Tuesday, December 30, 2008

An Open Letter to Museums on Twitter

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.
This is just a short list. So please, get together with the most creative (and concise) brains in your institution and find the idea that will work for you. Twitter may be simpler to produce content for than a blog or podcast (let alone an exhibit), but that's no excuse not to use it to reinforce your brand and your mission by creating top-notch tweets.

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!

34 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Good work! I love to visit museums and would like to read about their news on twitter. I like this open letter because it describes good ideas by means of museums which already do so.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Nina. We're all learning to find our own virtual voice and your observations are insightful.

Happy New Year,
Jeffrey (@MattressFactory)

Beth Dunn said...

Great contributions and ideas. I agree wholeheartedly that buildings don't engage on twitter, people do. Twitter is NOT a broadcast channel.

Anonymous said...

I'm also frustrated by museum blogs and tweets that assume the only people who are listening are local. I can't just decide to hop in the car and visit most places who tweet - most of my planning is longer range for visits. That doesn't mean that I'm not interested in occasionally engaging in other more virtual ways.

@woodenboat is a great example - I love boats! They found me! The knowledge that they are sharing is interesting, even though I'm desperately landlocked at the moment. If were just about hours and events for local people I wouldn't have reciprocated their follow.

Next time I'm in San Francisco, I know where I"m going.

Sarah said...

Great and timely as always! Our team continues to debate using twitter for the museum. I'm following most of the groups you cite as good examples...but maybe you could (privately, of course) share some that you see as bad examples? Its easier to share with our team when they can see good vs. bad.

Happy New Year!

Nina Simon said...


Here I am nervous that my post was too harsh and you are left with no examples of the "bad!"

Most of the museums and zoos I follow are inconsistent. There are occasional gems, but it's often uninteresting marketing swill--and unsophisticated swill at that. That's true for lots of content on Twitter, but I hold institutions to a higher standard. The worst I've seen is that Art hotel I linked to in the blog post. But I also don't like anything that looks untouched by human hands, like this one.

This isn't so much about what I like/don't like... it's about being human and producing content with the same mindset you'd use to produce for exhibits or programs. I sincerely hope that robots are not writing exhibit labels... but maybe that's why some are so dull!

David K said...


Great post. I especially agree with you about the power of responding to posts by followers... very important (and it doesn't surprise me that the Brooklyn Museum is breaking ground in that area).

That said, let's get some discussion about the real challenges that museums might face if they want to tweet about "funny things said by visitors" or creating a "guard feed." These are not necessarily easy things to do (nor are they impossible). At the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, I could imagine routing visitor comments and guard observations/thoughts through a central vetting process. It's a little harder to imagine an airing of institutional superstitions or weird things about the building without tarnishing our reputation or compromising our security.

On the other hand, we have some extraordinary stories (real; not imagined) about the experiences of our most beloved artifacts. However, I'm not sure they would fit into a regulation tweet (thus we may have to hyperlink to larger blog posts)... Same thing goes for a regular feature re: specific topics.

One thing that I think museums should definitely do with Twitter is highlight collections that might otherwise never see the light of day. We have over 30,000 objects in our collection at USHMM. Wouldn't it be great to bring some of it to life?

Finally, the Israeli NY Consulate's recent foray into Twitter (twitter.com/israelconsulate) as a means for PR via answers to follower questions illustrates the potential and pitfalls of Twitter as a tool to engage in "big conversations & small talk" (a la Ideo in Facebook - http://tinyurl.com/97pymw). Again, I think that Twitter is a useful platform to get conversations started, or to raise big issues, but the character limitation requires robust hyperlinking to other venues.


Anonymous said...

I'd love to see behind-the-scenes museum professionals twittering. I am friends with several collections and exhibits specialists, and the stuff they know is really fascinating. A number of years ago I worked in a natural history museum, and the scientists there were wonderful, with all sorts of tidbits about their field work. Just a few tweets a day on research projects, or objects curators and collections people are working with, restoring, preparing for exhibition -- all the amazing work that goes into making a museum run -- would help people better understand what museums do and provide a perspective that's hard to get anywhere else.

Anonymous said...

Really nice post, Nina. It's interesting to see how this subject seems to have blown up over the last couple of days--my own (much drier) take on the subject is here: http://kovenjsmith.com/archives/121.

I keep thinking (following from Amy Southerland) how interesting it would be to have conservators tweet their way through the entire conservation process, or a curator tweeting during an installation. Twitter just seems ripe for so much more than the marketing-oriented fare we're seeing out there.

I think there's an opportunity here, too, in that for the most part, museums' Twitter feeds are being run by individuals, rather than committees. What this means is that museums can establish a personality (as the Getty in particular seems to be doing) on Twitter before the traditional museum need to control all published output sets in. Vetting would be the death of Twitter in museums, as far as I'm concerned.

Happy New Year, all!
Koven (@5easypieces)

Allison Agsten said...

Really thoughtful post and right on the mark in so many respects. I Tweet on behalf of LACMA from my own account (@AAgsten) as I also thought that readers might be interested in a behind-the-scenes take on the museum. Maybe not surprisingly, as an individual vs. a big name (i.e. LACMA), I don’t have a huge number of followers. None the less, we still see a lot of potential for Twitter. Next week we’re going to initialize our LACMA account to try something a little different. It’ll be interesting to compare the two experiences.

Shelley said...

Hey Nina - we just changed the @brooklynmuseum background to be clearer about how we tweet and who tweets and that we encourage @replies. I have to thank Jeffrey over at the MF for that - when I saw the background image he had put up...I thought - wow, they got it right (and then, of course) had to copy it as fast as possible. Thanks Jeff - that's all you.

Maria L. Gilbert said...

Really interesting discussion! Regarding identifying the individual behind a museum's Twitter account--personally I believe this depends on what you’re saying. For commercial brands, it makes sense to identify the staff member who is there to help, troubleshoot, respond to questions, etc. If an institution is tweeting someone’s personal opinions (like a blog), then yes, the identity of the person is key.

We’re a nonprofit educational institution (The J. Paul Getty Museum) that is using Twitter as a tool to provide interesting, engaging content directly to our audience & listen to them. While our colleagues may be interested in the identify of the staff member tweeting, I’m pretty confident that the general public is not. Plus, it’s not really relevant. In our case, it’s not about me, it’s about the Getty Museum. A curator or conservator tweeting about their work makes a wonderful Twitter account, but in such a case it makes sense for the account to be identified with their name and role. There are lots of individuals doing this, and they’re great! At the same time, those accounts tend to be followed by colleagues in the field rather than the general public. An exception would be a museum that has a significant technically savvy (digital native) audience such as the Brooklyn Museum.

I'm still pondering this, but this is my initial reaction.

Maria @marialgilbert & the tweeter behind @GettyMuseum

Shelley said...

Hey Maria,

Wow, I really disagree with you - this is social networking and the fundamental aspect of that is it's about *people* - if you've got a Twitter feed - people need to know who's talking (otherwise, all you are doing is marketing on Twitter and social networking is about community, not marketing). Even if you are a marketer, for transparency's sake, I'd want to know who is talking (kudos to Allison on that). Here's an example of what can happen when you don't - take a look at the comments here: http://tr.im/2sa7

That artist is thrilled when MoMA followed her back, but when we don't disclose who we are it can send the wrong message totally. This is especially true if you are doing @replies.

My experience with social networking is that it only works when you put a personal face on the institution and you fully disclose who that is and what they do. To us, it has nothing to do with a tech savvy audience (I would argue that may not be the case here or it certainly isn't always) and it's not limited to Twitter - we do that on all social sites.

Paolo Amoroso said...

For the record, @MarsPhoenix, one of the most successful institutional Twitter presences, didn't explicitly disclose who did the updates.

Shelley said...

Agreed and even that instance rocks my world, but there is a very very big difference there - that's NASA bringing an inadament object to life. So, sure, I guess if we wanted to be tweeting as a painting would or as the physical building - I would agree that disclosure is probably counter productive and not necessary. However, if you are tweeting general information like we do - I believe (and have gotten feedback to the fact) that disclosure is a key element and I believe that kind of transparency needs to be more evident across the board in both the public and private sectors.

Anonymous said...

I think we're wrong in assuming there is a "right" or "wrong" way for an institution to approach the medium of Twitter.

Social media is built on a foundation of personality. The appropriate tactic depends on the personality of the organization, or perhaps more importantly, the personality of the organization's audience.

Jeffrey (@MattressFactory)

Amy said...

Thanks for this post, Nina, and I'm enjoying the conversation going on in the comments. I've been trying to compose a best practices for Twitter as a conclusion to my thesis but I always end up wondering how much of it would end up reflecting my own personal preference versus what would actually be in a museum's best interest. Most of your points parallel my observations so this is obviously something worth talking about.

That said, there are some really boring and pointless museum tweets out there to weed through to get to some other very creative and interesting content and conversations. Luckily there is always room for growth and innovation, right?


Anonymous said...

Is anyone else bothered by the insularity of the conversation on twitter?

Either we're just talking to each other on Twitter forever, or what we're doing now isn't like what we'll be doing in a year. I think it's too early to even care that we're doing the right thing ... trying different things is the most important thing.

Right now, the less social our technology gets (in rough order: twitter, flickr, facebook, youtube, email, website) the more people it reaches. Talk to me about levels of "engagement" and I'll be sitting right there in the social networking choir (singing very badly), but this is still very much an experiment and we should treat it like one. We need to get more info before we come to any conclusions. And it would be best if we all did different things, instead of trying to do the same things, and then thought hard about what really worked.

Anonymous said...

As always, I very much appreciate your take Nina as an involved (but not TOO closely affiliated) observer.

In a lot of ways, I think any museum's presence on a site like Twitter is going to reflect that museum's own individual priorities as much as their web site will. I'm not sure that there will ever be a precise set of "best practices" for museum tweets, just as each museum approaches every other aspect of its exhibits, programs, and communications uniquely from all of the others.

The biggest surprise for us on Twitter (as COSI @COSICols, as well as individuals @KPfefferle and @KNowinsky) has been some of the new and VERY strong community ties that have been formed within the Columbus Tech community. When we (myself or Kelli, our PR Manager) attend a local web or PR gathering, people are genuinely excited to meet "the person behind @COSICols." Although we connect to these individuals in different modes both on behalf of COSI and as individuals, those in our community seem to appreciate and value both modes as separate entities. We even get quite a bit of good-natured ribbing about being the "COSI Bot" although we are pretty open about our personal identities.

Thanks for spurring on this kind of discussion as well, as I have found reading the comments to be a very interesting supplement to the post!

Kevin Pfefferle
Web Manager
COSI Columbus

Nina Simon said...

I agree that trying different things is most important. I'm in no way trying to suggest a list of best practices--just a set of more interesting avenues and differentiated options to pursue.

I don't think it's so simple to say that you can rank different platforms in order of reach--for example, I get more traffic from Twitter to my blog than any other site (besides google). My interactions on Twitter are more meaningful than those on Facebook, so that drives more traffic. I would suspect that a place like the Brooklyn Museum, which has a heavy Flickr presence, gets more traffic driven from Flickr than YouTube. My guess is that the place where you invest in relationships is the place that is going to drive engagement and reach.

Anonymous said...

/I don't think it's so simple to say that you can rank different platforms in order of reach/

I was speaking specifically of the Met's traffic in that ranking. Thanks.

victor said...

Great post Nina. Obviously your points seem to be on all of our minds, as they have been on mine. I am sort of coming to the comments late, so I'm not sure how much I'll be able to add that hasn't already been said as everyone has left really good and thoughtful comments.

About identifying ourselves on our institution's Twitter account, my first thought was similar to Maria's in that I didn't think the public would not be interested in who I was, but mainly in the personality and content found in my tweets and @replies. I partly wondered if people wouldn't think that @MuseumModernArt run by some guy named Victor was really the official MoMA account (I have received questions in tweets asking if the account was the official "account" for MoMA).

However, I agree that transparency and putting a human face on the institution is the key here, and if letting people know who is behind the account achieves that, then great. I've only been aware of one time in which someone asked who was behind @MuseumModernArt, but I really appreciate hearing Shelly say she's has received a lot of feedback about this. I totally understand why. The last thing I would want is someone to think that our twitter account was just another marketing vehicle which, to echo Shelly's points, Twitter is not about. People can sniff out blatant marketing in a second, and will lose interest instantly. I try (and admittedly could do a better job) to follow an idea I heard attributed to Chris Brogan that a twitter account should keep a 12:1 ratio of info about others to info about yourself/your institution. I don't know how he got the ratio 12:1, but I think the idea is worth keeping in mind.

I also agree with Jeffrey and Matt's points that there aren't yet any right or wrong ways to run a twitter account, and we should all be trying different things to experiment.

To follow up on Amy Southerland's points and Nina's "radio station" suggestions, the institutions we represent are so rich with content, history, stories and interesting tidbits that it would be a shame not to share with our audience. I hope to be doing more of this soon.

Allison, I look forward to the LACMA account and seeing what you are working on!

Happy new year all,


Anonymous said...

For those interested. Here's a "How To" & template for creating a customized Twitter background.

-- Jeffrey

Jaki Levy said...

i just toook a look at brooklyn museum's tweets - looks like they're taking some of your advice...

Anonymous said...

More on museums and social networking: http://pblog.ebaker.me.uk/2009/03/creative-spaces-museum-social-not.html

Ed said...

The above link to my site as a link!

Karen James said...

Thanks so much for posting this; it's been a great resource for me as I try to promote Twitter at the museum I work for.

Anonymous said...

Great ideas, and summary of successful tweets by museums. there are also some great people tweeting *about* museums. Have you seen those? Check out @thelittleartist and @MetEveryday

Phil Charron said...

Well said

One thing I would like to encourage, especially with regard to item #1, is "Make Evidence-based decisions"

Every audience is different, and followers have the two most powerful tools known to Twitter: the Follow button and the Unfollow button.

If you don't know if your tweets would be regarded as Spam, use a tool like Qwitter (to track who unfollows) or Hootsuite (to track who clicks on links) to see how your followers respond.

You may be able to craft a weather reminder with useful content that creates more followers and clickthroughs. Then keep doing that!

but the general advice is to watch what your audience does... they will vote with their feet... er... mouse.

Facebook Management said...

Great read, they should keep places of interest like museums local and to a specific audience.

data recovery said...

Great post. I like museums and it would be lovely if we can get news about its on twitter

kavabuggy said...

hmm...now i'm wondering...is THIS why you don't follow the museum i work at, because we've essentially broken all of these rules by not using Twitter effectively? granted, i've been attending workshops and reading books to get us to tweet better, but i would hate for anyone to judge our VERY small museum based on these rules alone. do you ever give organizations a second chance, AND, do these rules apply to people too?

Nina Simon said...

Hi Kavabuggy -

This is certainly not the reason I don't follow you. Truth is, I'm not fabulous at tracking who's on Twitter and finding museums to follow. At some point, my email address got delinked from my account, so I don't get updates anymore when people follow me, and I haven't figured out a fix.

I'm not judging anyone by these rules - they're just ideas based on what I've seen. And I guess I would say these rules apply to people as well - that I like following people who are interesting, responsive, and give me a connection to new things. But honestly, as Twitter has gotten bigger, I haven't put as much effort as I could into finding more effective ways to use it. Sometimes I just get overwhelmed - in which case I tend to focus on people and institutions I know really well.

Still learning!

Thomas said...

Really nice post. I must admit that I didn't know much about twitter before reading this, so combining my job at a museum with this, I got quite a lot out of reading this.