Social media use by museum visitors before, during and after their visit: a useful tool of customer care


As museum social media managers, have we ever really stopped to think about how our audiences use social networks before, during and after their visit to our institutions? How much useful it would be to reflect on these dynamics to plan better online strategies and maximize the limited resources at our disposal? Have we ever noticed how some of the information passing through social media could prove to be crucial to reconsider some key factors, such as curatorial choices, exhibition design, and audience research?

Last summer I had the chance to attend an interesting session of internal training on these issues conducted by Erin Blasco, Education Specialist at the National Museum of American History. I think some of the things Erin pointed out can be useful to address the topic of social media as a tool of customer care.

Part #1 – before the visit

The first moment in which the public interacts online with our museums is the one preceding the visit. The natural behavior of a contemporary visitor is to look for information on the web before deciding whether and when to go to a particular institution. He or she will search both practical information on the visit (such as where the museum is located, opening times, the cost of the ticket and the presence of any reductions) and possibly reviews and opinions from other users.

At this stage, our visitor will probably use Google (used today by 1.17 billion unique users per month) or a similar search engine, and he/she might give a look at Yelp, Foursquare or TripAdvisor, to get first-hand information from other people who have already visited. Besides, he or she might also share a post on Facebook or a tweet to ask friends something that will sounds like “Saturday trip to Milan: any advice? “.

How can a museum monitor this decision-making stages of the potential visitor? Platforms like Yelp and TripAdvisor are open social networks. The first thing to do is thus to look for the name of our museum and read comments and reviews of users. It is interesting to see what people are saying about us – which aspects of the museum are more liked by a Japanese rather than a European? By people who visit with family or friends? – but it’s even more important to reflect on the negative comments.  By doing so, you can identify the critic points and take action on them to improve the perception and the offering of the institution. If possible, it would also be useful to respond to criticisms, providing explanations and thanking for reporting any problems, specifying what measures have been taken to solve them.

Moreover, opening a business account on Yelp or TripAdvisor provides some useful analytics, such as how many people look for the museum, which devices they use, which is their behavior: do they check the map? Do they read more logistics information or reviews? Besides, they provide some basic marketing tools.

It would be just as useful to be able to keep monitored mentions of the museum on Facebook and Twitter, including those users who do not mention us directly by using the mention “@”, and simply look for hashtags or the plain name of our institution. Ideally, we should answer to these people, writing the opening hours to those seeking practical information, wishing a good visit to those who write “I’m coming to visit!” and suggesting an exhibition or an object to the undecided ones who write “What do you suggest to visit in Milan?”. Anyway, it is also useful to periodically read the answers given by their friends and followers, to understand what the perception of the museum is from the outside, and keep track of the “word of mouth”.

Pay also attention to social networks that you’re not considering: Pinterest, for example. There are many boards like “Places to visit in Milan”, for example, listing the points of interest in the various cities. Look for your museum also on this platform and build opportunities for interaction with users would communicate openness and participation.

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Part #2 – during the visit

The second important moment in which the audience talk about/with us online is during their visit to the museum. Of course, we don’t have access to comments on private profiles on Facebook or to messages on WhatsApp, but if we keep our ears open we can intercept visiting behaviors through hashtags and mentions on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

The most common type of content shared by users during their visits is probably to say “I’m here!”. It can both emphasize the enthusiasm for the visit and the desire to put themselves in the spotlight in front of friends and contacts. In this category we find simple check ins – including those through platforms like Swarmapp – and photos taken outside the building or in the hall.

But the most curious shares – and also more interesting for the museum – are those ones with short texts and photographs of the exhibits: what are the most photographed objects or artworks? Why? Are we helping our audience to interact with these works? Could we give them greater emphasis or accessibility? Captions and explanatory panels in the proximity of this works capitalize on all this attention or are we losing an important opportunity to give information, educate and excite?

Another aspect not to be underestimated is the connection between people personality and the photographed object, that becomes, in some cases, a way to express a clear identity and to present it to friends and contacts (for example: “I’m the expert on contemporary art”, “I’m the archaeologist in the making”, “I’m the cool and funny one”, “I’m the mature person who reflects on universal themes”, “I’m so nerd”, etc.).

The more we pay attention to online discussions – for example, around a particular object in the collection, or a caption – the more opportunities we have to start conversations with the audience and create connections with them.

Another observation about this type of interaction: is there anyone who comments or posts photos more frequently, coming back to the museum additional times? It might be worth evaluating the idea of creating a list of ambassadors or “best fans” to whom we can ask direct opinions and advice, or to whom we can look at for targeted campaigns or simply to reward their loyalty.

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Mart Museum of Rovereto: repost of visitors’ photos

But let’s stop for a second on the theme of photos in museums. Recently, the discussions around #museumselfie day have highlighted how selfies in museums might be just meaningless manifestations. Aren’t we risking to consider ourselves too elitist to adopt a behavior that is popular among the masses? A selfie with a roman bust or a picture of a detail on a painting might not have required a major intellectual effort, but is an expression of appropriation of the experience, a personalization of it. The act of taking a picture with a smartphone is a natural behavior for visitors, for all of us actually, and has a huge communication potential for the museum. Furthermore, is a social action as it implies involvement with other fellow visitors or social contacts.

In other words, don’t miss the opportunity to learn something about our public just because the way they interact with our collection does not seem “high culture”. In fact, by monitoring what objects people choose for their selfies we can better understand what they engage with and thus informing our educational strategy.


Pictures from #museumselfie day – collage by

Part #3 – after the visit

Last but not least, social media are the perfect environment to discuss the visit once it has finished. In the better case, our tweet feed will include compliments of people happy with their visit. If this is not the case, it is crucial to be prepared to respond to complaints as well.

Once again, we have an opportunity to understand the malfunctions our public consider important, as well as to recover the relationship with an unsatisfied visitor.

In this sense, it is important to show how much the museum museum cares, using a nice and comprehensive tone.

The unsatisfied visitor is actually helping us “get better” at delivering our mission by highlighting a problem. He/she might use a rather grumpy tone to tell us, but we should be able to turn his/her dissatisfaction in an opportunity to improve our service or at least show empathy.

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National Museum of American History – Twitter interaction and customer care

Let’s sum up

Social network can be a powerful customer care tool. They help understand what the public think about the museum, what are the reasons that guide their visit, what are the objects they are more curious about and even what are the service malfunctions that can be improved.

By monitoring social media activities we can implement a listening strategy and not only a “speaking” one ì: the results are similar to those that we could gather by handing out a survey, although less structured. Furthermore, we can discover how approaches change through time, exhibition after exhibition, improvement after improvement.

Furthermore, we can ask for feedback to the community. Finally, don’t forget that everything that is said on social media is exposed to high level of visibility: thus handling it is as important as taking care of billposting in the metro. Sometimes, what is said on social media is even more important that traditional communication and this is why we should make an effort to maintain an open, friendly and honest dialogue on these platforms.

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Cover image: Pieter Musterd, Museum Visitors