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Creating a Social Institution: Leveraging the Power of Social Media

Ryan Dodge – Social Media Coordinator for ROM – on leveraging the power of digital and social media and enabling staff to tell the stories of their behind the scenes activities, their research expertise, the collections and exhibitions.With over six million objects and specimens in the Royal Ontario Museum’s (ROM) collection, the museum has the potential to tell millions of stories. In an effort to enable this ROM have been laying the foundation for a truly social institution. 

As part of our shift to become a more public focused institution the Museum decided to organize our over forty research disciplines into eight areas of focus in an effort to make our collections and research more accessible to the general public. This shift came about after consultation with the public and a lengthy strategic planning process. The eight Centres of Discovery are meant to be the public’s access points to our staff, our research and our encyclopedic collections, our expertise and exhibitions. Today, visitors can interact with these eight centres online, which is often the first point of contact and where a person’s relationship begins with many Museums around the world. Our aim is to provide opportunities to deepen the relationship and foster a dialogue between us and our community. If the Centres are to be access points then they must have a strong online presence and that also means a strong social presence. That said, how do you ensure this dialogue and community building can take place without an army of community managers?

“Our aim is to provide opportunities to deepen the relationship and foster a dialogue between us and our community”

Our objectives are to build awareness and stronger relationships with our community through conversation. We do not focus on how many followers we gain, the dialogue with our communities and the connections we build between them, the museum and our collections are our top priorities. Before opening the dialogue, our staff needed the tools and training to become effective and efficient online communicators. In 2010 we redesigned our website and decentralized access, enabling staff (our subject experts) to post content on the museum’s website directly without funnelling through a maze of approvals. There was a lengthy process of training and it took time for staff to be comfortable with this new ‘era’ at the museum. The web team spent a great deal of time teaching how to write for the web but also how to navigate the content management system.

This period became a prelude to our deeper involvement with social media and by early 2012, our social media presence was overdue for the same journey. Jasper Visser, in a post about this topic on his blog summarized this into an equation, “What you ­the institution ­are really good at + what others can contribute to this = Something that has added value to the both of you.” We are really good at research and collections but we need to become better at sharing that with our online as well as our onsite community and allowing them to contribute to the conversation, something that has added value for all involved. With the breadth of collections and research expertise under one roof it is unrealistic to assume one person could manage the content for all of these disciplines. As John Stack wrote in the Tate Digital Strategy, 2013­15, “We believe that there are significant opportunities for social media and new digital platforms to revolutionise the visitor experience as well as transform the practices of learning, research, curating and fundraising within the museum. As with blogging, Tate will seek to embed the use of social media across the organisation.” Following this example, we set about embedding social media across the ROM.

“A heavy emphasis was placed on communicating Twitter best practises to enable staff rather than discourage them, some are still not sold but many are and we have seen a major increase in our activity and engageme”

Mirroring our web team’s approach, we decided on a staged procedure to integrate social media into our staff workflows. After deciding on our overall social media strategy and moving forward with an approved plan that linked with our overall strategic plan, we next produced a set of guidelines for staff to use as a resource and updates to our policies. Once we had our guidelines in place we focussed on training and as staff started to feel more comfortable with dipping their toes in the vast social media waters we started to see the added value present in Jasper’s equation. As we increased our level of activity and started to see results against our objectives, staff started to take notice. Momentum was building and we set about putting the plan in place to engage the entire museum in the use of social media. Keeping in mind the nature of some social media platforms and their realities while also looking at our presence over the last few years, we analysed what was working and what was not. We decided to place a priority on Twitter and encouraged staff to create accounts that are balanced between a personal and professional narrative. Many staff already have Facebook accounts and are comfortable sharing there, we had to spend time demonstrating the value of Twitter and why it was essential for staff to follow this strategy. A heavy emphasis was placed on communicating Twitter best practises to enable staff rather than discourage them, some are still not sold but many are and we have seen a major increase in our activity and engagement levels since 2013.

Colleen Dilenschneider wrote in a blog post that, “Social media (and earned media and word of mouth resulting from social media efforts) are incredibly potent communication tools and they are easy to mess up…and the consequences can be colossal in terms of trust in your brand.” Keeping this reality in mind, the question that I kept posing myself was how do we create a robust and engaging social presence with relatively no resources? In my experience, I have found that the key is to train and encourage staff to use social media on a personal level until they are comfortable while explaining that what they do online reflects not only on them but on the institution as well.

Communicating on Social Media is like having a conversation with a friend on public transit, you think you are having a private conversation but everyone around you can also hear that conversation. You also have to communicate the real benefits of including social in their workflow, you can do with with metrics. Much of social media is quantified if you know where and how to look and using that data to your advantage can be very beneficial. Preventing a colossal mess takes strategy, guidelines, training, collaboration, time, patience and trust:

Strategy: Like anything we do, we need to have a plan. The worst thing you can do is to start creating accounts with no strategy. For us, it makes sense to align our social media presence with our centers, for you it may be a departmental. Whatever it is, nail down an actionable plan, get it approved and work from there.

Guidelines: We encourage the use of social media first through personal accounts, but we have also built out a guidelines document for staff to fall back on. We all know how blurred the lines are between your personal and professional online presence can be so we provide our staff with on encouraging with helpful tips and tricks rather than discouraging with dos and don’t. We attempt to take the mystery around social out of the equation so that our staff can focus on the things that really matter, creating good content and fitting time for social into their workflow.

Evidence: By evidence I mean analytics. You need to know your numbers and be able to articulate them to your staff. Give them concrete evidence as to why increasing their activity on social is not only a benefit to them and their research but also the institution and its community. Make sure you demonstrate the power of earned media and social media activity. There are plenty of studies and blog posts out there about this, use it to your advantage!

Training: Having a social media competent staff means training and lots of it. Schedule regular social media training sessions, leave most of the time for questions and let your staff lead the sessions through discussion. Normally, we’ll schedule an hour session and give a ten minute presentation on one specific thing, like tagging an account in twitter photos and why it is beneficial to our objectives. We then leave the other bulk of the time for discussion and Q&A, we end up covering more ground but it is led by the staff and they take ownership over it. It becomes less like a lecture or a training session and more like a chat. The aim here is to create a comfort level with your staff, there are no stupid questions!

Further Training: From these training sessions you will get even more questions that sometimes people don’t feel comfortable asking in front of a group. Offer to sit down with smaller groups or even meet with people one­on­one. If you take the time to do the training, to make your staff feel comfortable with social, they’ll be more likely to figure out how to work it into their day-­to-­day and run with it. You cannot force anyone to sign up for an account and start sharing content. You have to put in the time, first teach them why it is beneficial but also the how.

Trust: After you’ve done all of the above, the final ingredient is to trust your staff. They are adults after all, in some cases paid to handle priceless objects, many are respected academics and leaders in their field. You’ve given them the strategy, the guidelines, and the training, you’re going to have to trust that they’ll follow this lead.

Even then mistakes will happen, we’re only human after all but if you do your homework and lay the groundwork, the disasters will be minimal and minute. It was imperative that our staff become better online communicators and we decided to learn by doing but backing that up with the above puzzle pieces.

“After about a year and a half of encouraging staff to insert social media activity into their workflow, the museum was starting to see real results and we were comfortable enough to start embedding social media in our public galleries”

After about a year and a half of encouraging staff to insert social media activity into their workflow, the museum was starting to see real results and we were comfortable enough to start embedding social media in our public galleries, programs and exhibitions. After two years we have a healthy group of staff (­staff/members) comfortable communicating online and are even able to include their Twitter accounts in our printed floor plan. While visitors are visiting the museum, they can tweet at our staff if the object label does not quench their thirst for information.

We also expanded our Twitter presence to include all 8 Centres of Discovery in May 2014. Our aim is to give the public the opportunity to create an experience that parallels their individual interests and is as unique as they are while also having digital access to our staff. Instead of diluting the conversations, as I admit was my initial concern with creating new official accounts, we want to allow our community to drill deeper into our content and connect directly with the content and staff that they want. These new Centres’ accounts also act as a content aggregator, collecting and sharing related content generated by our staff but also our community, delivering on the Museum’s mission to connect people to their world and each other. In order to enable these 8 new sub­accounts, we had to ensure we were putting the correct foundation in place so that our staff would feel comfortable working in this area on behalf of the museum. Many staff at museums go through rigorous training and years of post secondary education, we needed to provide a deep understanding of social media as quickly as possible.

It is our intention that giving people the choice to interact with the content they want will only strengthen our diverse communities and the relationship people have with the museum as a whole. We are encouraging dialogue and providing multiple, focused spaces for it to happen, we are also allowing people to personalize their ROM social media experience and interact with staff on a whole new level.

“There is no better learning tool than actually producing content and responding to your community and that is exactly what we do”

Taking all of this into consideration, you will still need to monitor the progress of your staff and provide coaching along the way. You need to be the champion of this endeavor but also the mentor who can help your staff along as they practise their technique. From the regular training sessions you will have a pretty good idea who is strong and who needs more practise. Take note and keep an eye on the staff who show up regularly, who are engaged and ask questions. Monitor their social media activity (as easy as creating a staff list on Twitter) and offer to help whenever you can, sometimes its as simple as saying, “great tweet, try adding this next time” or “hey, might want to give this a shot and see how that works out for you”. Again, focus on encouragement rather than discouragement as staff are practising and perfecting their social media skills. Colleen Dilenschneider wrote in a blog post that, “Within a museum….social media is an “every department” job and organizations that deny this are “leaving money on the table.” There is no better learning tool than actually producing content and responding to your community and that is exactly what we do. Social Media may be the official responsibility of one or two people in your institution but if you engage your entire staff in the use of social media for the benefit of themselves as well as the institution, everybody will win. We give our staff the guidelines and training first, encourage them to create a personal account and then let them go. We trust our staff and in the end we’re all on the same team working towards the same goals.

After a few months of monitoring activity I sit down with staff who I feel are at a place where they are comfortable, savvy and have worked social media into their workflow and we talk about adding another layer, taking over one of our Centres’ accounts. Some staff are not interested, they are comfortable with their current workload, or whatever the case may be and that is fine. Most are excited at the prospect of working on social media on behalf of the institution and this is when it becomes a win­win­win situation. A win for our community, there’s a unique voice for each Centre, a win for our staff, they gain valuable experience going forward and get to put it on their resume, and a win for the institution, our social media activity is amplified by trained staff with honed skills.

Ryan Dodge,
Digital Engagement Coordinator, Royal Ontario Museum

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