Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Using Social Media to Put the Life Back into Your Home Part 1

Note: This is the first half of an article that I wrote published in the HHMAG RAG, Historic House Affinity Group Newsletter Volume 9, Issue 2, August 2009, pg. 7 although I have made updates to it.

I love going to historic house museums. My favorite ones are those that make me feel like I’ve been transported back in time. I love it when I feel like I’m a guest being invited into someone's home for a visit. Take a moment to consider that statement. Notice the words I used: guest, invited, home, and visit. Historic House Museums have an opportunity to shine above other institutions like science centers and nature museums by conveying intimacy and being personal.

Unfortunately, Historic House Museums aren’t always the best at conveying these characteristics through their online presence. However, I feel that the new wave of social media and networking sites can really help historic house museums to make those personal connections. There are a number of sites out there, and you need to take time to find out which one might work best for your institution. I’m guessing there will be at least one that can be a great tool for you to connect to your audience.

The Basics
First, everything I’ll cover in this article is free. You have to create accounts with these services, but they are free and you don’t have to install anything on your computer (although there are free tools you may find useful). You will, however, have to have access to the Internet. Second, I would like to suggest that it is fine to start out as just a follower or a reader. See what others are doing first and decide if you want to do the same for your museum or if there’s something different you would do.

I’ve picked two types of social media to discuss:

Blogs – Online web journal; the term comes from web log. You can choose to setup a blog on your institution's website, or you can use a free service such as Blogs are like essays, articles, or presentations, and even though most blogs give readers the ability to comment people seldom do so.

Twitter – Free networking and micro-blogging (posts can't be more than 140 characters) service found at A post is called a Tweet and individuals often post several Tweets a day. People sign-up to follow other Twitter users. Twitter is to blogging what instant messaging is to email: it’s very conversational and interactive. It is also more immediate, with almost real-time responses. It has been described as the global version of the office water cooler.

Blogs and Twitter can complement each other nicely, so there's no need to exclusively use one over the other. They do have their strengths, however: complex ideas are best suited for blogs, while visitor interaction might be a better fit for Twitter.

Tips for beginners:
Even if you don't think you will ever blog or tweet, you might sign up for the services so you can secure the name of your institution. After all, it would be a shame if you later decided you wanted to tweet or blog and someone had already used your name.

If you sign up for Twitter I would also suggest signing up for a free alert service such as You can use this to track mentions of certain words and phrases used in posts, such as your museum's name, staff member names, or the phrase "historic house museum." Whenever any of those words or phrases are mentioned, the service will email you. This can be an important way to keep up with what the public is saying about your museum.

When you are ready to start posting or tweeting, don't over-think it. It will come across in your posts if you are trying too hard, which can be a major turn-off in this environment. Remember: it’s about being personal.

Also, if you just do marketing announcements, people will feel like you're spamming them, which is another turn-off on social networks. Instead, think about ways to be personal.

Initially everyone is concerned about the time required, but it doesn't have to take that much time. Generally, the public neither expects nor wants businesses and museums to post tweets as often as regular people do. Start small and tweet every other day or just once a week. We often write most of our tweets after staff meetings, because that's where we get our ideas. For example: "The tree guys are coming this afternoon to pull up the stumps left over from the ice storm. . . . Should we tweet about that?" Yes! Even include a picture, if you can.

The other fabulous thing about these types of media is that most of these services tie-in to each other, so you can kill two birds with one stone. For instance, I have my personal twitter account configured to send my tweets to my Facebook page, and I have my blog set-up to do the same thing. I only have to write one thing, but it goes to two different places and reaches two different audiences for me. It is a repeat of information for a small percentage of my friends, but most of them admit that a lot of times they overlook the information on one site or the other, so they don't realize that it's a repeat. The important thing to remember is to include some posts that don’t go to each application. You need to login to these applications and post something specifically for that venue.

Next week I’ll share some ideas for content to post through these platforms.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A New Way to See the Beauty of Morning in Northwest Arkansas

Last Friday my day started out unlike any other: I was up at 5:00 am. For those who know me well, they understand that this is nothing short of a miracle. I'm more a night person than a morning person, but that day I had somewhere special to be.

I had been invited to a sneak peak of a new James Turrell skyspace at Crystal Bridges. I wasn't sure what to expect. I hadn't really understood any of the literature I read about what a skyspace is. When I asked around, no one could adequately explain to me what it was. They would try a few words and then just get lost in their thoughts. At this point the responses all became the same: “Just go, it will be like no other experience you've ever had.”

I'll try to explain the experience, but like so many before me, I'm sure my words will clumsily convey the event.

First let me describe the structure. From the walking trail you can see the native Winslow/Fayetteville stones that cover the outside. The circular structure seats 21 adults, with the seats and basket-weaved backrest made out of limestone from Topeka, Kansas. The beautiful floor is made of stones from Paris, Arkansas. The floor directly below the opening in the ceiling is black. I can't remember what is made of, but it almost looks like soil, and is raked in a Zen-like manner.

Photo of the inside of the skyscape.

Did you catch the part where I mentioned the hole in the ceiling? Yup, that's the key. It's a stainless steel oculus about 10' in diameter. It allows you to look at the sky without a visible horizon line, which gives the viewer a feeling like the sky is coming down on you. Not in a Chicken Little way, though! It's much more gentle and peaceful. The magic doesn't stop there. Turrell installed an LED lighting system in the recess at the top of the seat backrests. The lights are computer-controlled and programmed to match the changes that occur in the sky during sunrise and sunset.

The show lasts for about an hour, and it is an amazing experience. Never in my life did I expect to experience the sky appearing hunter green or turquoise. At one point the sky went from a wonderful midnight blue to royal blue to corn flower blue. Other colors that stuck with me because of their vividness were royal purple, mauve, and lavender. The intensity is just indescribable.
At this point the sky looked purple to my eyes.

It was also interesting to talk to the other people present and discuss what colors they were seeing, because everyone had their own experience depending on where they were sitting and how their brains perceive colors. For instance, the person next to me has cataracts, so she experienced the colors with more of a yellowish hue than I did.

Taken at 7:24 am.

Taken at 7:26:11 am.

Taken at 7:26:41 am.

When the show was over, it really did not seem like an hour had passed. Several of the staff members from Crystal Bridges had mentioned that other Turrell skyscapes are often used for meditation, and it is easy to see why. I don't know what kind of setting the other skyscapes are in, but this one is situated perfectly for my tastes. I love the woods, having grown up in woodlands, so I felt right at home nestled in this skyscape, and there is also the added treat of a lovely babbling brook. Combine that with the fact that the leaves are changing here in Northwest Arkansas right now, and I was over the moon!

To really put the finishing touches on the experience, plan to bring some hot chocolate and a blanket to snuggle under (although you don't have to worry about your bum, because they went for the seat-warmer upgrade in this skyscape).

The plans are to open the Turrell skyscape to the public when Crystal Bridges opens, so I'm sorry folks, but you'll have to wait a while longer. Although I will say it was a breath-taking display of colors, and I can't wait to experience it again.

Note: All photos were taken with my iPhone.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Marketing or Spam

Recently there was an interesting discussion on the Museum-L listserv about email marketing and if it can become spam. Several people said it wasn't because you opt-in to these mailing lists. I thought I would share my responses here too.

I have to say I have felt spammed by email lists I have opted into before. It is a slippery slope and I think businesses need to be considerate when using contact information given to them. Here are some of my guidelines.

1. Have clear opt out instructions (I also appreciate the chance to tell you why I'm opting out. Do I think you abused my email or had I just joined for the past six months because I was getting ready to take my vacation there and I wanted to do research). Also when I opt out honor that. Don't stop sending me emails for a month or so and then start up again.

2. If possible have opt out options for specific topics or events (if I have a conflict and know I can't go to your event I appreciate not hearing more about it, if possible).

3. Have clear subject headings (I REALLY appreciate this because if I can't opt out for specific events I can tell by the subject if it's the aforementioned event I have a conflict with and I can delete it with out reading it).

4. Frequency is a biggie with me when it comes to multiple emails about the same thing. I feel there should be a week minimum before sending out the next email. The frequency of emails can increase the closer you get to the event to act as reminders, but I feel you should stop at one reminder the week before and then one the day before. The exception is if you have breaking news (i.e. only so many tickets left, it's sold out, tickets were returned so more are available now, weather cancellation procedures). Also include more details in follow-up messages, perhaps behind-the-scenes information. What hors d'oeuvres are going to be served? What's the color scheme? What has the staff had to do to get ready? Don't drop names like who the caterers are or what company the wait staff is from. That seems too PR-ish and is off-putting.

5. Give clear information as to how often you are going to be emailing me. Am I going to be getting daily specials/sales, weekly event listings, only big event details? Also give me the option of what I want to get from you. I'm a huge podcast listener so I like getting the frequent iTunes email about the podcasts they want to highlight. I'm not interested in a weekly email about what hardware products are on sale so I did not opt-in to getting those emails.

6. Use multiple means of communicating. Don't just use email, use Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media apps as well. I think it would be cool to get an email from a museum then see a video on YouTube that they made wherein they ask one of their volunteers why they are looking forward to the event. If it comes from a different venue and in a different medium it doesn't feel like I'm being inundated by spam.

7. Make it feel personal. Write in first-person when possible, give the tone a person to person feel. Don't use a lot of the standard PR phrases and view point. If you use the “marketing talk” I'll feel like you are trying to sell me something and I'll often shut you out, but if you make it personal then I feel special and I feel like you are personally inviting me, as your friend, to your party and that makes me want to attend.

So there are my thoughts.