Social media are powerful tools for museums to interact and engage with their visitors. They also serve as tools to help museums invite and engage with difficult-to-reach audiences before they ever step foot in the museum.
Museums and the Web is an annual conference featuring research on—and applications for—digital practices in museums. This gathering is unique in that a lot of conference papers are presented for free online. One of our favorites from this year’s conference is “The Me/Us/Them model: Prioritizing museum social-media efforts for maximum reach” by Jonas Heide Smith of the National Gallery of Denmark.
His paper looked at how the National Gallery of Denmark (in Danish: “Statens Museum for Kunst” or “SMK”) maximized reach on their Instagram account through various experiments in 2014. These experiments increased the SMK’s Instagram reach by 2,500%!
From the SMK’s research, museums can use a 3-step approach to help them better engage with visitors via Instagram, or potentially any social media platform. Here’s the three-step process we took from SMK’s findings, and our reflections on it.
#1. Establish Your Baseline Numbers
SMK observed that “there was little synergy between the efforts of the museum and the sharing activities of guests” on their Instagram account. Wanting to fix this, SMK sought ways that could invite guests to become active agents for the museum on social media. But before they could implement public initiatives, they needed a way to measure the impact of their experiments.
SMK used July 2014 as their baseline — their Instagram activity had been kept to minimum, with no special initiatives to encourage guest sharing. They then decided to track the reach of all content related to the museum. “To do this, a system was set up (using IFTTT) that collected all Instagram posts that were geotagged at one of the museum’s two physical locations or that applied one of several commonly used hashtags. These images were appended to an online spreadsheet after which doubles…were deleted.” They also incorporated methods to account for overlaps and those images not geotagged/hashtagged, informed by analytics from other platforms. The result was a hard number that could be consistently tracked by staff.
#2. Create Opportunities for Guests to Share
Armed with their analytics strategy, the SMK began their experiments. After July 2014, they experimented in creating opportunities for guest sharing.
First came Instawalks, modeled after the #emptymet events of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Small groups gathered inside the museum before the SMK’s opening hours to post photos tagged with #emptysmk. At first, the SMK led groups on guided tours of the museum — but found that this left little opportunity for photos. Instead of giving up, the SMK’s management team modified their practice, allowing Instawalk groups to wander the museum. This freedom to roam enabled visitors to become inspired by “particular, hard-to-foresee light effects or want to spend time organizing the group in visually interesting patterns.” The results were photos that showcased different points of view about the museum.
Second, SMK installed new signs that asked visitors to “please take photos” and tag them with geotags or hashtags. Lesson: it’s totally okay to ask for what you want.
Finally, SMK installed “selfie mirrors” — small plateaus that enabled visitors to take interesting selfies within exhibitions. This approach enabled guests to take selfies, but also did so on the museum’s terms, ensuring the safety of their objects and exhibition content.
#3. Review and Adapt Your Strategy
The SMK’s combined efforts led to marked increase in activity:
“Between July and August, the total of shared images increased from 147 to 604 (410 percent), and reach increased from 9,083 to 227,605 (2,506 percent).”
And here’s the best part.This high market reach continued in subsequent months, even without specific Instagram events or other marketing initiatives. The SMK’s experiments were “snowball-like as activity yields interest and awareness, which again yields activity.”
The SMK took time to reflect on their experiences, and to leave room to continually adapt to the needs of visitors and the museum. During their reflections, they found they needed to be vigilant of three things:
- Practical conditions — The SMK reviewed copyright laws to ensure that guests could post photographs of objects or exhibitions, and installed signage on items that could not be used in photographs. They also provided easily accessible, free WiFi to visitors to enable sharing during the museum experience. This last point, accessible WiFi is very important and often overlooked.
- Physical nature of collections — The SMK didn’t dictate what visitors should share. Instead, they embraced the “surprising shadows and unplanned visual patterns” that attract visitors’ lenses and ensured clear opportunities for photos by designing for unique selfie opportunities.
- Organizational priorities — The SMK established a clear institution-wide priority “that, while smartphone photography could potentially be an irritation to certain guests, the collections belong to the citizens of Denmark, and the museum should place as few restrictions on their use as possible.” While some rules are important to protect and preserve the art, rules should interfere with the guest experience as little as possible.
The SMK also acknowledged that, although a “Them” approach was highly successful, it wasn’t the only focus they should have. Official Instagram profiles “are uniquely suited to communicate those aspects of the museum that are not immediately visually striking or are inaccessible to the public.” Social media allows museums to showcase stories that intrigue staff, to provide glimpses into backrooms or exhibition development, and to promote events. Social media also functions as a hub for various conversations on guest experiences, establishing rapport with guests through reposting/resharing content; and promoting the image of the museum as an inclusive, engaging space.
Future Implications for Social Media in Museum Spaces
Social media has made museums more sociable and accessible. SMK’s experiments showed that encouraging visitors to share their experiences online was a better use of resources than other strategies. This museum’s specific strategy may not work for all museums, but their process is interesting and reveals a strategy for museums looking to increase reach and engagement.
By creating opportunities for guest engagement on Instagram, the museum exponentially increased their reach — intriguing new audiences before they ever step foot in the door.
“The Me/Us/Them model: Prioritizing museum social-media efforts for maximum reach” is a presentation and paper by Jonas Heide Smith of The National Gallery of Denmark, originally published on the Museums and the Web website.
Find out about our consulting work with museums, or email us at [email protected] to find out more about how we can help your institution with audience development and upgrading your social media efforts.