Social Media in Museums: The Best Devote Their Websites To It

Museums are placing higher priority on engagement. With the social media revolution upon us and nonprofits’ growing reputations for utilizing social media to build connections and share stories, it’s no wonder museums are turning into community centers. Nearly every museum has a link to Twitter or Facebook these days, but museums are actually doing much more to engage their audiences online.

To illustrate the growing importance of social media as a mechanism for creating connections and increasing community engagement, I’ve taken screen shots of the websites of three of America’s most visited and successful museums. I am highlighting not just traditional social media, but also media that is social (online collaboration, sharing of resources, technology in strengthening the community, etc).

– Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, or the most visited museum of 2009. (Washington D.C.)

  • Social media comes first: Links to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and podcasts are accessible via the Natural History Museum’s homepage. In fact, this was the single most visited museum in the United States last year, and it is also one of the only museums in the top 25 most visited museums that gives social media such a prominent space on its homepage. This is most likely a case of correlation over causation, but if the most frequently visited museum in the country doesn’t put social media icons below the fold, why do so many museums make visitors scroll to the bottom of the page to see them?
  • Mobile applications are front and center: The most prominent item featured on the museum’s homepage is the announcement of a mobile application, MEanderthal, for iPhone and Android that highlights the museum’s Hall of Human Origins. The application is engaging, as it allows you to morph back in time to see what you might have looked like. Not only that, iPhone users can use iSmithsonian for free to get updates on museum happenings. This museum is successful, and places a strong emphasis on both engagement, and keeping up with the times.
  • Engaging community events that educate: This isn’t new for museums; there’s always interaction taking place. The museum is currently celebrating Savoring Sustainable Seafood, which features events that are open to the public and aim to engage the community. The Natural History Museum’s website is devoted to personal connections and accessibility.

– The Getty (Los Angeles, CA)

  • Community building through resource sharing: The Getty’s website doesn’t just supply museum information, it also serves as an online resource in education for parents and teachers. The website has ideas for art activities and lesson plans. Through these efforts, the museum shares it resources and strengthens the community.
  • Collaborative content: It might seem natural for art museums to view one another as competitors for visitors and donors- and perhaps they are- but Southern California’s art museums put their missions to inspire and educate first in the creation of a virtual exhibition. In this case (like the one above), the museum uses technology to build bridges and generally strengthen the community.
  • Blogs as a space for interaction: This popular museum understands the importance of allowing visitors to interact with the museum through blog comments. Moreover, the blog provides readers the opportunity to see what happens behind-the-scenes at the museum. Allowing folks to take a peek behind the curtain make The Getty more transparent, accessible, inviting, and gives a sense of trustworthiness.
  • Calendar of public programs: The inclusion of the calendar reminds website visitors that all the good stuff isn’t just online. In fact, the best stuff takes place within the museum. The calendar is an important inclusion here, as it puts a focus on experience and interaction.

– The Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, IL)

  • INTERACT and creative engagement: The Art Institute of Chicago puts the bulk of its interaction in one place– on its own page off of a tab on the homepage between members and shop. And this page really does include many links to social media, and media that is social. There’s even a My Collections feature that allows users to log-in (a great measurement for engagement) and build their own virtual art collections. Curious Corner features fun and educational online games for kids. A person could spend hours on this interact tab of the website (Truth be told, I may have gotten caught up in it a time or two…)
  • Microblogging may be worth fitting on the page: The museum’s twitter stream is shown on the site. Not only that, the Twitter stream shows pictures of the folks/organizations with which the Art Institute is communicating. Like the blog at The Getty, the use of this social media tool puts a voice to the institution and makes it appear more personable, trustworthy, and transparent.
  • A way to learn more: It’s not new to highlight a sign-up for an organization’s e-newsletter on a site, but the simple act asks the visitor for engagement and lets them know that the organization is an evolving entity with more to say!

If the best of the best museums place a high priority on engaging audiences through media and technology, then there may be a lesson here for smaller museums struggling with whether or not to delve into social media. The key may be to start thinking about the internet as a flexible medium through which to connect with visitors.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Digital Connectivity, Nonprofit Marketing, Trends 8 Comments

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

8 Responses to Social Media in Museums: The Best Devote Their Websites To It

  1. mwinikates

    Nice post, Colleen! I love exploring other museums’ websites to see what works, what doesn’t, and where they’re putting their focus and energies. Thanks for pointing out a few new corners to explore!

  2. Emily

    Thanls for this fantastic and very useful blog – a great inspiration to me (MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies student in Manchester, UK) when I begin my thesis on Museum Visitor and Twitter Followers.

  3. Pingback: 41 Ways Museums Are Merging Social and Tech to Engage Audiences « Know Your Own Bone

  4. Corina M. Paraschiv

    I think these are amazing features to have indeed but I do want to add one little point.

    Sometimes I’ve seen websites that had all these integrated social media things and not much activity happen on them… and that ends up creating more problems than not having them in the first place because it looks like you’re not doing anything. Like you’re not popular.

    I find it’s a little bit of a vicious circle: your social media and collaborative tools exist to promote your institution and get people to come, and yet people have to know about you in order to search and go to your social media pages and interact.

    How do you solve that? How do you get people onto your website and engaged?
    I suspect putting a logo/link for twitter or Facebook isn’t going to completely solve the issue especially if it’s a new thing for your museum.

    Do you think smaller museums don’t have social media all over their pages mostly because it’s hard to maintain and get public to participate? It might be free but it does take time, I think…

    • colleendilen

      I love this comment!

      You’re bringing up a great point of discussion and I have a *lot* of ideas about this that I ponder frequently, but I’ll try limit myself to a few points.

      A big part of social media and online engagement is finding out what your audience responds to and building upon that; it’s a terrific avenue for listening to what people want. A thing to think about is if you’re not getting a lot of interaction, you haven’t found what your audience responds to yet. You aren’t using the tool to the best of its capability.

      Also, it the online era, brand transparency is key to building personal connections. Therefore, just showing that you are willing to remain relevant and keep up with the conversation and the way societal communication is evolving is a positive association for organizations.

      As a small side, indicators for online success are not always what we think they are. For instance, a Facebook status may not get many likes, but if you see a lot of links to the organization’s website coming from Facebook, then it wasn’t a wasted effort. Moreover, if other people are re-posting that link, there’s a gain– and appearing “not popular” by way of lack of Facebook likes makes up for itself through other gains relating to online ‘popularity.”

      • Corina M. Paraschiv

        that’s true. even as an individual and not an organization, when i put a status up and I think no one reads it, on Facebook, sometimes people randomly cross my path after months of me not seeing them and they ask “So how was the play last week?” and I realize even though I thought no one was reading them — they were! So I’d say that’s true.

        An interesting thing I’d suggest for smaller museums or ones with lower budgets is a really cool tool I just discovered and it’s free up to 500 people (and I mean if you’re small it’s definitely worth it) it’s called chim mail I think or maybe it’s mail chimp (I guess you might have to Google it) but it’s a tool that lets you send like newsletters but the cool thing is they can be interactive. They can include “quizzes” or forms or things like that so that the public that WANTS to interact can – and it doesn’t look bad if you have low participation because only you find out :p

        I think more and more there’s going to be tools online for non-for-profits to interact with the public. I find the only issue with Facebook and youtube and such is that although it’s widely accessible (which is a plus) there’s media saturation which is really a minus — there’s a huge huge risk of just having you info lost in the cyberspace.

        I do think Colleen you have a point with the intention — people appreciate the intention especially for institutions in industries like culture, education etc that don’t traditionally go for new media – so that’s like a “brownie point” and a second point might be “marketing integration”. If everything you product reinforces the other things you produced, if they all fit together and point at each other then you’re doing a good job. That means cross-referencing (if you have like museum displays that tell visitors about your website, and your website has the calendar you were talking about that tells people about the museum, for instance), if they all have the same look and feel so people have a clear constant image in their mind of who you are, etc. then you’re reinforcing that message and you really get through to people.

        BTW one museum that does an AMAZING job at social marketing JUST through facebook ( ok they *might* have a website but their Facebook’s so interesting I never actually bothered to go seek out more — their Facebook IS like a whole website of its own… interactive… catchy… ppl participate… AND it comes straight into my feeds –> how convenient!!) is “Thinktank Planetarium”.

        I still haven’t figured out what exactly it is they do that makes me so hooked up to them but Colleen (or anyone else reading this post) if you ever do end up following them/checking their wall and figure out what makes them so different, I’m super curious!

        Corina 🙂

  5. Julia

    Colleen- Just stumbled across this blog after reading Arianna Huffington’s “Museums 2.0” post and am impressed by your thoughtfulness on this topic. Wonder what you thought of her perspective:

  6. Alex Fergi

    I have my favourites list museums


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