A thicc sheep and a chicken in trousers catapulted The Museum of English Rural Life to viral fame on Twitter in 2018. We’ve gone from 9.7K followers to 69K, from thousands to millions of engagements, featured in The Times and the Guardian and were followed by J.K. Rowling.
And we did it all without spending a penny.*
This year’s Museums Association conference in Belfast was on the theme of dissent, and I argued that unless GLAM institutions start treating social media as an engagement tool first rather than a marketing tool then we are dooming ourselves to irrelevance.
I’m not saying every museum needs to take The MERL’s approach, which was a radical reset of our tone and personality based on humour. What I’m saying is that each institution needs to find an approach which makes sense for its own mission and audiences, and doing this properly is rooted in institutional culture.
The MERL’s success did not happen in a vacuum. It is the culmination of years of small experiments, an institutional acceptance of social media and upskilling of staff.
Here’s what I think helped:
1. Your organisation needs to make peace with social media
It isn’t going away. Yes, it’s a bit shouty. Yes, the kids do talk about stupid things on it. Yes, some museums have had terrible experiences on it.
But also yes, it is hypocritical trying to appeal to young people when you neglect and ignore the mediums they most commonly communicate on.
Social media is not going to adapt to museums, it is museums which have to adapt to social media.
What that’s meant at The MERL is an ongoing training programme covering creative digital skills, but also adoption of the ladder of engagement, the content matrix and the creative ways in which online content can achieve organisational goals.
If the museum needs to make peace with social media, it’s just as important that different teams make peace with each other. Communications need to meet Collections halfway by respecting copyright, linking to the catalogue, ethics and factual accuracy. Equally, Collections people need to respect that Communications professionals might know how to communicate collections so they have a broader appeal, and that this sometimes requires relinquishing control over the institutional voice.
Ultimately, we are all trying to engage the public with their collections, histories and cultures. Respect each other, have some empathy and, above all, talk to each other.
2. Employ somebody
We do not have a Social Media Manager. What we have is a couple of individuals (myself and our Marketing Manager) who have editorial control, set strategy, keep up with trends and write much of the content.
Some colleagues help write posts, others simply provide text and images. What we’ve realised is that while we can rely on almost everyone to provide content, we still need someone with the right skills and knowledge to take the lead.
Ideally this would be a paid role, but it’s a difficult ask in a sector where paying for something new often means taking money away from something else. If a new role is impossible, at least try and make social media management a core part of one enthusiastic colleague’s role and appreciate that social media takes a lot of resource, just like everything else.
3. Give your museum personality
This is a terrifying prospect.
What if you establish a strong personality and then your social media person leaves? What if your personality inadvertently creates a PR crisis? How do you find a voice which reflects the institution’s values but which is natural for whoever writes your content?
Ultimately, having a personality is a risk. It’s a risk we all take just by existing that we will connect with some people, but not others. But having a personality is what makes people connect with us at all.
If you want people to have a conversation with you, you’re going to have to have a bit more personality. This doesn’t mean being funny. This means being more relaxed in how you address and discuss things with people so they feel like they’re talking to a real person.
What we’ve seen at The MERL is that engaging people in conversation as much as possible generates returns. It means when we ask people to interact they do so, because we have a reputation for answering back. Social media is social, so be social.
Should museums have a personality?
In a medium where tone and voice are key, what does it mean to funnel a museum’s online presence through a unique…
4. Stop putting up pictures of paintings and just saying what is in them
I start with the assumption that people find our subject matter and collections boring (even if they’re not).
A large part of my job is convincing people that our collections are interesting by finding more relevant access points than simply stating what is in the image.
Instead of just posting a picture of a chicken in trousers, we made a story around it. Instead of just telling people about hay ricks, we built anticipation and mystery at the beginning of a thread.
Putting images online and describing what is in them is only useful to those who already know why those objects are interesting.
5. Embrace experimentation and being reactive
At The MERL our content is roughly 75% reactive and 25% planned.
Scheduled posts will always exist, but social media thrives off immediacy, back-and-forth and authenticity. Being reactive requires not just a strong grasp of your tone but a willingness to open yourself up to your followers through conversation (National Library of Scotland is a shining light for this). You also need a strong knowledge of your museum’s collections, subject and projects so that you can quickly adapt them to whatever topic, question or trend you are reacting to.
Experiments don’t have to be grand or complex. It could be a loosening of the tone,trialling a meme, interacting with a celebrity or livestreaming your volunteer knitting group.
Not all of your experiments will work. Hell, a lot of our experiments have failed miserably.
The point is that it’s only a failure if you don’t learn from it.
6. Adapt to the internet, don’t try and make the internet adapt to you
The world of the internet is very far from the world of museum galleries.
We all fall into the trap of copying and pasting our in-gallery content online. But the internet is full of strange, surreal, funny, creative content that morphs and changes by the week. On the other hand, our labels are designed to stand the test of time and are risk-averse.
Most people are not on the internet to read museum labels. You are competing with some of the most creative, authentic and spontaneous content out there, and at some point we will have to step up.
It doesn’t have to be crazy though. You could just try making your own GIFs or video (RI are amazing at this), using a different tone, tying your collections to current trends or starting your own trend. The key thing is to be present on the internet yourself, to follow social media, visit reddit.com and keep up.
7. Social media can only be used for debate, dissent and dialogue when it is treated as an engagement tool, not a marketing tool
I think ultimately, all of the statements boil down to this.
I’m not saying don’t do marketing. I’m saying that, done well, excellent marketing is indistinguishable from engagement.
Marketing is only ever attempting to meet our objectives through communication, and our objectives are wider and more complex than just selling tickets and driving attendance at events. Social media should be meeting the objectives of the whole museum, from programming to learning to curatorial to conservation to commerce to research.
The theme of this year’s MA conference was dissent. I’m saying that the new culture wars are happening on the internet, and too many museums are not involved. Social media gives us direct access to our audiences wherever they are, and allow us to involve them directly in the missions of our museums. It also means we open ourselves up to their questions and dissent, but this is necessary if we are ever going to effect change.
Dissent, however, is only one part. The MERL Twitter is involving vast numbers in the mission of our museum instead through humour, accessibility and authenticity. The point is that we have found a personality and approach that makes sense for us, but at the heart of it is treating social media as truly social.
*except, obviously, the cost of having staff (which is expensive), and money spent on staff training and equipment as part of a previous project, oh and digitisation of the items to begin with, and the costs of operating a museum in the first place. Apart from this grounding, our campaigns cost us nothing…