communicating with your audience in 140 characters
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DESCRIPTION"Museums in the Digital Age - Communicating with Your Audience in 140 Characters", presented at the ICOM-CECA Conference in Yerevan, Armenia, October 2012
With the development of digital and new media in recent years, museums have been forced to break away from traditional channels of written communication, such as text panels or exhibition catalogues, as they seek to engage with their audiences in new online environments. In reaction to the ever increasing pace of digital communication, messages have been getting shorter and shorter. Twitter, a popular social networking site, has taken this to an extreme in limiting communication to 140 characters per message - even shorter than a standard mobile phone text message. What exactly are the benefits of Twitter? How can museums use it to effectively communicate with their audiences? And what are the challenges of communicating in 140 characters or less? This presentation aims to address these questions and to provide some practical advice on how museums can maintain an interesting digital dialogue via this social media platform.
What is Twitter and how does it work?
Let’s start by taking a step back and having a quick look at the background and basics of Twitter.
Since its foundation in 2006, Twitter has grown to become one of the top 10 most visited websites on the Internet, with over 500 million active users. It’s a social networking service which allows its users to send out short messages, so called ‘tweets’. It’s also referred to as a microblogging service, as compared to a traditional blog its content is restricted in size. In the case of Twitter, as I already mentioned, messages are limited to 140 characters, though these can include links and photo attachments.
Unlike some other social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter is a lot more open. You don’t need to register to read other people’s messages, though there is an option to make your tweets private but the majority of people don’t use this. Registered users can subscribe to - or ‘follow’ - the tweets of other users they are interested in, which are then
all aggregated in one news feed, but the user being followed doesn’t need to approve this. You can also direct a message at a specific user, by preceding your tweet with their user name, and users who follow each other can exchange so called ‘direct messages’, and these do not appear in their public message stream.
One very popular feature on Twitter is the use of hashtags. A hashtag is a word preceded by the hash symbol (#), and can be used to mark keywords or topics in a Tweet (see Slide 1 below for some examples of hashtags). Selecting the hashtag in a Tweet shows you all other Tweets with the same hashtag, so it acts as a kind of search function. Hashtags that are very popular can become so called "Tending Topics", which means that so many people are using the hashtag at the same time it has become one of the most used in a particular city or country. You can see on Twitter what the most popular hashtags at any given time are, and there are also third party applications where you can e.g. see them plotted out on a map (I have an example of one later on).
Slide 1: Examples of hashtags
This is what a typical tweet might look like:
Slide 2: Example of a typical tweet (screenshot from Twitter)
What are the benefits of Twitter?
Social media offers many benefits to museums and their audiences:
•It acts as an alternative route of communication between museums and market segments that aren’t easily reached by traditional means.
•It’s an opportunity for museums to enrich their offerings through user generated content from audiences.
•The ability to be actively involved and contribute makes audiences feel validated, leading to increased engagement and motivation.
•The ease of contributing lowers barriers to participation for audiences.
•A lack of physical boundaries can bring museums and wider audiences together.
The biggest benefit specifically of Twitter is, as mentioned, the fact that communications are public. You don't need to register to be able to read other users' Tweets or follow conversations, though you do need to register if you want to post Tweets yourself or join in
a conversation. But even then you don't need to befriend someone first and have them authorise it. This very low participation barrier makes it easy for people to join in.
Another of Twitter's identifying features is its dynamic. Exchange of messages is generally quite fast paced with a high expectation of real-time communication. These exchanges can often make it feel more personal and many users have the feeling they are talking to a person rather than an institution. This openness and dynamism of Twitter, combined with the use of hashtags as a way to group tweets on the same topic, allows for and encourages a flow of themed, relevant and engaging discussions.
And one of the great things about social media, is that you are not limited by specific museum opening times. This goes for other networks too, of course, but Twitter’s dynamics mean that if you’ve managed to give a discussion enough momentum, it will often keep going long after a traditional event would have finished because the museum would have long shut.
What are the challenges of communicating in 140 characters?
Firstly, why 140 characters? This is down to Twitter starting off as a text messaging service, and a standard mobile phone message is a maximum 160 characters. Twitter limited their messages to 140 characters, reserving 20 characters for usernames.
On the up side, having a limitation of characters to your messages forces you to keep it simple and straight to the point. Here’s an example of a message on Twitter and on Facebook, both announcing the same thing:
Slide 3: Twitter versus Facebook (screenshots from Twitter and Facebook)
On the down side, however, there is a risk of ending up with so many abbreviations that your messages look encrypted. You also need to pick your words carefully so that you are not misunderstood.
How can museums use Twitter?
The most straight forward and probably the most common way for museums to use Twitter, is general day-to-day communication, i.e. sharing updates, comments, photographs. From the side of the museum, this may include highlighting events, communicating study results, answering questions or sharing a bit of what goes on behind the scenes. From the side of the visitors, communication may include sharing impressions, whether through comments or photographs, or asking questions, from practical things such as "Does your café sell gluten free cake?", to interacting with staff and accessing specialist knowledge, e.g. the opportunity to question curators (example of this in a moment).
But as well as day to day communication, Twitter allows museums e.g. to increase access to their collections, add value to existing events, or even hold events entirely online. And the dynamics of Twitter also make it a good medium for 'live' interaction. There are endless possibilities and examples, so I have selected just a few:
One effective way of increasing access is to tweet about what goes on behind the scenes, thus letting your audiences be part of it. A particularly good example comes from Brooklyn Museum in the US, who gave live updates via Twitter during the CT scanning of four of their mummies in 2009. When the museum tweeted that the mummy known as ‘Lady Hor’ was in fact male, their followers on Twitter felt like they were watching history in the making2.
Slide 4: Tweet from Brooklyn Museum (screenshot from Twitter)
A good example of adding value to an existing on-site event, is the so called ‘Twitter Wall’ at Berlin’s Lange Nacht der Museen. I don’t have time to go into the technical details here, but basically visitors can tweet their comments and recommendations as the night progresses, and all tweets are then broadcast onto a screen at the event’s central hub (of course you can also view them online on Twitter via your phone or other mobile device). Other visitors can then refer back to the Tweets when planning what to do next, or those who can’t make it to the event can share in what’s happening.
Following on from that idea, some museums have started hosting so called ‘Tweetups’. These are meetups, which usually take the form of guided tours, where participants are explicitly encouraged to tweet live updates. In Germany, two groups in Frankfurt and in Munich – Kultup (http://kultup.org) and Kulturkonsorten (http://kulturkonsorten.de) – have been organising series of Tweetups at different museums and other cultural organisations over the past year1. Participants tweet a running commentary of the guided tours, including their own impressions and photographs. Users on Twitter can follow the proceedings, even sending in their own questions, and often feel as if they were taking part in the tours themselves.
Slide 5: Tweets from the Kultup in Frankfurt on 26 July 2012 (screenshots from Twitter)
Tweeting live from conferences, to share proceedings with those that aren’t able to attend, has also become common practice. For example last year in Zagreb we tweeted live about what was going on at our CECA conference (see Slide 2 above) and as you know we've been busy tweeting about this year's conference too.
At the other end of the scale, you get events that don’t just add value to or extend on-site events to online audiences, but that take place entirely on Twitter. I tend to refer to these as hashtag events, as their common feature is that they use specific hashtags as their primary driver. To exemplify this, I have a small case study for you.
Case Study: Museum Memories Day
Museum Memories Day was an online Twitter event run by Museum140 (http://www.museum140.com), an independent initiative founded in March 2011 to run fun and engaging social media projects based around museums. It is not affiliated to any museum in particular, so it is also a great example of how you can bring together different museums and museum communities around the world through social media.
Museum Memories Day was our inaugural project. It took place on 17 May 2011, as a run up to International Museums Day which had 'Museum and Memory' as its theme that year. Everyone had been invited to tweet about their most memorable museum moments using the hashtag #MusMem. Since we were not limited to museum opening hours, anyone anywhere in the world could take part regardless of what timezone they were in, and tweeting continued well into the evening. Similarly, the momentum of the event carried over into International Museums Day the next day, and even into the weekend.
Just as with any other event, you need to create some interest and buzz around it in advance if you want people to take part. We announced the event a month before, and got some of our most active Twitter contacts to help spread the word. Between the launch and the weekend following the event itself, we counted just over 3,000 Tweets using the hashtag #MusMem, and around half of those were to promote the event. The event became a Trending Topic in twelve countries worldwide, but we also had Tweets from many other countries.
Slide 6: #MusMem trend map on 17 May 2011 (screenshot from http://trendsmap.com)
Museums and galleries of all kinds from around the world, as well as associated organisations and individual museum professionals, friends and enthusiasts participated. Recurring themes included mummies, dinosaurs, whales and art; childhood visits with family; first dates, marriage proposals and even weddings; emotional experiences such as crying, singing and dancing. There were also stories of mishaps or being shouted at by guards, though the vast majority of stories were positive (see Slides 7-9 below for some examples of #MusMem tweets). Some people also tweeted photos, which was a great addition.
Slide 7: #MusMem examples about mummies, dinosaurs, whales and art
Slide 8: #MusMem examples about childhood, dates, engagement and marriage
Slide 9: #MusmMem examples about crying, singing, dancing and guards.
The many memories raised awareness of museums on Twitter, and reflected how much people loved museums and galleries and were inspired by them. Here’s a graphic visualising the 50 most commonly tweeted words:
Slide 10: #MusmMem word cloud (created with http://www.wordle.net)
Possibly one of the most well known hashtag events, in terms of museums, is #askacurator run by Sumo UK, which first took place in September 2010 and was recently repeated in September of this year due to poplar demand. Curators from around 600 museums the world over spent a day answering questions in real time via Twitter. Of course, museums can answer questions any day of the year. However, curators aren’t always instantly accessible, as more often than not they are not the ones managing museum Twitter accounts, but during #askacurator they committed to making themselves available in real time. Also, to have such a simultaneous global presence made the event unique.
Conclusion: Practical Advice
I want to finish with some practical advice on using Twitter to take back to your own organisations.
Before jumping in, develop a Twitter strategy. You may think “Why do I need a strategy to send out 140 character long messages”, but it’s always useful to think about where you’re going, what you’ll be doing and the resources involved. There’s an excellent template online from the UK for a Twitter Strategy for Government Departments, which should cover everything that you need and more, that you can adapt for your purposes3.
Only take on what you can manage. Although Twitter is a low resource channel compared to other communications such as a newsletter, a blog or an all-singing, all-dancing Facebook page, it still needs to be maintained. A neglected Twitter account makes a worse impression than not having one at all. If you can only tweet on certain days or times of day e.g. because the staff member responsible works part time, then that’s okay but be up front about it with your followers so they know what to expect.
Be realistic about who you are going to reach. Being on Twitter will let you reach out to new audiences, but they are not all going to translate into footfall at your museum. And while Twitter allows you to connect with people interested in your museum who live in far flung corners of the world and can’t otherwise visit, it’s not going to create a thriving international audience for you overnight. If English is not the language your museum usually communicates in, you might want to consider including regular tweets in English to attract more international followers, if that’s what you want.
Make use of available tools to help you manage your Twitter account, such as sites that allow you to schedule Tweets in advance. For example, you could set aside some time at the beginning or end of each week to plan Tweets that are intended for certain days or times in the week ahead, for things you already know are going to happen or you know you want to tweet about. Then on the other days you just need to check in for messages and questions to respond to, or tweet things that couldn’t be planned ahead.
Don't just use Twitter as marketing channel. The Twitter community is unforgiving of users who do. And if they catch on to you, you will lose followers as quickly as you gained them.
Twitter is not your corporate website. Let your hair down a little. Be friendly and conversational. Don’t ignore questions. Say thank you for compliments and recommendations. Recommend someone yourself. Welcome your followers. Follow people back. And, most importantly...
...don't forget the "social" in social media!!
Jenni FuchsMuseum140Email: [email protected]: @jennifuchsAugust 2012
Notes(1) Since writing this paper, a new series of museum Tweetups – MuseUp – has also been launched in Berlin, with the first to take place on 12 November 2012.
(2) See also http://www.brooklymuseum.org/community/blogosphere/2009/06/23/live-tweeting-mummy-ct-scanning-today/ and http://www.talkingpyramids.com/report-on-the-mummies-trip-to-the-hospital/