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In conversation with: Seth Spillman, Chief Marketing Officer, The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum

Taking the decision to be “different” can be scary and it can be unpredictable. But it can also be exciting and enlightening. That’s what Seth Spillman and the team at The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum found when they decided to “hand over” control of their social media to their head of security during the early days of the pandemic. Although, as Seth will explain at this month’s MuseumNext Digital Marketing Summit, creating something that looks fun, alternative and light hearted often requires more time and effort than traditional endeavours.

Ahead of his presentation at November’s summit, Seth sat down with MuseumNext to talk digital pivots, embracing the niche and all things #HashtagTheCowboy.

Having worked in public relations, been partner in a tech start-up and latterly become Director of Marketing and Communications for the Oklahoma City Convention & Visitors Bureau, Seth Spillman’s career had already been a rich and varied one before he moved into the museum sector three years ago. After nearly a decade working closely with the museum community in Oklahoma City in his role at the Bureau, Seth finally made the leap to the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in 2019.

“In fact, I feel like we had finally gotten our feet under us as a marketing and communications team by the start of 2020 when the pandemic hit. But I’m sure glad we did because it’s obviously been a wild ride ever since.”

“I think we’re probably fairly unique as a museum in the number of large events we run in a traditional year. We started 2020 feeling pretty good about how prepared we were for our series of annual events and we had actually just hired a new digital content manager two weeks before we were forced to close because of the pandemic.

“As it turned out, that appointment of an experienced and creative professional in that role turned out to be a critical one. Although not quite in the way we had envisioned.”

One of the most obvious changes to hit the museum during this period was the inability to utilise the large ballroom – one of the key features of the institution for not only running exhibitions and non-profit events but also weddings and other events that typically served to support the museum’s revenue.

“I have to say, though, that when the doors closed and all of those events got cancelled, it was actually freeing for us as a marketing team. There are obviously lots of challenges presented by Covid-19 and, from a business standpoint, it was less than ideal. But without the pressures of our promotional calendar and balancing our traditional requirements, we found ourselves with just one main priority online: to maintain engagement with our audience.

“From a marketing perspective it gave us an opportunity to do something fun and different, which was still a lot of work, but obviously made all the difference.”

Asked if that new freedom to focus on reach and engagement came with new performance indicators or pressure at board level to justify activity, Seth says,

“To be honest, when we shut our doors we were preparing for one or two weeks of interim activity. As the pandemic progressed, things were changing so quickly that planning more than one or two weeks out was nearly impossible.”

In contrast to the experiences of many other parts of the world, Oklahoma City’s initial lockdown was relatively short-lived – with closures implemented for almost precisely two months. Nevertheless, that period initiated some significant changes in the museum’s digital presence. Seth explains, “As I’ll detail in my presentation, we went from a fairly regional, often “lifestyle” follower to something of a global audience in a very short period – including significant growth in Europe.”

Tim Tiller, Director of Security at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum

Of the campaigns run by the marketing team during the period of closure, the takeover by Director of Security, Tim Tiller is now certainly the most well documented and successful. Given that the security team were among the essential staff still permitted to be in the museum during closure, the move to involve Tim in marketing was a smart one – but it also relied on a certain chemistry.

“Tim is such a good representation of the museum because he is a genuinely good person and a typical Oklahoma guy – that made him relatable. He also genuinely loves the museum and has a passion for the subject matter that is essential to helping us as a marketing team put our best foot forward as an institution.

“When my colleague, Christopher, suggested we get Tim involved, it was one of those delicious moments. We instantly knew it could be a lot of fun. But we couldn’t have predicted that from the very first post we put out it would have gone viral in the way it did.

“It’s also important to acknowledge that we had the blessing of our president to take a chance and experiment more than we might under usual circumstances. As I hope to share in my presentation at the Digital Marketing Summit, it was necessary for us to demonstrate we had a plan in place as to how and why we were looking to do something a little silly. We knew we had to show there would be more substance behind it than just simply putting Tim in front of camera – and potentially jeopardising the museum’s brand.”

Of course, with the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum now firmly back open, there is a need to return to some level of regular programming. This demands a balance of providing the “fun and silly” content that worked so well in 2020, alongside the other requirements of a museum with tickets to sell and a ballroom to fill.

Asked how he and his team work to strike that balance, Seth explains, “Our digital content manager, Christopher, describes it as providing ‘on ramps’. The fun stuff is there to lead people to the other content that we exist to serve up – both in terms of physical exhibitions or digital archives and all the curated material we have at our disposal. Honestly, I think the way we are engaging with people online now is more impactful at serving our mission than perhaps we were doing before the pandemic.

“In all honesty prior to 2020 our social feeds were just news tickers; shouting at an audience. And our engagement numbers showed that it wasn’t resonating as well.

“I feel that we’ve really found a better balance now. We like to be funny and silly but content is never wild for wild’s sake. We also have to be conscious that we are promoting a niche that may not be for everyone. And that’s fine. But if we stay authentic to what we are trying to promote and do so in a way that attracts more people from different places and backgrounds then we are doing something right.”

Despite all of the success that The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum has experienced over the last 18 months, Seth says that it is still “incredibly humbling” to be asked to share his experiences with his museum peers. He says, “I’m looking forward to hearing from Adam Koszary, in particular, as his work at The MERL to help a relatively niche museum become headline news resonates with our own experience.”

Hear more from Seth, Adam and an exceptional range of other museum marketing professionals at November’s Digital Marketing Summit running 22nd–24th November 2021. Find out more about the conference here.

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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