INTERVIEW | The Museum of English Rural Life

Fast Web Media

Fast Web Media interviews the team behind the MERL account to see how it grew to achieve stats as high as 23 million impressions.

Some context: it was the year 2017 and Twitter user @mrreptoid uploaded this picture of British hotelier David Morgan-Hewitt posing with the Queen -- nothing particularly groundbreaking. However, unknowingly, the Goring Hotel Managing Director became (probably) the first ‘absolute unit’ of Twitter.

The ‘absolute unit’ meme took off, with the phrase being used to describe anyone and anything large - from big Pikachu to Wyatt Koch. In April 2018, The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), an unlikely candidate to piggyback on popular culture, Tweeted this now infamous picture of a large ram:

Thanks to this Exmoor Horn aged ram, owned by G.F. Thorne, April shaped up to be a pivotal month for the MERL Twitter account. In that month alone, the MERL account gained 23,164 new followers and boasted 23 million impressions (+10,025% from the previous period). And thus, The Museum of English Rural Life found their new approach to the Twittersphere.

We interviewed Programme Manager and Digital Lead at The Museum of English Rural Life, Adam Koszary to understand just how this seemingly-accidental fame for the museum happened.

Q: THE TONE OF VOICE FOR THE MUSEUM OF ENGLISH RURAL LIFE (MERL) IS PRETTY… DIFFERENT, ESPECIALLY FOR THE INDUSTRY. WHAT SPURRED YOU TO DO SOMETHING UNCONVENTIONAL?

If I’m being completely honest, what spurred me to do something different was boredom. Museums put out some amazing, inspiring content, but they rarely try to entertain the people who follow them. The problem with the internet is we’re competing with an almost infinite feast of funny and interesting content, so we can’t just copy and paste the kind of voice and messages which museums put on their physical walls and their labels - we have to meet the internet at least halfway.

The MERL also has what I would call a ‘difficult’ collection which appeals to very specific audiences on its own merits, and we have to work hard to connect with a broader audience. Young people and young adults are a target audience of the MERL as a whole, but it was fairly clear to me that the way we were talking about our collections wasn’t really connecting with them enough.

Q: DO YOU GET ANY INSPIRATIONS FOR YOUR APPROACH?

The inspiration is a melting pot. I spend an unhealthy amount of time on Twitter itself, where there are the examples of sassy corporate accounts like MoonPie and Wendy’s, but also more conversational and human heritage accounts like the National Library of Scotland and funny accounts like Orkney Library. I also browse a lot of Reddit, including r/memeeconomy, and I feel like Reddit is definitely the place to lurk if you want a finger on the pulse of what is current and what is lame on the internet.

Q: WAS THERE ANY DOUBT AMONGST THE TEAM THAT POSTING A PICTURE OF A BIG SHEEP WOULDN’T TAKE OFF?

Definitely. Posting memes of big sheep was a punt, but it was one of a few ‘have a go’ bits of content which we post to see what sticks. When you have 9,700 followers it’s much lower-risk to try things like that. I was more worried about whether my colleagues in the Archives would have an issue with treating the collections in this way, but because so much good has come out of it they’re really on board now.

Q: HOW HAS THE ACCOUNT’S CONTENT CHANGED SINCE IT FIRST BEGAN?

Over the years we’ve been moving from pure marketing to seeing social media as an extension of how the museum engages with people. So while we still have posts for lower down the funnel for things like events and displays, we’ve also tried to experiment with how to tell the museum’s stories in different ways in order to raise awareness. We’ve actually gone viral before with our story of a dead mouse.

The unit has been a big step-change though. It’s shown that we can be lighthearted with our collections but still send a message and that speaking in a humorous and personal voice doesn’t actually make the museum explode or erode our authority.

But our new Twitter fame has also come at possibly the worst time. We were planning a refresh of our digital marketing and communications, meaning we were doing business-as-usual posts while we got our house in order. We had to capitalise on the Unit when it happened, though, and now we’ve almost gone too far the other way in that almost all of our Twitter content is entertaining and attracting more followers, but we’re not necessarily converting that into physical visits, research enquiries and sales as effectively as we could do.

So, we’ve switched from standard marketing posts to more entertaining content with a radically different voice, but we hope to diversify the kind of content we’re offering online in the very near future.

Q: THE TWEETS ON THE MERL ACCOUNT ALWAYS SEEM SO OFF THE CUFF, DO YOU PLAN AHEAD AND SCHEDULE STUFF OR IS IT ERRATIC?

It’s pretty much all just made up on the spot at the moment!

Because we’re literally reshaping our digital marketing approach at the moment, pretty much 95% of our content on Twitter is reactive at the moment, with scheduled content restricted to events and new displays. Until we have our new system working we don’t have the capacity for anything else, but even when we do I still see the split being 75% reactive 25% scheduled. Twitter thrives on back-and-forth and seizing on events as they happen, so we don’t want to lose that.

Q: DO YOU FIND THAT WHAT WORKS WELL ON TWITTER, PERHAPS DOESN’T FOR FACEBOOK?

We’ve definitely found Twitter is quite special, if only because it allows us to have real conversations with our followers in a way that Facebook and Instagram can’t really match. Museums are meant to be places of debate and meaning-making, and the open forum of Twitter really works for that.

Facebook is a depressing platform to work with as our advertising budget is quite limited, and even our best content sometimes just falls flat on its face. Equally, on Instagram, it’s so visual that the conversations are secondary, but we have found that there’s a big appetite for memes on it. Ideally, we’d be experimenting more with what works and doesn’t across the platforms, but with the capacity we have at the moment we’re concentrating on Twitter because it has the highest return on investment.

Q: WHAT WAS THE POINT WHERE YOU THOUGHT ‘DANG, THIS HAS REALLY TAKEN OFF’?

It was basically 4.45pm on the day. I posted the tweet as a kind of break from drawing down a large project, which was my main job for the day, and I distinctly remember coming back from the loo to find Tweetdeck glitching from the number of notifications.

Q: HAVE YOU NOTICED ANY OTHER MUSEUMS FOLLOW YOUR LEAD AND TAKE THE WHOLE HUMOROUS APPROACH?

I don’t know whether it’s because I’m keeping an eye out for it now, but it seems like more museums are relaxing a little in how they speak online and how they interact with people. There was also a strong showing for #MusMeme day, which I’d like to think was partly down to the precedent we set.

Museums are full of creative and funny people, they’re just not usually given the leash they deserve because most museums are also incredibly risk-averse. I also spoke to someone from the American Alliance of Museums who said she knows of quite a few social media managers who are using us as a case study to argue for a more informal tone and style.

Q: IF YOU HAD SOME ADVICE FOR A BUSINESS LOOKING TO TAKE-OFF ONLINE, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

Trust your social media manager and leave room to take risks, and don’t freak out if some of those risks have poor results. There’s a very fine line, though, between doing the kind of content the MERL does without coming off as really naff or inappropriate. What works for our context may not work for another museum/business’s context.

Q: FINALLY, WHAT QUANTIFIES AN ‘ABSOLUTE UNIT’?

When you’re in awe at the size of the lad.

You can follow the Museum of English Rural Life on Twitter, @TheMERL.

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