Guest Post by Jennifer Riddell
Embracing social media literacy:
Integrate it meaningfully with your museum’s work, content and interpretation goals
The digital, networked museum has been slow to evolve and adoption of interactivity, open-source content and social media has been reluctant. In the early days (that is, within the last decade) a museum’s social media function was usually handled by web staff who established institutional accounts, sometimes with fuzzy support and direction from executive leadership. Under the “create once, publish everywhere” mantra, social media content was drawn from pre-approved marketing/communications material and the organizational website and redirected through social media platforms. The publicity value, as well as means of connecting with newer generations of museum goers and supporters, solidified the business rationale for the function and for dedicated social media staff.
In 2017, we will arrive at the 10th anniversary of the debut of the iPhone and the transformation of our mobile phones into networked visual communication devices. iphones and their progeny supercharged the development and uptake of social media, enabling people and organizations to establish an ongoing online presence. Today, 79% of internet-using U.S. adults are on Facebook, which has seen increased growth in recent years, while the next most popular platforms, Instagram (32% of adults online) and Twitter (24%), hold steady. Further, many people use their phones as a primary means of accessing the internet. Analytics reveal more visits to some museum websites via phone or tablets than computers.
As the social media landscape grew, and with the rise of analytics and evaluation, proactively planned social media calendars and platform complementarity became necessary to managing the output, which would hopefully drive engagements and broader dissemination of the content. A performance announcement can go out on Twitter, alongside a calendar post and invitations on Facebook, where an attendee streams it live, all of which may be followed by Instagram posts and Flickr uploads.
But how and why does social media matter to those of us who are not museum social media managers, web designers, or tech/backend experts? How does it relate to those museum professionals whose work revolves around engaging visitors with collections and exhibitions through interpretation, educational programming, visitor service and the like?
Thinking about social media as another channel for engagement—with the same compelling narratives, quality of content, and relevant messaging that you develop and plan to support your interpretive and core values—can help frame a better understanding of it. Often museum professionals have little interaction with institutional social media if it is not a formal element of their work (although they may be personal users). I think it is increasingly important to get a handle (pun intended) on social media from whatever rung in your organization that you occupy — senior level on down—as it develops and evolves into an indivisible component of visitor engagement and a means of knowing more about your community.
“Now that we have visitors on board, where do we want to take them?”
Social media amplifies the reach of exhibitions and programs, and provides opportunities for patrons to respond, which, in turn, increases engagement. Social media also offers significant opportunities for creativity and innovation in collection and exhibition interpretation, exploring ideas about what museums are for, and how visitors connect and form their own communities around and with them.
In the last decades, museums centralized visitor experience, alongside the traditional functions of collections stewardship and scholarship. Interpretive practices increasingly utilize storytelling, creative and relevant engagement, visitor participation, and multiple visitors’ voices. Successful and authentic social media practice embodies these qualities as well. In other words, it is part of the work you are already doing in your museum. Technology or your belief that you have no idea how Twitter or Instagram works shouldn’t inhibit you from using social media into interpretive messages or programs. Your focus is still content.
Gaining social media literacy helps you to see opportunities for its use. All staff should be empowered and encouraged to be a part of the social media wave since inclusivity (see Tate’s “digital as a dimension of everything” strategic plan) ultimately yields richer and more diverse content. Don’t forget that a museum’s staff is also part of its community, and their connections and interests alone magnify the presence of the museum many times over.
“Brand ambassadors, content managers, evangelists”
Many descriptions of social media describe an organization’s social media manager as its brand ambassador. This is an important role that should be informed by and serve as a hub for professional networks across your museum and beyond. For example, inside the museum (virtually or physically) visitors’ interests are no longer confined to exhibition spaces; they are curious about the life of the museum behind the scenes. Social media allows you to show visitors what the work of the museum is about, and authorize staff to speak and respond in their own voices about what they do. Not many people outside museums know what a curator does. For that matter they don’t know about the roles of conservators or frame-makers either. It is also key to be alert to the possibilities presented by exhibitions and programs. In one museum, curators of a photography exhibition wished to connect with people who might have archival family photos of a similar theme. This type of project is a natural fit for social media outreach and fosters real participation and exchange. In these examples, it is not necessary to even know how to tweet, but just to recognize that an opportunity for engagement—and suitable platform—exists.
Externally, social media connects museums in real time with their communities. Examples could include local artists, other arts organizations, schools, non-art organizations, and enthusiastic local repeat visitors and supporters. They welcome avenues for a more vital and personal connection with your institution. If you stage a performance or sponsor an artist lecture, how might social media be used to offer a closer look at the performer’s life, process, ideas, etc.? Context can inflect and enrich your programming and demystify artistic practice. Crowd-sourcing questions, a community art project, or challenging your social media followers to see your collections in a new way encourages people to voice their own interpretations and understandings. No one has a lock on interpretation and visitors are goldmines of stories that, in turn, serve to validate others’ experiences.
Getting your social media literacy off the ground
- Develop clear social media usage policies and guidelines
Social media policy and guidelines should be integrated into the organization’s internet usage policy. The social media component should cover the mechanics of who establishes, maintains, and accesses what accounts, how content will push or pull from other sources, staff professional and personal interaction with museum social media, and legal and ethical considerations. Consider how social media policy and guidelines reflect the larger mission of your organization and the established policies around communications and conduct.
- Get the basics from social media staff
Partner with your organization’s social media staff to understand the mechanics of posting (scheduling, pushing from one platform to another, live tweeting, analytics, content parameters, etc.). Ask them to explain in their own words the uses, audiences, pros and cons of different platforms from their perspective. There is no secret sauce. An understanding of basic principles will encourage museum staff to utilize their social media of choice to shape, collaborate and support the organization’s larger interpretive goals.
- Don’t feed content through social media platforms like so much wood through a wood chipper. Adapt it to meet user’s needs and expectations in each platform.
- Help empower internal networks so that when timely and interesting stories arise social media channels news from different parts of the museum.
- Sign up
You may have a Facebook and LinkedIn accounts, but try Twitter, Instagram, YouTube or Pinterest. Start following some individuals and organizations that you like. Make a few posts. The goal is not specific skill development per se, or to become a social media star, but to just understand the basic functions. Participate in a twitter chat. Follow live tweeting of an event. Create an Instagram story. There is a degree of crossover between the personal and professional that is generally a part of using social media, so delineate your participation accordingly. Begin to observe the voice and functionality of different streams of social media information.
- Unpack the rationales and mission-based reasons for the use of social media in your organization
Beyond an imperative to simply have a social media presence, what can it accomplish, and what are the priorities? Does your social media presence align with what you’re doing elsewhere in the museum? Goals such as extending collection interpretation, reaching new audiences, redefining organizational identity, or promoting greater accessibility should be defined and broken down into actionable measures. Think about how social media allows you to engage in conversations locally, regionally, nationally or internationally. Not everything about social media is virtual, and successful social media campaigns/memes, and hashtags elicit action and awareness around an issue or topic.
5. Social is non-hierarchical
Acquaint yourself with social media influencers in your community interested in your museum or related subject matter. They can be your advocates whose authentic voices and imprimatur lend a different kind of credibility to the authority a museum already possesses. Some influencers are already part of your organization, with active profiles in or outside the museum sphere. Being open to what social media may set in motion or introduce can be embraced as part of the learning, enjoyment, and connection that the museum experience can engender.
Jennifer Riddell works in museum interpretation and is communications co-chair for the Washington, DC chapter of ArtTable.