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 personal brandInspire people to donate moneyMake people want to visit the museum

Social media is a way for people to experience your institution even when they will never visit. I think of social content as an extension of the on-site experience, and as such, we want to present high-quality curatorial content as often as possible. If this goes viral, then hey great, though I think we all know the chances of that happening. But you miss 100% of the shots you dont take, right? So maybe one day. Ive been taught by our Advancement department, the Albright-Knox is in the midst of our capital campaign, that everyone and everything is a fundraiser, so everything we put out is a possible way to generate donations. If people think were funny and cool, that is to say, if we ARE OURSELVES, theyll want to associate us with their personal brand and possibly plan to attend some events or programs or donate. But the big question is: can social media content make people want to visit the museum? 20

The way museums present themselves on social media is an invitation to potential visitors (even if they dont come).

serenataflowers.comIts like were asking them out.

Most of the time, the people who write the social content dont write the curatorial content. Also, there can be more than one person posting the social content, so its important to try to standardize the voice as much as possible. Too much of a shift can give the impression of multiple personalities.21

So does the tone of our institutional voice on social media need to match our printed texts and labels?SOCIAL MEDIA VOICE


So if our social media institutional voice, as funny and cool as it may be, presents one version of the institution, does the on-site voice need to match?22

Short Answer: No.

No! For a few reasons, but Ill get to those in a minute.23

Is This Like a Bad Tinder Date?

So if were using one voice in the digital space and another in the institution, and they dont match, does this create a disconnect? Are we setting up a false promise that we wont live up to in reality? Do people want the same tone they get in social posts when they get to the museum? Is that important?24

Also no. Institutional voice should focus solely on enhancing the visitors experience, no matter where that experience takes place.

The museum voice can and should differ from the social voice because its in a different setting.

Social media followers and visitors want (and possibly need) different things at different times.

Long Answer:

Also no. All voices represent different aspects of the institution, and people do not generally experience these different aspects simultaneously. Institutional voice should focus solely on enhancing the visitors experience, no matter where that experience takes place.


Tone CreepWhat I call Tone Creep happens when a prevalent voice or slang enters public discourse and is adopted (with mixed results) by brands and advertisers.

So now that weve answered that all-important question, there are a few things to note. The first is Tone Creep. I invented it, you wont find this term any other place (unless anyone wants to start a band) but its a relevant and timely thing to note. Brands talk about tailoring your voice to your audience and keeping relative consistency. This applies to museums, toomake a list of things you will and wont do (I referred to it in my notes as minimums and maximums) and my personal example is that I will never use emoji smiley faces in museum posts. Ever. I saw it happen once and I lost it. Never again. But the message is, keep your voice YOU. Dont try to be someone you are (or your institution is) not.


This. Just This.

In some cases, Tone Creep can lead to a deliberate lowering of the discourse that goes back to brands attempting to win your trust: by being indulgent or being cool.

Youve worked hard to establish your voice, so stay consistent.

Tone Creep can change the level of discourse for your institution. Brands often try to lower themselves to the simplest, most direct pitch, and often this takes the form of being motherly or indulgent, or attempting to use slang in incorrect or forced ways. The Twitter account Brands Saying Bae is a great repository for some of these. This tweet sums up everything Im saying: brads do not feel sadness or empathy. Museums are differentbecause we are made of people. We do feel genuine sadness and empathy, and we can connect with larger conversations on a meaningful and personal level.28

Public Focal PointsDont co-opt public sentiment for your voice. Brands dont have empathytheyre there to sell you things. Museums CAN be empathetic, as long as they stay true to who they are.

By public focal points, I mean occasions on which public discourse is focused on one event, often via social media. This year, sadly, weve experienced the deaths of many beloved and iconic celebrities. Weve had a lot of important issues in the headlines. Were inundated by political rhetoric. Navigating this can be tricky, especially if the event has a political or moral dimension that is divisive or controversial. The rules should be the same as for brands, who dont always follow them. Its important t...


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