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Social Media

On 15th April 2013, 30 delegates from across the UK converged on Oxford for a day of discussion around social media and museums.

The event was run by the Oxford University IT Services team and pulled together a knowledgeable group of speakers:

Building Online Presence

Stephen kicked off the day with an introductory discussion on building online presence.  Stephen emphasised that an organisation’s digital content should be authentic, and a natural extension of what it is already doing – you should not be coming up with entirely new content for digital audiences, but sharing existing work on digital platforms.  An organisation’s content needs an online home, such as a website or blog, but few organisations have ‘destination’ websites that audiences will visit without prompting.  This is why it is also important to post content where audiences are, such as social media platforms.  Snippets of content on Facebook and Twitter create awareness of your broader digital content and push users towards your organisation’s digital home.

Stephen emphasised that social media should be a shared organisational responsibility, and although it is useful to have a social media coordinator, that should excuse the rest of the organisation of responsibility.  You don’t ascribe one person the role of stopping to chat in the corridor, so neither should one person be the sole voice of your online presence.

Check out recent slide presentations from Kate Lindsay on , and .

Building a Social Media Strategy

Next Kate gave an overview of how to approach creating a social media strategy.  This strategy should address how social media will be used to achieve your organisation’s overall mission and should align with your overall communications strategy; but sometimes it can be useful to have a separate strategy specifically for social media, as it requires different content and skill sets than marketing and more traditional modes of communication.

Kate emphasised that a social media strategy should not start with the technology, but rather start with the message and SMART goals, and then you should pick the appropriate social media platform to achieve those goals.  Some initial questions when planning your strategy

  • What aspects of your museum/work/community would you like to promote?
  • Who are your target audiences?
  • What do you want to achieve?
  • What value is there for your audience in engaging with you online?
  • What kind of information do you want to exchange?
  • What tensions and conflicts might you encounter?

Once you have answered these questions you can pick the appropriate social media platforms, plan how you will use them, and decide what success will look like and how to measure it.  The group then went through the Tate’s social media strategy for 2011-12 as an example.

Some top tips for those just starting out:

  • Start small, don’t immediately open ten different accounts, develop your channels over time
  • Know your desired audience and comment on their content to begin the conversation
  • Social media audiences like it personal, tell your audience who is tweeting, or consider tweeting in character
  • Know when your audience is online (for most professional audiences on Twitter it is between 10am-3pm) and allocate your time effectively
  • Consider giving your account opening hours so that audiences know when to expect a response from you
  • Post regularly but don’t overload – it is important to post often on Twitter as Tweets quickly move out of someone’s news feed, but on Facebook avoid posting more than once a day unless the content relevant and compelling
  • Set up a content calendar including both your events and important national holidays and anniversaries and plan your posts
  • If you are using multiple platforms use an aggregator to save you time.


After lunch the group looked at Twitter, Facebook and an evaluating the impact of your social media.  Kate gave the group a whirlwind masterclass on Twitter covering: what is Twitter; establishing your Twitter profile from visual to voice; how to follow; how to Tweet; and Twitter syntax.

Kate pointed out that social media is a conversation, and while some larger organisations use Twitter to simply broadcast information about events and the like, and may have a policy not to respond to Tweets (largely because they receive so many), this is not in the “spirit” of the platform, and for most simply broadcasting is the fastest way to lose followers.

Case studies of organisations using Twitter were given by the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Museum of the History of Science.

Oxford University Museum of Natural History

The Museum of Natural History is new to Twitter and Scott Billings, the museum’s newly appointed Communications Coordinator, explained the process that went on behind the scenes when the museum decided if it should join Twitter, “does anyone really want a digital Dodo?”; how they secured staff buy in, “not being on social media is like not having a telephone”; and how they are managing the new account at the Museum.

A few social media savvy members of staff came together for initial discussions to decide whether the museum should have a social media account and how to approach it.  They decided that a Twitter account and blog could help the museum maintain its profile during its closure throughout 2013 for roof refurbishment.  This also gave the museum a behind the scenes story to tell both on Twitter and on the blog Darkened not Dormant.

Scott wanted to ensure organisational buy-in from across the organisation (not just the social media savvy few), or at least a general understanding of the purpose of social media for the museum, explaining the role social media would and wouldn’t play within the Museum’s communications, and how it would be managed.  Scott hosted a forum where he addressed the following questions:

  • What are we hoping to achieve?
  • What do we want to say?
  • Who’s saying it?
  • What can (and can’t) we say?
  • How do we assess what we are doing?
  • How will social media accounts be managed?
  • Who’s in charge?
  • Do we want real dialogue?

Another key question was what to call the Museum on social media: whether to go with something “corporate” or something a bit more fun.  After much debate they chose the latter, with referencing one of the Museum’s most famous specimens and its current logo.  There was some organisational concern about the playfulness of the name, but the Twitter community welcomed the newcomer, the name, and the jingle (see if you can guess the tune).

Museum of the History of Science

Next Laura shared the experiences of the Museum of the History of Science, which has been on Twitter since 2011 as . They joined as part of the communications around their Eccentricity exhibition, featuring the quirky collectibles and the eccentrics they belonged to.  Twitter was used to tell individual snippets of eccentric stories and push audiences towards more in depth content (the Museum of the History of Science has published online versions of their exhibitions since 1995).  This proved a success.

Laura also shared what she entitled “Twitter: A Homeopathic Horror Story”.  One issue organisations often discuss when deciding whether to join social media is whether they are opening themselves up to criticism and misinformation from a large 24 hour community that they cannot manage.  However, as Laura pointed out, even if you aren’t on Twitter people are probably talking about you there, not being on is no defense.

The controversy arose around an exhibition on Homeopathy The Amazing Things People did for Medicine and Other Stuff which was curated by a group of 2nd grade students.  They chose all the objects and wrote all the labels, which the museum decided not to correct as how the students interpreted the objects was key to the exhibition.

One visitor snapped an image of a label which implied that homeopathy was an accepted science, indicating that this was a “strong claim” from the Museum.  This particular Twitter user had relatively few followers so their decision to share the snap might not have been an issue, but they tagged two popular scientists in the post, bringing it to their attention.  They did not, however, tag the Museum, which came across the post via a tip from a member of staff and a general search, reiterating that not being on social media is no protection against unwanted discussion of your organisation on the forum.  The “horror” began when one of the two popular scientists, with a significant number of followers, picked up on the post and commented himself, prompting is followers to engage with it as well.

Laura responded by explaining on Twitter the nature of the exhibition and sharing the Museum’s usual label for the object, which did quell some of the controversy.  With the high profile Tweeter she took the conversation off Twitter, emailing him directly, and putting him in contact with the Museum’s director to discuss the situation.  As a result of this the Tweeter posted a message that quelled his followers and the incident was over.

This was basically the worst thing that could happen to a Museum on Twitter,  but they were able to deal with it by:

  • Noticing it quickly
  • Assessing the impact, especially of high profile Tweeters
  • Not leaving it to the social media officer but brining in support from curators etc.
  • Taking the conversation off line and out of the public eye
  • Using common sense.

This particular experience did not dissuade the Museum from the value of social media for engaging their audiences, and it is still a key element in their communications strategy.



Following these case studies Liz McCarthy, Social Media Manager at the Bodleian, gave a master class on Facebook.  In 2012 Facebook had one billion users worldwide and 31.5 million active users in the UK.  If you want to engage the public where they are, Facebook is a key tool.

Liz went through how to create a page, emphasising that visually it should reflect your organisation’s brand.  She discussed using images to make your account visually stimulating and using the timeline function to tell the history of your organisation: a great example is Coca-Cola.

In the “meat” of the session Liz discussed what makes good Facebook content.  Liz iterated that it is important to bear in mind what value you are offering your audience by following you online.  Yes it is an opportunity to keep them informed about upcoming events, but this should not be the only message.  It is clear that images and videos are the most popular forms of content and draw people in.  Users also like to be asked questions, and contests, quizzes and games are popular.  You can also crowdsource from you audience, asking them to share their images or experiences of your venue.  Also hugely popular are behind the scenes insights (especially if they are complimented by an image or video).

includes in its updates a series of behind the scenes snippets from the Museum’s conservation team.

The makes use of anniversaries to share relevant objects from their collections, making use of great object images. They also use Facebook events for their LiveFriday late night openings to create a “come with your friends” buzz in the Oxford Community.

The makes the most of current events, for example sharing images from the Conservative Party Archive to mark Thatcher’s funeral.  They also have a library photography competition, inviting followers to share images of the libraries they study in.

Finally Liz discussed the importance of marketing your Facebook page by including the link on your printed materials and embedding a link on your website – how will people know it is there?  She also gave the group a quick tour through the Facebook Insights tool which allows you to analyse how people are engaging with your Facebook profile and identify your most popular content.

Evaluating Impact

To end the day Kate took the group through the dark art of evaluating social media impact.  Kate emphasised that the first step in evaluation is to have clear goals you are working towards, as laid out in your strategy, and only then can you choose an appropriate metric to measure your success against those goals.

Kate pointed the group towards a social media metrics toolkit produced by Culture24 in 2011 which lists measurable metrics for the various social media platforms and potential tools.  The group then looked at a few examples of how to measure metrics.

At our chosen social media platform is Twitter as our target community is “professionals” (museums and cultural sector professionals) and we have found that Twitter is where people go for their professional social media, and Facebook is the personal platform.  As well as counting the number of followers, we are keen to know how many people find our content engaging and useful after the initial click to follow.  To that end we keep track of how many people engage with our content on Twitter through retweets, replies and mentions, and how many people follow links from our Twitter feed to our content by using google urls.  The majority of traffic to our website currently comes from Twitter.

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