This is an article which I wrote for the latest issue of Museum ID Magazine about Twitter for Museums. It hopefully acts as a good introduction for anyone thinking of using the social network for a museum or gallery.
The big internet success story of 2009 was undoubtedly Twitter, the ‘micro-blogging’ platform which, with the help of celebrity endorsements, grew from an estimated 6 million users to 18 million users in just 12 months, and which is predicted to rise to 26 million in the coming year.
The growth and success of the website didn’t escape the attention of museums, and by the start of 2010 over 1000 institutions in 34 countries had joined Twitter, attracted by a potentially large audience and an easy-to-use, free platform.
So what is Twitter?
Twitter is a ‘micro-blogging’ platform; a website where people share what they are doing or what they’ve found with others by sending and receiving messages known as tweets.
What defines Twitter is the short format of these tweets, with each message limited to just 140 characters of text, making it quick and easy to update.
These messages are sent and received through the website Twitter.com or through third party applications which bring these messages or tweets on to a computer’s desktop or a mobile phone.
As well as tweeting a message, you can also retweet or forward a message which someone else has written to your followers. If you write engaging, informative and entertaining messages on Twitter, you should find that people retweet what you are writing too.
While tweets and retweets are public and anyone can read these, direct messages are private and can only be read by those who you send them to. However, the person you wish to direct message must follow you for you to have permission to send them a direct message.
How is Twitter useful to museums?
Most museums are attracted to Twitter as a marketing tool; it can act as a modern day mailing list, allowing a museum to quickly broadcast information to a large number of people who have opted to hear more about your museum.
However once a museum joins Twitter it will quickly realise that the website is more about community, and using it only to broadcast advertising messages will quickly turn people off. Instead, a museum can speak with those who choose to follow them, to entertain, engage and inform Twitter users with a behind-the-scenes and up-to-the-minute account of your institution. This can build a loyal following; a kind of museum membership for the 21st century.
Twitter is also a great way to share information with your followers; the majority of tweets feature links and by linking to content on other websites, you can advance your museum’s educational aims through the web.
How to get started with Twitter
I would recommend anyone thinking about setting up a Twitter account for their museum first joins the website as an individual. This will allow you to get to grips with how Twitter works and learn from museums who are already tweeting.
It is easy to find museums through the search facility on Twitter. You can follow as many institutions as you like and you don’t need to confine yourself to any one country. MoMA (their Twitter name is @MuseumModernArt) is seen as the leading institution on the website and they are a great Twitter account to follow and to learn from.
One thing which you will learn from MoMA is that even though this is a large and prestigious museum, they identify the person who writes on behalf of the institution and allow the tweets that they write to have personality.
With only 140 characters of text to work with, tone of voice is incredibly important on Twitter and your museum will need to become comfortable with writing in a more down-to-earth, snappy style.
This research period is also a great time to look for people speaking about your museum, because even if you are not writing about your museum on Twitter, the chances are that your visitors are. You can use the search tools on Twitter or an external site such as SocialMention.
Get those around you involved in thinking about how Twitter could fit with your organisation and start to map out some ideas about how you could launch and manage a Twitter account for your museum.
The activities that you’ll need to think about are:
Listening – every day you should do a search on your museum name and look at what people are saying about your institution – are they asking a question which you can help them to answer?
Broadcasting – you should broadcast two or three tweets a day. I recommend that you plan the majority of these out in advance with themes like Museum Fact Monday, Guess the object of the day, Behind the scenes pictures of an exhibition being built or links to video of an event on YouTube. Asking questions is another great way to encourage your followers to engage with your museum – if you’re wondering what a particular audience group would like from you, why not ask them?
Replying – you should set aside some time every day to reply to messages on Twitter. You should also discuss with your colleagues issues such as how you will respond to negative feedback. Most museums have guidelines for dealing with complaints offline and these just need to be revisited to consider how they can work on Twitter.
Don’t let the thought of negative feedback put you off joining Twitter though. The chances are that people would make the same negative remark if you were not on the website and having a presence there will allow you to change opinions and learn from your mistakes. When you look at the Twitter feed for other museums, you’ll see that there is usually a very positive, sharing vibe since their Twitter followers are some of their biggest fans.
When you feel that you have a good grasp of how the website works from your experience with a personal account, and you have thought about how you will manage Twitter day-to-day then you are ready to set up an account for your museum.
Unless you set up a feed to your website or Facebook page, the only people who will see what you write on Twitter will be those who choose to subscribe or follow your museum’s tweets, so it is important to keep attracting new followers.
The easiest way to get started is to add a Twitter logo to your museum website and to spread the word virally to staff and through them to their friends. You may also want to add your Twitter name to leaflets and to promote it in the museum.
With your editorial plan in place, you will have lots of interesting content to share and your followers should hopefully retweet this to their own network of followers and start to virally spread the word about your museum.
You can also try offering incentives like a prize draw for tickets to a new exhibition, or reward your 1000th follower with free merchandise from your shop.
Twitter is predicted to grow over the next twelve months, but it has also spawned something of a cultural shift with more and more people sharing their experiences in real time.
In late 2009, Google started to index these real time live casts in its searches and now it is becoming more likely that the first result that someone finds when searching for your museum will be a review from someone who has just visited your venue, rather than your official website.
In terms of the opportunities for sharing, casting, connecting, surveying, broadcasting and reaching your audience, the Twitter possibilities are endless.