Search Museum Next

How Social Media Can Bring Heritage to Life

Quizzes, queens and behind the scenes: the powerful potential of social media for museums

Before social media, the responsibility for maintaining the reputation of a museum was firmly in the hands of the institution itself. Now, with the advent of social media, that power balance appears to have shifted quite dramatically. In fact, some would say that the visitor has greater control. On the face of it, this can seem like a frightening concept for museums. After all, a bad review can now be amplified by a hundred or even a thousand times at the touch of a screen. But should museums be seeing social media as an opportunity rather than a threat?

The magic of social media lies in its engagement, and that’s where many museum marketing departments are now finding success. Instead of only seeing glossy images of completed exhibitions, social media gives museum-goers the chance to get behind the scenes.

Sharing internal museum secrets with the public has emerged as a handy tool in piquing public interest and cultivating a legion of loyal followers.

Former Chief Digital Officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sree Sreenivasan, explains that people aren’t only interested in seeing the perfect end result:

“They want to get a sense of how things are made. You want to build an audience before you have the big launch, rather than just sit on something and have it appear.

“Rather than hoping for an audience, you can build an audience.”

A well-used example of this is time-lapse videos of installations being built. Witnessing the before, the during and the after – in the form of a stunning end result – adds to the sense of appreciation that visitors feel when they pay a visit.

Along with advertising exhibitions and events, social media allows museums to understand more about their audiences — their preferences, their interests and what they want from exhibitions. A social media presence can complement your museum’s programmes; it can help you build visitor numbers and work to break the fourth wall of an exhibit.

Visitors can offer feedback, ask questions and react to exhibitions and pieces in real time. Social followers have the chance to actively participate in conversations with the museum on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

No longer do people simply visit a museum and then leave it behind. By following an institution on social media, visitors will have the museum constantly in their consciousness – and a constant touch-point in their pocket.

#BoleynIsBack — history, heritage, social media and engagement

When seeking out examples of daring and rewarding museum social campaigns, it’s impossible not to mention 2018’s #BoleynIsBack.

As the Queen of England from 1533 to 1536, Anne Boleyn’s time on the throne at the side of Henry VIII marked an important point in the British monarchy. During these tumultuous years, the King pitted himself against the Roman Catholic Church, Queen Elizabeth I was born and, of course, Boleyn herself suffered execution at the Tower of London.

To mark the anniversary of her beheading, the digital team at Historic Royal Palace created an event called The Last Days of Anne Boleyn: a play intended to be shown throughout the summer. But in order to advertise the play, the digital team created a mammoth social media campaign centred around the hashtag #BoleynIsBack.

Historic Royal Palace oversees six of the UK’s key historical sites, including the Tower of London. Claire Lampon, Digital Media Manager for the organisation, described the challenge of creating a unique social campaign to support the play.

With creative historic storytelling, the team aimed to bring Anne Boleyn to life through social media, making her execution relevant by leading up to the day she would sail down the river to her fate.

The campaign involved three key stages. Stage One was The Tudor Echo – a fictional paper that treated Boleyn’s return like an unfolding news story. Articles included ‘Execution Chic: Scaffold Style for a Fallen Queen’ among others, and copies of the paper were left all around London. People were encouraged to share their photos of the paper using the hashtag #BoleynIsBack.

Social users were given a clear call to action to see Anne Boleyn in person at the tower at 12.30pm on the day she would meet her fate. Tweets were posted from the likes of Jane Seymour (the King’s new flame), ChainMail Online (a spoof version of the Mail Online), and @realhenryviii who, according to Lampon, was “tweeting that all of this is fake news and we need to make the UK great again.” These witty and satirical contemporary references only served to stir up the buzz on social platforms and generate the desired publicity.

As a result of the first stage alone, the campaign gained the Palace 65,000 impressions and 2,450 engagements on Twitter, as well as 79,700 impressions and 1,700 engagements on Instagram.

The team then moved on to Stage Two: Anne Boleyn takes over. On Thursday 3rd May, Anne Boleyn took over all social accounts for the day, including changing all bios and profile pictures. She enjoyed a well-documented #ThrowbackThursday tour around some of the most significant historical locations in London.

There was a video of Anne using an Oyster card, a selfie with her own portrait, and a picture of her posing outside The Queen’s Head pub, all uploaded with witty captions from Anne herself. This was designed to engage unsuspecting audiences and provoke conversation through Instagram stories and Twitter posts.

The tone of voice, playfulness and constant interactions led to overwhelmingly positive feedback, according to Lampon, with users calling it the “best thing to happen to Twitter since its inception.”

Through this stage of the campaign, the team racked up 1.5 million views and gained two months’ worth of followers in a single day. #BoleynIsBack was trending on Twitter and the team’s content was retweeted by high profile users like the National Portrait Gallery and Shakespeare’s Globe.

The final stage covered the day of Anne’s river trip. The team told the story as if it was breaking news through photos, videos and pre-recorded “live” clips. They showed Anne Boleyn’s arrest, leveraging social accounts such as @The_shard and @TfL (Transport For London) along the way, to signpost the passage of Anne along the river.

Once Anne reached the tower, audiences were drawn to Historic Royal Palace’s Facebook page for a Facebook Live video of her arrival. The stream gained 183,000 views, reaching 162,000 people from across the world.

Content was wrapped up with a strong call to action. The team encouraged people to find out what happened next by taking them to the official website and booking tickets to come and see the play for themselves.

Needless to say, this campaign has been hailed as a huge success. 75% of the web traffic to the Anne Boleyn website came directly from social media on the day of the stunt. Content was seen a total of 1.4 million times, and the team gained another 2 months’ worth of followers in a single day. It remains their most successful social media campaign to date.

Benefitting from social media

Social media provides the opportunity to re-engage with the public and generate excitement around museums and exhibitions. While not all campaigns need to involve stunts of the magnitude of #boleynisback, understanding how to generate publicity and become a topic of conversation is vital.

Above: Boleyn is Back from Historic Royal Palaces

Businesses both large and small are utilising social media for their marketing and engagement, and museums are no exception.

It’s important to note that social media engagement can mean different things to different institutions. Using a selection of carefully chosen platforms to launch a fully realised campaign with the intention of generating ticket sales is just one approach. It is also possible to use social media on a smaller scale each day to cultivate a groundswell of lively interest. Facebook and Twitter are ideal platforms for sharing information about upcoming events and exhibits, as well as engaging with visitors, providing details, answering questions and enjoying conversations.

Museums are, in the most part, about visual experiences. This makes the likes of Instagram and Pinterest the perfect mediums for showing off what your museum has to offer. Posting photos and videos from recent events and exhibitions – including backstage photos and insights – allows visitors to engage with the institution even when they aren’t physically in the room.

Facts, trivia, quizzes and questions are all simple yet effective ways of keeping museums in the public consciousness, building a loyal fanbase that can help to increase visitor retention rates on a long-term basis.

Social media is not a fix-all solution for museums, but by being smart with digital content, cultural institutions can build on their existing success in a way that supports the works on display, rather than detracting from them.

Interested in joining us to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing museums over the coming years? Explore our events calendar here for all our latest conferences.


About the author – Rebecca Carlsson

Rebecca Carlsson is a journalist writing extensively about the arts. She has a passion for modern art and when she’s not writing about museums, she can be found spending her weekends in them.

Subscribe to the latest museum thinking

Fresh ideas from museums around the globe in your inbox each week