Best practices for live social media events that engage museum audiences: The Twitter Q&A

Erin Blasco
Feb 26, 2016 · 21 min read
Ready for your first social media Q&A? Image from Unsplash.

tl;dr: Live social media events can engage audiences and provide opportunities for meaningful interaction. The social media Q&A is a classic format. If done right, it can help showcase museum expertise and inspire positive relationships between passionate fans and museum staff. Before doing a Q&A, get to know your audience and what engages them. I talk about best practices in preparing for your Q&A and how to know if it rocked or flopped.

Before doing a live event on social media, make sure you’re following these three best practices.

1. Identify one or two audiences important to your mission and get to know them. If you see certain Twitter accounts interacting with you on a regular basis, click on their bios to learn a little more about them. This isn’t scientific, but it helps to picture real people when you plan any kind of event. Will that teacher you frequently spot engaging with your content appreciate this live event? Will it work with his or her schedule? Are there any faces you don’t see interacting with you that you’d hoped would be there? If you aren’t attracting the type of followers you want to attract, what changes can you make to your content to bring along more people in your target audience? If you don’t care about the people in your everyday audience and what inspires them to engage, live events aren’t for you.

A question for our #ObjectProject team. Yes, we had an answer to that!

2. Pick at least one metric per platform to back up your decisions about what content you bring to your audiences. If you go to Twitter analytics, you can download your Twitter stats for the last few months or just last week. My favorite thing to do is to look at which tweets got the most engagement and which resulted in the least engagement — that’s re-tweets, favorites, and replies. Just look at the top three and bottom three and you’ll have an easy, five-minute analysis that can keep you informed about what your audience is reacting to and what they aren’t reacting to. You can also do similar checks on Facebook and other social media platforms. There are so many metrics and you don’t have to track them all, but you can’t improve what you’re sharing if you aren’t sure how it’s going over.

3. Attend a live event, either online or in person — preferably one of each. Next time you see a similar organization advertising and upcoming event, make sure you’re part of it. Showing up in person (if that’s available) will give you an idea of the mechanics of the day. From attending other tweetups, I’ve gotten to steal great ideas for name tags, participant introductions/icebreakers, and the pacing of the day. From watching and participating in social media events online, I’ve learned which content rocks or flops, how moderators deal with off-topic questions, and how important it is to prepare materials in advance, from promotional graphics to blog posts. Befriend the hosts and call on them for advice when it’s your turn. When a Smithsonian museum does a live event, the main Twitter account typically lets everyone know. In the months before your first social media event, keep an eye out for opportunities to watch and listen.

What do you mean by “live-ish” social media events?

Not every engaging event is entirely “live.” If you work in a museum or organization where there are multiple layers of review, a low tolerance for risk, or a high level of sensitivity around your content, you probably don’t want to generate all your event content in a truly live, on-the-spot fashion. Embrace what’s exciting about live events — interaction, drama, serendipity, connection, personality — while also leveraging a certain amount of pre-written, pre-approved, high quality content that you know your participants will love. This is what I mean by “live-ish.”

The Q&A is just one format of many

In this post, I’m going to talk about Q&As conducted via social media. In future posts, I’ll talk about Tweetups, live tweeting events, sharing factoids during relevant television shows or national events (like the Super Bowl), chatting with other museums, and takeovers. (I invite others to write about Instameets, Google Hangouts, Pin(terest)-Ups, Periscope videos, and other formats with which I have less experience. There are so many formats I am excited to try out!

I don’t recommend doing a live social media event for no reason. “We just felt like doing an Instameet” is not a good business decision. “We have a visually stunning space just begging to be photographed and want to deepen our relationship with savvy Instagram photographers in our community” is a bit better. So I like to think about problems/issues/reasons why you might do any particular format.

Problems you might consider addressing with a Q&A:

  • We are recognized as a major authority on XYZ and our audiences are clamoring for info.
  • We aren’t recognized as a major authority on XYZ and want to better align our relationship with our content area and/or target audiences.
  • The public is confused or intrigued by XYZ, which relates to our mission. (New blockbuster movie related to your content area? Now’s the time!)
  • We have an FAQ section on our website but want to better understand what our audiences are curious about beyond those basics. Inviting #FoodHistory buffs to ask us questions will help us serve this valued audience better.
  • We have amazing experts who are smart, charming, and love interacting with the public and we want to highlight their awesomeness and make teachers around the US aware that they’re available for Skype chats with classrooms on Tuesdays.

Possible solution: Invite the public to ask questions of your resident expert on a topic you define. Answer them as best you can. (And take advantage of that sweet, sweet content.)

One of our tweets from #AskACurator Day. Doing a Q&A in partnership with other museums is great because you don’t have to work as hard to promote it on your own. Each question answer-er got a shift (usually an hour, sometimes shared with others).

Q&A best practices:

Shape audience expectations with a pre-Q&A blog post. In my opinion, the biggest reason Q&As fail is that the audience just isn’t sure what to ask. You may be interested in what our photography curator has to say, but you may not be able to phrase a question for her without feeling stupid. Go ahead: think of a question for our photo history curator. It’s not that easy! Another good reason to define your expert’s expertise: you can re-direct off-topic questions and discourage trolls.

Screenshot of a blog post providing lots of fodder for curiosity. Participants in your Q&A need a sense of what’s appropriate to ask and who will be answering.

Promote in advance. Communicate what the audience get out of it. They’re busy. Why tune in? If your Q&A will take place on Twitter, pin a promotional tweet to the top of your page so new followers will see it and reference it in your bio.

Select a platform. Managing a Q&A on Instagram sounds really hard. But Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit have all proved to be good spaces to promote and facilitate Q&As. Make sure your presence on that platform is well-established and you’re seeing regular interaction with audiences. Your expert who will answer questions doesn’t need to have or use their own account on a platform unless they want to. You might let them type using the museum’s main account or do the typing for them — or turn on the projector and compose responses together.

If you’re using a platform where hashtags are vital, pick an easy one. Most participants tend to forget to use the hashtag, but do include it in your response to make gathering metrics easier for you. Don’t forget to set up a search column for the hashtag in Hootsuite or Tweetdeck in case someone uses the hashtag but doesn’t tag you. I like hashtags you can as part of the sentence because you’re less likely to forget it and you tend to have the character count to spare for it. For a Q&A about Jim Henson’s puppets: “We have more than 15 #HensonPuppets in our collection. Thanks for asking!”

Set up a metrics gathering system to collect helpful stats about your Q&A well before start time. You could do one or more of the following:

  • Once I’ve picked a hashtag, I plug it into TweetArchivist so it starts gathering stats about the use of that tag. That way, you get the number of impressions, the total number of tweets with the hashtag, counts on who tweeted and how much, a list of influential tweeters, most popular links, photos shared, and even the types of devices folks used most. You can also download an Excel spreadsheet of every tweet with the hashtag, plug that into Tagul, and make a pretty word cloud that helps identify the biggest topics of discussion.
  • Assign a colleague or intern to run free TweetReach reports at key moments during the Q&A. Maybe every 15 minutes for a fast-paced session or at the beginning, middle, and end for a more average pace. This way, you get a few nice snapshots of what was happening during your Q&A: impressions, influential tweeters, replies vs. retweets, etc.
  • Jot down your follower count so you can tell if it goes up or down by the end of the day or the Q&A session. Or use Twitter Analytics to track this over the course of the week/month/forever. It will also give you a little chart showing how your replies that day compare to previous days.
  • Pull up stats from your last Q&A to compare. How many more questions will you get this time? Or clicks to your most important resources?
  • Use Bitly or another link shortener to help track clicks — or remember to check in on your Google Analytics to see trends in traffic.
Chair designed by designed by Nathan G. Horwitt in the collection of the Cooper Hewitt.

Assign seats. Some teams like to sit around one table during a Q&A. When I have multiple curators signed up to answer questions, I prefer to send questions and receive answers via e-mail because it’s hard for me to compose tweets when people are talking at me. Do NOT try to manage the Q&A on a mobile device unless you are crazy — shortening links, tracking responses, adding photos, etc. is much easier on a full desktop. Remind experts that they should be easily accessible to you. A colleague of mine once managed an entire Q&A by repeatedly walking into a wifi-less storage vault to find a curator who had decided to do his research there while the Q&A was going on, writing his answer on a notepad, and returning to her desk to compose tweets. Not easy. (I also recommend closing your office door and putting on your Out of Office while the Q&A is going on. If you’re just at your desk typing away, your chatty co-worker may not realize you’re trying to facilitate a fast-moving conversation with 300 Civil War historians.)

Be clear about who is answering questions. Profile them and let their expertise and personality show through. At the start of each “shift” of #AskACurator day, I tweeted a little about the new expert on board to provide a sense of what to ask. A photo or two of that person at work adds a lot of personality and increase the sense of connection your audience will feel. (This is why Redding AMAs usually have a photo on top, in addition to proof that it’s really them.) Think about the last museum tour you took. You probably listened to at least 20 minutes of material before your guide said, “Any questions?” Make sure to provide an experience (a video, a blog post) that conveys content in order to help your audience develop good questions. If you can, let them know that it’s ok to say, “I don’t have a specific question, but can you talk more about European Apothecary objects?”

Lady’s lapel watch. Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Timing is key. A #SportsHistory Q&A before the Super Bowl. A #MilitaryHistory Q&A before Veterans Day. A #WomensHistory discussion in early March. #WhalingHistory right before In the Heart of the Sea hits theaters! Don’t forget time zones, as well. If you are aiming for a nationwide audience, don’t hold your Q&A before the West Coast wakes up. On #AskACurator Day, I can always tell when it’s morning in New Zealand because we usually get a question before I’ve actually gone to sleep.

Target audiences who are likely to have questions. Invite them directly and ask them to spread the word. (If a professor assigns the Q&A as extra credit, that’s great.) Partner with likeminded organizations to cross-promote Q&As.

Decide how you will select questions: Pre-emailed only? Live? Only questions that arrive before 1 p.m.? Only questions that are highly liked or up-voted by fellow participants?

Determine the best format for your answers. On Facebook and Reddit, others can easily see your answers just by scrolling through the Q&A page or post. On Twitter, incoming questions and your responses are harder for the average user to find unless they click into your tweets to see responses or follow the overall hashtag. (I think most average Twitter users scroll. Social media managers click hashtags and look at responses, but do regular people? Don’t assume everyone knows how to or is bothering to follow every twist and turn in your Q&A.) On Twitter, you can reply publicly by putting a period in front of the @ symbol or by quoting the tweet and responding to it in your text. Or you can just respond directly to the person who asked the question. You may want to do a mix of these response styles, but keep your general audience in mind. If you usually post five tweets per day and suddenly post 25 in an hour, you might annoy some portion of your audience. I think it’s best to highlight a hand full ofAMAZING questions during the Q&A to hopefully inspire others to follow along or ask their own questions but to keep the majority of answers direct.

Have a ringer to model ideal behavior and ask great questions. I always make sure my dad knows when our military history experts will be answering questions so he can ask a good one, modeling good behavior for other audience members and boosting curatorial confidence that this Twitter thing isn’t all riffraff and trolls.

Draft answers to questions you can anticipate in advance. Our regulars are: How did you become a curator? What’s your advice to someone who wants to become a curator? What’s your favorite thing about working with your topic area? What’s the weirdest thing in your collection? It’s also worth brainstorming answers to those tough questions you were hoping nobody asked and running those past your communications experts.

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Assign roles—one person to facilitating and one person to typing responses. Spotting good questions is one job. Writing good answers (or facilitating while someone else is writing) is another. Can one person do both? Only for about three minutes. Google Docs are your friend — use a shared document to track questions in line for an answer.

Archiving the Q&A while it happens isn’t a requirement, but it can be nice. If you have a third person on hand, they might highlight a few of the most interesting questions from Twitter on your Facebook page or share a great Q&A-related Facebook photo on your Instagram account, increasing impressions and possibly nudging more people to engage. During #AskACurator Day, I live-blogged answers to some of my (totally subjective) favorite questions. A bonus to live-blogging: If a curator wrote 537 characters in response, I could publish their answer on the blog (no character limit there) and then send the tweeter who asked to the question a link to the blog instead of editing the long answer into multiple tweets. (Some felt very special to be featured on the blog.)

Coordinate. Before answering a question, double check to see if a colleague already addressed it. We use Hootsuite, which marks tweets as replied to once someone has sent a response. In a Facebook Q&A or Reddit AMA, it’s easier to tell which questions need attention and which don’t.

Pick the topic of your Q&A carefully and thoughtfully. Do you want people to ask your sculpture conservator “anything” or do you actually want them to ask about bronze sculptures like the ones she just finished conserving? If your topic is extremely visual or aural but most of the images or audio can’t be posted on social media due to copyright, you might want to change formats or topics. The color red was a genius topic idea, with connections both basic and complex, with lots of different layers and angles to explore. “How to topics” can be useful to audiences — how to engage teens in museum programming, survive a museum visit with kids, do research in the museum’s archive, plow past brick walls in genealogical research, grow up to be a curator. If your museum is doing its first exhibition on a new topic, keep in mind that you may not have gathered a large enough audience who cares about it to pull off a lively Q&A. This might be a good opportunity to partner up with groups that do have the ear of niche audiences.

Make sure the way you frame your topic is meaningful to target audiences and that the method of engagement fits. If the format doesn’t work, change it. Maybe it’s going to be too hard for tweeters to come up with relevant questions for a curator whose specialty is a somewhat obscure type of textile. Instead, live tweet a talk by that curator or interview her yourself — live or in blog format. Or have her pick out three example objects and record a Periscope video.

Lace collar with peace doves. National Museum of American History.

Pick your experts wisely. Curatorial and conservation staff members are probably on the top of your list, but don’t assume they’re the only ones who can help you shape an amazing Q&A. Educators, designers, researchers, archivists, writers, and many staff members in various roles probably have something to offer and would appreciate the opportunity to connect with online audiences. I like to offer hour-long chunks in which a few staff members in a variety of positions are available at once. Sometimes I answer a question from my own perspective as social media manager, just for fun.

Prepare your experts. Before #AskACurator Day, I heard from a few of my volunteers that they were worried about extremely challenging or “gotcha”-style, stump-the-Smithsonian catch-22s. It was helpful to show them questions from past years and remind them that 140 characters is a pretty tight limit for a diatribe-in-disguise type question.

Be prepared to do some gentle re-phrasing of questions before sending to your experts. This might be controversial, but I don’t always show my expert the exact words a tweeter used. Our audiences love superlatives: What’s the oldest/biggest/prettiest/smallest object in your collection? But many content experts dislike them. No sooner do you say that “this is the oldest typewriter” when somebody else finds some example three months older and you look uninformed. Plus what about those in-between machines that weren’t full-fledged typewriters yet but were way more sophisticated than pens and pencils? Ugh! So I rephrase that question: “Can you tell me about an example of a really old typewriter in your collection?” That way, my expert doesn’t see red flags or have to refute the concept of establishing the oldest example or defining what exactly counts as a typewriter. Just be careful when you’re framing your answer to the question to make it clear that you are, in fact, answering a slightly different version of the question than was asked. Most people don’t mind and pick up quickly that you’re not answering the “oldest” question but you ARE offering them a great story. The question really boils down to “talk nerdy to me about typewriters!” and that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Underwood Standard Portable Typewriter, National Museum of American History

Don’t freak out if you get a few snarky or semi-rude questions. Do your objects come alive at night? Why did you move my favorite object off display? Why don’t you allow me to bring in food? How many ghosts are haunting your collections storage? On a Reddit AMA or Facebook Q&A, others may come to your defense before you even have a chance. But on Twitter, that may not happen. Sometimes we forget that there are real people behind institutional accounts and Q&As are a great opportunity to remind our audiences that a) museum workers are human and b) we have well-developed senses of humor despite working in an epically geeky field. In cases like these, I err on the side of answering, whether you refute the question or embrace its silliness and forge ahead with a semi-serious answer. “We don’t have many ghosts but we do have this utterly terrifying automaton who would love to haunt your dreams.” “Our curator of American Ghost History in the 18th Century isn’t available to answer questions today. Got one for our #FoodHistory expert?” More often than not, this results in a good-natured laugh and a sense that, dude, that museum can hang.

What it you get totally negative questions or comments? Welcome to the internet! I’ve sometimes gotten totally off-topic complaints about a past visit during a Q&A, for example. While that bums me out, it’s also a good opportunity to hear about that issue, let the tweeter know you’re going to share it with higher-ups, and perhaps be able to address it. People with customer service complaints want to be heard — so hear them, even if it’s not your main goal for the Q&A. If someone is just totally harassing you? Ignore. If you can’t change their mind, it’s probably not worth engaging (at least not right then).

Don’t go on too long. Budget time with your expert after the official end time to address those last few questions. If your public end time is 1 p.m., book your expert through 1:30 just in case there are tough questions that require extra time or you get so many questions that you can’t plow through all of them during “live” hours. Make sure to clearly announce when the Q&A is over and thank everyone for participating. If you’ll be providing a wrap-up blog post, send out a post letting folks know to look for it.

Remember that you’re the only one really following the Q&A for an hour. Provide easy entry points for people joining in half-way through or right before it’s over. All of us are scrolling through our feeds and jumping in after the discussion has already started — that’s just the nature of the internet. Use phrases like “If you’re just joining us, we’re doing a Q&A on…” and don’t scold tweeters who ask questions you’ve already addressed. Be gracious and friendly.

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Need more time on a tough question? Let the participant know: “Great question. We’ll need a few extra minutes to answer but we will get back to you.” That way, you don’t feel like you’re ignoring those super-engaged folks who came up with toughies.

Work with your expert on scope and time commitment. Determine how much research they’ll do for a single question in a 60-minute Q&A. Here’s my thinking… If it takes an expert a few minutes to double check a source or look up a fact, it’s fair game. If the question would require them to spend over 20 minutes in the library or to write more than a few sentences in response, it’s probably outside the scope of your online Q&A. In cases like these, answer by providing a resource your expert recommends and send the inquirer to the library instead — or tag another museum or organization who may know the answer. If a question is interesting, it might inspire a future blog post once more research can be done. Once you’ve made this decision, make sure it matches your marketing of the Q&A. Don’t promise that your audience’s DEEPEST questions will be answered if you don’t have that capacity.

Don’t forget accessibility. This is true on social media everyday, but it’s particularly important when you’re actively calling for people to participate. Don’t make it hard for your passionate fans to get involved or to access the content. Use “camel case” for your hashtag for those who use screen readers (#MilitaryHistory, not #militaryhistory). Describe images you tweet or use alt text in blog posts. Make sure YouTube videos you link to have captions.f

Document answers to the best questions afterwards! After a Q&A, you’ll be sitting on a pile of awesome answers to things people actually want to know. Don’t let it go to waste! At the least, create a Storify summary of the day. If you have more time, write a blog post sharing the best questions or create short YouTube videos addressing the most frequently asked or unique ones.

Have caffeine and snacks ready. I’m not kidding. I won’t facilitate a social media Q&A without iced coffee (with a straw for sipping-while-typing situations), a bag of ready-to-eat-with-one-hand grapes or carrots, and a stack of Lara Bars (banana bread flavor, duh). If you’re doing a longer Q&A, you probably want to stockpile water, chapstick, mango yogurt, chocolate, and basically anything you’d take on a long hike aside from bug repellent.

Coffee maker, around 1939. National Museum of American History.

Don’t switch gears and don’t forget to wrap up. If you can afford to, block off the rest of the afternoon for post-Q&A work. (This way, you can get away with wearing jeans. Q&As adventures require comfort, right?) A few wrap-up tasks it can be easy to forget if you have to dash off to meetings or other tasks immediately afterward:

  • Making a Storify summary or taking screenshots of the best questions and answers. Schedule a tweet saying, “Did you miss our Q&A? Check out this summary of our favorite answers…”
  • Drafting a blog post to share your favorite questions and answers.
  • Jotting down lessons learned. What flopped and what rocked? What do you want to remember for next time? What feedback does your team have for you as the coordinator that would be helpful to remember?
  • Pulling a few key metrics you might lose access to later or find it harder to slice-and-dice by time later on. (If your Q&A was two hours long, you might want stats specific to that time period rather than stats that don’t differentiate between all 24 hours of the day.)
  • Writing thank you notes to the experts who answered questions. I like to include at least one number that looks big in these notes — the number of people who used the hashtag, for example. Even better if you can compare that number to a normal day or a previous Q&A so they can see what a big splash they made. A sense of the overall impact of their contribution will make them more likely to collaborate again next time. Use this note to check in with them about what worked and what didn’t so you can make the process easier next time.
  • Sending notes to influencers and partners who helped you promote or who went the extra distance to make the day successful.
  • Un-pinning that tweet you pinned promoting the Q&A. Editing your bio to remove mention of the Q&A unless you like it there.
  • Eating a real lunch. Seriously, grapes and Lara bars are awesome but you deserve a burrito with extra guacamole afterwards.

What does success look like in an online Q&A?

You should see more engagement (mostly question asking) from individuals in your audience. You should see more replies on Twitter or comments on Facebook.

You’ll want to gather some quotes and anecdotes to share in your report. How often did a participant thank you for answering?

Look at the questions. Were they high quality? If you made a word cloud of the conversation, would the biggest words relate closely to your goals and mission for the discussion?

Did you get questions from your target audience? What about influencers within that audience?

Did you learn new things about your audience and what interests them?

What did your content experts learn? That Facebook CAN be home to meaningful discussion? That way more people are interested in Civil War dentistry than previously imagined?

Did anyone recommend or cover the Q&A? If your Q&A gets mentioned in a blog or media outlet important to your target audience, that’s awesome.

Important caveat: You may NOT gain followers overall. Q&A format often means lots of separate, rich interactions with individuals, not a large audience all at once. These are your most passionate constitutions, so this one-on-one attention and user-driven conversation may be well worth it. But if your goal is to broadcast one single message to a big group of people, a Q&A probably won’t help as much.

Want more tips? I highly recommend the advice of Jess Milcetich, who recently gave an awesome presentation on how to plan for live social media events. She has great tips on real engagement as well as practical stuff you might forget before launching your next live social media event. I also recommend this blog post about the #AskFAFSA Q&A.

So that’s what I can think of right now, but I am certain I’ve missed plenty of best practices. Care to share how you prep for Q&As? What are your best practices? Pitfalls to avoid? (If you want to tell me about a typo, go for it. Not enough caffeine was available during the writing of this post, so that’s my excuse.)

Or disagree with what I’ve said. All thoughts welcome! Photo via Unsplash.

Note: I claim no domestic copyright protection on this under U.S. law. Feel free to share the text. Images belonging to the National Museum of American History may require additional permission and/or credit lines for re-use. The views above are mine, not my employer’s, and are offered for educational purposes because I love the museum field. :)

 by the author.

Erin Blasco

Written by

Museum educator and social media manager at @amhistorymuseum. Child of @floridarambler and @royalenfields.

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