10 lessons museums can learn from Twitter

These days, it seems everyone is going gaga over Twitter, a microblogging platform that functions in many ways as a customizable group instant messaging client.

If you’ve never seen Twitter, when you first visit the site, you may be overwhelmed by all the junk–in so many languages–on the home page. Don’t let that distract you. The point of Twitter, from a reader’s perspective, is to “follow” the “tweets” of interesting individuals and organizations, as well as to participate in multi-threaded conversations. Currently, I follow 65 people, and there are 56 people following me.*

Because many of the people I’m following also follow one another, I’m privy to some very interesting conversations. In fact, I recently attended the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative conference, where attendees used Twitter as a back channel for discussion of the sessions. People asked questions of one another, highlighted good points, and even offered critiques of the speakers’ ideas while the sessions were underway. For some people, such a channel is a distraction, but it enriched the conference for me; it also served as a handy form of networking, because I could initiate a conversation with folks from other institutions by referencing one of their tweets. Our conversations have continued, weeks after the conference.

In short, I’m a bit addicted to Twitter because I’ve fallen in with a good crowd.

But what can museums learn from Twitter’s popularity?

1. People like information in small chunks. Yes, we already know most people don’t read labels, but Twitter limits each post to 140 characters. When you read someone’s tweet, therefore, you’re not committing yourself to much text. But Twitter provides a nice number for us to work with: 140 characters. What can you say about an artifact or phenomenon in 140 characters? (Try it. It’s not easy.)

2. People like the challenge of communicating in brief. It’s fun to post updates and ideas in 140 characters or less. Where in your exhibits or on your web site might you ask visitors to contribute? How can you make these small chunks useful to your institution, to contributors, and to their fellow visitors?

3. People like to have a customized information stream delivered directly to them. As museum marketers, we already may target our audience with direct mail or e-mail that matches what our relationship databases tell us about them; we can segment our audiences, for example, by membership levels or events attended. But. . .

4. People like to choose what is in this information stream. Unlike in traditional nonprofit marketing efforts, in Twitter, the customer opts in to a very particular and very personalized stream. No one user’s Twitter stream is like any other. Best of all, if someone’s tweets fail to interest me or otherwise become irrelevant, I can simply stop following that person with two clicks of my mouse.

5. People appreciate ideas and humor. The Twitter users with the most followers appear to be those who are witty or who ask thought-provoking questions and provide thoughtful answers.

6. People like relying on their perceived peers as resources. On Twitter, it’s common to ask a question and get several answers–including links–in response.

7. People like to serve as resources to others–and not just to their peers. In my Twitter stream, there’s a lot of geek speak. Educational technologists and faculty at various points in their careers jump in to help one another at times of frustration and crisis. There’s a good deal of satisfaction to be had from helping out someone you perceive as more advanced than you–or at least further along in his or her career than you may be.

8. People like to eavesdrop. One of the benefits of Twitter is that I can listen in on conversations and brief exchanges to which I might not otherwise be admitted. I want to know what other people and thinking and saying about what they’re experiencing in an exhibition.

9. Conversations carry over easily into other media. Frequently tweets prompt blog posts or even video responses–to which people tweet in response, continuing the cycle. When I see something worth talking about in your museum, where can I continue the conversation? Do you make it easy for me to connect with like-minded visitors? Do you have an RSS feed set up that will alert you that I’ve posted something on my blog that references your institution by name? Will someone on your staff respond to that post within a day or two?

10. People want their information delivered in the fashion they choose–and many like it piping hot. Twitter allows people to receive updates via Twitter’s own web interface, via cell phone or handheld, or via software developed specifically so that users don’t have to continually hit their browsers’ refresh buttons in order to see the latest updates. I must admit I’m a bit chagrined when I post an update or question to Twitter, then hear a coworker’s cell phone buzzing because she’s signed up to receive my tweets in that format.

So yes, a lot of this you already knew from experience and from all those books and articles you’ve read about audience engagement. But all that stuff you learned the hard way doesn’t necessarily carry over into a networked, web 2.0 world. And yet some of that old learning can be expanded very fruitfully into new virtual spaces.

In my next post, I’ll show you some ways museums can use Twitter intelligently and meaningfully. I’ll also, as usual, point you to what some really smart people in the museum blogosphere are saying about Twitter and what they’re already doing with it.

*You can follow me at http://www.twitter.com/lesliemb. My updates are protected, so you’ll need to get permission to follow me. Please send me an e-mail at leslie -at- museumblogging -dot- com to introduce yourself, and then I’ll be happy to add you as a follower. I also automatically follow everyone who follows me, so be sure to provide me with some Twittery goodness in exchange. :)


  1. To my mind, Twitter is just an other chat in the Web 2.0 way. A discussion in a chat is made of short text, different subjects and group of persons, it’s really present.
    But we know that chats do not have a great success in the museums websites.
    So, why Twitter should be different ??

  2. Leslie Madsen-Brooks says:

    Hi dianed,

    Twitter is different in that you’re cultivating a dedicated network to which you subscribe. So instead of entering a chat room where anyone can drop by, you’re in a space where you control whose updates you see. The result can be an amazingly coherent conversation–if, that is, everyone in your network is subscribed to similar people’s updates. You become privy to much more thoughtful conversations than I’ve seen in any chat room.

  3. Twitter is a free social networking and micro-blogging service that lets you keep in touch with people and it is the best way to Share and discover what’s happening right now, anywhere in the world.

    These 10 lessons for museums is a very useful information.

  4. Jill Overacker says:

    Hello Leslie,

    I’m currently in a new media class where we’ve been learning about what Twitter can do for various companies. I was wondering if you believe that museums are using Twitter in a way that helps to promote exhibits, increase attendance, and stimulate conversation. If not, how should museums be using Twitter? Is there a museum that you feel is doing a particularly good job with it?

    Jill Overacker


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