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Creating a social media plan for a museum

The following is based on a presentation that I gave at Communicating the Museum in June 2009. The conference focused on Social Media and it was clear that the institutions taking part understood the need to take advantage of the opportunities that these spaces offer them to engage with their audiences.

On the final day of the conference many delegates said that they intend to create a social media plan, and as very little has been written about how a museum should approach this I thought I would share my own thoughts.

Five step social media plan

Our five step social media plan is roughly based on the structure proposed by Aaron Uhrmacher on the website Mashable last summer. These steps are:

– Stop, Look & Listen
– Goals
– Prepare
– Launch
– Monitor

Step 1: Stop, Look & Listen

There are countless websites which you might be considering, especially as many of you are from different countries and as the websites that are hitting the headlines now like Facebook and Twitter may not be as popular in six months’ time.

I think it’s important that before you take your museum in to a social media space that you take time to understand the websites that your audiences use before you do anything else. Each website is different and users interact with each in different ways. It would be easy for your museum to look like it ‘didn’t get it’ or like you were just there to sell if you stumble into websites like Facebook or Twitter without knowing the unwritten rules of these spaces.

So, your first step in taking your museum and your brand into Social Media is to stop! Don’t start setting up museum pages on every social network you can find, don’t rush out and set up a Twitter account for your museum. Instead take the time to learn about these websites and most importantly, how your audiences are using them.

To find these conversations we use this tool ‘Social Media Firehose’ which brings together search results from across the social media landscape.

By learning which social media communities your audiences are already talking about your brand in you can prioritise which websites you need to understand. The social media landscape is constantly changing but by regularly checking where your audiences are talking about you, you can stay ahead of the curve.

As well as looking at where people are talking about your venue, you may also want to see where they are talking about museums or other brands that you admire, is this the same spaces that people are talking about your museum in or are they attracting a demographic that you would like to?

Once you know which websites you are interested in learning about, sign up for an account. I’d recommend you do this as an individual rather then an institution until you get to grips with how things work. Each website has a different set unwritten rules and spending time looking and listening helps you get your head around them, and starts to change the way you think. You start to realise that now any and everybody gets to create content, distribute content and control their own user experiences and to start to consider how a museum can fit in to this.

In many ways this is the most important stage, because too often museums jump in without understanding the way that these networks really work. Right now Twitter is full of museums broadcasting events listings and press releases and in doing so they make themselves both as brands and institutions seem distant and uninviting. It is obvious to the communities who exist in this space that these institutions just don’t get it.

This can be damaging to a museum’s brand, because it projects the image of an institution who can’t be bothered to learn how a space which is important to its audiences works. Social networks are a huge part of the lives of some segments of your audience and a lack of respect for them translates to a lack of respect for these audiences.

For me the organisations who have succeeded most across a diverse range of social media platforms are the ones who have taken time to understand how things work. These are the organisations who are adding value to their brands through social media.

Step 2: Goals

It is important to start with goals rather than technology because the social media space is filled with cool tools, the next big thing and that site you have to be on. It would be easy to waste a lot of time if you jump in without asking yourself why.

TATE and the Brooklyn Museum, two organisations who are well known as leaders in the field of Social Media, both say that they base their goals on the mission of their organisations. 

TATE for example aims to ‘Increase understanding and knowledge of art’, and while they may choose to use MySpace or Flickr to reach demographics such as young people, they do this with this mission in mind.

Having goals which align with the overall mission of your organisation also makes it a lot easier to get buy in from your management and trustees then chasing the latest technology.

Step 3: Strategy

Now that you have a goal in mind you need to determine the right strategy and the right social media platform to achieve it. I’d recommend that you start small, concentrating on just one website or social media platform, until you find your feet.

The listening exercise that you will have done should have identified the best place to start, it will be somewhere that your audiences or potential audiences spend time online, and a space that you now feel comfortable that you understand.

As well as having numerous different websites to consider, I would also recommend that you take time to think about how your audience are likely to want to get involved. For example a 16 year old and a 60 year old will both participate in social media but in very different ways. A useful tool when considering this is the ‘ladder of participation’ developed by Forrester research as part of their excellent book Groundswell.

Here is an example of a social media strategy for a project that I did for the Laing Art Gallery in the North of England, our goal was to try and spread the word amongst twenty something’s that the gallery had a really diverse and interesting collection and to try and increase awareness within that age group and to change the perception of the brand from a gallery which is for older people, to something for them.

We decided that Facebook would be the best social media space to use to spread the word about the gallery, because of the age range of the audience that we were targeting. Our strategy was to create a Facebook application which anyone could add to their profile, and which would show a different piece from the gallery’s collection every day.

I should mention that this widget was influenced by similar applications developed by both the Rijks museum and Brooklyn Museum.

The Laing Art Gallery ‘Picture of the day’ application was launched virally, with museum staff adding it to their own profiles and over the next month usage grew slowly. With every new user signing up for the application, we virally spread the word about the gallery to their friends, and with the average member on facebook having 120 friends, it’s reach extended to tens of thousands of people very quickly.

So you can see how we chose a goal, picked a social media platform based on the audience we were trying to reach and developed our strategy based on this.

The Laing Art Gallery facebook application was automated so needed no management once it was launched, but people and how much time they can dedicate to your social media activities are a major consideration and you need to think about this at this stage.

Generally speaking, social media platforms help facilitate conversations between individuals, so once you have a sense of what people are talking about, you need to figure out who will talk on the Museum’s behalf.

One of our clients is going through this process at the minute, looking for staff to contribute to a new blog that they want to launch this summer. They wanted people from across the organization to contribute to this, and with the goal of posting two new blog posts a week they decided to find ten members of staff who could each be asked to write one post per month.

With this in mind they have included a call for bloggers in their internal newsletter, asking anyone interested to write a sample blog post. To give these would-be bloggers a clear idea of what the blog should be about they have been given a brief which gives a broad guideline to would-be participants about the kind of stories the museum is looking for.

This approach of including people from across the organisation in social media activity has several advantages, firstly it spreads the responsibility for writing the blog, it would be hard to for the marketing department to find time to write two blog posts a week.

Secondly the result is more likely to sound authentic if it comes from outside the PR department and instead from enthusiastic volunteers. As I’ve said, social media is about people speaking to people and an important point to make here is that while the museum has suggested the types of stories they are looking for, they have not set a brand writing style or an approved list of stories, preferring instead to let enthusiastic members of staff communicate what they are about in an open and honest way.

Of course social media covers a broad range of websites and applications and it might be more appropriate to have guidelines in some circumstances.

Whether your social media activity is something one person does, or a number of people do, you need to be aware of the time it will take and consider how your social media plan will be delivered in the long term.

A quick search finds many museum Facebook pages which lie out of date, because someone just doesn’t have the time to keep updating it. I would argue that this is more detrimental to the brand than not having a presence there at all. Again this shows a lack of respect for a space that is important to some segments of your audience.

The time that a social media project can demand of you is another reason why it is important to start small and not try and do too much too soon.

The final thing to consider when preparing your social media strategy is how you will respond to comments from your readers.

Comments about your museum could take place on numerous websites, and it is worth figuring out who has the authority to reply to these, how you should engage with people, and more importantly discuss the tone of voice that any replies need to be in.

I personally feel that responding to comments about your museum, whether those comments are positive or not, will show that you’re listening, that you want people’s opinions and that this will build trust and social capital in your brand with your audiences.

It is a difficult line for a museum to walk – you want to be active in social media spaces and to do that you must reconcile the human-to-human informal conversational style of these networks with the fact that you are large institutions who can’t just let everyone say what they want. But museums are of course not alone in this, many large corporations are active in this space and have rules of engagement to try to minimize the chance of going off-message.

While these guidelines differ from organisation to organisation, one constant is that people should try and ‘sound human’ and engage people on an emotional level.

This issue goes beyond commenting, it could be the tone of voice of your Tweets on Twitter, it could be the way you write a fan page on Facebook, social media has magnified the importance of the voice of your brand.

Much has been written about brand personality and how you can determine what yours is, but I would urge caution, while you could run staff workshops and through a number of exercises agree the ‘voice of your organisation’ which everyone should channel when speaking on behalf of the institution, I would worry that this would sound fake.

I believe it would be much better to be a human being, to not try and be the institution, but to be the cool person who works at that museum. Being a real person, rather then trying to be the institution is more authentic and if you make a mistake, you’re only human.

Step 4: Launch

With your planning complete, you’ll be ready to launch in to the world of social media this could be on any number of websites and could be as small or ambitious as you wish and the issues for each will be different.

While this may be a new space for you, some old rules do apply, you wouldn’t open an exhibition without marketing it, and your social media plan should include how you will make audiences both inside and outside your organization aware of what you’re doing.

Step 5: Monitor

With your launch complete you should monitor your progress against the goals that you set at the start of your project, and consider changing course if things don’t seem to be going as planned.

Don’t operate in isolation from the rest of your organisation, make sure everyone is aware of what you’re doing, and keep them up to date with small wins. Social media is often misunderstood and communicating success is essential to validate the effort that you’re putting in. When people start to understand what you’re trying to do, they will hopefully come to you with suggestions of how your social media activity can work with areas of the organisation they are involved with.

I’d be really glad to here your thoughts and suggestions for improvements that I could make to this plan, does it make sense to you, do you think that I need to add anything else in, or make any changes

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