Note: this is a geeky post that assumes familiarity with Twitter. If you are new to Twitter, please check out this post for more context.
Dear Museums on Twitter,
Thanks for experimenting in a new and largely uncharted online environment. It's not easy, and many of you are taking innovative, exciting approaches to it. But not enough of you. Only 80% of Twitter success is showing up, and I've been frustrated by the lack of creativity applied to the other 20%. So here is a list of suggestions that hopefully will improve the way your museum thinks about using Twitter.
1. Don't use Twitter to spam me about visiting. It's warm out so I should go to the zoo? Or it's rainy so you suggest I visit the museum? You are belittling my ability to plan my day without your helpful reminder about the weather and your institution's existence. If a company did this, suggesting that I come to Starbucks or REI every moment of the day, I (and hopefully you) would see it as a spammy intrusion. And do you really think there are people out there, sitting at home with nothing to do, waiting for Twitter to tell them where to go next? If such people exist, they are probably ZOMBIES and are not good for business.
2. It's okay if you start by just following. Twitter is like a big radio party--everyone can broadcast and everyone can listen. If radio was a brand new media format and you had the opportunity to host a show or run a station, you'd probably listen to some other stations before deciding whether and what to broadcast. Following is like listening. Listening is a good thing.
3. Once you decide to tweet, make it interesting. When someone follows me, I go to their page and look at the most recent tweets. I scan through about ten and ask myself: is this content interesting enough for me to follow this person? My standards are pretty low. If there is one link, one phrase, one idea that piques my interest, I follow that person. Think about your followers. The majority are probably coming because they have prior interest in your institution. But you have the potential to reach a whole new world of followers--their friends--if your content is witty, useful, or appealing to those who have never visited your museum. Take a scan at your most recent tweets page. Does it look spammy and dull, or does it look interesting?
4. Tell me something I can't find on your homepage. I'm cool with you using Twitter to let me know about new blog posts, exhibits, programs, or changes to your hours. But if you ONLY use Twitter to do those things, you are just using it as a feeder to the other web content you already produce. You could do better. Give me a little bit of behind-the-scenes insight, like the Palmer Museum twitterer who bragged about helping a registrar move a 700 pound box or the Whitney Museum which trumpeted its "very nice" toilet rating. Give me a game, like the Smithsonian's name that artifact gambit. Give me links to relevant content from elsewhere on the web like the Walker Art Center does. Or just draw me into things I might not discover on my own, like the Getty's elegant quotations about pieces from their collection or the Exploratorium's online interactives.
5. Tell me who you are. It's always a bit strange to see institutions on Twitter, when, hopefully, the accounts are controlled by humans. I love the way that the Heard Museum bio addresses this strangeness, explaining that "I am a museum, or rather someone [ @katecrowley ] who works here, pretending to be the building. I am a museum of Native Cultures and Art!" Jeffrey at the Mattress Factory also does a great job of this. If you're interested in this topic, check out this experiment to root out the people behind big companies on Twitter, which recently included this comment about museums: "When museums tweet to each other in first person, I question why the museums don't include the names of the people tweeting."
6. Respond to people. Make the @ your friend. When I look at the Brooklyn Museum's Twitter page, I see lots of replies to different people across the platform and I think, "this is an institution that is engaged with the community." Same goes for the San Francisco Zoo, which often tweets out visitors' cute photos taken at the zoo. These institutions are showing their appreciation for and interest in other people's comments and discussions. It may sound like work to reply to others, but it can be easier than generating your own content. If you start on Twitter as a follower, eventually you'll see a tweet that you want to respond to... and the conversation begins.
7. Give me content worthy of your institution. I can't tell you what to tweet about. I don't feel, as Tyler Green does, that an art museum MUST tweet about art. But you should tweet in a style and with content that is of a quality consistent with your institution. Remember the radio station analogy. If your museum was hosting a radio show, would you only talk about the open hours and try to entice people to show up? Of course not. You would do something engaging, educational, entertaining, provocative... all the elements that you try to design into every program or exhibit.
So now imagine you have a text-based, short-format radio show. What would fit there? The Brooklyn Museum has an open call for artists who want to use Twitter to communicate with 1stfan members, but you don't need to be an artist to create quality content on Twitter.
Here are some museum Twitter "radio stations" I'd love to follow:
- Funny things said by visitors.
- Guard feed! (Thanks for the idea, Shelley.)
- Institutional superstitions or weird things about the building.
- The imagined experiences of a famous artifact, heavily loved interactive, or other institutional mascot (see this Twitter feed, which I doubt is written by AMNH staff).
- Haiku about museum work.
- A daily or weekly feature on a specific topic.
- Jokes, recipes, quotes, and interesting facts. Do you know why there are naked ladies on the front of ships?
- Weird and surprising behind-the-scenes victories and challenges. What's it like to prep an exhibition on poop?
- Topical, provocative questions.
The good news is that no one is doing this wonderfully. So go out there and impress the whole world. Oh, and consider joining the museum Twitter group. I'll be following your progress!