Social media logos

Developing a social media strategy

Rebecca Atkinson, 15.03.2011
What is social media, how can it be monitored and what are the different approaches? This article explains how museums can get more out of social media as technology continues to progress

In its broadest sense, social media describes internet or mobile-based applications that allow any number of users to share information, generate content and engage in interactive dialogue. The term is commonly used to refer to activity as diverse as blogging and bookmarking tools to networking websites.

This article looks specifically at the social networking websites most often used by museums – namely Facebook and Twitter. Many of the points also relate to other popular sites such as Flickr and emerging trends like Gowalla and Foursquare. 

With more than 500 million active users worldwide (50% of which log on every day), Facebook is a social networking website that allows people to build closed networks with friends within which they can chat and share information.

Twitter is a real-time information network that enables you to post updates of up to 140 characters as well as follow other people or organisations and see their latest status updates. Unlike Facebook, Twitter is an open network, which means you can also see updates from people you aren't following.

Tagging Tweets with hashtags enables users to collaboratively document a current event, from the demonstrations in the Middle East to the Museums Association's annual conference.

While Twitter and Facebook are arguably the two most popular social networking websites, museums may find alternatives. For example, East Lothian Museum Services has a presence on Facebook, but also uses East Lothian Buzz, a network specifically for the local area.

“We find we get much more interaction from local people than we do on Facebook,” says Sarah Cowie, the museum’s education officer. “Our presence on East Lothian Buzz has led to more local businesses attending events at our museums, and it also lets us interact directly with our visitors and potential audiences, as opposed to people from all over the world who might never visit our museums.”


“Social media is key, especially at the minute when museums are being hit left, right and centre by cuts,” says Jim Richardson, managing director of design agency Sumo (@SumoJim NB you have to be logged in to Twitter). “Social media is really a good way to build advocates round an institution who will hopefully advocate on your behalf.”

National Museums Liverpool (NML) used its Facebook page and Twitter profile (@livmuseums) to promote its petition against cuts last year. Out of the final 18,000 signatures, around 5,000 were collected online, with Facebook and Twitter playing a big referral role. Dickie Felton, communications manager at NML, says messages of support on Twitter about the petition helped drive more people to sign and also provided useful feedback and a morale booster to staff.

Richardson points out that studies show people who like an organisation on Facebook are more likely to purchase something from it, and the same could be true in terms of visiting institutions.

However, using social media shouldn’t just be about getting people through the door, attending events or using your website. First and foremost, it’s about showing people who have expressed an interest in your organisation who you are, what you do and why you matter.


There are many different options to consider when approaching social media – from who is responsible and how often it is used to what messages you put out and under what brand.

For example, some museums have different Twitter and/or Facebook accounts for different departments while others use just the one.

Shona Carnall, education officer at Hartlepool Cultural Services, who uses Twitter to promote the learning department at the museum, decided to Tweet under the persona of a fictional character – Yuffy the deer (@YuffyMoH) – rather than as the museum’s learning department. She believes this has helped people engage better as the character is less intimidating than a museum itself.

In most cases, the starting point for social media should always be about fulfilling your mission as a museum. Once you know why you want to use social media, you can develop a strategy (see below) to help you achieve this.

Whatever your approach, most museum professionals already using social media agree that there are definitely some best practice examples worth following.

“If you can't do social media right, don’t do it at all,” warns Rick Lawrence, digital media officer at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter. (The museum Tweets under @RAMMuseum and also has a Facebook page.

According to Lawrence, museums should use Twitter and Facebook to engage with followers and fans. “Don’t just throw information out there,” he explains. “Don’t just Tweet for the sake of it.”

Many organisations see social media as an extension of their marketing activity, and use it to promote new exhibitions and events. However, there is some disagreement about whether this is the right way to ultilise social networking sites.

“Social media seems to be a good fit with marketing and PR, but personally I think this is a bad idea,” says Richardson. “Marketing teams tend to send out marketing messages, which don’t sit well on sites like Twitter and Facebook. Yes, social media does offer great potential from a marketing point of view but not if it’s used blatantly – a soft approach is better to raise awareness of a brand.”

At NML all social media activity comes under the remit of the marketing department, and its communications manager Felton argues this approach has been very effective. From a PR perspective, the museum service has secured TV coverage out of stories it's put out on Twitter, while an appeal for memories about old toy cars was picked up by Granada presenter Andy Bonner, who is an avid Twitter user. “We made the teatime TV news that night thanks to Twitter,” says Felton.

The marketing department mainly uses social media to raise awareness of events and exhibitions. It also held a live online video broadcast of the John Moores Painting Prize winner announcement last September, and streamed a live Twitter feed underneath to offer a “virtual” private view to about 500 people.

When it comes to the messages you deliver via social media sites, providing content that you think your Twitter followers and Facebook friends will find interesting and potentially useful is a good place to start. And this doesn’t always mean promoting your own venue and events.

“Social media is a conversational medium, so museums should Tweet or Retweet if it’s something they think people will be interested in,” says Richardson. “The key is not to just talk about yourself – instead, you could Tweet about culture in your local area.”

But museums should still try keep content relevant, says NML’s Felton. “The team here use their news sense to tell people stuff, but not mundane stuff,” he explains. “People become bored very quickly if you issue pointless tweets – there’s nothing wrong being off the cuff but you shouldn’t bombard them. We aim to provide relevant information that impacts our followers, and essentially engages them and drives them to our website. Keep it personal, that’s the key.”


While social media websites are free to use, maintaining a presence on them does require resources. And with museum staff increasingly expected to do more with less following budget cuts, time is often already stretched.

“One of the big concerns about using social media is the time it potentially requires,” admits Richardson. “This is added to the fact that a lot of organisations block staff access to websites such as Facebook and Twitter.”

Another concern is that the participatory aspect of social media leaves museums open to criticism. Technically, there is nothing to stop a Facebook “fan” from deriding your museum on your profile page or even making offensive remarks.

Lawrence recommends that museums have a plan in place for dealing with such events. Not only is this a useful resource, but it can also answer concerns from museum management or local authorities when you are making the case for using social media (see case study).

It’s also worth remembering that a museum – like any organisation - is vulnerable to criticism from many different channels, not just social media. Hartlepool Museum's Carnall says: “The worse thing you can do is ignore criticism – you should treat it as you would if it was being delivered in a face-to-face situation. If you can’t answer something, then apologise and let them know you’re passing their comments on.”

For museum professionals working in education departments, privacy issues may present concerns. Facebook doesn’t currently allow children aged under 13 to register, and museums may find themselves in a dilemma if they are “befriended” by individuals they know to be underage. Again, a strong social media strategy is the best way to deal with such eventualities and ensure any potential risks are mitigated.


Most museums develop a social media strategy before putting information on websites such as Twitter or Facebook – this helps them set out exactly what they want to achieve and who is responsible for updating sites, and also plan ahead for scenarios such as criticism.

Shona Carnall wrote the social media strategy for the learning department at Hartlepool Museum using a template she found online. “Most of it was common sense and just a question of rewriting it so it covered what we wanted to achieve.”

Important points covered in its strategy include:

• Overview of the website/websites you intend to use
It’s worth including an overview of the different websites, so that people unfamiliar with these are able to understand exactly how they work.

• Objectives and how these will be measured
There are many online tools that you can use to measure the impact of social media, but (which is free to use) is a good place to start as it allows you to create mini-URLs and monitors the number of  clicks these receive (see further resources for more examples).

• Risks and mitigation
Include things that could go wrong such as criticism of your service, inappropriate content or people finding your content boring or irrelevant.

• Channel proposition
What is the ethos of your social network profiles? What tone will you use? How will you engage with fans and followers? What sort of content will you share with others?

• Resources
Who is responsible for your social media activity? How will this be covered during holidays/sickness? How much time will it take each week? Is there a cost involved?

• Strategies and principles

Consider how you will use the specific websites – for example, on Twitter, will you Retweet other people’s content? Will you include links to other websites? Who will you follow on Twitter or be-friend on Facebook? How will you use hashtags to raise your profile?

• Marketing
How will you make people aware of your presence on social networks? Consider the promotion on your website and publications, email signatures etc.

Carnall advises museums to keep their strategies generic, as this will make them easier to amend down the line as new social networking websites and facilities become available.

Rick Lawrence, from RAMM, had to make the case for using social media to his local authority, and was also later involved in developing a council-wide policy. He recommends other local authority museums provide a detailed business case supported by museum management that clearly explains how they will resource and use social media.

He says museums should demonstrate an awareness of council concerns, such as IT data security and safeguarding the council’s reputation, and try to meet with council stakeholders to discuss concerns face-to-face and establish credibility by providing supporting information.


Whatever way your museum uses, or intends to use, social media, the ultimate aim is to raise awareness of your existence and ultimately increase footfall to exhibitions and events.

Whether Tweeting and posting on Facebook can actually achieve those aims is hard to prove, but museums should still monitor their social media activity in order to know how effective it is and what different techniques work. 

In the future, it is likely that museums will incorporate questions about social media into their audience research but there other more immediate ways to test the impact on visitor numbers. Last year, Tate offered exclusive vouchers to exhibitions on its Facebook page; such initiatives could give museums an indication of whether online friends can be converted into visitors.

Hartlepool is looking to offer vouchers for the museum cafe via Twitter later this year, and informal research already undertaken by the learning teams suggests some people are finding out about events through social networking websites.

Elsewhere, NML recently opened up the private view to A Collector's Eye: Cranach to Pissarro (18 February 2011 - 15 May 2011) to its Twitter followers. Although Felton says the turnout wasn’t huge, several did come and even Tweeted about the exhibition while they were there. “It was good to test the waters, and we’re looking at doing another event when the Museum of Liverpool opens later this year,” he says.


Social networks come and go in popularity, as already seen with the likes of Friendster and Myspace, and experts are divided as to whether Facebook and Twitter will suffer the same fate and be replaced with new networking sites.

In the meantime, Facebook is understandably keen to avoid such a fate and is already making inroads into solidifying its position as a dominant social networking website and also integrating itself across the internet.

Most websites now include buttons where people can “like” content on Facebook (thereby posting an article or similar to their profile wall). At the same time, there is a trend towards external websites allowing people to log-in via their Facebook account.

Richardson believes this integration of Facebook across the web allows opportunities for museums to offer personalised online experiences.

In 2009, the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) launched a new website called Summer At MoMA, which aimed to help people plan their trip to the museum by connecting to their Facebook profile. The website used the information on the networking site to offer personal recommendations to users, which they could then add to their profile and send to friends.

Other museums could use personal information from Facebook to make connections to their collections - something the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney has already experimented with. For example, if you know where someone lives, you could personalise the homepage with a photograph of their town or an archaeological object found in the area.

"This sort of personalisation makes a lot of sense in terms of marketing as it gives people the option to receive tailored content based on their Facebook profile,” says Richardson. "It won't be for everyone but it is the way things are going."