MERL on Twitter: from dabbling to #MuseumWeek

Alison Hilton, MERL Marketing Officer, looks back at 5 years of MERL on Twitter and forward to an exciting @TwitterUK campaign

I have been tweeting for MERL since 2009. I signed up following a training course in which I was introduced to the wonders of social media (Back in the day before I was even on Facebook myself!) At a time when the first courses on ‘social media strategy’ and ‘digital marketing’ were appearing in museum marketing training programmes, we were a fairly ‘early adopter’ among UK museums (the US being well ahead, our first follows and followers were @Guggenheim and @FieldMuseum!)

Since then, our approach to social media has moved on a long way from ‘dabbling’ and ‘seeing how it goes’! As for 100s of other UK museums (this is the list of the ones we follow), social media has become an indispensable channel for communicating with visitors, journalists, local communities, researchers, and partners as well as for networking with other museums, funders, stakeholders, and local and national organisations.  We now have almost 5000 followers, mostly in the UK (74%), but also scattered throughout the world! Over the years, tweets have led to people ending up volunteering and working at MERL, and we even had a visit from our local MP as a result of an impromptu tweeted invitation!

Social media is now an essential part of the marketing plan for every event and every project. We are gradually moving away from random, ad hoc posts about day to day stuff to a more thoughtful, almost strategic approach. I have a plan, with aims and objectives and I think about what we want to achieve through Twitter, Facebook,  and Pinterest. We’re also trying to analyse and evaluate what we do. Though we haven’t necessarily worked out the best way to gather and make sense of all the statistics it is possible to gather, it has been fairly obvious recently that the careful use of the hashtag can be very effective, that people love pictures and that our followers are interested in hearing about (and seeing) our collections. 

Some of our best days on Twitter (i.e. most replies, retweets and favourites), for example, have been when we have taken part in Mar Dixon’s #culturethemes. This first happened by accident, when a colleague spotted #museumsocks and happened to remember that we had a pair as part of the uniform issued to Land Girls.  We were amazed by the response to a picture which would otherwise not have been seen by any but the most dedicated researcher! After that, we looked forward to finding out the next theme, and started planning our participation. Inevitably, #museumcake was popular with staff and even prompted Assistant Curator, Ollie Douglas to write a blog (and most of the rest of us just to eat lots of cake) At Christmas we were able to add some bizarre contributions to #museumfestive and we contributed a few #museumselfies. Our Project Officer, Adam, even managed to get creative for #museumdinos last week! (Twitter even emailed me to say this way our most successful post last month!)

@MERLReading: Did you know it’s #museumdinos day? Have a look at this Cretaceous beast of burden hauling our Miller’s Wagon..

As well as being fun, #culturethemes has also helped us increase followers amongst colleagues in the Museum sector and people interested in museums and collections in general. At the same time, I have been trying to build more of a following amongst people tweeting about themes and issues relating to our collections, such as agriculture, farming, and craft, particularly in the light of ‘Our Country Lives’ our Heritage Lottery funded redevelopment project. Following and interacting with @farmersoftheuk recently led to a series of tweets on the hashtag #nativebreeds with pictures of animals from our archives being retweeted to 1000s of people, literally in the field, who may otherwise not have known about our photographic collections.

Blue gray

Thus, and coming to the point,   I leapt at the chance to sign MERL up to @TwitterUK ‘s #museumweek from March 24th to 31st. I was pleased to see that other Museums and collections at the University were also keen (@UreMuseum @ColeMuseum @RNGherb). Suported by Mar Dixon, the idea is exciting, structured and strategic and aims to “connect people to artwork, culture, history and science in new and interactive ways” through specific themes and hashtags for each day. At MERL we are taking the opportunity to take a slightly more strategic approach to our tweeting than usual and have had a brainstorming meeting with colleagues keen to take part – including some who have never tweeted before! We are aiming to try out some new ideas and see what our followers like best, and hopefully come up with some regular future features for our Twitter feed.

So, please follow us @MERLReading and look out for our tweets during #museumweek, from March 24th to 31st. There will be opportunities to get involved with your own photos, reviews, memories, quizzes and questions for the curators.

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