communicating with your audience in 140 characters

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"Museums in the Digital Age - Communicating with Your Audience in 140 Characters", presented at the ICOM-CECA Conference in Yerevan, Armenia, October 2012


  • 1. IntroductionWith the development of digital and new media in recent years, museums have beenforced to break away from traditional channels of written communication, such as textpanels or exhibition catalogues, as they seek to engage with their audiences in new onlineenvironments. In reaction to the ever increasing pace of digital communication, messageshave been getting shorter and shorter. Twitter, a popular social networking site, has takenthis to an extreme in limiting communication to 140 characters per message - even shorterthan a standard mobile phone text message. What exactly are the benefits of Twitter? Howcan museums use it to effectively communicate with their audiences? And what are thechallenges of communicating in 140 characters or less? This presentation aims to addressthese questions and to provide some practical advice on how museums can maintain aninteresting digital dialogue via this social media platform.What is Twitter and how does it work?Lets start by taking a step back and having a quick look at the background and basics ofTwitter.Since its foundation in 2006, Twitter has grown to become one of the top 10 most visitedwebsites on the Internet, with over 500 million active users. Its a social networking servicewhich allows its users to send out short messages, so called tweets. Its also referred toas a microblogging service, as compared to a traditional blog its content is restricted insize. In the case of Twitter, as I already mentioned, messages are limited to 140characters, though these can include links and photo attachments.Unlike some other social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter is a lot more open.You dont need to register to read other peoples messages, though there is an option tomake your tweets private but the majority of people dont use this. Registered users cansubscribe to - or follow - the tweets of other users they are interested in, which are then

2. all aggregated in one news feed, but the user being followed doesnt need to approve this.You can also direct a message at a specific user, by preceding your tweet with their username, and users who follow each other can exchange so called direct messages, andthese do not appear in their public message stream.One very popular feature on Twitter is the use of hashtags. A hashtag is a word precededby the hash symbol (#), and can be used to mark keywords or topics in a Tweet (see Slide1 below for some examples of hashtags). Selecting the hashtag in a Tweet shows you allother Tweets with the same hashtag, so it acts as a kind of search function. Hashtags thatare very popular can become so called "Tending Topics", which means that so manypeople are using the hashtag at the same time it has become one of the most used in aparticular city or country. You can see on Twitter what the most popular hashtags at anygiven time are, and there are also third party applications where you can e.g. see themplotted out on a map (I have an example of one later on).Slide 1: Examples of hashtags 3. 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 arent easily reached by traditional means. Its 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 communicationsare public. You dont need to register to be able to read other users Tweets or followconversations, though you do need to register if you want to post Tweets yourself or join in 4. a conversation. But even then you dont need to befriend someone first and have themauthorise it. This very low participation barrier makes it easy for people to join in.Another of Twitters identifying features is its dynamic. Exchange of messages is generallyquite fast paced with a high expectation of real-time communication. These exchanges canoften make it feel more personal and many users have the feeling they are talking to aperson rather than an institution. This openness and dynamism of Twitter, combined withthe use of hashtags as a way to group tweets on the same topic, allows for andencourages a flow of themed, relevant and engaging discussions.And one of the great things about social media, is that you are not limited by specificmuseum opening times. This goes for other networks too, of course, but Twittersdynamics mean that if youve managed to give a discussion enough momentum, it willoften keep going long after a traditional event would have finished because the museumwould 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 messagingservice, and a standard mobile phone message is a maximum 160 characters. Twitterlimited 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 itsimple and straight to the point. Heres an example of a message on Twitter and onFacebook, both announcing the same thing:Slide 3: Twitter versus Facebook (screenshots from Twitter and Facebook) 5. On the down side, however, there is a risk of ending up with so many abbreviations thatyour messages look encrypted. You also need to pick your words carefully so that you arenot misunderstood.How can museums use Twitter?The most straight forward and probably the most common way for museums to useTwitter, 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 behindthe scenes. From the side of the visitors, communication may include sharing impressions,whether through comments or photographs, or asking questions, from practical thingssuch as "Does your caf sell gluten free cake?", to interacting with staff and accessingspecialist knowledge, e.g. the opportunity to question curators (example of this in amoment).But as well as day to day communication, Twitter allows museums e.g. to increase accessto their collections, add value to existing events, or even hold events entirely online. Andthe dynamics of Twitter also make it a good medium for live interaction. There are endlesspossibilities 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 BrooklynMuseum in the US, who gave live updates via Twitter during the CT scanning of four oftheir mummies in 2009. When the museum tweeted that the mummy known as Lady Horwas in fact male, their followers on Twitter felt like they were watching history in themaking2.Slide 4: Tweet from Brooklyn Museum (screenshot from Twitter) 6. A good example of adding value to an existing on-site event, is the so called Twitter Wallat Berlins Lange Nacht der Museen. I dont have time to go into the technical details here,but basically visitors can tweet their comments and recommendations as the nightprogresses, and all tweets are then broadcast onto a screen at the events central hub (ofcourse 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 thosewho cant make it to the event can share in whats 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 areexplicitly encouraged to tweet live updates. In Germany, two groups in Frankfurt and inMunich Kultup ( and Kulturkonsorten ( havebeen organising series of Tweetups at different museums and other cultural organisationsover the past year1. Participants tweet a running commentary of the guided tours, includingtheir own impressions and photographs. Users on Twitter can follow the proceedings, evensending in their own questions, and often feel as if they were taking part in the toursthemselves.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 arent able to attend,has also become common practice. For example last year in Zagreb we tweeted live aboutwhat was going on at our CECA conference (see Slide 2 above) and as you know wevebeen busy tweeting about this years conference too. 7. At the other end of the scale, you get events that dont just add value to or extend on-siteevents to online audiences, but that take place entirely on Twitter. I tend to refer to theseas hashtag events, as their common feature is that they use specific hashtags as theirprimary driver. To exemplify this, I have a small case study for you.Case Study: Museum Memories DayMuseum Memories Day was an online Twitter event run by Museum140 (, an independent initiative founded in March 2011 to run fun andengaging social media projects based around museums. It is not affiliated to any museumin particular, so it is also a great example of how you can bring together different museumsand museum communities around the world through social media.Museum Memories Day was our inaugural project. It took place on 17 May 2011, as a runup to International Museums Day which had Museum and Memory as its


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