Social Media in Museums

This is part of a talk I gave to University of Glasgow Museums Studies students on 9th March 2021. In this written piece I’m just going to focus on the section of the talk that looks at 1. the history of the social media platforms 2. Mythbusting: you don’t automatically get viral growth and diverse new audiences on social media, 3. The folk who have created great organic social media content that has made their museum relevant to a broader public.

The full slide deck is here.

The Platforms themselves

Facebook, the largest and earliest of the main social media platforms we still use today. This was originally launched in 2004 but by 2006 had opened up in the UK and was available to non university emails.

I’m 30, I joined Facebook when I was 16 in 2006 — and the role it filled for me and my cohort was that when we went to uni we no longer needed to ask for peoples’ numbers to stay in touch, we could just look up their name and keep in touch that way. In the UK Facebook has a pretty strong base in this 25–34 age bracket.

Worldwide, it’s still by far the biggest of the social media platforms. People talk about Facebook’s power waning, and it is declining in daily usage in the West, but the other platforms still have a way to go before it’s eclipsed and in terms of your international audience — it’s still got much better penetration that the others.

It also has more data on people as users tend to enter a fair amount about themselves into the platform. 3 million users quit in 2018 as a result of the Cambridge Analytics scandal, but in reality it was really a drop in the ocean compared to the number of total users it has. There are 7.6 billion people in the world, 2.8 are on Facebook, if you factor in all the people who don’t have internet access or are under 13 — Facebook has the lion’s share of the worldwide social media market.

Myth 1: social media will automatically give you viral success
But it’s also worth debunking some myths about social media at this point. It’s true there are billions of people on these platforms and in a sense it’s easier to reach anyone in the world than it was before the internet and social media. But social media will not automatically give you mega hits and a diverse new audience. When you publish on social media for a museum, you are not publishing to the sum total of audiences on that platform, you’re talking to a small subset who have chosen to sign up to that particular social media page’s content.

So in this case, the Hunterian page, which has 7.5 likes, which — relative to the size and profile of the institution — is quite small.

Facebook’s growth is not what it used to be, in general these platforms give content creators like museums a lot of growth to start with, but today you’re unlikely to get very much follower growth on Facebook at all unless you’re spending advertising money.

Myth 2: If you’re doing social media, you’re automatically reaching diverse new audiences

Another myth on social media is that by doing social media you’ll bring in a diverse new audience, that is not necessarily true. By and large the folk that follow museum accounts are white, middle class, are more likely to be female, are highly educated and already like museums — it in fact super serves the stereotypes most museums are trying to get out of. So a lot of the time social media won’t automatically diversify your audience. And even if you in good faith wanted to run ads specifically to increase the diversity of your follower base, it can be problematic to target audiences based on protected characteristics using advertising (In 2019 Facebook was successfully sued because it allows you to target advertising to users on the basis of protected characteristics). However, there are some case studies of where doing social media really well — in particular by being ‘social’ in the ways the different platforms allow, can diversify your audience without a big ad spend, particularly on Twitter and TikTok (if you know what you’re doing). (Examples of what this means coming up in the second part of the talk).

Twitter was launched in 2006, so around the same time Facebook was expanding out of non university emails. It has around 320 million active daily users. A lot of the big social media engagement case studies we hear about are on Twitter which can sometimes cloud the fact that it is in fact smaller, in terms of active users, than Facebook or Instagram. With Facebook’s algorithm you’re most likely to get large numbers on your content in proportion to how much ad spend you’re using. Twitter is more meritocratic in that sense, the community will share content it appreciates so the best content generally organically rises to the top. TikTok is an even more advanced version of this where the algorithm will then go on and amplify to a much greater degree content that gets upvoted by the small test segment it’s initially sent to.

Instagram: was launched in 2010 but was bought by Facebook in 2012, and since then a great deal of it’s business models has focused around pushing ads (as Facebook does).

YouTube, not everyone uses YouTube as a social media platform. YouTube influencers definitely do, but most museums don’t — they use it as a content repository and then iframe that video content into enews and web pages to make it appear. And I think that’s ok, the reality is if you don’t have an in house videographer that can create you a video a week you’re not going to become YouTube famous. But worth knowing about how it works as a social media platforms also.

TikTok is really interesting. It’s not been around in its current formation that long but it is getting huge growth for new content creators on the platform. That’s partly because it is new, when Facebook launched it was much easier to get big numbers of followers on those platforms as the platforms proactively pushed you new followers so you could fill up your feed with relevant content. Now most people’s feeds have reached saturation point the platforms themselves push very little content outside of the accounts you follow. But TikTok’s ‘for you’ page is almost entirely new content creators you’ve not subscribed to but -based on your preferences and TikTok’s algorithm — ones that it thinks you will like. So there’s much more potential opportunity for your content to make you TikTok famous than there is on other platforms starting from a base of 0. But only if you’re creating good TikTok content (not e.g just uploading your YouTube videos). MIT noted TikTok’s recommendation’s algorithm as the best tech breakthrough’s of the year — along with the COVID vaccine. It feels like it’s bigger than e.g. Snapchat. But most museums aren’t on it. There are some exceptions: Black Country Living Museum is now the most followed museum in the world on there, Uffizi was a early adopter, Carnegie Museum of Natural History got in there early with their snail jokes, but by and large museums are a little head in the sand about this because it’s the most weird of the social media platforms out there.

LinkedIn. LinkedIn does technically belong in a discussion of social media but in reality it is pretty niche and focused around recruitment and professional development, it’s actually older than all the other social media accounts listed here, it’s been around since 2002. It serves it’s purpose and the culture sector could do more with it around recruitment, but it’s not going to diversify your audience or put you on the map. It’s also pretty expensive to advertise on.

Pinterest. When I started at National Museums Scotland I was surprised we had a Pinterest account as I’d mainly thought of it as used for wedding planning and for baking inspiration. But Pinterest images are well indexed in google and we found that our collections items that were on Pinterest were getting a lot more engagement and views on here than they were on our site. And — opposite to my preconception — by a predominantly male audience (the only one of our social media platforms with a male skew) around our science and technology collections. I read an interview with Loic Tallon, former Chief Digital officer at the Met recently who said in his time there, Pinterest was the second biggest referrer to collections online, so NMS is not unique in that regard and it is a useful platform for generating engagement with your collections images.

Related to that is Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not a social media platform in the normal sense of the word but I’ve included it here as it relates to the previous point. Again in that interview with Loic, he said their collections online version of Henry VIII’s armour would get maybe 100 pageviews a month, but the Wikipedia entry for Henry VIII, which includes the Met’s image of the armour gets half a million. Anyone can edit Wikipedia, you just need a bit of training to learn how to do it and the amount of relevant views of your content around people that are already engaged is quite astonishing and in a different league to the hits most collections online sites will be getting.

2. Museum social media case examples

Now here are some examples of folk I think have genuinely managed to reach a wider audience than the typical white, highly educated, already-likes-museums audience.

The MERL. The Museum of English Rural Life twitter has become a bit of a legend within the world of museum social media, primarily as it was the first to majorly break out of museum social media following. The ‘Absolute unit’ tweet, which is probably the most famous, got Meme-d by Elon Musk who briefly changed his twitter profile photo to the Absolute Unit.

That and so many other great stories were the brain child of Adam Koszary. What I think is great about this case study — and that changed the field for the better — is that it demonstrated that by understanding the internet culture of a particular demographic group on Twitter he could create broad scale empathy and engagement with a series of museum objects that no one had heard of or had seen as in anyway relevant to their daily life before. The MERL did bring in new visitors and Adam’s Twitter work did put them on the map for a whole swathe of users who did not know of the MERL or why they should care about it before. Those loads of great resources and data on his work at the MERL here.

However, it’s pretty difficult to do what Adam does as well as Adam does it, and it’s quite easy to try and do it, misfire, and cause a PR nightmare.

National Library of Scotland’s Twitter work in some ways follows the same principles but in a less-likely-to-blow-up-in-your-face kind of way. Stewart Hardy is the man behind the handle there. Stewart describes social media in 2015 as Low frequency, Repetitive content, Little variation, Low engagement. Their strategy to be better was to make the most of the *social* side of social media. Which they’ve continued to do in charming ways that make sense in the context of what the National Library of Scotland stands for.

National Museums Scotland. I don’t honestly think my work is of the same calibre or changed the field as these others, but I can talk about it with some credibility as I created it!

Here’s an example of a bit of content we ran in 2020 from the National Museums Scotland Twitter account. In my view, good online content on social media is often about 1) does this make sense in terms of the organisational brand — what can we be known for in the digital space, what makes sense for us to talk about. And 2) what works within the context of a digital platform. Simply repurposing content that worked in a physical setting and putting it online is unlikely to work well. Here we thought, what are the museum’s unique selling points (particularly when it’s closed and you can’t go and see anything)? And one of the things we settled on was the staff. We ran Ask Me Anythings with staff telling the story of how they got into their field, what a day in their life looks like to give some context and then invited questions from our followers, which we got, everything from little kids to people that wanted to start a career as an curator. So being able to connect our audiences at a scale that would have been impossible in the physical building (these Ask Me Anythings reached between 25k and 75k), felt really important, particularly during the COVID lockdown. But unlike some of the other examples here I don’t know that it diversified out audience especially, it will mainly have been seen and shared by folk that already followed us. Equally not all of those would have had the opportunity to connect directly with a curator to help advance their career (or set them in the direction of a future career as with some of the kids whose questions we put to curators).

York Museums Trust: This was another example that came out of lockdown. The Social Media Manager at York Museum Trust (Millie Carroll) created a series of ‘curator battles’ where museums would compete around set challenges each week. It was a fun way for museum audiences to see collections from across the world related to a particular theme, and it was quite democratic in that it wasn’t always the larger museum accounts with bigger followers that did well each week, often it was weird objects from smaller museums. York Museum Trust have done some research into the extent that this series raised their profile amongst audiences that don’t normally think of themselves as museum visitors.

Some highlights from the report:

Black Country Living Museum: All of these examples so far have been on Twitter, but this last one is on TikTok. Abby Bird is the Comms Manager at Black Country Living Museum and this year under her stewardship it became the most followed museum in the world on the platform, which is pretty cool.

Final thoughts: Done well, organic social media can reach a diverse audience and make museums relevant to a wider public. I’ve written about how it’s difficult to create good online content in large organisations. The way the internet wants to work — irreverent, of-the-moment, self-referential — is often at odds with the way a lot of museum governance structures work: slow, bureaucratic, traditional, concerned with reputation and causing offence. Abby Bird made a really interesting comment on the written piece that was we need to make more diverse audiences part of the decision making process for content creation, which I thought was brilliant. I’m not sure how best to implement it, but I think she’s completely right.

Content Strategist at One Further. Previously, National Museums Scotland, Ashmolean Museum, Government Digital Service. Interested in tech to connect audiences.