Museums and Social Media Wisdom

Written by Erin Branham. 



If you’ve been reading our blog for a while, you probably know that I have a particular interest in the possibilities of social media. I’ve been researching the subject like mad because I think museums as a field, and museum educators in particular, are not using social media to its fullest potential.  While there are a lot of people writing about how to use social media effectively, their advice is almost always aimed at for-profit businesses – but there’s still a great deal of wisdom to be gleaned from them.  The information I’ve found that is aimed at non-profits tends to be about how to use social media for the purpose of fund-raising, like Beth Kantner’s excellent blog or Social Media for Nonprofits. Great resources for us all – but social media can be a lot more than just a fund-raising tool.  My own understanding of the potential is constantly evolving, so sometimes I’m a little embarrassed by some of my earlier posts which now strike me as rather elementary, but then I realize that this is the essential element of social media. Learning out loud is a major aspect of blogging, and that’s a good thing.

One of the main bits of advice given to for-profit businesses is that Content Rules (this book is next on my reading list). Businesses may struggle with developing interesting content around their products, but museums are awash in great content.  In fact we have so much that our challenge is not figuring out what to deliver, but how to deliver it continuously in bite-sized chunks as fits the social media stream.  This can be hard for us initially since we value deep and detailed exploration of subjects, and the short post, 140 character limit nature of social media can feel like it’s the polar opposite of that.  Additionally, the way social media seems to be handled in museums is making it difficult to overcome this perception – and it is only a perception.

Several posts back, I recommended Chris Brogan’s Social Media 101: Tactics and Tips to Develop your Business Online. Since then I’ve also read Brogan’s and Julien Smith’s Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation and Build Trust and am currently reading their latest book, The Impact Equation: Are You Making a Difference or Just Making Noise? Brogan also runs a popular blog, which provides advice on optimizing your social media presence.

Brogan is good.  He is also light and easy to read.  Now that I’m reading further, he strikes me as a beginner’s mentor.  On the other hand, since most of us are beginners, he is certainly a good place to start. Brogan focuses primarily on blogging as the centerpiece of your social media and he provides a lot of tips and how-to advice as well as good arguments for treating social media seriously as a part of your business strategy. However, I haven’t found him and his collaborators to be all that helpful on the bigger issues of developing a comprehensive social media strategy, or – the part that I believe is really vital – helping businesses (read: museums) think through how to structure staff and time resources to handle social media.  What I keep hearing from museums, and what I’m seeing in my own institution, is that social media assignments are being distributed among several staff members in addition to other duties.  Frequently social media is seen as an aspect of communications and marketing, or gets added to the web group’s responsibilities by virtue of their digital nature. Rarely is there a considered approach to social media strategy that coordinates the museum’s presence across platforms.  Even more rarely is there any training for staff – whether they be those who are assigned to do the actual posting or those who are recruited by the coordinators to contribute content. Rarest of all is the museum that has gone so far as to hire a social media manager.  Yet, marketing research shows that social media, both referrals from one’s personal network and businesses’ own social media posting, has enormous influence on people’s decisions.

What is occurring to me now is that the perceptions mentioned above – that to be successful on social media we have to deliver superficial but interesting short posts, mere tidbits, museum-content lite, and that this is just a burdensome extra duty loaded onto curators, conservators, educators and administrators – those perceptions are dead wrong.

What We Could be Doing with Social Media

I just finished Renegades Write the Rules: How the Digital Royalty Use Social Media to Innovate by Amy Jo Martin. Martin runs a successful company which helps brands and celebrities fashion their social media strategies.  First among the good ideas in this book is that most people structure their communications strategy in this order: announcing what they do, how they do it and then maybe they talk about why they do it.  Martin recommends flipping that order so that you lead with why you do what you do. In other words, present your vision first. Then talk about how you do it, and then you can start talking about what you do.  For an art museum this pattern might look like: We believe art is a transformative part of the human experience. We’ve brought together a group of really fine objects with smart, creative people to craft great ideas and moments of reflection.  We run a museum.  Would you like to be a part of it?

This isn’t a wildly radical idea for mission-driven organizations like museums, but as I look at museums’ social media I don’t generally see that kind of message coming through. We may assume that anyone who likes our Facebook page or follows our Twitter stream already believes in our vision – but that would be an excellent assumption to test using social media.  And here’s the truth about social media.  While each individual post or tweet is short, the continuing stream constitutes an ongoing conversation through which your message and relationship with your audience evolves. Social media provides the opportunity for us to explore our content more deeply than an exhibition or our permanent collection installations do.  The contact, while in short bursts, is potentially much more sustained. It is for this reason that a detailed social media plan is vital.  Right now, we’re all tending to throw out unconnected bits of information from post to post.  What we could be developing is week-by-week, month-by month content plans on specific objects, collections or subject areas that constitute sustained explorations of our material. The short burst nature of social media would also allow this exploration to occur in tandem with our audiences. As they respond to initial content, we alter the trajectory of the exploration based on their interests – much the way a conversation evolves on the gallery floor during a tour.

Beyond even that, social media provides an unprecedented opportunity to invite our audiences into our deeper processes and intents. Imagine these scenarios. What if you put up occasional posts on your Facebook page or tweets asking your audience to comment on:

  • why art or science or history is important – to society, the community, or to them personally
  • why the preservation of a particular object is meaningful and/ or necessary (or not)
  • why some aspect of your mission should (or should not) stay in your focus
  • what they think of the three main goals of your current strategic plan, or the one you’re developing

Those last two no doubt sent some prickles up spines.  Martin, Brogan and other social media experts stress that success in social media depends on personality, transparency and vulnerability. Martin was very clear in pointing out that asking the general public to weigh in on these kinds of questions doesn’t mean that you automatically alter your mission to meet the polling results. This is ill-advised business policy; it does not build trust (think of your opinion of a politician who appears to be too easily influenced by polls), but the data that is generated is good for you to know and can indeed guide decisions as you move along.  What does build trust with your audience is asking them for their opinions.  People like to give their opinions, and museum audiences are smart, creative people.  On top of that people are generally okay with it if you’re up front about the fact that you’re just asking and won’t necessarily change anything based on the answers.  That is, tell people what you’re doing and why. Unmask your motives, is how Martin puts it.

Most museums are currently using social media to advertise exhibition and program offerings, to offer unconnected content tidbits, or to make membership or development pitches – all of which are perfectly fine material.  But none of these unmask our motives.  None provide real transparency, and museums in general tend to be allergic to vulnerability.  We all also still fight our tendency to communicate in the institutional voice which is antithetical to the personality which leads to success in social media.

Educators – what is your involvement in your museum’s social media? Do you contribute content or ideas for social media campaigns? Have you considered running a social media platform for the education department itself? What would you post if you did?

3 thoughts on “Museums and Social Media Wisdom

  1. dana allen-greil (@danamuses) says:

    Like you, I’ve read dozens of social media books written for the private sector–for public relations, for marketing, etc. Some have a good tip here or there but many either too basic, too focused on profit, or filled with jargon rather than real insight. Groundswell is a good one that stands out from the pack–it is based on solid research and not merely one person’s opinion. It is high-level and emphasizes strategy and audience trends more than specific tactics.

    For nonprofits, the books Beth Kanter has written with KD Paine and Allison Fine (The Networked Nonprofit & Measuring the Networked Nonprofit) have a lot of relevant advice, although it can sometimes be hard to extrapolate advocacy-oriented examples to museums.

    Have you taken a look at “Conversations with Visitors: Social Media in Museums”?
    It includes both case studies and broader topics like evaluation and developing a strategy. While some of the essays were written in 2010 (ancient in social media terms!), I haven’t found any other museum-specific publications that address this topic as completely. It is a bit pricey…but you can find two of the chapters about Twitter on my website:

    I’d also recommend “Social Media and Organizational Change” from Museums and the Web (disclosure: co-authored by me) in terms of thinking about staffing structures and changing organizational cultures:
    Colleen Dilen also recently posted about staffing on her very relevant blog, Know Your Own Bone:

    If you come across other good resources, please do share!


    • Erin says:

      Hi Dana – thanks so much for this! Groundswell is another one on my reading list that I haven’t gotten to yet, but this is the third or fourth recommendation I’ve run across for it. I’ve looked at Beth Kanter’s books, but as you say, I find them more relevant for social action nonprofits than cultural organizations. Thanks for the recs on your own writings – you have so much great advice, I’m glad it’s getting shared with our readers. Your article Social Media and Organizational Change is wonderful! I particularly agree with your idea about the necessity of trust within the organizaiton to build a successful social media strategy. How has this evolved in your own job since you wrote the paper?


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