Trish: As a Digital Heritage Lab mentor, I’ve very much enjoyed working with Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery. They share challenges with many other small heritage organisations so it’s been really inspiring to see them adapt and build on their digital content offering. I’m delighted that Liz Taylor, Curator of the Museum, is going to share her experience with us. Liz, start by telling us a bit about Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery?
Liz: We’re quite a small museum with a small number of paid staff but we also have lots of volunteers. We’re a local history museum with a local history gallery, an art gallery and a dynamic programme of exhibitions and events.
Trish: Tell us about your own role and of those who are responsible for content.
Liz: I’m the Curator, which means looking after the collection, working on environmental monitoring, looking after volunteers and helping with general enquiries. We have front of house staff but also a Museum Manager, an Outreach Manager and an Exhibitions Officer. All the back of house staff have a responsibility for our digital content across various channels.
Trish: What are the main challenges your team faced?
Liz: Before lockdown, we had a number of challenges. As there wasn’t much time to plan, content was very uncoordinated with people posting whenever they felt like it. For example, three of us might end up posting on Facebook in one day and then nothing else for a while.
Another major challenge was a lack of both skills and confidence to try new things. Many of us felt limited to just posting an image or some text rather than anything dynamic. We hadn’t looked at any analytics and so we didn’t know our audience or what they wanted from us.
Whilst we were closed due to Covid, our digital visitors became vital and we realised all these challenges needed to be addressed.
Trish: How did you start to look at those challenges?
Liz: We really thought about our digital objectives, such as promoting the museum services to help people understand what we do and why they should visit, and increasing access to the museum’s collections. We’ve got so many objects in storage as there’s a limited number on display, but digital gives you that opportunity to share more objects and vary how you share them. You can go in to a lot more depth online whereas information in a physical space can be limited.
We also wanted to engage more with our audiences, to educate people and to amuse people with fun things that make them laugh.
Promoting conversations between ourselves and audiences or even between audience members themselves was important too.
Trish: What did you know from the stats you already had?
Liz: Our most recent audience survey before we started this process was conducted in our physical museum galleries in early 2020. We found that 59% of our audiences were local, 70% were female and 87% were over 35. 14% were visiting with children, meaning we’ve got parents looking for something for their children to do.
That survey was a good starting point, but it only really showed demographics rather than telling us what content interested people.
Trish: So you knew there were still gaps in your knowledge. How did you begin to understand your audience’s motivations?
Liz: We thought we need to find out who our audience are and what content they like, and so we worked with you, Trish, and the council to put a digital content survey together.
We sent the survey out on our social media channels and it showed people were focusing on the collection and photographs in particular. It also showed us people were motivated by different things. Locals engaged mostly with local history, whilst others wanted to learn new things or keep up to date with current trends.
People were motivated by fun or silly things so it can help to show we’re not serious about objects all the time. For example, there was a hashtag a while ago about objects with the best bums, which really engaged people!
People didn’t seem inclined to be active and make something and share it with us, which told us there’s interactive content we might think is exciting, but as people have got other things going on in their lives at the same time, they don’t actually get involved.
People also didn’t always want to comment on things, which reassured me that people can still enjoy content even if they don’t want to enter into a conversation about it.
Trish: Tell me about your blog, which I understand was born out of limits on your council-hosted website.
Liz: Yes, because our website is hosted on the main council’s site, it’s limited to a certain number of web pages, which have to be really factual about the museum itself and so it’s limited in terms of creating exciting and engaging content.
We created our blog, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, a few years ago, which looks at things the staff see or that are happening in the stores or in the environment. It really gives us a more personal and friendly voice with our audience and allows us to spotlight objects in a way we couldn’t on our council-hosted web pages.
Trish: How have you optimised the blog to increase its traffic?
Liz: A key thing Trish taught us is meta description. Search engines produce a whole list of different things and under each there’s a line or two that tells you about that result. We looked at our own and it was really embarrassing! We didn’t know about it before and it had somehow got linked into our Covid guidelines, which was hardly enticing anyone.
To improve it, we looked at our unique selling points as a museum ― we’re quite small, we focus on the local area, we’re open to conversations and we’re a nice, safe place to visit ― and came up with a much better meta description: “be inspired by local stories, the life of novelist George Eliot and fascinating art at our free, fun and friendly museum located in beautiful parkland”.
The blog’s analytics showed that the most popular time of engagement was at lunchtime and Thursday was consistently the most popular day, so now it makes sense to post on a Thursday at lunchtime.
Trish: Which blog posts were the most popular and how did that knowledge help you focus the content?
Liz: It’s quite hard to analyse because there’s various factors like the time it was posted or a particularly popular hashtag, but we did see some patterns emerging, such as interest in things related to specific objects in the collection or blogs on famous people, local characters, factories or workplaces. Costume blogs looking at TV dramas like Victoria and Peaky Blinders have been popular because those shows have lots of fans. There’s always human fascination in disasters so those blogs are popular too.
Blogs looking at events/activities were less popular so maybe there’s a better place for those.
The title really influenced whether people looked at it or not. As museum professionals we often feel we need a really clever or exciting title. However, no one seemed to look at our more obscure titles like “One Year On”, “Set in Stone” and “A Lot of Hot Air” as no one knew what they meant! Your title should be something that people can understand.
Trish: That’s also key for Google and other search traffic as well. Let’s talk a bit about your social media strategy next.
Liz: Our Facebook analytics showed similar demographics to the survey, but also that the main engagement takes place in the morning. So we now post more in the mornings and we’re also tying in with hashtags for popular events and doing more “on this day” posts.
We’ve used our knowledge from analytics and surveys to create a social media monthly planning calendar. We think hard about what kind of posts we want to do, how often to post and which fun things we want, like a jigsaw or a spot the difference. At team meetings, we have the calendar as a standing agenda item, so we look at it in advance. Instead of being ad hoc, we now feel really focused and have a nice spread of things, taking into account audience motivations.
Something really important that Trish told us is this idea of a “skim, swim and dive” approach. “Skim” is something brief such as “Hello, it’s a glorious day” and then posting an image of a lovely sunshine. “Swim” content requires a bit more detailed research or coordination, which you might do one a week. The “Dive” approach is something that takes a lot of time to coordinate. This could be something like an event online that you may only do a couple of times a year. Those three approaches really helped us plan ahead so in the coming months we know what we’re doing and we’re all happy with the content for each.
Scheduling is just brilliant too. Having posts appear at times you’re not working that still tie into what people are up to is really handy.
Trish: What about Instagram?
Liz: The Instagram analytics were similar to others in terms of the demographics, and so we’re working on creating more diverse events and expanding our audience.
We actually have quite an old audience for Instagram with 67% being older than 35. Interestingly, on Instagram our peak usage is in the evening, but for Facebook it’s in the morning.
Our digital survey showed that people really enjoy seeing beautiful objects on Instagram, which made us think about aesthetics. We’ve brought in professional photographers to create lovely images of some of the more popular objects, who also highlight specific details and use more interesting angles.
Our Instagram audience still want information about the objects and so we make sure we provide in-depth descriptions with the image.
Trish: What advice would you give to other organisations with small teams or individuals who are trying to deliver content for audiences?
Liz: Every organisation is different so a key thing is to do what you can. Even small improvements, like looking at analytics more or changing times of posts, are positive steps.
Up the priority of your digital audience because even though we want physical visitors, people can engage in unique ways online. I think the two go hand in hand and one isn’t necessarily better than the other.
Look at social media analytics and run a digital survey to see your audience demographics, but also to see which content people want.
A digital content plan isn’t a 50-page document ― for us, it has been just figuring out what sort of content we want to focus on, putting it into the calendar plan and ensuring the balance and spread is right.
Try to utilise as many of your team as you can. In particular, front of house staff hear first-hand from the audience what they’re interested in, so take advantage of that.
Try new things! If you try something and no one’s engaging with it, you’ll still learn from it and, especially with social media, a post is there and then it’s gone. Give yourself permission to experiment ― some will be fantastic, some might not work, you just have to give it a bit of time. When it goes right, enjoy the rewards too!
For me, it’s been a really invaluable experience. I know we’ve all got 101 pressures on us, but think about it in terms of stepping stones, even if it takes a while to get there.
This case study was produced as part of the Digital Heritage Lab ― a digital skills development programme for small to medium sized heritage organisations in the UK and was funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of the Digital Skills for Heritage initiative.
Images courtesy of Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery
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Please attribute as: "How a local museum used data and insight to develop a focused digital content plan (2022) by Trish Thomas and Liz Taylor supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0