Social media: a fast guide for Museums

As time goes by we hear more and more about social media: Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Google+, amongst others are being constantly brought up when discussing social media integration in any kind of business. Museums are of course not immune to social media and in fact are a few of the institutions that can actually benefit fully from them (why does my auto mechanic need a twitter account? I have yet to find out).

However it is not enough to get an account and then posting about events and promotions. The following are a few guidelines that will greatly increase the usefulness of social media for museums.

Designate a social media editor

One of the most important things about implementing social media is to keep it alive, constantly updating and responding to whatever inquiry that may come up. The only way to manage this is to have someone in charge of the social medial efforts. The reason to do this is that it is probably impossible for anyone who already has a full set of responsibilities to take on the role of social media editor.

The responsibilities of a social media editor would include:

  • Updating the social media sites the institution uses with news on the museum such as new exhibitions, visitor numbers, hyping events, special guests, publications, even related news to the field e.g. news about a dinosaur being discovered, new insights on Pre-Raphaelite art, etc.
  • Responding to user questions, suggestions, following up on discussions, and creating new questions, polls and any other things he/she can think of to encourage conversations.
  • Forward relevant inquiries to and request progress updates from curators, the education department, and marketing on information they might want to share with the public.

As for what qualifications should a social media editor should have, the following would be recommended:

  • A thorough grasp on trending social media efforts and how they can be exploited fully.
  • Great writing skills
  • A respectful demeanor
  • Objective driven
  • A passion for the museum and its collection
  • A degree on a related field to the museum’s collection or in the case of museum with varied collections, a communications or marketing degree

Someone who meets these criteria should be able to handle the responsibilities inherent in the position and in turn make the museum’s social media efforts interesting and engaging.

Choose which social media efforts the museum will use

Currently there is a plethora of social media websites to choose from, some better suited for museums than others. The most common ones are: Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Flickr, LinkedIn, MySpace and Tumblr,  there are of course many many more, however most of them are either have beens in the game or extremely niche products. And of the ones mentioned here, some of them are ill suited to the needs of a museum.

Twitter: the famous microblogging site is a perfect way to share short news, links, create a virtual watercooler, answer quick questions and update people on upcoming events. However with its 140 character limit, the fact that posts get pushed further down by updates not only by the museum but by every other person the visitor follows and the difficulty the average user has to find a specific post make it hard to recommend as the sole social media effort for a museum. Twitter is most useful in a museum as a way to answer quick questions and spread news to great amount of people fast. There is however the possibility that these news might get lost in the near constant barrage of tweets by other users.

Facebook: the most successful social media website around. Facebook allows the museum to create polls, event notifications, discussion boards, share pictures, create games and interactive presentations, share videos and encourage communication and interaction between users. Facebook offers a more permanent option to Twitter and usually is used in conjunction with the later, using it as an echo chamber to Facebook.

Google+: often called the anti-social social network due to its ability to compartmentalize what it shares, it offers some advantages over Facebook such as circles of contacts which allow the dissemination of information to select groups thus allowing certain communications to remain private and thus useful as a work collaboration tool. It also includes the possibility to create hangouts which can be used for teleconferences, small workshops, talks with curators, artists, etc. The disadvantage that Google+ presents is that few people know about it and its adoption numbers aren’t as high as those of Facebook thus limiting its usefulness, however it is backed by Google and might yet develop into a serious competitor.

Flickr: A very good image sharing website it holds limited usefulness for museums. While the sharing of photographs seems like a good idea, the need to buy a subscription if the user wants to keep more than 100 images offsets whatever benefit might be drawn from it. Facebook and twitter can perform the same options. As for benefits, the tighter copyright control it offers can not be ignored. Useful for photography contest.

LinkedIn: a professional networking tool, it holds few uses in the social networking area, its usefulness as a recruiting tool however is invaluable. I might discuss LinkedIn more in depth in a future article.

MySpace: As of late MySpace has been declining in popularity and seems to be poised to disappear. Once the most visited social media website in the world, now it focuses mainly on social entertainment and thus holds little interest for museums.

Tumblr: an more customizable alternative to Twitter, it offers the behavior of a website with the friendliness of Twitter. As of now the 10th most used social media network in the world according to its own metrics. Of great interest are: ability to create posts ahead of time and to be published at set dates, highly customizable, compatible with Google Analytics, highly compatible with search engines thus raising the chances of achieving high rankings and visibility, intertwined with Twitter and Facebook, high-res photography. It could be considered the middle point between a full fledged blog and a social media site.

After analyzing all the possible options and knowing what a museum wants to share, its possible to make an informed decision and choose the best fit for the museum.

For example a museum that wishes to inform visitors of events and gauge visitor interest might want to consider a combination of Twitter and Facebook. Meanwhile a museum that wishes to hold talks, share media and even publish essays might find Tumblr a better option and then allow it to manage Flickr and Facebook. In the end each museum must choose its own strategies and consider what each site brings to the table and mix and match always being careful to not over extend itself. As a general rule a combination of Twitter and Facebook is more than enough for most museums regardless of size or complexity.

Communicate

As the name social media implies, the idea behind Twitter, Facebook and others is to enable interaction between human beings.

A good way to achieve this is to engage users through questions such as:

  • What is your favorite object in our collection?
  •  If you could ask our curators something what would you ask them?
  • What would you like to see more of in the museum?
  • What did you like the most in our current exhibition?

Other good methods are polls, Q&A sessions with curators or artists, responding to posts by users or other museums. The idea is to encourage a friendly exchange of ideas, and to actually care about the resulting conversations. These talks can actually give the museum new ideas, see what visitors like and dislike and in general provide a general survey of how the museum is doing, also by constantly engaging visitors the museum projects an image of friendliness, openness and keeps its whole social media effort from looking like a mere marketing tool. Do keep in mind that this is no replacement for exit surveys, focus groups and other marketing techniques.

Keep posting

Nothing kills a social media effort than a rarely updated Twitter feed or Facebook wall. People now consume media at an staggering pace, and museums that update once or twice will find their follower numbers declining fast and conversations running dry in matters of hours. Daily questions and news are a good way to keep things moving, while serious posts such as event schedules, Q&A sessions and the like should run at least on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, on the other hand since most websites and blogs follow this pattern, a posting schedule of Tuesday and Thursday might be a good way to capture readers on those “slow” days.

Careful with parroting information

While it seems tempting to take all the brilliant information found by others on Facebook and Twitter and hitting retweet or share, this is a bad way to pad information. While it’s not wrong to do it from time to time when what is shared is both interesting and relevant, one way to do this is to write at least a small reflection on the article in question, one or two paragraphs should should suffice and could become a springboard to further discussion.

Integrate

A great way to increase a museum’s social media relevance is to integrate share and like buttons on pages such as the museum’s blog posts, catalog entries, home page and events amongst others. These buttons allow users to share what they like about the museum, invite friends to events, and generate awareness of the museum in general, and thus should be an important part of a social media effort.

All of these are recommendations that museums and in fact any kind of company should follow in order to generate greater value from their social media efforts. It is also important to keep in mind that social media is not a silver bullet that will solve all attendance issues, boost donations and rise the level of discourse on the museum’s efforts. Its a tool and should be treated as such.

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