To Tweet or Not to Tweet in the Museum

I recently had a conversation with a museum educator about how twitter can be used to engage audiences. We were speaking specifically about using twitter hashtags in an art history lecture-based course she runs (If you want to know more about using twitter this way read Tweeting for Class: Using Social Media to Enable Student Co-Construction of Lectures). This educator told me that she thought what I was proposing was very exciting but that she doubted any of her students had twitter accounts because of the demographic – she said most were over 40. She had a point. Why use something if the audience doesn’t? What is the point of investing time in a tool that won’t reach people? This led me to wonder if this is true only for her course or is it also the case for all visitors to the museum she works in?

Museum Demographics – Onsite Vs. Online

I figured the best way to answer my questions was to look at visitor studies. The first thing I did was start looking at the demographics of museums that have a lot of social media offerings to see if their demographics were younger. But then I realized that there can be a big difference between our onsite and online visitors so I started looking for visitor studies done on museums’ online visitors. I found quite a few but all on museum websites specifically, there was no mention of social media (we have done some studies on social media but none that I can find that look at the demographics of our followers and if our onsite visitors use social media).

Demographics vs. Psychographics

Furthermore, we aren’t looking at demographics anymore – it’s like so passé. The trendy thing to do (and most museum people I know are pretty trendy, I’ve been having to conquer my fear of hipsters because of this) is to switch to psychographics when segmenting visitors. John Falk’s visitor identity related motivations is the dominant visitor segmentation (an example of this type of study is Exploring the Relationship Between Visitor Motivation and Engagement in Online Museum Audiences – a study of the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s web visitors).

Ageism and Social Media Assumptions

Like a typical young person I’m working on the assumption that an older demographic equals non-social media users. But this is not the case. Maybe at one point it was (or maybe it’s just a generalization we like to think is true like how Canadians are polite, Americans are loud and Brits are repressed). I was recently visiting family up in Scotland many of whom I hadn’t seen in at least 7 years and was surprised at how many of my father’s cousins  knew what is going on in my life because I’m Facebook friends with them (these are 50+ year-olds). But don’t just go on my anecdotal experience – look at the numbers from the study Pew Internet: Social Networking (yes it does say young people are most likely to use social networking sites but it also shows that 77% of 30-49 year-olds and 52% of 50-64 year-olds use social networking sites).

What Am I Actually Asking?

Okay so I have been talking about two things here:

1)      Who are our social media followers? What are their demographics?

2)      Do our onsite visitors (i.e. those that physically visit the museum) use social media?

I’m curious about number one but to answer my initial question I think I need to focus on number two. We need to start doing visitor studies to find out if our museum visitors are using social media to determine whether it makes sense to invest in using these tools in the physical museum. It’s important to keep using these tools to reach online audiences as we already do but I’ve been wanting to apply social media tools in the galleries. Armed with research on if our audience would like this/is even interested, mangers could decide if it makes sense to devote time and money to developing it. I believe it could make the museum-going experience much more engaging but only if the visitors use it.

So if anyone knows of someone doing a study about onsite museum visitors and social media or if you know of someone who will fund me to do it please let me know!

Have you used social media in your galleries? Has it been successful?


9 thoughts on “To Tweet or Not to Tweet in the Museum

  1. Trish says:

    Great subject! I am preparing for a presentation to our museum staff about the digital engagement wing of the Museum. In my research here is a statistic that surprised me regarding online audiences:

    Percentage of online users per age group – 18-29 yrs old (92%), 30-49yrs old (75%), 50-64yrs old (57%), 65+yrs old (38%)

    Most of our onsite audience falls in the 50-64 yrs old age range. According to this research, we can assume that the majority of this age group is online . However, our Facebook followers average age is 35-45 yrs old women. However, the same study reported 16% of online adults say they use Twitter, significantly smaller population.

    As a museum working to expand our digital engagement, we see the benefits of tweeting in the Museum and will continue to have these opportunities for engagement. Hopefully, the audience will follow the trend.


  2. Mairin says:

    Hi Trish, thanks for your comment. The numbers I quoted are generalized and not specific to museums so even though older people may be using social media they may not chose to follow museums or specific types of museums. It would be interesting to look at how various age groups use social media differently.

    What sort of social media engagement are you doing in your galleries? Have you asked your visitors if they use twitter?


    • Trish says:

      We were geared up in the fall for an interactive audio tour, but had a set back due to Hurricane Sandy. In general, we have a hashtag for each exhibition and ask visitors to tweet any questions or comments. Also, we have used QR codes for videos or photographs. The current exhibition we have are running a pinterest contest to get people thinking about what glamour looks like today.

      It’s all baby steps, but we haven’t stopped.


      • Mairin says:

        Have people been using the twitter hashtags? I’ve tried to use them before with little use by visitors. I’ll have to check out your Pinterest contest as that sounds fantastic!


  3. Mairin says:

    Thanks for sharing the Culture 24 Let’s Get Real report Seb. I found the mosaic profiling showing museums’ social media audiences aren’t different from our onsite visitors was surprising. So much for reaching new audiences! I would like to see if our onsite visitors use social media though. I’m interested in how social media can be used for onsite programming and if our visitors would use it if it was. But am very glad to have read the report as I agree that it is very important to evaluate how we are using social media and be mindful of what we are trying to achieve.


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