One day after this tweet and our followers have increased by over 7000, the tweet itself is clocking up 63k likes and it currently sits on 19k retweets.
This is not normal for the Museum of English Rural Life twitter account.
We’ve always had a collection of livestock portraiture at the MERL (often referred to fondly as fat cow paintings). And it doesn’t take a social media genius to recognise they have social media potential — we posted another just a few days ago too — but it took until yesterday for one to break through.
And why it went viral doesn’t take rocket science. It’s a good photo, a cute animal and a relevant use of a meme. Throw in a few lucky retweets from influencers, and we were away.
The real core of the success, however, came after the tweet. After having gone semi-viral before on two other occasions (once with a dead mouse, once with a bit of library sass) I knew that for something to become truly viral it didn’t just need retweets, it needed to be talked about.
So, I talked to people. I encouraged puns, I played deadpan, I sassed a little bit and I got a bit creative. I was honestly a little worried about having time to eat my curry that evening, so I tweeted about that in the first person — figuring that the meta would fit the mood. Because I thought maybe being self-aware is ‘in’ now, and it turns out it is most definitely in.
The result is that the tweets got collected into a Moment by Twitter and broadcast to the world, exposing not just the original tweet but a whole host of them.
Since then we’ve been retweeting, engaging and following up. And doing so has meant adopting a tone different than our usual, taking a lead from the original tweet.
Tone is notoriously difficult (it’s been very well explored by Russell Dornan), and museums often struggle with the tension of trying to engage people while remaining respectable. But social media has pushed the envelope of what people consider respectable, to the point where I think people almost expect a few memes. The tone and language we used in the wake of our absolute unit tweet was simply the same as how people talk on Twitter anyway.
But apart from content and tone, we also had the angle. Imagine what would have happened if we had tweeted the image of the sheep and simply explained what it was: an Exmoor Horn aged ram. Some people may have found it cute, it could have done moderately well and there it would have ended. Memes, however, are the currency of the internet.
This particular meme invaded my subconscious through Scottish People Twitter, and it was the first thing I said when I saw that image of the ram on our catalogue: ‘what an absolute unit’. Everyone in my office agreed, it was an absolute unit.
And I’d hope it’s fairly obvious to anyone that the museum doesn’t just make memes, and that the memes are simply one way of engaging people with our collections. Writing in a friendly and humorous way doesn’t destroy the museum, and it’s simply one of the ways we reach our end goal: involving everyone in our heritage.
We of course plan on milking this meme for as long as we can, too. We started by delving into the archives to add more to the story, and we have others bits we’re going to gradually release over the next day. We then fully expect the meme to die, and we’ll go back to a sort of business as usual and hope to do it again.
There is one thing we’ve definitely learned at the end of this though. People love an absolute unit, and are in awe at the size of the lad.