Confessions of a (former) social media manager

I mean, I do a bit. Badly cropped images and spelling mistakes look amateur. You have to have a bar of quality.

But I’ve also posted images in the wrong ratio, I’ve written long posts, I’ve written short posts, I’ve posted at all times of the day, I’ve used profanities on a brand account.

We sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that, if we tick all the boxes of what social media blogs tell us works, then we will have the perfect content posted at the right time with the perfect amount of words.

We forget that there needs to be something that grabs your attention to begin with. The perfect number of words and the perfectly sized image won’t matter if your text is boring and your image is boring. Focus on how people react to your content, don’t follow too exactly what other people say works but evaluate what works for you, but at the same time don’t be posting any old shit.

I would love to be the social media guru. I would love to be that person plugged into the internet, spinning content into gold, knowing all and seeing all.

But I can’t be everywhere at once. I can’t represent everyone in the organisation, and I can’t know exactly what audiences are expecting.

I’m also an idiot.

Doing social media well means being a people person, bringing people along on the ride, and then reaping the content from colleagues. When we finally have the perfect museum where everyone has digital skills embedded in their roles, every department will be contributing their own content that is relevant, timely and high-quality. Until then, we need to do a lot of legwork encouraging, training and communicating with colleagues.

That means a lot of mentoring, a lot of presentations, and constant communications of what is and isn’t working so people feel a part of the process. i did a viral chicken in trousers tweet from The MERL which only happened because an archivist trusted me to post about the diary to begin with, as we’d already established ground rules of how to and how not to treat archives while still being compelling on social media. We were allowed to work together because our director knew what we were trying to achieve because we’d laid out our objectives and how we were using the collections.

Trust is the best thing.

I hate it.

And by ‘the spotlight’ I mean that I hate my work being on display every day of every year. Every tweet, every Facebook post, every Instagram story and every article is public.

Imagine that every day you’re judged not just by your line manager, but your boss, your colleagues, your friends and your mom. That dreaded ‘like’ from the CEO. The note from the curator about a spelling mistake. It’s easy to walk on eggshells, and it got to the point where I almost physically couldn’t check notifications without cringing.

Bu it doesn’t have to be this way, and I think it only gets this way when our work is too siloed. People don’t like being surprised about what they see online, especially when it involves their own area of expertise.

But when people are formed up behind a strategy, when we collectively learn from successes and mistakes, we make social media a joint endeavour with everybody having their own place. You don’t have to be afraid because there is collective responsibility.

It’s worth saying here that I think humour is an invaluable part of what a museum can do on social media. When it’s done well, it’s a powerful entry point for people into history, heritage and culture.

But social media managers are also on the frontline in terms of public opinion and discourse. We know what kind of debates are happening online, and we’re the first to report the rumblings of an issue which will be relevant to the museum. It’s essential that we play that role because museums are not neutral, and our silence on certain topics is a statement in itself.

But social media managers are often not the people best equipped to be having difficult conversations and debates on behalf of their entire museums. We need collective responsibility, collective expertise and collective empathy in deciding how our museums engage with difficult issues online — it can’t all be on the social media manager’s shoulders.

And that’s why I use humour as a crutch sometimes. To avoid difficult debates because I don’t feel equipped to engage with them. There’s a bit of cowardice there, but also a cry for help for museum colleagues to step up where they can.

Not everyone can afford a social media manager. I’ve been there.

But social media also isn’t going away. We need to find a way of integrating not just social media responsibilities but digital responsibilities in general among our colleagues and systems, but behind that lies A LOT of work.

When I talk about digital transformation a lot of people still assume I mean I want them to learn how to tweet.

No. Usually it’s collectively figuring out what we’re trying to achieve on social media, and making it so that we’re not just getting engagements for engagement sake, but finding ways to measure what different teams value. For some, that’s people making it to the website and downloading an accessibility resource, for others it’s raising awareness of their project, for others it’s the quality of an online debate about a key issue. Engagement and reach and follower demographics and growth are key for determining how content is performing so we can improve, but we need to make social media work for our colleagues before they help contribute to the content pipeline.

And it’s not easy. It requires even more emotional and intellectual labour from people who work in content to make sure colleagues are informed about what digital content means, how we measure success and what tools are available to us. But the results mean that we can use social media for achieving the museum’s mission, not just our marketing objectives (which are still important).

And once you start digging into making that process easier, you suddenly realise you need to also be exploring open access, digital asset management systems, online project management tools, data analysis, new equipment and a million other things which touch on all areas of the museum.

I’m super aware that this article may make me look like an incredibly jaded, burnt out husk of a person, and that’s only 50% right.

It’s more that I want to remind people that after over a year in a global pandemic and, at least in the UK, after over ten years of increasing governmental cuts and economic instability, that perfection is an aspiration but also an impossibility. It’s sometimes those moments of letting down our hair and being human that create success.

And as my final confession, and despite my regular complaints, I’ve loved working in social media.

I’ve loved being able to communicate museum projects, collections, visitor stories to the world. I’ve spent five years constantly humbled and amazed by the creativity, resilience and humour of the people I work with and the public we serve. I’ve chased the thrill of using social media to pursue the missions of museums to engage and involve as many people as we can in arts and heritage.

Good luck to everybody out there still chasing that dopamine rush.

This is an adapted transcript of a talk I did for the Museum Next Digital Marketing Summit on 22 November 2021. I’m also still working in digital content but as a consultant at The Audience Agency. Get in touch if you need help!

Unless specifically stated, nothing in this article refers to an experience at any specific institution.

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