The way in which visitors engage with museums has completely changed over the last decade. The emergence of social media as a platform for public communication and participation has shifted the museum marketing dynamic. According to We are Social and Hootsuite’s Global Digital Report, social media usage has risen 9% over the past year now presenting a total of 3.5 billion users. A more globally connected world presents opportunities for museums to up their digital game and engage with interested people worldwide.
Today’s museum visitors want to feel that they are a valued part of the institution. Even if they can’t come to the museum physically, they can still be connected through an extension of it in an online digital community. Acting as authorities on history, art, science and many other subjects, museums have the social media credibility to invite and curate some very interesting engagement with digital participants that can result in increased notability and relatability. These discussions and posts, when hosted on social media platforms, act as free grassroots marketing that can help increase brand awareness and relatability. It’s vital for the museum/gallery’s social media channels to be an extension of their mission and ethos.
In this article, we will introduce four marketing tactics that are easily implemented and customizable to every institution. These strategies will help drive visitors to post when in your museum and about your museum: utilizing their positive visitor experiences as an effective marketing tool.
1) Setting the stage
We all know that visitors are going to take photos when they come to a museum or gallery. As a proof of cultural engagement or to collect the memories of the visit, photo documentation is part of the game. If visitors are going to take photos, then it’s important to direct them to use their photos in ways that will support the museum or gallery’s marketing strategies. There are many effective ways to do this, especially on a shoestring budget.
The introduction of a few simple props such as life-size interactive picture frames, costumes, fun accessories and touchable objects relating to the collection/exhibition can entice visitors to take fun photographs. Many heritage sites do a great job with these interactive displays by having period costumes available for visitors to try on. English Heritage’s Kenwood House has done a marvellous job at this by going a step further to have their own photo frame, further enhancing the period selfie game.
Museums have begun to add “please touch” signs to encourage visitors to interact with displays in a tactile way. Therefore, the introduction of “please take photos” signs is a natural next step. Signposting is a crucial step in directing visitors to upload their content online. Adding a simple sign like this around museums/heritage sites can cause people to look twice. For years, visitors have been shushed and directed to put their cameras away at museums and heritage sites. Giving them an invitation to take photos and providing the relevant hashtags will give them the permission that they need to loosen up and get clicking. If you dole out these invitations to visitors, remember to regularly check the hashtag and engage with these posts through likes, comments and reposts.
What is it with mirrors and selfies? Is it that people can’t get enough of how they look? Or is it that museums provide the perfect setting for people to appear creative and cultured in their posts? Either way, having a mirror = selfies in 2019. Selfies are probably happening in your museum right now (photos or no photo policy!), so why not embrace it? Creating a dedicated space for taking selfies isn’t hard and it doesn’t have to be too garish.
You don’t have to have a pool filled with sprinkles (a la Museum of Ice Cream) to create a subtle selfie-taking space. Adding mirrors and carving out corners dedicated to taking visitor photos is a great way to encourage participation. If there are works or installations in your collection that are innately perfect for photos – add a sign nearby reminding visitors of the museum hashtag and encouraging them to share their photos online.
2) Utilising hashtags
Twitter and Instagram hashtags can act as hubs for people of various backgrounds to come together and learn from each other’s experiences with a particular exhibition or museum. Remember how we mentioned that museums have the potential to speak to people all over the word? That’s all possible through the power of hashtags. For instance, adding a few hashtags to a post from a London exhibition of works by Picasso such as: #Art #ModernArt #Cubist and #London could result in the post being seen by thousands more people. Maximising your engagement through curated hashtags is important, but we’re not here to talk about you. We’re here to talk about how your visitors gain by guided to produce create content for you.
Before you expect hordes of “culture vultures” to pour through your doors and start posting, it’s important to recall how the stage has been set and marketing hashtags signposted. Visitors need to be directed at every turn of how to appropriately tag and post photos in order to maximize their engagement and the post’s searchability. Direct them with signage and print/web mentions to the specific hashtag for the museum, special exhibitions, as well as festivals and events. Not only can hashtags help increase visibility, they also act as crowd-sourced photo albums.
A great way to utilise hashtagged photos of your museum is to create a “story” if you are using Instagram, or to create a “moment” if you are on Twitter. Social media users are usually happy to give permission for their photos to be used and are pleased as punch to see them shared by others. Also, posting photos from your visitors is a great way to build social media bonds and to show that your museum is listening and engaging with members of the public online. Always be sure to give proper credit to the photographer and to tag the account from which the photo/social media content came when reposting.
First off – I’m not talking about challenges as in problems that may arise. Rather, I’m using the word to describe digital community-based activities that encourage participation and engagement with the museum/gallery in a new way. Remember how we discussed hashtags having the potential to reach a global audience? Great, you’re still listening. With that concept in mind, it’s very important that museums and galleries utilise social media to appeal to international audiences rather than focus on advertising events that a limited number of people/followers can attend.
It’s disappointing to see museums that don’t realise the potential of social media platforms as an engagement tool, and simply use them to advertise events and exhibitions. The term engagement is key here. Engaging visitors walking with them down a past of mutual interest. This is built off of engagement via social media channels and museum visits. Inviting existing and potential followers to participate in a themed challenge that directly relates to the museum mission can help bring people down the past to becoming dedicated followers and content producers.
If you are taking this course on digital marketing, then chances are you have heard of The Museum of English Rural Life and their unorthodox social media tactics. Odd as they appear, they had exactly the right plan to expand their base and encourage follower content. One of their most recent challenges was posting a photo of an animal from their collection and challenging users to photoshop that image into other paintings. @TheMERL gave the call to action and the internet answered. The badly painted cow they offered was photoshopped into everything from Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam to Picasso’s Guernica. Art UK then picked up the trend and offered a zebra PNG to their followers to employ.
This quirky type of call to action has been extremely successful within the past 3 years on Twitter as well as Instagram. It’s great to see museums start their own hashtag challenges, but there are also plenty that are already in existence. These challenges are taken on by a myriad of different people in the sector from EMPs to Executive Directors. They offer a unique opportunity to present your museum’s key values and to highlight your programming and collection. There are several annual social media museum-centric initiatives that should be on everyone’s marketing diary.
Engagement is maximized on these days and your posts are sure to be seen by a wider audience when using challenge hashtags.
4) Responding to your audience
Talking at people doesn’t work. Social media is a two-way street. If museums are directing visitors to engage more digitally with them, it’s only fair that museums match their level of participation. Acknowledging and responding to social media posts is crucial in building a responsive and trusted online brand. There are few things more frustrating to an invested social media user than a museum that allows great marketing opportunities to pass them by. Retweet, like, comment and engage to let your followers feel heard and to capitalise off of the free marketing opportunities.
With that being said, it’s important to be responsive when visitors aren’t being positive with their comments. Negative experiences and comments crop up at every museum. How museums handle public relations is what will be remembered, not always whatever the issue was. If your museum receives negative posts or feedback on social media, it’s very important to reach out and address that concern. Consider it a change to show-off your museum’s sensitivity and responsiveness!
Let’s take a moment to recognize the difference between how this will impact small museums v. large museums. At large institutions, there is a dedicated communications team and social media managers that can constantly and consistently respond. However, with smaller museums, communications is often one aspect of a staff member’s job. Drafting clear social media guidelines and creating a few standard messages that can be used to respond to enquiries is a helpful way to get more people involved in social media at smaller institutions. Brand consistency is important, and regularly posting/engaging with followers is just as crucial.
When responding to audiences, it’s also important to signpost in a helpful and user-friendly manner. If you are engaging in an online dialogue about museum education, be sure to include a link to the museum’s education page. Don’t make your visitors search for information. Vague posts are not helpful in driving visitors back to the museum website and generating real interest. Be direct with followers and remember to signpost them at every step of the way.
Now – GO FORTH AND POST!
Here are some final tips to take away from this article.
- Have you got a social media strategy and or/guidelines? Start there. That will help you define your audiences and your posting strategies.
- Think about who you most want to engage with as a museum. Is it younger people? People interested in a certain topic? Start asking these questions to zone-in on your target audience.
- Get to know the arts and culture influencers in your area – begin following them to start a dialogue. They can be super helpful in creating amazing visitor content!
- Signpost, signpost, signpost! Remember to include your museum social accounts and hashtags on all relevant print and web material. Don’t be afraid to put reminders around the gallery space with directions to the accounts/hashtags.
- Chat with other museums about their social media tactics. It’s time to stop being so close-minded and see if you can’t collaborate on something together!
- Note down the important social media days on your marketing calendar!
- Start engaging more with your followers – liking tweets, supporting other museum’s events online… This type of behaviour will show the public that your museum is socially responsive.
- Think about a selfie-space. Whether it be a corner of the gallery or a lovely space outside. A little bit of encouragement and curation can go a long way in directing visitors to produce new content.
You’ve been introduced to four specific tactics with many variations that can work with any budget to increase content created by museum visitors. There will be other content this week that will relate to this topic and we will be sure to guide you through the process of implementing these tactics into your overall marketing strategy.
About the author – Devon Turner
Devon Turner is an Arts & Culture Writer. She has worked extensively in arts marketing for both the visual arts and performing arts in the US and UK. Now living in London, Devon works in the arts and culture sector and enjoys traveling to visit museums.