Turn Your Phones On: How Museums Can Leverage Social Media To Connect With Audiences

Ashleigh Hibbins - Museum Professional

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It wasn’t that long ago that most museums were no-phone zones. Photography bans were the norm, WiFi was scarce, and social media was an afterthought rather than a strategy.

The sector has come a long way since then, and most museums now recognize the need to leverage mobile technology and social media to maintain and increase their audiences. The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) has enjoyed a 10-20% increase in visitor numbers since they ditched their photography ban and began encouraging visitors to share their experiences online. Some are even using social media as the foundation for their design, like the Instagrammer’s paradise Museum of Ice Cream or Filipino selfie hotspot Art in Island. As W. Ryan Dodge at the ROM writes:

“What our visitors do on their phones is more important than what we want them to do. Museums should insert ourselves into that activity.”

Whether in person or online, getting savvy with social media and smartphones can help your museum broaden engagement with new audiences, and deepen engagement with existing ones. Even if your organization can’t handle the controversial selfie stick, there are digital tactics for almost every budget – and they might engage more unique audiences than you might expect.

Here are some of our top tips for how social media and mobile technology can engage audiences you might be forgetting:

Older People

The old axiom goes that social media and tech in museums is just ‘for the kids’. But there’s plenty of evidence to show that line of thinking is obsolete. Anyone who’s cringed at embarrassing comments from older relatives on Facebook knows that social media isn’t just for teens and 20-somethings. Younger people might be more frequent users, but millions of folks across every age group now use at least one platform – and baby boomers are the fastest growing market for social media use.  

Those born between the 1940s and 60s are most likely to use Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn. In fact, there are more people 55 and older using Facebook than there are under 17s. Researchers have found that they most often enjoy watching entertaining or instructional videos, and sharing content with friends. This is a great opportunity to create some cool behind-the-scenes or how-to videos with your museum’s collection.

Unlike many other businesses, museums already have the huge advantage of unique objects and stories at their fingertips. It’s just a matter of encouraging people to find and connect with them.  

Educators

Phones might still be a no-go in most classrooms, but that doesn’t mean teachers and aren’t into social media. In fact, many educators now use blogs or platforms like Twitter and Pinterest to share teaching tips and field trip ideas. Wouldn’t you want one of those ideas to come from your museum?

Make sure that some of your social media posts are directed at what you offer schools and teachers, participate in educator Twitter chats (there are a lot!), and do some research into what hashtags local teachers are using. If you have enough time and content to manage it, you could even make an education-specific hashtag or social media account for schools like MoMA, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Royal Ontario Museum have done.

And once those teachers are actually visiting with their students or for some professional development, don’t forget to encourage them to take pictures and post about their visit.

Tourists

Everyone loves to boast about their latest holiday, so why not encourage out-of-town visitors to tag your museum in their next Insta-brag? Changes as simple as a few well-placed signs encouraging visitors to take photos and providing WiFi and social media account details can go a long way.

Tourists might be less familiar with your museum’s rules around photography and phone use or come from a country where museum photography bans are the norm. All the more reason to make it loud and clear that photos and sharing are encouraged!

Word-of-mouth recommendations are a powerful tool for attracting tourism, so make sure your museum is tapping into it.

Artists

We’ve already written about the benefits an artist-in-residence can offer your museum, and social media can be a great way in.

Take inspiration from organizations like LACMA and the Barbican Centre, who recruit up-and-coming artists to be their Instagrammers-in-residence. These programmes double-down on audience engagement because they help your museum tap into the resident’s followers, while simultaneously building connections with local artists with fewer resources than holding an exhibition or event.

The best part about social media residencies is that they can be adapted to suit your museum. If Instagram isn’t your platform of choice, try a poetry takeover on Twitter or a vlogger residency on YouTube.

Just About Everybody Else

As we’ve mentioned already, social media is for pretty much everybody these days, not just young people.

Keep in mind that the first millennials, a social media-savvy generation often conflated with all young people, are turning 37 this year. A whopping 43% of the world’s entire population is now active on social media (up 13% from 2017), and the vast majority of those access their platforms on their mobiles. Prioritising digital engagement is no longer a luxury, it’s essential for reaching nearly every audience on the planet.

Just having a Twitter account or a YouTube channel isn’t enough. Like with everything else in life, in order to get the full benefit out of social media for your organization, you need to put in effort, resources, and time. Organisations need to nurture an environment of creativity and experimentation, and that means buy-in from senior management and more autonomy for junior staff.

But the payoff is worth it. Just ask the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), which increased its Twitter followers by over 7000 in one day after their #absoluteunit sheep meme went viral. As the MERL’s Adam Koszary writes, “Museums often struggle with the tension of trying to engage people while remaining respectable…writing in a friendly and humorous way doesn’t destroy the museum, and it’s simply one of the ways we reach our end goal: involving everyone in our heritage.”

So whether they’re visiting you in person or hanging out somewhere else, isn’t it time you encouraged more people to turn their phones on to your museum’s great content?

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