Institutional Voice: What Are We Trying to Say? #MCN2016

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Institutional Voice: What Are We Trying to Say?

Institutional Voice:What Are We Trying to Say?Stephen BoydAlbright-Knox Art Gallery



Think about the ways you talk to people on the internet.

Ill give you a minute or two to think this over. To be clear, I am referring here to social platforms, not tone or content or any potentially weird subject matter that may arise. Im going to be referring to institutional voice as it relates to social media throughout this presentation, though a presentation on institutional voice in object labels and texts would be equally worthy of exploration.2

If youre like me, you started here.

The first social media platforms were designed for individuals to communicate with other individuals, before businesses and organizations got involved. Person to person communication. It was slow, but it was authentic, and it was PRIVATE. No one was peeking over your shoulder or reading your personal messages. No one was mining your data for keywords. No one was yelling at you trying to get your attention, unless you have really needy friends or owed some money.


Then we went here.

Then we got a bit more sophisticated. Facebook kept the person-to-person communication angle but added a public layer that let you see what other people were doing. You could argue that this was the birth, or maturation, of social media as we know it now, and also possibly the start of the culture of sharing (or over-sharing) we currently inhabit. 4

And now were (more or less) here.

Now weve transitioned more fully to PUBLIC person-to-person communication. Each of these platforms have a direct messaging functionality, just like our old beloved AOL Instant Messenger, but they are predicated on the public sharing of photos and information. Theyre truly social. Without that angle, they wouldnt workits not like you will see anyone using AOL Instant Messenger these days. So now weve started putting all this information out there for everyone else to seewhat was bound to happen?5

But theyre here too.

And now, yes, theyre here too. When I refer to brands, Im talking about corporate entities, products, and marketing accounts. Brands have invaded what was once a purely personal, and a then purely social space, with blanket advertising messages and marketing disguised as communication. In some cases, they dont even disguise it. In other cases, its hard to tell what is advertising and what is actual user-generated content. Some brands blur the lines intentionally so they fit in better with the posts and subject matter around them.6

talking about things like this.

Brands want you to love them. They really do.7

And this.

And theyve figured out that social media is the key to everyones collective heart, stomach, mind, and body, often all at once. One of the most convincing arguments for being on social media, if youre a brand, is to go where the people are. This is where they are. Just for the sake of examples, Facebook accounts for one in every 6 minutes spent online, and one in every five minutes on mobile. Heres another: 68% of Instagram users engage with brands regularly (and I got these facts from Hootsuite, who has some skin in this game).

Brands quickly figured out that if they want to be effective on social media

they need to create the presence and energy of a funny, popular, charming person.

Essentially, brands are trying to represent themselves as people. People you know and love. People youd want to be friends with. But as we all know, brands arent people. Theyre made up of people trying to pull a fast one on you and get them you like you. Brands on social media are the digital version of door-to-door salespeople. They want you to think theyre like your friends and thenwhoosh. Its all an illusion.9

Some brands adopt an indulgent, comforting tone.

Others want you to know how cool they are. They get it.

Some brands treat you with Youre worth it, others play on your location or jokes that only you will get. Social media allows for both of these possibilities with easy sales discounts and promotions, or the ability to target certain locations. Through the appearance of exclusivity, in-jokes, flattery, and an informal tone, brands are telling you to treat yo self. Examples of these styles of advertising are everywherenow more serious entities like banks, hotels, insurance agencies, and other more established luxury brands are picking up on this informal, indulgent tone, both in terms of their design and written communication.10

But brands are on social media to sell you things. Brands are not people.

They reinforce a consistentimage and generally use one voice.

If you spent time with a person like that, youd be bored to tears.

It bears repeating. Brands are not people. They have one speed. Museums are dynamic! We have varied interests! We are cool!11

A museum has more than one voice on social media...

because people act differently in different situations, and museums are made of people!;;;

Brands want you to forget that there are many people working to craft their messaging. They want their people to remain invisible so that the pitch is the only thing you see, and internalize. But people act differently in different situations, because people are people. Museums, on the other hand, are made up of many people! 12

In the museum field, we call this INSTITUTIONAL VOICE.

Im referring here specifically to the institutional voice we use on social media. Institutional voice is the way our institutions present themselves on social media through the tone, voice, and style of the posts that we create. Institutional voice is mediated in that posts are created and then publishedthere is, or should be, a period of review before things are posted, but its an authentic representation of both the institution and the people who work there.13

Institutional voice on social media includes:PromotionMarketingCuratorial content Conversations and questionsMuseum competitions and campaignsEventsEducationJokesCats

Museums are many things: event venues, promoters, retailers, restauranteurs, publishers, educational resources, and more. We talk about all of the things we do. Since museums are made of people, we have conversations. We ask and answer questions. We engage with each other and with cultural themes and trends, things like #MuseumSelfie day or #AskACurator day. We play games. We make jokes.14

Therefore, institutional voice should be:FriendlyIrreverentHilariousEngagingInvitingEducationalTimelyJokesCats

Since we cover such a wide range of topics, an effective institutional voice is, almost by definition, multiple voices. Remember, we are made of different people. When more than one person manages social accounts, or when there are more than one social account for different parts of the museum, the voice can differ. It should remain similar enough to be recognizable, never deviating wildly or staying static. This is how we can be all of these things at once. Were engaged with our followers and fans, were engaged with pop culture, were engaged with each other. This is how we can show it effectively. The only one on this list that gives me pause is hilariousthats tough to achieve. Given the proper context and some quick thinking, it can be possible.15

An effective institutional voice means we can post about this.

And then this.

And then this.

And then this, all without seeming unhinged.David Douglas DuncanBrenda BiegerLuke Copping

Institutional voice is a multitude of related voices that represent the personality of the institution. Its how we can share information about upcoming events and then talk about the history of an artwork without seeming unhinged. We can post about all of these things16

What are we selling? Who are we talking to?

The big question: Whats the point of being on social media? Should we operate like a brand? Why are we here in the first place?17

Above all, were selling experiences.This one.And these.And these.

Photos by Tom Loonan and Brenda Bieger

The bottom line is that we want people to come to the museum. That is why we exist. Some of our registrars often say otherwise. Were on social media to participate in conversations, to be accessible, and to engage with people where they are. While were doing that, were selling ourselves and the experience of being at the museumnot just the great moment with art experience, but all of the others as well.18

Were talking to everyone about everything we do. Institutional voice should be open and inviting, not exclusionary.

We can have conversations and answer questions.

Unlike brands, we CAN be personal. Because we have personalities!

And were talking to EVERYONE. We can have personal interactions as actual people! One of the things I hold dear to my heart that I learned at MCN is that Social media is not a Band-Aid or a bullhorn. We dont want to shout loudly above the fray, but we want to make ourselves available and talk with enthusiasm and positive energy about all the things we are and do. We are selling experiences, yes, but we are public resources. Were here for everyone.19

What can an effective institutional voice accomplish?Make people want to share our contentGo viral! Make people think were funny and coolAssociate us with their