In Focus | The changing face of social media and museums - Museums Association

In Focus | The changing face of social media and museums

Caroline Parry looks at how museums’ social media use has evolved from a broadcasting model to deeper engagement with audiences
Social Media
Illustration by Ryan Gillett

Over the past two decades, social media has gone from being something “the kids” do to becoming a part of everyday life for most people. In 2022, 61.6 million of us were using some form of social media in the UK, according to consumer insights company Statista. It is predicted this will increase to 65.2 million by 2027.

Museums and galleries have long adopted the key social media channels of Facebook, Twitter and, more recently, Instagram, as a way of speaking to audiences. This has mainly been confined for use as a broadcast and marketing medium to promote exhibitions, events and sell tickets.

The Covid lockdowns changed everything, however, with culture and heritage organisations forced to find new ways to reach, engage and entertain audiences stuck at home.

Although the pandemic vastly accelerated the sector’s use of social media as a conversational tool, a nascent understanding of this had been developing before 2020 through the work of pioneers such as the Museum of Rural English Life in Reading.

In April 2018, a tweet created by its then digital lead Adam Koszary featured a picture of a large ram with the words: “Look at this absolute unit.” It went viral and, with more than 100,000 likes and over 30,000 retweets, it is reported to have increased visits to the museum by nearly 50%. This suggested audiences were open to hearing something different from museums and that museums could loosen up and tap into the tone and vernacular of the internet.

Lack of resources

Now head of digital at the Audience Agency, Koszary says, even with the Covid acceleration, museums, galleries and heritage organisations are still many years behind many commercial sectors in terms of how they are using social media. “It all comes back to resources,” he argues. “Most social media people in museums are doing about five [other] jobs.”


Who should handle social media and where it should sit in an organisation remains a matter of debate. It depends on several factors: resources; experience; how channels are being used; how well social media is understood by the overall institution; and the leadership team.

Social media responsibility often sits within marketing and communications or, for bigger institutions, a standalone digital team.

Michelle Doyle, the senior content and social media producer at the Wellcome Collection, London, argues that the aims and targets of the team should dictate where it is based. She says: “Is social media going to be used to sell more tickets or is it to build a brand, raise awareness and tell stories?”

As social media evolves from being purely a marketing tool to engaging and connecting with audiences, a holistic approach is required – one that involves multiple departments, if not the whole museum.

Mike Ellis, founder of agency Thirty8 Digital and a former head of web for the National Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester, says: “As soon as you start to think and talk about social media as content, it involves many departments – digital, marketing, exhibitions and curators.”

Social media carries significant responsibilities and needs to be fulfilled by someone experienced with handling public-facing content. The days of delegating it to an intern should be long gone, but the misconception that social media is not a real job persists.


Understanding is key

Emily Smith, audiences and communication coordinator at the Black Country Living Museum, describes her role as “the membrane between audiences and the museum”.

She says: “My job is to understand what audiences want to see, while also helping the museum understand that and think about how to achieve it.”

Francesca Collins, the website and digital officer at the Museums Association (MA), adds that there is also a need for more understanding about what makes a good post.

“It’s not easy to create an engaging social media post,” she says. “It might be micro-copy, but it is still copy, and it needs to be drafted and edited.”

Social media teams must be free to post without going through a restrictive sign-off process, which gets in the way of being reactive and spontaneous with content.


Writing skills are critical for social media producers and teams, as is a working knowledge of what works on social channels – and what doesn’t.

Deciding what approach is right for an organisation should be based on two key tenets: who you are talking to and what you want to achieve.

Two-way conversation

The pandemic made it clear that audiences increasingly want a two-way conversation. When channels are used to promote events or exhibitions, people want to comment or ask questions.

Social media strategies should reflect that desire to interact and should be a key part of an organisation’s thinking when planning content. Alyson Webb, the founder of digital consultancy Frankly Green & Webb, which works with many heritage organisations, suggests involving audiences in that planning.

“Most institutions conduct audience research on-site, so why aren’t they doing it online?” asks Webb. “Finding out what people value and what interests them, rather than relying on age demographics, will help create great content.”

A combination of audience insight with a clear understanding of the expectations of the museum’s leadership is also essential to social media producers. Knowing what results or outcomes are expected from social media campaigns will dictate what is needed from the other museum departments, in terms of which stories to tell, what images or videos to use, or how social media can support and expand the visitor experience.

“Social media can be a window into the museum, as well as a way of having conversations with audiences,” says Koszary.

It is helpful to have a content plan that supports the museum’s exhibitions and events programmes but can also serve as inspiration for posts during quieter periods. At the Wellcome Collection, Doyle takes a “zoomed out approach” that plans for a three to six-month period, taking in key events.

At Leeds Museums, digital engagement officer Megan Jones creates a “shell plan” based on press and programming priorities – but prefers it to be malleable.

“I find it helps to have one or two things in the schedule each week, but everything else is spontaneous, as that can lead to the best content,” she says.

Preaching to the converted

The true power of social media is often thought to be its ability to expand an organisation’s reach and tap into new audiences to increase visitor numbers. However, research has started to cast doubt on this thinking and to drive new approaches to content that can also help inform which social media channels are right for a museum.

Research by Frankly Green & Webb, which received more than 30,000 responses, found that on average, 80% of followers of museums on social media had already visited the institution in question, lived in the same region and were often less diverse than in-person visitors.

They were, in fact, a subset of visitors. User motivations for following were staying connected to an organisation they valued and wanting to continue to visit, supporting a personal interest and connecting with interest-based communities.

“It offers clues on how to use social media effectively,” says Webb. “Understanding who your audience is, why they follow you and what they value enables you to make informed choices. For example, you might focus on growing your existing audience and deepening their connection to you, or you could work out how to connect with new audiences more effectively.”

While social media audiences might be local, the beauty of digital is that it can connect with people in unexpected places. Leeds Museums held a daily 9am “cup of tea” online during lockdown, which has led to an ongoing relationship with Nova Scotia Museums in Canada.

“Social media audiences are spread across the world, and that does give you the freedom to hook into internet conversations that will connect you with different audiences,” says Jones.

While scoring a viral hit generates plenty of excitement, it is not the only way to prove social media success. “It is easy to think that a post wasn’t good enough if it doesn’t go viral,” says the Wellcome Collection’s Doyle.

Quality not quantity

Measuring what matters to an institution is a more reliable way to understand if social media is hitting its targets and achieving an organisation’s goals. For Jones in Leeds, engagement rates are more important than followers, with comments a key measure and quoted retweets and shares considered “gold”.

Meanwhile, posts that don’t reach hundreds of people can still bring qualitative results, says the Black Country Living Museum’s Smith. “It might help you access new stories or form new partnerships. Different kinds of results are important, and it is good to factor that in.”

Museums should set KPIs for what they want to achieve through social media, says Doyle. “It sets a clear direction of travel. It is possible to argue for not getting likes if the content succeeds elsewhere.”

Worrying about engagement rates, likes and followers can have a detrimental impact on the mental health of social media producers, particularly if, through a lack of internal understanding, they are not receiving support from within their institutions. For that reason, National Museums Scotland digital media content producer, David Weinczok, advises being realistic about how many channels a social media team or producer can manage.

The MA’s Collins cautions museums and galleries to bear in mind that social media can be a cruel place, with a “mental load” around every post.

She says: “It is important to be mindful of your post, particularly where there is potential for ‘controversy’ – around colonialism, for example. Be wary of who might see it and how they might respond.”

Comments (1)

  1. Thomas Briggs says:

    It’s great to see more museums experimenting with engaging rather than merely broadcasting via social media: I can only imagine that this gets more people interested. I for one tend to very quickly bore of accounts that only broadcast and tend to only follow those that engage.

    An important question in the social media world at the moment is “where do we go?” The fact that Twitter is spiralling into destruction leading to regular bursts of users departing for other services means that museums need to think about where they’re going too. Do they sign up for everything? This either increases the workload for those operating social media accounts for museums: people who you mention often have a lot of other work to do already. So is it better to pick one and move there? If so, how do we choose?

    There’s an argument that museums should follow their followers: wherever most of those go, that’s where the museum should go.

    Or is there room to think about how museums have an opportunity to shape online cultural spaces in the same way that they aim to provide or enhance cultural spaces in the real world? In this case, there are conversations to be had around which services are best aligned with the moral, ethical and social drivers behind museums’ modern work. Is jumping from one billionaire’s data-harvesting platform to another’s really what we should be doing as a sector, or should we be working to promote safer, more ethical online spaces just as we do offline?

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