Episode 4: Meredith Duncan and Claire Lanier of #MuseumSnowballFight

My guests today are Meredith Duncan, Social Media Manager at the Museum of the City of New York, and Claire Lanier, Social Media and Content Manager at the New-York Historical Society.

A few weeks ago, I noticed that a duo of museum professionals had won an AAM Media & Technology MUSE Award for the #MuseumSnowballFight Twitter campaign. My first thought was, I remember that!

Back in January, during the infamous “Bomb Cyclone” storm, museums all over the country and around the world used the hashtag to hurl virtual snowballs at each other in the form snow-related images from their collections. As a content strategist who works with museums, I’m always looking for innovative ways that museum professionals use technology to tell lesser-known objects’ stories. Not only did #MuseumSnowballFight accomplish this goal, it also showed that museums, and the people who work at them, can have fun.

But then, I noticed something else. The co-recipients of the award were both from different institutions. How did they pull off such a successful collaboration from opposite sides of Central Park?

I reached out to the initiators of #MuseumSnowballFight to find out.


NICK: Hi, and welcome to What’s On, the Cuberis Podcast. I’m Nick Faber.

Do you remember the blizzard of January 2018 dubbed “The Bomb Cyclone?” For a full week, that ominous term about the snowstorm that shut down airports and entire cities seemed to be everywhere. And if you were on social media, chances are you saw, or maybe even used the #bombcyclone hashtag.

At the same time, there was another hashtag taking the museum world by storm, #MuseumSnowballFight. This hashtag, which originated at two historical institutions in New York, encouraged museums to share snow-related images from their collections on Twitter. And it was a huge success. Well-known institutions from around the world, from the Smithsonian and the V&A to more obscure ones like my own alma mater’s Special Collections Library at James Madison University, all had a chance to share their objects, and their missions, with a global audience.

By the time the Bomb Cyclone dissipated, posts with the #MuseumSnowballFight hashtag had been viewed over 20 million times worldwide.

So, who started the Museum Snowball Fight? My guests today are Meredith Duncan, Social Media Manager at the Museum of the City of New York, and Claire Lanier, Social Media and Content Manager at the New-York Historical Society. In May of this year, they were the co-recipients of a Media and Technology Silver MUSE Award for the #MuseumSnowballFight Twitter campaign.

When I first saw the American Alliance of Museums had given the award to both of them, I wondered how two people from two different institutions on opposite sides of Central Park could have collaborated on something so successfully? Well, I asked them. And that’s where we’ll pick up the conversation. First, here’s Meredith. She and Claire joined me over Skype.

MEREDITH: Yeah, let’s see. What’s the Museum Snowball Fight origin story? I’m at Museum of the City of New York on the East side of Central Park, and Claire’s at the New York Historical Society on the Westside. We’ve been talking for a little while about how we could work together, maybe. How we could do something that was maybe playful, maybe a little competitive. How could we get our institutions to talk to each other online?

So we’d sort of been just thinking about that for a while, and then, on that very snowy day, it kind of just seemed like the right moment to try something.

CLAIRE: So what was cool about it, it was totally organic. Meredith just called me on the phone and said, “Oh, you’re at work, too,” and I said, “Yeah, I’m at work,” and we’re both here at work in the middle of this big snowstorm. So we’re like, oh, if we had to trudge all the way into work, let’s just do something fun today. So it was really an organic, informal type of idea.

NICK: And so you guys — you were friends already? You kind of have a similar role at two different institutions. What’s your connection to each other?

CLAIRE: We actually met at a museum social media managers meetup.

NICK: That’s very specific.

MEREDITH: Yeah, at the Frick, I believe.

CLAIRE: At the time, Meredith was at the Brooklyn Historical Society, and I’m at the New-York Historical Society, so we just hit it off personally, and were really invested in what each other were doing at our different institutions.

MEREDITH: And it’s kind of fun, I think, to connect with another history institution. It’s definitely really helpful to talk to social media managers who work at any kind of museum. Because we’re all dealing with some similar challenges, but there is something specific about being at a history institution and what kinds of stories you’re trying to tell, and what your resources are, versus talking with someone at an art institution or a library or something like that.

So I think that added to the excitement of, “Oh, you’re doing such similar work to what I’m doing. Let’s talk about it!”

NICK: I wanted to ask more about the Museum Snowball Fight, but along the lines of what you were just saying, what are the challenges you face as a social media manager for a history institution? You mentioned resources, you know, I have this notion that you’ve got so many stories out there, that you’ve got a million posts at your fingertips, what are the challenges for not just choosing which stories to share, but, I guess, having the input from other people in your institution.

CLAIRE: I would say one of the chief challenges at a history museum in particular that I’ve found, and I’ve been at other history museums as well… Social media is conversational. That’s the social part of the social media, and history is very political. And so when you work at an apolitical organization, which most museums are, that can be a really — not to use a museum snowball fight pun — but that can be an icy path to walk on. So I think, to me, that’s one of the foremost challenges of history museums is finding ways to talk about things that are political in history without taking political stances, which I think is unique to history museums.

MEREDITH: Yeah, I would add to that that history museums and historical societies — not every geographic region or city even has a history museum. We grow out of historical societies often, and those are small, often volunteer-run places to begin with. So the actual resources is a challenge. We have to work with curators, or content experts, about what we’re going to talk about and everyone is doing three jobs at once. So the access to that knowledge can be a challenge, and then our collections are vast. But our resource challenge for history institutions is having the funding to process those collections.

So even if we have tons and tons of photos or ephemera or objects, someone needs to go through and catalog those and discover what the stories might be behind them. So, yeah, resources, which I guess is true for any non-profit or any museum. History museums tend to be the smaller ones so it’s a particular challenge.

CLAIRE: And to add to that, I would say, too, that as anyone who runs social media for any organization anywhere knows, that it’s so image-based. If you don’t have a good photo, you don’t have a good post. And so it’s a real luxury. I’m lucky at the New York Historical Society that we’ve had so many of our collections and photographs digitized at really high resolutions.

But on a day to day basis of challenges, I’ve worked at a lot of smaller institutions where you don’t have as much digitized, and that really is an impediment to what you’re able to talk about.

NICK: Do you all have — this would be a question for either of you — do you have any sort of editorial calendar, or are you trying to line up your social media efforts with other marketing campaigns, or other curatorial initiatives? Exhibitions? How do you plan for it, and how much of it is spontaneous?

CLAIRE: Well, I will answer that because I recently put together a really comprehensive editorial calendar, which is a very challenging thing to do when you’re a singular social media manager. And, actually, I recall at the first meeting at the Frick, when I met Meredith, someone asked the question who was new at this and said, how much should I plan in advance? Should I have a week scheduled in advance? Should I have two weeks scheduled in advance? And someone said, “Oh my god, I’m lucky if I have a day scheduled in advance. My goal is just to get something out at all.”

And so often that’s really the challenge, which I totally understand. I’ve had the accidental benefit, and challenge, of working with some really long-lead exhibitions where we have to have a lot of approvals for the content that we’re posting. So that has forced me to create really long leads of content — like seven months, essentially, based on exhibition schedules and curatorial demands, but that’s really — that’s hard.

NICK: Yeah, I guess there’s things you can plan for, but it almost feels like antithetical to social media have things planned so far in advance, right?

MEREDITH: That’s true. I think that, especially at a museum where so much of your content is related to exhibitions, then planning ahead really makes sense and is helpful. You have access to the images that relate to that exhibition, and those are planned many, many months to years in advance. So you can be thinking about, how do I want to be using these images, how could I do something a little bit different?

I loved how the Brooklyn Museum, for their Bowie exhibition, they obviously had to plan this very far in advance, they had a huge Bowie cutout that they brought to all of these different places in New York City, these iconic locations, neighborhood locations, and took pictures of Bowie on the Brooklyn Bridge, or at a deli, or that kind of thing. So, to execute something like that, you need months in advance to make that happen. But it’s creative, and it’s playful, and I think it did really well on their social media streams.

But then you also need to be flexible. It sounds so silly, but yesterday was the Brooklyn Bridge’s birthday, and I didn’t have that on my calendar anywhere. So I was able to just jump on it and share something, you know? You need to have room in your calendar, to adjust to things that are happening in the world, or things that you kind of overlooked, but planning ahead is so important as well.

NICK: Well, I wanted to ask you about how your social media strategy sort of fits into the broader strategy of your respective institutions.

CLAIRE: Our mission first and foremost is to educate that public. I essentially adhere to that on our social media channels and I tend to operate in the 70/30 best practices for social media marketing in general, which is that you’re only selling to your audiences 30% of the time. 70% of the time, you’re just giving them what they came for, which is the content and the education. And so, for us, I really strive to make that parallel, so that our social media channels really do reflect our mission of educating the public. It sounds sort of simple, but that’s really my driving force.

MEREDITH: Yeah, I think that’s the same for me, and trying to share content that is information that people might not know, and something new for them to learn that day. And also trying to reach new audiences, younger audiences, who might not know about our museum already, or might not have visited us before. And that sort of brings it back to #MuseumSnowballFight in my mind, because Claire and I talked a lot about how when museums collaborate, we not only get to share our own followings with each other, and introduce our own followings to each other, but in the case of #MuseumSnowballFight, where something had so many institutions involved and went viral, we were reaching people who don’t usually follow museums.

And that’s one of my goals, too. I want to talk to people who wouldn’t automatically choose to follow a museum, or wouldn’t think that a museum is something that they would want to interact with. I want to reach those people, show them that it’s interesting, we’re fun, informative, and hopefully that would translate into people walking into our museum. Because that is a big goal of our general marketing efforts at the Museum of the City of New York, is to turn eyeballs who see information about us on their screens into people coming and visiting.

NICK: What sort of feedback did you get back from people on social media from Museum Snowball Fight? Within the museum world, like from other institutions, but also from those folks you mentioned who maybe don’t think museums are fun or wouldn’t have followed you otherwise?

CLAIRE: It was the best. I’ll just say that. It was the best. It was so overwhelmingly positive and people were so excited like Meredith was just saying. It’s such a cool, fun, opportunity to showcase that museums are fun places that don’t always take themselves so seriously. And I think people within the museum world really saw that an appreciated it.

MEREDITH: Yeah, having people tweeting that– one of my favorites was that the museum snowball fight was “profound nerdery”, which was just the greatest compliment you could ever get. And then on a more institutional level, someone was like, “this is why we need to fund museums and education,” and I was like, “yeah, that’s right!”

NICK: That’s awesome!

MEREDITH: So it was really nice to see that kind of response. And then, with other museums, we were just really touched that other museums agreed to participate, so that was really wonderful to see. And we like to think that one reason that many people participated, beyond the fact that everyone was just talking about snow that day and it kind of made sense for everyone to participate, was that it was a low-stakes involvement. Most museums, whether you’re a history museum, or an art museum, or a natural history museum, you might have something in your collection that has to do with snow. It’s such a broad topic, so we felt like it was easy for other institutions to jump onboard. And that’s really important when this is a spontaneous piece of content. This isn’t something that you spent a couple months preparing for, and you might not have been in the office that day, so it’s something, hopefully, that was easy for people to be a part of.

CLAIRE: And I think the thing that– Meredith and I were so excited that it reached so many people worldwide, we were so honored to get an AAM award related to the Museum Snowball Fight. All of that was great. But I think the point of pride primarily is that for every Smithsonian and major museum that tweeted, there were about 30 smaller, local museums throughout the country that were able to participate. So the campaign was really fed by local or state museums or organizations or libraries, and so that was just really awesome to get smaller places up on a larger map. Because that’s really difficult to do, so anytime that a larger organization can offer that opportunity is valuable.

NICK: Yeah, and what a gift that is to these smaller institutions. In my role as a content strategist, one of the things that I’m trying to help museums do is to illuminate objects that there may not be space for in a gallery, or that somebody might not have found. Because online, you don’t have a limited amount of space, and so to be able to have some sort of theme, or game, or campaign like the museum snowball fight, now all of the sudden, “Oh, wow, yeah, we can start pulling up stuff that we haven’t exhibited in a while, or that has just been collecting dust in the archives.” So that was the thing that really got me excited about what you all did and then going through the hashtag and seeing all these wonderful objects that might not have seen the light of day. And even if they had, they’re spread all over the world. And so here’s one place you can go to to see all this great work.

MEREDITH: Yeah, that’s something we talk about a decent amount at the Museum of the City of New York because we don’t have a permanent collection on display. So another important role that our blogging and website and social media fills is sharing more of our collection that doesn’t get to see the light of day as much as we would like it to. And just one more thought, you just basically described bingeable content, and that’s something Claire and I talked about a lot with this, too, when we’re looking back, like, why did this work? Part of it is, if you were following the hashtag, you just got to scroll through so many delightful images. Many that I shared were from the late 1800s, so pretty old, but then you had — oh, who was it? I think you know, Claire, right? One office actually went outside and they had a physical snowball fight.

CLAIRE: That was my favorite. The Drawing Center, yeah. They took it with a very literal interpretation and they were like, “we’re getting out,” and it was hilarious. They posted a video of them actually having a snowball fight. It was great.

MEREDITH: Right, and one of the presidential libraries shared a photo of the Obamas a couple years ago playing in the White House lawn with their dogs. So you were seeing a lot of different types of imagery.

NICK: So the final question that I had for you all, is what sort of advice do you have for someone who might be a one-person social media manager, as far as planning, or just using social media in a way that is meaningful to their followers and also advances their institutional missions?

CLAIRE: One thing I would say is well, A) join — there’s a Facebook group for museum social media managers, join that group — join networks of other people who are doing the same type of work that you are doing. You can learn so much. And it can be really an isolating thing when you’re — this sounds very dramatic, but it can be a really isolating position when you’re a sole social media manager at an organization. So joining any kind of network like that is really, really helpful.

And I guess my other thought on that cue is people don’t know what you don’t post, so it can be really stressful making sure you’re getting out content, but they don’t know what you weren’t able to accomplish. So don’t stress over those things. Your energy is better spent on what you’re able to get done.

MEREDITH: Yeah, I have very similar advice. The first thing that I think of is my first role at a museum doing social media was a smaller institution and at first, it was very overwhelming. And I think what helped me the most was to decide what my schedule was and to make sure it was reasonable. And then try and fill content to that. So if you’re one person, are you also a development officer? Are you also a curator? Are you also a librarian? You need to decide what is reasonable for you to achieve every week. So if that schedule is two Instagram posts a week, three Facebook posts, and one tweet a day, if you’ve figured that out for yourself, then you can decide how to fill it. And like Claire said, people don’t know what you don’t post, and so you know what you’re able to fit into your schedule. Whether it’s fitting in National Coffee Day, and something about an exhibit at your institution, you figure that out. Because if you try to do a lot on every channel every day, you’re just going to go insane.

CLAIRE: That’s true. I will so as a history institution if you work at another history organization, when in doubt, just post a really rad black and white photograph. Meredith and I talk about this all the time. We will labor over posts, we’ll think about it, we’ll hem and haw over it for a week. And that post that we hem and haw over will do like, eh, kind of OK, and we’ll just sort impulsively throw up some really funky old black and white photo and it will just go off like gangbusters. So, lean into it.

MEREDITH: Which is both wonderful and depressing because you’re like, well there was no historical content in that one, but, OK.

CLAIRE: But a pretty picture works.

MEREDITH: Totally.

NICK: That was Meredith Duncan of the Museum of the City of New York Claire Lanier of the New-York Historical Society. I want to thank Meredith and Claire for joining me, and I also want to congratulate them on their award. Congrats!

Thank you for listening to What’s On. If you want to hear more interviews like this one, head over to Cuberis.com and click “What’s On”, or look for us on iTunes.

If you have a story that you’d like to share with other museum professionals, I’d love to have you on as a future guest. You can reach me at nick@cuberis.com.

Until next time, I’m Nick Faber. What’s your story? And how will you tell it?