How can social media support the work of archives, especially in challenging times?
On the 26th August I took part in a panel for the Archives and Records Association’s ARA Together Online Community. The question was ‘How can social media support your work, especially through these challenging times?’
I was asked to be a member of the panel because of my work making social media posts accessible to disabled people. Further to that, our Heritage Lottery Rewind project included designing and testing an accessible website, and making all our digitised content accessible too.
We have had a social media account on Twitter since 2013, and learning how to make our tweets and digitised content accessible continues as technology (and the law) advances.
I was on the panel with Colin McDowell from The Towards a National Collection project and Gary Tuson from The History Begins at Home campaign. We had a lively discussion about what we had learned from diving into social media marketing as Archive workers and answered some questions from attendees.
I’ve had a chance to think about the conversation we had, and have a few observations that I thought would be useful to share here. There are quite a few Archive services that think they want social media, but don’t know how to start, or have been unable to convince their employer’s digital marketing team to give them a seat at the table. Hold that thought.
As the person there to talk about accessibility, I was asked if I thought archives’ social media was accessible and I answered no. As a sector, we are bad at making our digital resources accessible for disabled people, let alone our Tweets or Facebook posts. I’ve lost count of the amounts of films and digitised sound I’ve seen that have no open captions, no transcripts, no audio description and even today I’ve seen a few photographs of deeds tweeted that are completely inaccessible to anyone with a visual impairment.
I get it, in archives it’s hard to make old documents interesting online. But as I said in the call, it’s better to do a few things well on social media than a lot, poorly. If you want meaningful engagement, it has to be a commitment and it takes time to both create good quality accessible posts, and to interact with your audience and build a following.
Most of all, it’s important to know why you have the social media account in the first place. It may only be useful to you as a collaborative place as part of a project, or maybe as your news channel. Perhaps you need it to manage an online shop. That is fine, but it has to be a natural extension of your work and create value for your service.
As can be seen in the current social media attention on changes at the National Trust, engagement on social media can be a stressful experience, at an already challenging time. This is where the expertise of Digital Marketers really comes in handy. It takes time to gain the required skills. Digital marketing, just like being an Archivist, is a profession. Perhaps you do want your Marketing team to handle this rather than take it on alone.
But back to advice. The first thing to do if you are seriously considering a social media account is to do some audience research, and pick the platform where you know your audience hangs out online. When you’ve picked your social media platform, do some research on how accessible it is and plan what you need to do to make that post accessible. Accessible design will benefit everyone’s experience, not just disabled people. Write a social media plan, and stick to it.
Maybe in your case this is actually too much work, especially when time and availability of collections is limited due to lockdown. It is worth doing a honest appraisal of whether you have the time and if you will get the benefits you expect. I can’t sit here and say I’ve cracked it myself, though there are heritage accounts that have. In my case as a lone worker with a small amount of visiting researchers, our social media accounts have worked well to make us better known in the sector, and drive traffic to our website, which was our initial aim. We also contribute to our parent body’s main social media channels, which have a much larger audience.
If you can’t see real value for your service, efforts should be spent on cultivating your digital marketing team to let you in on their main accounts. Google some heritage social media calendars or use an Explore Your Archive campaign to get examples together and send to your marketing team. Speak to them in their language (the links I have shared should help). It’s worth a shot.
Finally, I will list some handy resources below. I feel I must mention that no one social media platform is better than any other if you haven’t identified your audience, and it’s worth monitoring trends in social media use. The latest research tells us that 1 in 3 adults are digitally detoxing, Facebook is not used by most young people aged 16-24 and Twitter, whilst still popular, has been losing active users since 2017. Instagram is attracting more users and Pinterest is having a resurgence. What does this tell us? Don’t put all your marketing efforts into social media alone.