally, is, of course, ensuring that the buildings, monuments and other objects of Charleston remain in their present condition for as long as possible. Another way to think of preservation is promotion; ensuring that the city’s cultural heritage reaches the hearts and minds of visitors for generations to come.

With this mission in mind, HCF reached out to Museum Hack to collaborate on an exciting new project: an audio tour app to tell the amazing preservation stories dating back to the mid-1600s, including the stories of two historic houses and a city guide.

Let’s get into it…

A view of the workyard at the Aiken-Rhett House, one of the house museums where we developed a new audio tour.

Building An Audio Tour Experience From Scratch

The HCF audio tour experience took the form of a mobile app and had two main components:

  • The City Guide, with 30 audio tour stops, and 300+ additional text stops highlighting the larger preservation history of the city; and
  • The two historic house tours, including stories of the families and enslaved people who called the houses home, with both stories meant to preserve the heritage as well as educate visitors with the until now “untold stories” of these houses.

Approaching an app, or any project, of this scale involves significant planning, blueprinting, and brainstorming. We drew from the experience and expertise of Museum Hack team members across the company, including audience engagement, strategic planning, marketing and more; all in collaboration with HCF to ensure the audio tour experience we created would match their expectations. Specifically, Museum Hack has a unique style and voice, and we worked closely with HCF staff to refine the stories to match THEIR voice.

Here are four best practices we applied to create a world-class audio tour experience:

  • We built the City Guide as a nonlinear system. Like child-me, many visitors want to experience your space at their own pace and on their own path; moving to the pieces which catch their eye or inspire them. We built the City Guide as a collection of audio and text stops, so that as visitors explore the city they can use a map function on the app to find the preservation stories close to them.
  • We turned the un-highlights into highlights. Instead of telling only the best-known stories of Charleston’s rich history, we created a comprehensive resource that also included the, until now, untold stories. Because of this, the app has the unique opportunity of sharing the story of Charleston’s founding, as well as its African American history, women’s history, immigrant history, LGBTQ history, and working-class history.
  • Research, research, research. We used the usual methods of research for this project, including books, internet resources and other literature. To go a step deeper, we also interviewed Charleston residents to learn their personal stories and experience, and combined these with the already documented resources to create engaging, memorable stories.
  • Shorten those stories! Live guest experiences allow for a flexible approach to story length; you can start with the most memorable elements and then gauge your audience’s reaction, adding more facts and context as needed. With audio experiences, the story isn’t quite as flexible. After testing numerous formats, we’ve found that short stories work best to engage listeners. You can use our Story Shortening Exercise to help with this. Start with a four-minute story, and then try to tell that same story in one minute. What did you leave out? Use this one minute story as the base for your recording, and add in additional content as needed.

With these considerations, and others, we created a unique and exciting experience that visitors to Charleston will learn from and share for years to come.

Our Review: “We are obsessed with this fresh new experience…”

Museum Hacker Jen Browne saying hello from outside HCF’s headquarters.

Museum Hack is best known for our renegade tours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Museum of Natural History, Art Institute of Chicago and other amazing institutions across the country. From the moment we started, our guides have been obsessed with the live experience, crafting tours that engage and delight audiences.

Building an audio tour experience with the Historic Charleston Foundation was a fresh opportunity to reimagine the way visitors engage with a space. We collaborated to infuse Museum Hack’s style and approach into the app, while maintaining the reverent tone of the historic houses, content, and institution.

Are you working on an audio experience of your space? Email us at [email protected], or submit your contact on our consulting page; we’d love to chat about best practices and how we can help create a world class experience for your visitors.

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