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Social Butterfly

Category: Marketing & Public Relations

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership.


Today there are more than 800 million active individual users of Facebook and 30,000 Facebook pages for nonprofits, with these numbers growing daily. As more and more businesses and nonprofits use social media creatively to advance their causes with customers, donors and other target groups, many museum executives have shifted their view of social media from something nice to use to something that must be used, especially as they face federal funding cuts, declining donations and other challenges. But how many museum leaders are sufficiently well versed in social media to unlock its full potential for all areas of their organization?

Many museums still see social media only as a marketing tool, and a less robust one at that. They may have an occasionally updated Facebook page or post a few pictures on the photo-sharing site Flickr. But failing to use social media in a deep, comprehensive way means that museum leaders are missing out on a rich opportunity to engage with their target audiences, expand their reach and carry out their missions.

I interviewed multiple executives representing a wide range of museums— including children’s, cultural and art—to find out what they know about social media, how they’re using it and the results they’ve achieved. What they told me highlights just how powerful social media can be for museums where leaders make a strong commitment to learning it and using it.

Start at the top.

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If museum executives aren’t advocating social media, why would anyone else in the organization? A social-media-related mandate can be a powerful way of mobilizing the organization, as Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), did when he instructed the museum to start using social media. “We had a Facebook page and blog up that day,” recalls Eileen Maxwell, NMAI’s director of public affairs. Museum presidents and CEOs should understand social media sites like Facebook and, ideally, use it themselves. Meme Omogbai, COO of New Jersey’s Newark Museum, says, “We executives need to keep up with our posts and tweets to set a good example for our teammates.” Younger colleagues can be very helpful in getting executives up to speed on social media. “I set up our museum director Facebook page with the help of the staff,” says Jeffrey Patchen, president and CEO of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Nik Honeysett, head of administration for the Getty Museum, notes that museum executives have to be comfortable gaining social media knowledge from younger teammates: “When most directors started at their museums, they were on the very bottom rung of social media capabilities, because most of the technology wasn’t even around.” Beyond IT, social media skills are now a part of executive hiring decisions in every museum department.

It’s all about engagement.

There are seemingly limitless ways to engage museums’ target audiences using social media. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis connects with its target demographic—parents of young children— using mobile applications and other social media tools. “We want to reach our audience in the medium they live with every day,” Patchen says. A great example is “This Week’s Wow,” YouTube videos of attention-grabbing exhibits and events at the museum. “We’re exploring ways to make our exhibit experience more innately social, especially using mobile technology,” says Angie McNew, the museum’s director of websites and emerging media. The museum also offers a scavenger hunt app that visitors can download and play while onsite. The right social media content can also “go viral,” as the NMAI found when it posted a picture of a patchwork purple trench coat from its temporary collection; the coat had been worn by iconic musician Jimi Hendrix, who was part Cherokee. “The image literally went all over the world,” says Maxwell, describing how people sent in pictures they owned of Hendrix wearing the coat, enriching the exhibit further. The Chicago-based Shedd Aquarium’s Amy Ritter Cowen, executive vice president of marketing, guest experience and sales, says, “Social media gives us a low-cost means to expand our mission beyond our four walls and tell compelling stories.” For example, when the aquarium posted about losing one of its older beluga whales in late 2011, support from the global community poured in, including stories of visitors’ experience with the sea creature. The Getty’s Honeysett stresses that consistency is crucial to keeping a museum’s target patrons engaged—“A tweet a day keeps your followers O.K.”— and that the goal of many social media efforts should be to bring audiences back to the museum’s website.

Mix it up.

Museums can leverage a variety of social media tools, including maintaining a Facebook page and Twitter account and posting YouTube videos. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis has used Wikipedia significantly, with multiple “Wikipedians” (contributors to the online encyclopedia) writing about collection items like its carousel and the world’s largest clock. Many museums encourage visitors to post pictures of their visit on Flickr. As a culturally focused museum, NMAI uses its Facebook page as an aggregator of Native American news, and tweets not only about museum events but also about articles relevant to the target community. Last Thanksgiving, the museum used its blog to answer thousands of queries about whether and how Native Americans celebrate that holiday.

Facilitate the conversation.

A social media presence can be a great way to educate and also to facilitate. For example, when an Iroquois team made it to the 2010 World Lacrosse Championships in London, the NMAI secured permission to post on Facebook about it, including score updates. Then, when the team wasn’t allowed to leave the London airport due to passport issues, the story went international, causing an outrage. “Our Facebook page became an information clearinghouse for what was happening on the ground,” Maxwell says, recalling how the museum received numerous inquiries from the press and others. The NMAI didn’t take the role of managing the crisis, but shared information to fuel important conversations about it.

Dedicate staff to social media and measure results.

The large potential value of social media for museums warrants the dedication of staff members to it. Shedd Aquarium has two full-time staffers devoted to social media. The Children’s Museum has a full-time director of website and emerging media. Responsibility for social media needn’t be a full-time job or relegated to the marketing department. The Getty’s Honeysett suggests that smaller museums ask multiple staff members to tweet regularly. The Children’s Museum has a metric that assesses staff members’ performance specifically with regard to social media (e.g., growing the museum’s number of Facebook fans).

Leverage social media across areas.

It’s a mistake to think social media is only part of the purview of a museum’s marketing, communications or public relations department. Social media can be of value to every area. The Children’s Museum, for example, uses it for marketing, development, membership and curatorial areas, among others. “We don’t have a single department that’s not participating in social media,” the NMAI’s Maxwell says. Honeysett points out that a museum’s public relations executive today can communicate much more easily with 50,000 potential donors than in the past because they can simply turn to those following the museum through social media. He adds that museums will get nowhere trying to “solve our digital problems with analogue thinking.”

Use social media for immediate feedback.

Social media sites like Facebook can be a great way to gain instant input on ideas for exhibits and other museum offerings. “If we have a new idea, we use Facebook for a temperature check,” says Maxwell.

Keep it professional, but avoid over-controlling.

The flip side of social media is that the ease and speed of posting can lead to less polished material, embarrassment or even legal issues. To avoid the posting of unprofessional or hazardous content, any NMAI-generated social media material must be reviewed by editors before it goes online. Yet there is also the danger of going too far in policing social media content. “The wrong thing to do,” Maxwell says, “is to be hyper-vigilant and super-restrictive. That’s not what social media is about.” On a related topic, it’s no secret that excessive personal use of social media can diminish employee productivity. The challenge is finding a balance between encouraging staff to use social media for the museum’s benefit and avoiding wasted time.

Never stop learning.

As social media evolves, museums and their leaders should evolve with it, taking active steps to learn about new tools. The Children’s Museum invited Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, to discuss the best use of the online information source. The Newark Museum is working actively to engage more staff as regular bloggers. The Getty’s Honeysett notes that museums should become intimately familiar with reaching audiences through mobile devices: “People aren’t looking up at billboard advertisements anymore—they’re looking down at their mobile devices.” For inspiration regarding social media efforts, the Shedd Aquarium’s Ritter Cowen suggests “picking organizations you look up to and seeing how they use social media.” All these recommendations underscore what NMAI’s Eileen Maxwell says: “Museum leaders simply can’t neglect social media.” Honeysett calls social media part of a “paradigm shift” that gives museums more flexibility and their audiences greater access. Some museum leaders believe social media fans can generate more of a return than the slickest, most expensive marketing campaign. “We could never afford to pay for the reach we get from our social media fans,” the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis’s Patchen says. At the same time, museum executives should be cautious about seeing social media as a panacea for all challenges. “The hype about social media has overpowered the reality of what it can do as a fundraising tool,” says Carl Hamm, deputy director of development and external affairs for the Saint Louis Art Museum. Hamm sees social media as useful for connecting with constituents and an important part of a museum’s overall relationship management strategy, from tweeting to having a Yelp presence. But he also warns that social media can promote more transient relationships with many fans who may be “aware, but don’t necessarily care” about the museum on a deeper level. “Some people in the industry are promoting social media as the second coming,” Hamm says. “I wouldn’t go that far.” While social media isn’t the solution to every challenge a museum faces, it’s clearly an important tool to engage internal and external constituents. Every museum executive I spoke to pointed to the benefits of social media across areas and the importance of staying current on its use. Asked whether it’s acceptable for museum leaders to neglect social media, the Newark Museum’s Omogbai says, “Just Google ‘dinosaurs’ and you’ll see how their inability to adapt led to their extinction. All museum executives need a basic knowledge and aptitude related to social media.”

Five Social Media Must-Haves for Museum Executives

  • personal Facebook page with at least one post/week
  • Twitter account with multiple followers
  • LinkedIn account with 500+ connections
  • smartphone (e.g., iPhone) and/or Internet-capable tablet (e.g., iPad)
  • plan (short- and long-term) for leveraging social media strategies aligned with the museum’s mission in every department

John Davidoff is founder and managing director, Davidoff Communications, Chicago, an organization that specializes in mission-driven strategy, marketing and strategic partnerships, and consults with nonprofit organizations—including museums—as well as businesses and associations.

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