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What is Telegram and how can museums benefit from its reach?

In August this year the messaging app Telegram reached one billion downloads making it the it the 15th app in the world to have hit this figure.

As users have become increasingly disenchanted with What’s App’s data policies following their integration with Facebook, messaging apps with enhanced privacy (such as Telegram and Signal) have skyrocketed in popularity. When Elon Musk tweeted the two-word endorsement ‘Use Signal’ in early 2021, the Signal app crashed briefly due to the influx of new users.

But what makes these apps so enticing? Both Telegram and Signal are free, independent, open platform, and offer enhanced encryption – along with features such as self-destructing messages.

While Signal is focused on messaging, the Telegram app combines this with social media functions – and so offers a new way of connecting with audiences.

So, should museums be planning to create content for this channel? Let’s take a closer look.

How does Telegram work?

Telegram can be installed on a broad range of devices. Although you need a phone number for the initial set-up, it’s not limited to your phone and your account can sync across your tablet and pc, too. You don’t need your phone number to be visible on the app and can set up a username instead.

You can use Telegram to message people in your phone contacts list who also have the app or you can use the in-app search to find contacts by their username.

The service can send text-based messages, as well as audio, photos and video as you’d expect. However, you can send any file type on here – and up to 2Gb per file.

In addition, you can set up interactive groups for up to 200,000 users, and broadcasting channels for unlimited audiences. Consequently, Telegram says, the service “is like SMS and email combined and can take care of all your personal or business messaging needs.”

In terms of privacy, the Secret Chats function offers end-to-end encryption, while everything else is encrypted in the cloud.

Who’s using it?

Telegram has over 500 million monthly active users and is reported to be the most popular messaging app in Iran and Uzbekistan. A quick rummage through the stats held by SimilarWeb shows the app high in the download rankings for many countries. For iPhone Social Networking Apps at the time of writing it is fifth in the USA, fourth in the UK, fourth in the UAE and second in Switzerland.

It’s worth noting though, that although Telegram is cited as the most popular messaging app in Iran, it’s also banned there as well as in China and Pakistan.

Telegram will not release the details of messages sent on its app – stating: “To this day, we have disclosed 0 bytes of user data to third parties, including governments”. And the only reports that they will process are those relating to their publicly available sticker sets, channels and bots – for example copyright infringement reports.

This privacy means that there are often surges in downloads at moments of key political events. It was reportedly used during the Hong Kong protests and in Belarus.

It has also developed a bad reputation for being used to spread hate messages and other illegal content. You may recall that Telegram was believed to be one of the platforms where Trump’s supporters mobilised for the Capitol riots.

Although Telegram will not disclose these messages – it does delete extremist content.

What key features should I know about?

  • Channels

Channels enable you to broadcast to an unlimited number of subscribers – think a news stream or magazine. Subscribers can comment on your posts, or you can add a group chat, but only authorized admins can post new content.

A channel can be open and public – anyone can subscribe – or private with subscription by invite link only.

Want to take a look? Subscribe to the Smithsonian’s channel or Paintings Place for a steady stream of historic art in your feed.

  • Groups
    Groups are more participatory, and again can be public or private – great for membership groups. While they do have limits on member numbers, this is capped at 200,000. You can set up a group so that all members can contribute, or just the admins, which could make this a useful tool for panel discussions. There’s also a nifty Quizzes tool to play with.
  • Bots
    Telegram’s open API means that developers can create bots that run different functions within the app, from notifications to gaming. It’s free to register a bot (using the ‘BotFather’ function) but you do need some programming knowledge to create one. Bots such as MuseumGuideBot and AjaibgharBot are chatbots that provide interactive information on exhibits.MuseumGuideBot offers user-generated content, while AjaibgharBot uses museum API’s – primarily Rijksmuseum, the Cooper Hewitt Museum and the Brooklyn Museum, to provide interpretation texts. Bots can also be used to take payments, and chatbots are being used to sell tickets, products and services. There’s a handy explainer here.
  • Stickers
    There are over 20,000 stickers available on Telegram, which are often provided as packs of images. Telegram have created a bot that makes it really easy to make your own stickers and share them, check out Riposte for some Renaissance themed inspiration.

Will you be taking a closer look at Telegram for your marketing and communications?

With such strong growth and useful features, Telegram could be a key feature in our comms planning in the future. Watch this space.

About the author – Rebecca Hardy Wombell

Rebecca Hardy Wombell is a freelance writer who works with a broad range of creative organisations, including artists, galleries, museums and design-led retailers.

Her writing aims to develop and delight audiences by putting her clients’ beautiful works to well-crafted words.

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