Social media for museums – an overview

This social media resource is designed to be the go-to for people in museums who may not yet have decided if social media is something their museum should be on board with, and for those who are ready to take that first step but might not be sure where to begin or how to focus their strategic and practical work.

You’ll find out more about what social media is and what it offers museums, as well as gain some insight into how using social media as an organisation can or should be done. Myths will be busted, you’ll get some top tips and Dos and Don’ts, plus a quick overview of some of the main social media channels used by museums.

Jump to:

Why museums are (or should get) on board | The reality of museums on social media | Myth busting | Top tips | Do’s and don’ts | Social media platforms | Further resources | People to follow

Why museums are (or should get) on board:

What social media is

What exactly is social media? How do we condense such a nebulous and far-reaching phenomenon in a useful way? Amelia Wong (2015) calls social media “the proliferation of digitally networked sites, applications and tools that encourage and facilitate social interaction, communication and information exchange.” The second half of that definition can easily be applied to museums too; the heart that beats in the chest of social media is one shared in large part by museums and most other cultural organisations.

From the high-profile Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, to Pinterest, Tumblr and Snapchat, social media also includes platforms such as YouTube and WhatsApp. All of these are tools used to communicate, share, interact, support friends, network, show off, and more. Most are accessible on desktop (and many started that way), but all are delivered through dedicated apps, bringing people’s social networks into the palm of their hand via smartphones.

What social media offers museums

Social media is relatable, accessible and a fundamental part of modern life. There’s also great value in museums getting on board with social media’s multifaceted uses, and its range of users. Importantly, there’s no “one way” for museums to use each platform: social media allows one-to-one communication, as well as the ability to broadcast information widely; social media can be a soapbox; it can encourage participation and get audiences involved in a conversation; it’s also a great place to listen to your audiences and understand them more. This can all manifest in different ways, and they are not mutually exclusive.

Through social media, museums can reach their audiences directly, and vice versa, bringing us closer than ever before to people who visit our institutions, as well as those who may never get the chance.

When done well, social media makes museums friendlier and more relatable. The fact that cultural institutions are relevant enough to feature in our audiences’ updates to their friends is something not only to be celebrated, but fostered: we’re invited to share the same space as their celebrity heroes, essential services, favourite products and, more poignantly, their friends and family. The community we build with our audiences through social media allows museums to extend themselves beyond their physical building and into people’s lives.

The reality of museums on social media:

Social media is an extension of the museum

A museum’s visitor service team is one of the most important in the whole organisation: they are the frontline, the cheerleaders, the omnipotent face of the museum. Front of house staff interact with visitors all day, every day and personally shape their experience of the museum. A museum’s social media offer does the same thing online.

A museum’s “personality” results from a combination of its history, setting, themes and approach, most visibly expressed through branding. While social media is heavily influenced by all of this, it also plays a key role in shaping the personality of the institution. Social media, with its accessible community ethos, has a certain tone and offers museums a chance to sidestep outdated perceptions or even subvert expectations, perhaps leading to a shift in its character or, even, the ability to flex and express its personality more fully.

Far from being yet another museum silo, social media is a bridge that connects everything a museum is and does: from showcasing the museum’s live programme to recruiting staff for vacancies; from sharing objects that otherwise wouldn’t see the light of day to asking for audience feedback or inviting content to inform object records or an exhibition. In addition to serving/facilitating teams across the whole institution in various ways, social media also fulfils the museum’s mission on its own terms. Social media is (or should be) sewn into the very fabric of the museum, whilst also being a creative and dynamic space to experiment in new ways of engaging, as only social media can.

Myth busting:

While social media can be an essential part of a museum’s activity, there are still a lot of assumptions made about what it can and can’t do or how easy it is. Below are a few of these myths (good and bad) that are still occasionally proliferated, doing nobody any favours.

Social media is a fix-all solution

Social media can do a lot, and can have a great impact, but it won’t solve everything. If tickets aren’t shifting for an event, social media can only do so much. If you’re trying to reach young people, social media might not be the most efficient way to do that. Don’t be tempted into believing that using social will make all your problems go away.

Social media is easy and free

Social media is a fun way to engage with audiences and, if you know why and how you’re doing it, it’s straightforward. That’s part of its beauty, along with being able to use the platforms for free. But that’s also the rub: don’t assume good social media practice comes without putting the requisite work in. And while the channels are free in terms of money, there are other costs.

A good social media presence requires investment in creative people able to dedicate time to it. Short-term and long-term planning are essential. Those running it need trust from above to be able to experiment and they must know their work is valued. Significant time and effort is needed to grow an invested audience, without whom you’re just shouting into a void.

If you can dedicate time to running the channels, think about them strategically and carve out an approach that fits with your museum’s mission and goals, there’s no excuse to not do social media well.

Posting a tweet is easy. Posting one that’s well written and attention grabbing, one that’s engaging and fits the personality and quality of your organisation, is harder. Growing an audience and gaining their trust and time is harder still.

Social media is hard

Having just explained that doing social media well isn’t “easy”, that’s not to say it’s too hard to have a go. A light touch approach can still reap rewards, and it’s in this way that social media can come into its own.

If everything you do on social media chimes with your museum and its organisational goals or ethos, you’re in safe hands. Always bring it back to your museum, its scope and what makes it unique. Does it feel authentic? Real? On brand? Then own it.

Just know that as long as you’re able to think about social media in the same way you would anything else your museum does, and you’re able to devote time to growing and running the channels, maintaining a good presence online is not hard. It just needs time and effort.

Social media is scary

What if I do it wrong? Won’t joining Twitter just invite trolls to heckle us online? What if I make a mistake? What if our social media is boring? What if I post a photo of one of our paintings to Facebook and someone uses it on postcards and makes a fortune at our expense?

Before social media became a staple for brands, businesses and organisations, there were worries around the repercussions of museums getting on board. While a lot of that has since subsided, it’s not completely absent. It’s true that ill-advised social media activity can result in reputational damage (we’ve all seen it), but it’s easy to stay on track and be true to your museum’s ethos and integrity.

It’s also worth pointing out that social media isn’t the only place a museum could trip up, whether ethically, being tone deaf or similar. From exhibitions and events to marketing campaigns, and from merchandise to the language used, there’s always a risk that an organisation will slip up in some way. That’s no reason to avoid social media; rather, it’s something to be keenly aware of when running the channels, as it is in the rest of the museum’s work.

If nothing else, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will die because of a museum’s tweet.

Social media is fun

This one’s true! Just make sure to enjoy it: use your imagination and be playful to get the most out of it.

Social media is just marketing

This isn’t so much a myth, as it is a risk. If all you use social media for is to promote your programme and sell tickets or merchandise, then yes, it’s just marketing, but it’s also not doing social media well. Anyone can post commercial or marketing messages constantly, but that doesn’t mean they should.

Social media should be a mix of unique content, engaging conversation with your audience and other organisations, sharing and promoting the work of your audience and peers, and, yes, some marketing.

Top tips

Choose the right channels for your museum

Don’t feel the need to be on every social media platform. In fact, stretching yourself too thin is not a good idea. Start with one or two and grow your audience, get a feel for the channel and get to grips with how much work is involved. If there’s a need, appetite and the capacity for more, then go for it if it’s manageable. But don’t get ahead of yourself! When choosing which channel to start with, think about what you want to get out of it, and the kind of content or presence you want your museum to have. If it’s all visual, maybe Instagram is a good choice; Twitter may be better for conversational engagement.

Use your unique selling point to stand out

Social media is a crowded place nowadays, but most museums are intrinsically interesting. Think about what sets your museum apart (its collection, setting, live programme, theme, etc.) and make your social channels funnel that in an engaging way.

Mutter Museum 1 (https://twitter.com/MutterMuseum/status/963790140123631621)

Bad website? Social media to the rescue!

Not all museums are blessed with good (or even adequate) websites, so social media becomes even more essential to those organisations. Social media can give you a bit more control and allows you to show off your institution in the way that makes sense and is true to the organisation, even if, for example, your council-run website makes your users weep.

Involve your audience, don’t just broadcast to them

People don’t follow cultural organisations to be bombarded with marketing information. Fuel your audience’s imagination and pique their interest. And although many museums are good at putting out interesting, relevant and unique content, that’s just the start. Ask them questions and respond to theirs. If you see people talking about your museum, join in! Make it worth their while to follow you. Then, when you do have some marketing to do, it’s much less abrasive because the balance is right.

Be relaxed and social

Social media is just that: social. It’s also the place your museum can let its hair down a bit and be more relatable, whether that’s through a lighter (but still apt) tone of voice, or a full-blown use of memes and GIFs (again, as appropriate). It’s far stranger for a museum’s social media presence to be po-faced than it is for a museum to align itself with the tone of the channel it’s using. Although how that manifests is up to the individual museum and what it deems appropriate.

NLS 1 (https://twitter.com/natlibscot/status/972049353614483461)

Content ratio

A good rule of thumb across all social channels is the 30/60/10 content ratio: 30% owned (your own unique content­), 60% curated (relevant content you’re sharing from other organisations) and 10% promotional (commercial or marketing posts). This works because: by not always posting your own content, you come off as less self-absorbed, plus posting only your own content means having to create all the content you share (and risk watering down its quality); sharing others’ relevant content amplifies your institution as an authority on its subject area, making clear how generous and collaborative it is; and the small amount of marketing is handily offset by the other 90% of your content, and your audience will be more receptive to it (or at least more accepting).

Follow peer organisations and businesses

This is a great way to let people know you exist and that you’re open and collaborative. By following similar organisations, or those otherwise relevant to you, you build an invaluable network to support, help, champion and challenge you.

Be true to yourself

Audiences respond well to museums that feel authentic. Knowing what you’re doing and why counts for a lot, and it lets you take risks on social media, because if it feels true to the brand you’ll be OK.

One social channel can publicise another

If you have an established Facebook presence but have just started on Instagram, tell your Facebook audience so they can go and follow you there too.

Tell everyone

You don’t just have to use other social channels to tell people about your new presence elsewhere, you can use your physical building to advertise your new Instagram account, perhaps by putting up signs welcoming visitor photography and including your handles [another word for username; on most channels, you can mention other people by using their handle].

Signage 1. Notice on the wall at the Design Museum in Helsinki.

It won’t be perfect every time

We all make mistakes. We all misjudge things sometimes. The trick is to learn from anything that doesn’t quite land and let that inform your future activities. Experimentation is vital to making an impact on social media, and too much fear of failing can hinder that. Try new things gently, see how people respond, and pivot accordingly. Importantly: own your mistakes.

Dos and don’ts

DO

  • Have fun, experiment, be social and have conversations
  • Adapt content for different channels
  • Follow other museums to see how they do it and ask for help or advice from museum folk on social
  • Choose a relevant and clear handle
  • Be inclusive
  • Check spelling and grammar
  • Follow organisations from other sectors
  • Get involved in sector-wide social media activities
  • Stay true to your mission

DON’T

  • Just do marketing
  • Ignore negative comments
  • “Just give social media to the intern”
  • Keep creating new Twitter accounts for every aspect of the museum; put time and effort into one
  • Call anyone a social media “guru” or “ninja” or “maven” or “wizard”
  • Watermark your images
  • Post the exact same thing on each channel

Social media platforms: a quick introduction

When using social media as an individual, you typically follow accounts you are interested in so that your timeline shows content relevant to you. As an organisation, your presence on social media offers your audience a way to interact with you and gives you a channel to explore what your museum does in a different way. Because of this, it’s unlikely that you’ll follow most of the public who follow your museum. Keep it to organisations or individuals who are directly involved with you. You can still engage and interact with the wider public without following them all individually.

Think about what you want each channel to do. They have their strengths, so make sure you know the job each one is doing, so you can tailor your content accordingly.

All platforms offer a verification status for brand/business accounts. This is to combat bot or impostor accounts and is essentially a way for the platforms to make it clear to its users who to follow and to allow them to identify brands they trust. In all cases, verified accounts have a small blue tick next to their names on their profile.

Facebook

The world’s biggest social media platform allows people to create profiles, upload media, send messages, keep in touch with friends and family, and follow brands and organisations.

Strengths:

  • Biggest social media user base by far
  • Its users spend a lot of time on Facebook and are invested
  • Local audiences often very engaged

Weaknesses:

  • Limited organic reach [total number of people shown a post through unpaid distribution]
  • Content often needs to be monetised to be seen
  • Facebook’s teen problem: it’s lost its “cool factor” and significant numbers of younger users are less engaged in, or are moving away from, the platform
  • Lends itself to more “broadcast” type content, as opposed to dynamic conversation or user-generated projects

Twitter

This “microblogging” network allows its users to send short posts with up to 280 characters and attach images/video.

Strengths:

  • A conversational platform, great for one-to-one communication
  • A relaxed and fun platform
  • Makes museums more approachable, conversational and allows their sense of humour to come out
  • Quick, snackable content

Weaknesses:

  • Short format can remove nuance from sensitive conversations

Instagram

The online photo-sharing network allows people to upload and edit photos and short videos through their mobile app.

Strengths:

  • 800 million users
  • Elegant and simple way to showcase great photos
  • High engagement levels and highly engaged users
  • Stories add an element of fun and irreverence

Weaknesses:

  • Recent changes to its algorithm mean you no longer see content chronologically. When it started, you viewed content by people you followed chronologically, but now as you browse your timeline, you’ll see posts from five minutes ago next to something from four days ago; Instagram has removed the instant part of their appeal. Users aren’t too happy, but it also means you don’t know when your audiences will see your content.

Snapchat

This mobile app allows people to send and receive temporary photos and videos (called Snaps).

Strengths:

  • Fun filters [overlays/graphics you add to Snaps]
  • Geofilters [filters that can only be accessed in certain locations] you can make for your audience to use are affordable and fun
  • Popular among young people

Weaknesses:

  • Awful interface, hard to use
  • Virtually no statistics or analytics
  • Instagram has adopted many of its features and has far more users

Pinterest

The social curation website describes itself as a visual bookmarking site and allows people to share and categorise images found online.

Strengths:

  • Allows a lot of control over the grouping of your content
  • Let’s you visually highlight different aspects of your museum through links to that content
  • Gives you a space to highlight user-generated content

Weaknesses:

  • Relatively small market share of social media users (175 million)
  • Pinterest is pivoting more and more to an eCommerce channel, and less social media

Tumblr

In its own words, this microblogging site “lets you effortlessly share anything. Post text, photos, quotes, links, music and videos from your browser, phone, desktop, email or wherever you happen to be.” A sort of cross between other social media platforms and a blog.

Strengths:

  • An engaged and active user base
  • Great for spreading memes [media content, typically humorous in nature, that gets copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations]

Weaknesses:

  • Relatively very small number of monthly active users (estimated 30 million)
  • Tends to be more niche, sometimes insular and hard to penetrate
  • Some museums used to use Tumblr, but the effort put in to the channel is not worth the return. More visible platforms, with much larger user bases tend to be used instead.


Further resources

Should museums have a personality? by Russell Dornan

Lowering the tone: doing social media at Bodleian Libraries by Adam Koszary

Keep the Conversation Going: How Museums Use Social Media to Engage the Public by Rachel Gonzalez

A New Social Media Presence at the Royal Ontario Museum by W. Ryan Dodge

Please Turn On Your Phone in the Museum by Sophie Gilbert

Reflecting the Museum: How Instagram brings back seeing by Russell Dornan

EPIC Content: How to build high impact content by W. Ryan Dodge

Social media is stupid and museums should be too by Adam Koszary

A to Z of the Human Condition: I is for Individuality by Alli Burness

Museum Digital Strategy: Examples and Resources by cogapp

The Complexity of ‘Community’: Considering the Effects of Discourse on Museums’ Social Media Practices by Amelia Wong

People to follow

Danny Birchall: Twitter

Maxwell Blowfield: Twitter | Instagram

Ryan Dodge: Twitter

Kajsa Hartig: Twitter

Sara Wajid: Twitter

Jack Ashby: Twitter

Rob Cawston: Twitter

Kimberly Rose Drew: Twitter | Instagram

JiaJia Fei: Twitter

Mar Dixon: Twitter (personal) | Twitter (Culture Themes)

Kate Meyers Emery: Twitter

Tincture of Museum: Twitter

Lucy Redoglia: Twitter

Jenni Fuchs: Twitter (personal)

Alie Cline: Twitter

Mark B Schlemmer: Twitter

Meagan Estep: Twitter

Lexie Buchanan: Twitter

Seb Chan: Twitter

Adam Koszary: Twitter

Lori Byrd-McDevitt: Twitter

Mara Kurlandsky: Twitter

Lanae Spruce: Twitter

Sacha Coward: Twitter

Jack Shoulder: Twitter

Amy Fox: Twitter

Paolo Viscardi: Twitter

Essie Lash: Twitter

Museum Detox: Twitter

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