GROWING UP IN HOBOKEN, N.J. right across the Hudson river from Manhattan, the skyline defined by the Twin Towers was the backdrop to my young life. I would later go through the towers every day to commute to high school. On September 11, 2001, I was an NYU undergrad living in student dorms on Gold Street, just blocks from the Twin Towers. My experience that day was like that of many thousands of other New Yorkers. It was surreal. It was horrible. I eventually found myself running from the falling towers and the speeding cloud of dust and debris.
My memories from that morning are still vivid. Over the years that followed, I wondered if I could bring myself to visit the site and re- engage with that day. The answer I gave myself was generally “no.” Eventually, I told myself that maybe I would visit the memorial, but not the museum below it.
Before I could muster the strength to visit, I was contacted about a job at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum to lead the institution’s marketing efforts. This position was one I did not take lightly. I knew it would be difficult for me to be surrounded daily by the story of 9/11, but I ultimately joined the institution because I felt that properly promoting such a meaningful place would be a special responsibility.
The museum is unlike other New York City museums in some significant ways—for one, it is situated at the site of what many people feel is the most traumatic day in American history. Because of this, it is a place many people feel a great responsibility to visit while some are more anxious about visiting. I found that the museum was attracting tri-state residents at a significantly lower rate than other NYC cultural institutions. Perhaps locals felt this anxiety and hesitation more than others? I expected that many felt as I once had about visiting.
Through market research, our team concluded that many New Yorkers did not feel ready to re-engage with 9/11. They had already lived through it, and for many, that was enough. In fact, there were a great number of locals who intended to visit the museum but were just not ready. Both a challenge and an opportunity: How do we get arguably the most discerning audience in the United States to engage with possibly their most traumatic experience?
As New Yorkers ourselves, we knew this had to be done with sincerity and authenticity. The strategy of the “Our City. Our Story.” campaign recognizes that everyone over a certain age has a 9/11 story and those who were in and around New York City have a firsthand account. This concept gave us a strong foundation of community and identity around which to build a campaign. We wanted to gently remind New Yorkers that the 9/11 Memorial & Museum represents their city and their story. We also saw this group as a critical component of our audience and their engagement was greatly important to the health of our institution.
We then identified a key image that would capture this narrative. Our head of creative, Shanell Bryan, recommended the image of the Statue of Liberty replica artifact which, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, stood outside the Midtown firehouse of Engine 54/Ladder 4/Battalion 9, a firehouse that lost 15 of its men at the World Trade Center. While in front of the firehouse, countless people covered the statue in uniform patches, miniature American flags, money, mass cards, rosary beads, condolence notes, souvenir postcards, angel figurines and other mementoes. It was a striking image of the iconic statue, whose mementoes represented her injury but she still had her strength, representing the resilience of our city.
Accompanying this key image to be used in print and out of home, we wanted strong video content that told this common New York story of hesitation to revisit 9/11, but take it a step further in placing the 9/11 Memorial & Museum as the next chapter in this 9/11 story. To do this, we found hesitant New Yorkers and invited them personally to the museum. We filmed an initial interview with each person explaining his or her feelings about visiting. The reluctant New Yorkers would say, “It’s always in the back of my head that I should go, but…” and “I’m not sure it’s going to teach me anything.”
It’s time to come back because you can contrast your memory with the reality and you can grieve, you can learn from it and you can move on.
We also filmed their experience in the museum and an interview about their feelings after the visit. The narrative across all participants was profoundly positive—after visiting, all expressed appreciation for the experience and the mission of the institution. The participants said things like, “It’s time to come back because you can contrast your memory with the reality and you can grieve, you can learn from it and you can move on.” These video testimonials became the foundation of much of our campaign.
In developing this strategy, we realized that telling the New York story of 9/11 needed a long format medium as well, as there are so many rich stories to be told. My boss and External Affairs department head Michael Frazier recommended that we produce a podcast series profiling engaging New York personalities as a key content piece to the “Our City. Our Story.” initiative. Soon the “Our City. Our Story.” podcast series was born with our first season featuring such names as Robert De Niro and Katie Couric.
We launched the campaign in mid- March 2016 with a robust digital plan across display and social media, leveraging our video content accompanied by the release of our podcast series on iTunes and a full- page New York Times ad in the annual Museum issue, followed by a subway campaign and a tri-state cable television buy in mid-April through to peak summer season.
The results were extremely encouraging. We managed to increase local tri-state attendance by 20 percent in 2016 compared to 2015. Now in 2017 we have just launched the second phase of the campaign with all- new imagery, video assets and a unique branded website, ocos.911memorial.org. Our visitors from the tri-state area have in- creased again, up 11 percent compared to the same period in 2016.
For many New Yorkers, visiting the museum is still not easy. But to the degree that our team’s work has helped New Yorkers face that traumatic day and grieve and heal, I am gratified. I wasn’t alone in my feelings. And if working here has taught me one thing, it’s that we are all in this together.