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The museum sector has learned a great deal from the way private industries have utilised social media platforms to promote themselves and reach a wider audience. In terms of social media museums have been innovative, too, often breaking new ground in the cultural sector more widely. Of course, the marketing teams of no two museums will ever want to go about social media marketing in exactly the same manner. After all, no museum is exactly the same as one another. What are marketing professionals in the museum sector doing today with social media to drive interest, create more brand awareness and push up visitor numbers?
With the effective use of social media museums can gain a global voice and access a potential audience of billions, far outside the footfall of their usual visitor profile. Indeed, such outreach can help museum professionals to link up their organisation with similar ones in other parts of the world, to share ideas and information, even influencing their particular niche in a much more dynamic way than they have been used to doing. Strong social media activities can drive interest in the museum’s main website which, itself, leads to greater public engagement. However, it does not stop there.
Due to the nature of social media, galleries and museums are able to react to newsworthy stories in a lightning-fast fashion. If there is a big discovery made on the other side of the planet, then a museum with a similar collection will be able to post about it, helping to contextualise the news for a local audience or offer a unique insight that puts a twist on a big story. In fact, if a museum’s social media activity is run appropriately, then it will be possible to talk with ‘multiple voices’, that is to a professional audience as well as a public one.
As you can see social media offers the museum sector a powerful tool for all sorts of engagement. Before we progress to discuss how a potential social media strategy might be put together, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider why it is that this modern communications technology is so effective.
As we have seen, social media allows museum professionals to achieve a number of beneficial outcomes. If you want to alter the public’s perception of what your institution is about, or to offer a more nuanced view of it, then there are few better ways of achieving this than with social media. However, the use of social media should not be seen solely from the point of view of potential outcomes but from the other advantages it affords.
Firstly, social media is free to use. Although you can outsource its management to a specialist public relations firm with experience of the sector, many digital marketing strategies are run in-house at plenty of museums these days. Yes, there is a resource cost to running more than one social media account with the level of attention it needs to work successfully as a marketing tool. That said, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and all of the other big social media platforms are readily accessible with no upfront costs. Compare that, for example, to placing adverts in lifestyle magazines, on the radio or on television.
Today, there are getting on for 6,000 tweets that are written on Twitter alone every single second. Of course, not all of them are of high cultural value, to say the least. Nevertheless, if you are not making use of such a widespread means of human communication these days, then you are simply getting left behind, drowned out – as it were – in the battle for attention that all organisations face whether they have an educational remit or not.
Indeed, platforms like YouTube are now preferred in several western countries by young adults and teenagers than conventional media outlets. People under the age of about 30 spend more time streaming YouTube videos, on average, than they do watching television. Furthermore, although Facebook tends to be characterised as an older form of social media that youngsters don’t engage in so much, teens are still likely to have a Facebook account even if they don’t access it as much as older people. With two billion users, the power of the biggest social media platform in the west to make connections should not be underestimated.
Finally, social media has the power to create loyalty. When brands are liked and followed on social media – whether we are talking about an established museum or a new type of washing powder, for example – they tend to be trusted more. Social media works by creating miniature endorsements of brands that help professional marketing executives to generate greater trust in the brands they are promoting. Conventional marketing activities – like newspaper advertising, for instance – simply cannot achieve this in anything like the same way.
If you are new to social media marketing, then don’t be put off. Specific results-based strategies do require a professional level of oversight but getting up and running with social media does not need anything more than basic technology skills and a reasonable level of prowess with marketing. The first thing is to ask your organisation why it wants a social media strategy at all. You might identify that you want to drive visitor numbers, for example, or that you would like to create more engagement with overseas audiences.
The next thing is to think about your potential audience. Why would anyone want to follow your social media posts? What is it about your organisation that gives it a unique voice in the cultural world generally and the museum sector specifically? If you analyse your museum’s visitor profile, both in-person and from the analytics of your website’s traffic, then you should be able think about the sort of people you are reaching and what you can do to cater for them. In addition, such an exercise should demonstrate to you which demographic groups you are not reaching adequately, prompting your team to consider the sort of social media strategy that will allow you to talk to them more meaningfully.
If you have social media accounts already, then look at the analytics you have from them. When overhauling a social media marketing strategy from a low base, it is important to see which sorts of posts gained the most engagement and, conversely, which ones did not. Sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter allow you to drill into your numbers which will give you a much better idea of what is working well and the sort of activities and posts which are ineffective.
Refining your strategy should only come about once you have decided the purpose for your marketing and the audience types you wish to reach. Remember that social media tends to work best in niches so aim for certain demographic groups only at first. You can always expand your strategy down the line, after all. Use the data you have available to help you work out which types of post will be favoured and, if you have none to start with, try a few experimental posts to get going. With limited resources, stick to only one or two social media platforms. If you try to create engagement on them all, then you will soon become bogged down responding to comments and criticisms. Always remember that social media is a two-way street even if you are simply emailing out a newsletter. Failing to respond to comments will soon make your strategy seem half-baked.
Once you have decided what you are going to post and on which platforms your posts will be shared, you need to create a timetable for posting. Regular posts, made within a similar time frame help to drive user engagement, especially if you post in niches, such as ‘Throwback Thursday’, for example. Allow enough time to respond to your posts’ responses and to run through your analytics to keep on top of the strategy. There are plenty of apps around that allow you to aggregate your data from various social media accounts which will help in this regard.
Finally, you need to stick at it. Results from social media campaigns don’t occur overnight even if you enjoy a few quick wins. The best digital marketing strategies tend to be established over the longer term.
So far, we have examined social media from the perspective of its marketing potential. However, there is still a good deal to say about the way in which such marketing activities can dovetail into the museum sector perfectly. All sorts of non-profit organisations and businesses harness social media outlets to build their brands but few have the social media-friendly content that is so widely available to museum professionals. In fact, as a sector, you could say that social media was almost designed for museums and galleries! Why?
One of the big trends in the social media marketing approaches taken by many museum professionals is to highlight what it is that makes an institution unique. In the main, this comes down to the collection itself. As a treasure house of artefacts, few organisations have the same number of interesting, unique and historic items to post and write about that museums do. As such, social media posts which are devoted to lesser-known items in a collection can help to educate the public and provoke more interest even among people who have been to the museum before recently. Then, there are the jewels in the collection which can reach out further into the general public because of the level of interest they will achieve in their own right. Put simply, large numbers of museum professionals focus on their collection in order to promote the institution behind it. Its a winning strategy in many cases and one that can create interest from academics and the public in one fell swoop.
Going behind the scenes is a tried-and-tested way of promoting a brand online, as well. Lots of institutions do this but it can be particularly effective in the museum sector. This is because, there is usually so much more to the daily work of an institution, something that museum professionals know only too well but which, too often, goes unappreciated by the wider public. By lifting the veil on the sector, you can generate significant amounts of interest because people tend to be attracted to anything which gives a new perspective that they would not necessarily be able to experience even if they were to attend one of your institution’s exhibitions in-person. A video showing painstaking restorative work, for example, can go viral, especially if the personality of the artefact and the restorer are allowed to shine through.
Another good tip is to think about using memes and emojis to make your social media posts more immediate, especially if you are targeting a younger audience. Youths are particularly savvy when it comes to the language of social media which is highly visual and often witty. So, if you are posting about a particular object in your museum’s collection then why not place a picture of it within a current meme format that is doing the rounds online? Alternatively, juxtaposing your post with current pop lyrics that place both elements in a new context can really work. Certainly, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has done so, often posting photos on Snapchat and Instagram of the artworks in its collection with pithy hashtags that refer to something current in popular culture.
The use of emojis can be tricky, especially if you don’t really know what you are doing. A museum’s social media account can come across as a little needy if it uses emojis to try and talk to a younger audience but comes across as stuffy in the process. That said, managed well, the judicious use of emojis can help to breathe new life into posts, particularly when the subject matter might be centuries-old works of art. The posts of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston are a good example of how emojis have been used well to explain artworks to a younger audience without coming across as uncool or patronising.
Another trend that has been picked up by several museums and galleries in both North America and Europe is to create a digital exhibition. Such a one-off show could be put together by a series of social media posts, placed as a thread or by sharing a common hashtag to bring them together. There again, the social media campaign might simply point to a location on your website where the virtual exhibition is being hosted. Anyway, sites like YouTube and Facebook, to name but two platforms, are made for this sort of marketing. Curating a digital exhibition is much like putting together a real one, only you can do it at a fraction of the cost. Whatever the theme is you choose for the show, because it requires nothing other than images and minimal copy to get up and running, you can respond to anything that is currently trendy or fashionable and create an exhibition that is very much of the moment.
Finally, another on-trend way of making social media accounts really work for you is to introduce an online mascot for your museum. Digital marketing professionals at the Field Museum in Chicago have certainly done so successfully. Their famous T-Rex skeleton has been a Twitter user in her own right for years, attracting well over 50,000 followers. Key to the success of ‘Sue’ as a social media phenomenon has been developing a personality for her, whether she is posting about natural history or the museum itself. Of course, the museum has its own social media strategy which works in tandem with the virtual dinosaur but using the T-Rex to speak for the institution makes the strategy fun and engaging for both adults and kids.
In the UK, museums’ social media strategies have been just as successful as those in the United States even though they may not always have been so widespread. One of the best examples of a major British institution raising its profile still further by harnessing social media platforms is the British Museum. In fact, the digital marketing professionals there gained more social media followers by adopting a new strategy than many similarly-sized institutions. Due to an entirely new approach, the museum more than doubled its social media presence in a short space of time. How did it go about this?
To begin with, it should be said that the British Museum was not starting from a weak position. The museum professionals there were already managing several social media accounts, notably Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. In fact, the museum had in the region of five million different followers across those three platforms alone. What the marketing team there decided to do was to rationalise their strategy across all of its platforms so that followers would get a similar message in its posts regardless of which platform they happened to be engaging with.
The multi-channel publishing strategy that the British Museum took on in 2016 meant finding a suitable management system. In their case, the professionals there chose Hootsuite. This meant that the team could look after their Twitter and Facebook accounts, which had been running for seven years, from just one platform. In addition, the museum’s Instagram and YouTube channels were brought into the same system. As well as augmenting online reach and engagement, the strategy included a commitment to customer service to strengthen relationships with visitors. The idea was that social media platforms would be the first place of contact between visitors and would-be visitors so responsiveness to questions and queries posted online, on a public platform, became a necessity.
In addition, the team at the British Museum said that they wanted to identify any areas for revenue generation that could be brought about from their digital marketing activities. At the time, Hannah Boulton, the museum’s Head of Marketing and Press, said that her team’s marketing goals were to tell compelling stories which would lead to a lifelong relationship with visitors. Tellingly she said that social media platforms formed a vital cornerstone of this aim.
In order to achieve its goals, the digital engagement team organised its social media professionals into two groups. One would be responsible for developing novel and engaging content to place online via its social media management system. The other would monitor the responses to the first team’s posts, working out what worked and what was less successful. This second team would also be charged with engaging with the museum’s responses, to answer questions and to offer high-quality digital customer service. With the ability to detect any spikes in social media activity, the marketing team was able to adapt its level of response accordingly and to join in as well as take the lead on relevant online conversations in real-time.
As the strategy developed in sophistication, the approach became more refined. Eventually, specific channels were made for certain types of content which were suited to the sort of social media users they were trying to reach out to. An example of this is the museum’s use of Facebook Live, its video streaming service, which allowed the team to broadcast globally and to bring parts of its collection to the attention of people who may never be able to visit the museum’s home in London. According to the museum, the level of social media audience growth outstripped anything similar institutions were achieving at this time, something that is ongoing. The British Museum claims that its social media presence supersedes that of the Tate Group, the National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum, for example. It also compares favourably with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, and the Louvre, in Paris.
Social media offers a cheap and effective marketing tool for museums. Indeed, museums are almost ideally suited to this form of mass communications. Careful management of social media posts is required to develop a winning strategy which must be resourced adequately, however. Done well, posting on social media can afford huge benefits to museums, including greater outreach, brand awareness and the delivery of improved customer service.
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.
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