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Although TikTok is still considered to be the new social media kid on the block, it’s incredible growth in recent years makes it hard to remember a time when the video looping platform wasn’t in our lives. With more than a billion downloads to its name, TikTok has not only proved itself to be one of the fastest growing apps of all time since it was first launched in 2016; it has also now surpassed Instagram by this metric.
While Facebook and even Instagram’s audiences are ageing, there is little doubt that the next generation of social media users have embraced TikTok. In fact, during its first 5 years, the core audience was between 13 and 21.
TikTok has built its reputation on short, choreographed dance move videos; comedy sketches; lip synching; short tutorials; and sound bites from users looking to share fun and frivolous content with their friends. This style of video makes it trickier for brands to harness in the same way as the more expansive and flexible formats available on other social platforms. However, as TikTok matures, brands are finding better ways to leverage the huge user base – often through influencers but also increasingly through official accounts that are reimagining what an organisation can share.
For museums, TikTok is a unique challenge. But there are a growing number of examples of institutions effectively running accounts, distributing content and reaching new audiences by investing time and energy into the platform. And this has shown itself to be a worthwhile endeavour – not least because the pandemic pushed the already large TikTok audience into a global explosion of users.
The Met was one of the first museums to launch an official account on TikTok and was a trailblazer in creating content to engage the app’s young audience. One of The Met’s first initiatives back in 2019 was an art contest created to inspire users to showcase their best imitation of an artwork scene or act like art figures. This global challenge included an impressive prize of an all-expenses paid five night trip to New York, and the chance to be among the first to visit the Spring 2019 Costume Institute exhibition.
As Kenneth Weine, Vice President and Chief Communications Officer at The Met, said at the time: “As a global cultural institution, The Met’s mission is to engage audiences with art from our collection of over 1.5 million objects spanning over 5,000 years of human history – and there is no better place to do so than one of the world’s fastest growing social media communities.
“TikTok reaches hundreds of millions of users, many of whom are art enthusiasts. We look forward to deepening our connection with this audience, and to seeing the multiple creative ways they engage with The Met collection.”
As Blake Chandlee, Head of Global Brand Partnerships at TikTok, commented at the time: “TikTok allows users to showcase and consume the world’s creativity, knowledge and moments that matter in everyday life, and is committed to building a community by encouraging users to share their passion through their videos.
“Together with The Met, we are launching a campaign with two challenges to empower people to express their creative ideas, as we celebrate trends and embrace diversity on this vibrant platform.”
Soon after this campaign launch, a second challenge was launched using the hashtag #MetGalaStyle, asking users to create original content inspired by the red carpet fashion on show at The Costume Institute’s annual benefit, The Met Gala.
The Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh is another institution that can be considered one of the first museum trailblazers on TikTok. Having launched an account in January 2020, the museum quickly amassed a sizeable following as it provided light relief for app users during the peak of the Pandemic.
The museum has explored a number of campaigns and partnerships with Tiktok’s own Creative Learning Fund and, while some of the more ambitious campaigns have certainly made waves, much of the account’s popularity stems from one particular staff member telling jokes.
Resident mollusk expert, Tim Pearce, has become a surprise social media hit, thanks to a combination of fun facts and punny humour to help attract millions of likes and drive the creation of #MolluskMonday.
The success experienced by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History shows that with some imagination, a good idea and a sense of authenticity, it is possible to reach a large number of people through the app.
Popular TikToks from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History:
Continuing with the theme of unlikely social media stars, The Sacramento History Museum’s Howard Hatch has become something of an online sensation. Indeed, the octogenarian has almost single-handedly helped to turn his old printing shop space into the backdrop for the world’s most popular museum TikTok account.
As MuseumNext shared in April 2021, “Howard the Printer” embodies the authenticity, wordplay and intrigue that makes TikTok so engaging and yet so difficult for brands to plug into their traditional marketing frameworks.
In the case of the Sacramento History Museum, it’s important to note that there were a number of failed experiments and tests carried out before the museum struck on a successful formula for audience engagement during the pandemic. As Jared Jones from the museum’s visitor service department commented:
“I almost gave up. Actually, until I filmed Howard [there had been]… little response but then, it took off.” Over a million followers and more than 12 million likes later and the team are now the subject of an incredible success story.
Popular TikToks from Sacramento History Museum:
The Victoria & Albert Museum is one of the most highly respected museums in the UK (if not the world). But the social media team at the V&A haven’t been scared to take a playful and even irreverent approach to utilising their collections online. From “digital vandalism” jokes to “alternative” art history lessons, the V&A has shown that museum assets can be interpreted and reimagined in a frivolous and accessible way to make it relevant for a young, time-poor audience looking to consume impactful content.
Popular TikToks from the V&A:
The Black Country in England (BCLM) is an area that gained its dubious label in the 1800s due to the intensity of the industrial activity in the region . . . and the vast quantity of smoke that coated the sky and landscape as a result. This is the scene that the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley has successfully recreated, with a historically accurate village and engaging character actors who enable visitors to immerse themselves in the arduous lifestyle of the industrial revolution.
Of course, during the height of the Pandemic, the living museum was not able to open its doors to visitors and so it had to find other ways to retain engagement with audiences and fulfil its mission.
While this scene is a far cry from the modern lifestyle of most TikTok users, the rich history and iconic look created by the museum translates beautifully to the screen of a mobile device. Indeed, the combination of costumes, traditional music and throwback activities have helped the museum’s TikTok content to attract over 22 million likes since 2020.
As the team at BCLM explain, the access to talented actors with strong storytelling skills and a uniquely eye-catching backdrop served to create a point of difference for the museum – helping to distinguish it from other accounts on TikTok. The team also acknowledge that the use of the museum as a filming location for period drama, Peak Blinders, made the setting more appealing to users of the social media platform.
Popular TikToks from the Black Country Living Museum:
Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum is no stranger to marketing innovation in its efforts to broaden the appeal of its collections and exhibitions. With works from many of the most famous artists of the Dutch Golden Age to hand, the museum has a wealth of highly recognisable source material around which to build digital content.
In recent years, the Rijksmuseum has used TikTok to create not only its own informative and entertaining video shorts but also open up its channels to encourage a raft of user-generated content.
Welcoming influencers and other creators into the museum space in order to generate video content has not only helped to grow the reach of the institution’s own social media account but has also served to broaden appreciation for its collection and encourage greater footfall.
There are many benefits to this third-party content approach – not least because it is less resource intensive for the museum’s marketing and communications team. As curators of content rather than creators, the museum can make the most of its assets without consuming hundreds of staff hours.
Another benefit of this approach is that it results in a high volume of authentic and organic videos, syndicated across a range of accounts that will reach more people than the Rijksmuseum could ever hope to reach itself. In this way, each influencer or content creator also plays a brand advocacy role on behalf of the museum.
As TikToker Evan Pridmore explained in a recent MuseumNext presentation, her work at the V&A reached a diverse range of people from her own account consisting of 280,000 followers – far more than would have been reached purely by posting to the V&A’s own account (with just 10,000 followers at time of writing).
Popular TikToks from Rijksmuseum:
Having harnessed older social media platforms successfully over the last decade, the idea of starting a new account and building a fresh audience from scratch can be somewhat daunting for social media teams. Yet for those museums who succeed in using TikTok effectively, the outcomes can more than justify the input.
While strategies for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram publishing may be tried and tested, it’s also worth bearing in mind that social media users are now wise to the tools and techniques developed to catch their attention and steer them towards certain purchasing decisions. As ad costs for Meta-based platforms continue to rise, many museums may find that TikTok has greater potential for success.
For TikTok users themselves, the lower volumes of ad spam and paid-for content is part of the appeal of the platform. Making it harder for brands to sell ultimately results in a more user-friendly experience. So, those museums able to serve up content successfully will find that their message is heard more clearly than might be the case if it’s buried amongst a hundred other branded posts.
TikTok is also home to improvised and raw content, meaning that the emphasis on cinematic experience isn’t the same as platforms like Facebook. Instead, it is advisable for museums to focus more on creating an engaging, consistent tone of voice and utilising their visual assets in a way that will catch the eye of users. And by users, we mean younger people who want to be served content that speaks to them . . . not over their heads.
The saying goes that there’s no point doing anything if you don’t intend to do it properly. While museums – like other brands and organisations – can often feel the urge to be across all social media platforms, it’s important to remember that half-baked efforts or rarely utilised accounts can be a turn off for audiences and a drain on internal resources.
That being said, for those organisations willing to invest the time and effort into TikTok, the above examples show that the value of a well-considered and impactful account can be huge to a museum looking to expand reach, grow awareness and improve accessibility to its assets, collections and rich content.
The younger TikTok demographic is undoubtedly an appealing one for museums, particularly given that we know that engaging people young makes it considerably more likely that they will become lifetime advocates for their favourite cultural venue.
As with all social media platforms, brand advocacy is a critical aspect of effective marketing and communications on TikTok. While the term “influencer” is often considered only in the context of celebrities and models promoting cosmetics or clothing, it’s important to be aware that there are influencers online that inhabit every niche and field – including the museum space.
A perfect example of this is Mary McGillivray, otherwise known as _theiconoclass, an art historian who has gained a staggering 9.5 million likes (and counting) on TikTok for her content designed to appeal to a global audience of art lovers. Leveraging hashtags such as #ArtTok and #ArtHistoryTok, she has become the foremost art history influencer on the platform.
Predominantly creating 3 minute videos to cover topics and themes in art history, she has generated incredible engagement with millions of viewers. Her content is carefully crafted to ensure that users of the app are engaged within the first few seconds and the subject matter is conveyed in an accessible and easy to follow format. But this approach is the result of significant trial and error, metric analysis and expert content creation.
Harnessing the kind of expertise and insight possessed by a professional content creator is something that should not be underestimated by cultural venues. Museums looking to work collaboratively with creators should think of them more as creative partners – similar to app developers, design house or production studio – rather than distribution channels. After all, giving a creator access to an exhibition, collection or gallery means asking them to find the right visuals, the right lighting, the right audio and the right script to help send it viral. Influencers and content are specialist consultants able to help open the door to an online world of more than 1 billion users – most of whom are under the age of 34.
In Mary’s case, her first commission as a TikToker was to work with Rowena Wiseman and the team at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery in Australia. 18 videos later and Mary had covered a range of stories and artworks from the gallery’s collection. As Rowena explains, the value of working with Mary was not only her understanding of the TikTok algorithm but also that “as an outsider coming into the museum, she could put her own spin on it”.
The results of this collaboration were impressive, with the top video receiving over 79,000 views.
In her recent talk for MuseumNext at the Growing Audiences Summit, Meagan Hook, Manager of Social Media and Digital Content at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, gave some helpful insights for getting started on TikTok.
Here are just a few:
Get all Meagan’s tips in full in the film below.
Even if you’re not ready to take your museum onto TikTok, there are a few things you should be doing. As with other social media platforms, every user on TikTok has a username. Even if you’re not ready to use TikTok for your museum, you should register your preferred username.
Having an account also allows you to watch and learn – taking a little time to familiarise yourself with how the app works, what’s trending, who’s posting and where you might fit into the social media ecosystem in the future.
Share the app with your education and marketing teams, too. Perhaps they see possible ways to use TikTok in their work with young people. And consider how you can get young people to create content around your museum with TikTok.
Whether TikTok is the next Facebook or the next Vine (remember that?) it’s a platform that is attracting a lot of attention and many museums will no doubt do incredible things with it. So, stay in the loop.
Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.
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