April 9-12, 2008
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Social Presence: New Value For Museums And Networked Audiences

Brian Dawson, Fraser McDonald, and Gabrielle Trépanier, Canada Science and Technology Museum Corporation, Canada


Social networking sites have achieved a critical mass of popularity in an astonishingly short period of time. Sites such as Facebook have become part of mass culture, and now rank among the most popular sites on the Web. These sites are radically changing on-line behaviours in the process. Museums are frequently represented in these spaces, whether or not they actively participate.

This paper examines social networking sites as a distinct, strategic point of presence for museums. It studies specific experiments with social media, including a detailed analysis of a Facebook group used by the Canada Science and Technology Museum Corporation’s Membership Program. It applies two theoretical models – the “Innovation Radar” and genre analysis – to help analyze the nature of the opportunities for innovation, and to develop a better understanding of the distinctive characteristics of alternate communication channels.

It looks closely at the new value that can be generated from such experiments, such as audience engagement and new avenues for research. It explores the challenges of measuring success with emerging media, and how organizational objectives and measures can affect the decisions institutions make in participating in on-line social networks. It also considers how these sites may create both organizational challenges and opportunities by enabling greater involvement in innovation and audience engagement by a broader base of museum participants.

Keywords: social media, social networking, Facebook, measures, innovation, genre analysis

Social Networking and Museums – A Brief Survey

Social media are a major area of on-line innovation on the part of museums. Museums have been active in a wide range of social media, including photo sharing (e.g. flickr), video sharing (YouTube), virtual reality (Second Life), blogs, and social networking.

While social applications are not new to the Internet (boyd, 2007a), social networking has been an area of explosive growth on the Web in recent years. Social networking sites “have attracted millions of users, many of whom have integrated these sites into their daily practices” (boyd & Ellison, 2007). Such sites appear to offer a different community potential than other social media – from anecdotal observation, many people who have never contributed to the blogosphere have no qualms about posting in a social networking site.

There is significant global variation in social networking sites – “participation tends to follow cultural and linguistic lines” (boyd, 2007b). For example, Google Orkut has gained prominence in Brazil and India, QQ in China, Bebo in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia, and MySpace in the United States and elsewhere (boyd & Ellison, 2007). Facebook has taken on a particular significance in Canada (explored below).

Point Of Presence

Social networking sites have become a significant potential point of presence for museums. This potential has not gone unnoticed in the museum community – many museums have been active in this medium. One of the most active is the Brooklyn Museum (Caruth & Bernstein, 2007). The museum’s on-line “community” section ( offers a cornucopia of social networking and other social media features. Other active innovators include The Walker Arts Centre ( and the Indianapolis Museum of Art ( Many pioneering institutions are experimenting with multiple social networking platforms simultaneously.

There has also been significant discussion of social networking among museum professionals. “Well used and targeted toward niche audiences, many social networking sites will allow museums to meet their goals” (Madsen-Brooks, 2007). For the purposes of this paper, we will specifically follow a Facebook experiment at the Canada Science and Technology Museum as our primary case study.

By The Numbers

Facebook has grown rapidly: having started in 2004, it now has over 63 million “active” users (Facebook, 2008). One recent marketing study by ZINC Research and Dufferin Research suggests that the site has “become a phenomenon” in Canada, with seven million profiles in a population of 32 million. Toronto is the first city in North America to have more than a million Facebook users (IANS, 2008). The Ottawa network has more than 263,000 profiles, a number representing a third of the city’s population (Lin, 2008), or more than a quarter of the population of the National Capital Region. Overall, 51% of on-line Canadians are members of social network sites, and 80% of them are reportedly on Facebook (IANS, 2008). The same study claims that the largest growth in the last half of 2007 was in the “35-plus generation” (Lin, 2008). A majority of users (67%) reportedly spend between one to five hours a week on the site.

This dominance of Facebook as a social networking platform, with its significant penetration in older audiences, appears to be a Canadian phenomenon – market researchers note that “it is not being picked up by the 35-plus generation” to the same degree in the United States (Lin, 2008). The reported usage and Canadian penetration, both nationally and regionally, represent a potential opportunity for museums in Canada as a whole, and museums with a physical presence in hot-spots such as Toronto and Ottawa.

Social Media at CSTMC – Membership Program

The Canada Science and Technology Museum Corporation operates three of Canada’s national museums: the Canada Agriculture Museum, the Canada Aviation Museum, and the Canada Science and Technology Museum. The Corporation’s Membership Program is one of the most important and successful means of identifying an engaged base of clients who contribute significantly to its attendance and revenue targets. The Members not only have an opportunity to take advantage of numerous benefits offered to them, but more and more they also are given a chance to become actively engaged by offering ideas, comments and feedback through social media.

The CSTMC’s Membership Program currently services 5,600 active Memberships, representing approximately 21,800 individuals. Offering more benefits and unlimited free admission to three of Canada’s national museums, the Program has been a staple of success for the Corporation.

One of the benefits, a quarterly Newsletter published by the Membership Program, provides regular updates on the Membership Program, as well as key upcoming activities at the Corporation’s three museums. A desire for greater interaction with the readers prompted the Program to seek out alternative options to engage Members. Fraser McDonald, Manager, Membership and Fundraising Programs, explains, “The desire to know what our Members are thinking as they read the Newsletter and visit our Museums has shifted our attention to more creative and interactive initiatives, such as Facebook.” It is clear that the Corporation wants to interact more with its Members, but 21,800 active Members seemed overwhelming for the three employees of the Membership and Fundraising Programs. Social media seemed to be the logical next step in engaging, understanding, and getting to know the architecture of their Members and opening opportunities for dialogue with them in a way that would be unlikely to happen during a Museum visit.

The program has experimented with three “Web 2.0” media: a flickr group (, a YouTube channel (, and a Facebook group ( (see Figure 1). For the Membership Program, the reasons for using social media are three-fold: to actively engage a segment of individuals to seek their opinions, ideas and feedback; to disperse and disseminate information and activities about the Museums; and to have the program marketed without large sums of dollars being tied up in traditional marketing channels.

Figure 1

Fig 1: CSTMC Membership Facebook Group

Organic Change

It is worth noting how the Membership Program social media initiatives were started. Of the three initiatives, the flickr group has been the most formal, built around the already established Membership Photo Contest, and integrated into the Canada Agriculture Museum Web site ( The other initiatives have been approached in a less formal way.

For example, the Membership Facebook group was set up as an “unofficial” experiment, independent of the traditional Web and publishing groups within the organization. The initiative was not formally managed in the way that most Web activities have been. The experiment is reminiscent of a “digital revolution,” as described by Incandela et al. (2007). Such grass-roots initiatives may at first appear anarchical, but supporting and integrating them can be important in the consolidation of broader changes in an organization (Dawson, 2007). The creation of the Facebook group is an example of what Huy & Mintzberg (2003) describe a rejuvenating “organic change,” one that can complement and re-enforce both the dramatic change of new strategic thrusts and the systematic change of planned initiatives.

The Membership Program is still in its early stages of utilizing social media to attain its marketing and communication goals. There was some concern about internal backlash or disapproval, but the Membership Program has been able to demonstrate early success with the response of members of the group, with indications that this may revolutionize the way information is shared with their Membership base. Within days of the first mention of the Facebook Group in the Summer 2007 edition of the Membership Newsletter, 35 individuals signed up to the Group. As of January 2008, that number has more than doubled to 79 individuals with little to no advertising. Group members are posting comments for open discussions, posting photographs they have taken while visiting the Museums, and reading valuable information that may lead them to or enhance an onsite visit. Figure 2 shows an example of a member-generated exchange within the group.

Figure 2

Table 2: Member-generated exchange within CSTMC Membership Facebook Group

Assessing The Opportunity

The application of theoretical perspectives can help the cultural heritage sector in understanding the properties of digital information and communication technologies and the potential changes that are intertwined in their use (Peacock, 2007). We will use two models to help us analyze the opportunities presented by Facebook. First, we use Innovation Radar to help us make a broad assessment of the opportunities and potential value to both the organization and our audiences. We then use Genre Analysis to develop a more refined understanding of the potential nature of communications with Members, compared with current channels.

Innovation Radar: Facebook Members Group

The Innovation Radar (Sawhney, Wolcott & Arroniz, 2007) is a framework that can help museums assess potential opportunities and approaches for innovation (Dawson, 2007). Table 1 shows this model applied to identify potential value in using Facebook for the CSTMC’s Membership Program across a range of dimensions.

Dimension Description CSTMC Membership
Facebook Group
Offerings Develop innovative new products or services. Facebook “forum” as a new service for Members.
Platform * Use common components or building blocks to create derivative offerings. Many existing features and applications.
Facebook as an application platform.
Solutions Create integrated and customized offerings that solve end-to-end customer problem            More timely information for Members.
Members can answer each other’s questions and share experiences.
Customers Discover unmet customer needs or identify underserved customer segments. Primary target is Members.
Also open to non-members, as a resource, and with the potential to grow the Membership base (with non-members tapping in).
Overlap in demographic of Members and on Facebook.
Customer Experience Redesign customer interactions across all touch points and all moments of contact. Another way to stay in touch with the museum.
Allow Members to share their experiences, to feel they are more a part of the institution.
Value Capture* Redefine how company gets paid or create innovative new revenue streams. Significant non-monetary value generated:
Getting to know Members better;
Rich information on a sampling of Members (profiles);
Tool for research – e.g. consulting members as part of formative evaluation for new products.
Processes* Redesign core operating processes to improve efficiency and effectiveness.            Easy Web publishing for the Members program.
Direct worldwide access, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Organization Change form, function or activity scope of the firm for customer focus. Web responsibilities within Membership Program.
Supply Chain Think differently about sourcing and fulfillment. Streamlining the flow of information to Members
Presence* Create new distribution channels or innovative points of presence, including the places where offerings can be bought or used by customers. 7 million+ profiles in Canada.
260,000+ profiles in the Ottawa Network.
Facebook as a place where many people carry out aspects of their daily activities.
Particularly significant in the context of Canada and its National Capital Region.
Networking* Create network-centric intelligent and integrated offerings. Facebook is built on an array of overlapping, integrated networks.
Brand Leverage a brand into new domains. Carry and extend the brand of the CSTMC’s museums into social networks.

Table 1: CSTMC Membership Facebook group assessed with the Innovation Radar

Several dimensions (*) have a particular innovative potential:


A platform offers a set of components that serve as building blogs for products or services. Facebook’s wide array of built-in features and add-on applications offer many opportunities to use common, modular elements that already exist, including groups, the discussion board, the wall, Facebook email, the news feed, and the organizational profile. It also offers the potential to develop new applications, such as ArtShare (, created by developers at the Brooklyn Museum.

Of these many options, CSTMC’s Membership program has primarily made use of a Facebook group, including its Wall and Discussion Board, and Facebook E-mail, to date.

Value Capture

There are several types of non-monetary “value capture,” including a better understanding of members; more engaging, two-way communication; and feedback for research, such as a tool in front-end evaluation (see discussion below).

A caution is warranted: we suggest it is imperative to respect group members’ privacy. For example, harvesting of profile data for off-site use, as played out in the recent Facebook-Scoble controversy (Thompson, 2008), is at best a questionable practice.


The Facebook group represents a significant new process for communications with Members. Facebook has allowed direct contribution and management by non-“webbies,” who can now make immediate updates. It has also opened alternate communications channels, such as Facebook email, the Wall and the Discussion Forums.

Membership continues to rely on the re-use of text that has been written for other forms of communication, but these updates can now be shared in a more timely way than the quarterly newsletter cycle allowed.


As noted above, social network sites have become a significant part of many people’s daily lives. They are virtual spaces in which people are present, in which they can engage with museums and each other.


Networking is at the core of social networking sites. Facebook is an array of overlapping, integrated networks, including Facebook Networks (school, work, and city), networks of Friends, Groups, Applications, Fans, profile data, etc. Mechanisms such as the News Feed, Mini-feed and email allow communications across networks.

Social Media and The Genre Model

The Genre Model is another framework that can help museums understand new opportunities for digital communications.

A genre is a patterning of communication created by a combination of the individual, social and technical forces implicit in a recurring communicative situation. A genre structures communication by creating shared expectations about the form and content of the interaction, thus easing the burden of production and interpretation. (Erikson 2000)

Genres are employed in everyday communication in many forms, including oral (e.g. the Conversational Exchange, the Interview), “analogue” media (e.g. the Book, the Report, and the Newsletter), and computer-mediated communication (e.g. the early Web Home Page, the E-mail Digest and the FAQ) (Crowston & Williams, 1997). The evolution of genres can also be traced, such as the evolution of the business letter of the mid-1800s through the memo to memo in e-mail of the 1990s (Yates, Orlikowski & Jackson, 2008).

Genres may play out in genre systems or repertoires, in which communication in one genre generates expression in another genre. These systems can be highly formalized (such as a Request for Proposal generating Proposals) or very informal (such as a blog post generating email correspondence).

Yates and Orlikowski introduced genre theory to the information systems community in 1992 (Erikson 2000). They have evolved their genre model to capture six key dimensions to help describe any given genre (Yates, Orlikowski & Jackson, 2008):

  1. Why – What is the purpose of the communication? What are the associated expectations? Why use this communication technology as opposed to one already available?
  2. What – What will be communicated? Are there expectations about content with respect to this medium?
  3. Who – Who are the participants involved (or who could be involved)? What are their roles (e.g. sender, primary receiver, secondary receiver, broker)? Is the communication broadcast, one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many, etc.?
  4. Where – What is the location of the communication? If on-line, then where, and does the physical location of participants matter?
  5. When – What are the temporal aspects of the communication? How quickly is a response expected? Are there different temporal norms?
  6. How – In what form does the communication take place? What are the expectations regarding format, language, style, and medium?

Genre analysis can be particularly useful in examining the shifting media and forms of communication on the Web. “Genres are dynamic: they evolve in response to the communicative situation” (Erikson, 1999). Situated genre theory considers the “ways in which genres arise out of recurring communicative situation,” i.e., genre arises “out of the attempts of the genre’s ‘users’ – the ‘discourse community’ – to achieve their communicative purpose in that situation” (Erikson, 2000). This makes genre analysis a useful tool in examining how different communities may develop and employ different genres over the same medium – i.e. using a platform in very different ways, with different social conventions.

“In order to initiate a conversation, people must not only have an audience, but also have a sense of what approach might be effective so that the conversation does not flop” (boyd & Heer, 2006). A clear sense of genre helps to both establish and satisfy the expectations of the participants, making it easier both to initiate and sustain on-line conversations.

This makes genre analysis a useful too for museums to understand emerging and evolving digital genres such as social media. As Madsen-Brooks (2007) suggests, “institutions need to enter [social networking] spaces with firm answers to [fundamental] questions” regarding audience, purpose, information, actions, location and other aspects. Genre analysis provides a framework to consider these questions. By considering the nature of a given genre, museums can better decide whether the genre is an appropriate communications mechanism, and may also discover and make use of new genres that help them meet their mandate.

The blog is an example of a genre that has gained significant traction for museums and the museum community. There has been much analysis of blogs using Genre Analysis (for example, see Miller & Shepherd, 2004; Herring, et al, 2004; Herring, et al, 2005; Jackson, Yates & Orlikowski, 2007). Herring et al (2005) suggest that blogs now constitute multiple genres, each with its own set of expectations. This diversity in genre can also be seen in Museum blogs (as illustrated by the range of blog categories at

Genre Analysis of CSTMC Membership Communications

Genre analysis can be applied to examine the opportunities opened up by the Facebook group, when compared with the traditional vehicle of communication with Members, the Membership Newsletter.

Genre Dimension CSTMC Members Newsletter(traditional newsletter genre) CSTMC Members Facebook Group Forum (genre expectations)
Why (purpose) Disperse and disseminate information about the museums and activities to Members. Disperse information.Actively engage individuals to seek their opinions, ideas and feedback.
Promote the Membership Program.
What (content) Member news and event information, plus information on events and programming at each museum. Information on news and events, as well as discussions about various topics of interest to Members.
Who (participants and their roles) Produced by Membership.Contributions by museum Communications and Programming.
Received and (presumably) read by Members.
Membership Program staff posts pre-edited text used in other mediums with slight language changes (more conversational).
Members are able to post comments, ideas, and thoughts, and respond to Membership Program posts.
Non-members can see the group and participate; may be induced to join the Membership Program.
Where (location) Mailed to every Member’s home. Members on Facebook.
Members who join the group, or otherwise see it within their networks.
When (parameters, norms, expectations) Mailed quarterly. More frequent and current updates from the museum.
Members can comment, ask questions, or contribute at any time.
How (linguistic elements, formality of language, etc.) Traditional newsletter format.
Brief articles with a direct, motivating style.
More informal, conversational style.
Context Traditional vehicle for communicating with museum Members. Experimental vehicle; use initiated by Membership Program.

Table 2: Genre comparison of Membership newsletter vs. Facebook group

The genre of the Facebook group incorporates the CSTMC Membership Program’s goals of more active engagement of their constituency. It also brings to the surface other significant differences in this approach to communication, such as the tone and informal style of communication.

It is important to note that the description of genre for the Facebook Group is an expression of expected or desired outcomes. A genre only truly emerges in the repeated manifestation of behaviour. But these expectations are useful, both for planning and guiding the use of a medium and when considering questions of evaluation and success.

Potential Genres Within Facebook

Social media can be used to play out a wide range of genres. For example, blogs enable a variety of digital genres, such as link-centred filters of Web content, on-line journals in the tradition of handwritten diaries, travelogues, conversational exchanges, or a hybrid of several such existing genres (Herring et. al., 2004).

Facebook is composed of features that incorporate even more antecedent genres. Most of its varied mechanisms, such as email, bulletin boards, and blog-like features, have their roots in other digital or analogue genres. However, there are no guarantees that the actual use of a mechanism in Facebook will reflect its roots. The different context and diversity of features creates the potential for myriad emergent situated genres and genre systems. The dizzying array of features and applications makes genre analysis more complex than analysis of other digital media, such as blogs.

For the CSTMC’s Membership group, it remains to be seen what genres will emerge over time. Will we see reoccurring patterns that stabilize in the form of fairly stable, emergent genres? This is clouded by the facts that not only is the Membership Facebook Group new, but also many Facebook members are new to the site (given the recent, rapid growth), and so their own patterns of use of Facebook may not have stabilized.

However, some uses have started to emerge in the use of several Facebook mechanisms. These emerging uses can be mapped to traditional antecedent genres, to help conceptualize the emerging patters.

Genre Dimension Announcements (antecedent genre: news postings, newsletter article) Discussion (antecedent genre: bulletin board) Facebook Email (antecedent genre: email exchange) Visitor consultation experiment (antecedent genre: good old Q&A)
Why Updates for Members. Exchange between Members or members and staff. Email to and from Members. Gather member feedback.
Feed front-end evaluation of product development.
What Topics of potential interest to (fellow) Members. Discussions around topics of potential interest to (fellow) Members. Exchanges between Members and Membership Program. Question,
Who Members or museum staff. Members and museum staff. Members and museum staff. Question posed by museum;
Responses by Members.
Where Member’s Facebook group. Member’s Facebook group. Facebook (email). Facebook (Member’s group and email).
When Occasional updates;Timely information;Available for viewing anytime. Available for posting at any time; responses likely expected within days. Immediate delivery; response likely expected within a day or so. Responses anticipated within a week while topic is fresh.
How Facebook group “Wall.” Semi-formal announcements. Facebook group “Discussion Forum” and “Wall.”
Informal tone.
Facebook email.Informal tone. Facebook email, re-enforced on the group Wall, and posted to Discussion Forum.
Informal tone.
Context General announcements made to the group. Members posting experiences and answering each other’s questions. Facebook email sent directly to group members; emails and responses received from group members. Question emailed to group members and posted to Discussion Forum (see discussion below).

Table 3: multiple potential genres within the Facebook group

Again, these are potential emerging genres – there is not yet enough of a track record to determine the degree to which patterns of behaviour will be recurring. There is also evidence confirming that conventions are not yet established with the actors; for example, bulletin-board style posts have been made both on the Wall and in the Discussion Threads. A more established genre would better guide such contributions.

Facebook and Product Research

One of the scenarios that played out in the Membership Facebook Group was an experimental visitor consultation. This experiment explored the value of using Facebook as a research tool in visitor studies.

Facebook And Front-End Evaluations

Front-end evaluations are done in the early stages of an exhibition project in order to help teams in the development of their interpretive plans. Usual areas to explore include pre-existing knowledge levels, misconceptions, controversy and levels of interest for the various themes in development. Front-end evaluations can also serve to identify or confirm target audiences.

Typically, front-end evaluations involve both qualitative and quantitative phases. Because each exhibition is different, it is almost always necessary to explore the new topic with a small number of people before designing a more formal instrument like a survey questionnaire. Facebook provides an excellent means of capturing some rich impressions as well as seeing what kind of language is used in relation to a given exhibition theme.

The project selected for this experiment was an exhibition on bee keeping at the Canada Agriculture Museum, scheduled to open in 2010. Although it is still very early in the planning phases, one element in need of confirmation was the possibility of installing a live hive in the Museum. The display would have a see-through side to allow visitors to observe bees in action. A clear pipe leading into the wall would also allow the visitors to watch as the bees come and go.

Both for practical and interpretive planning reasons, the decision to install the live hive needed to be made very early on in the process, and therefore the research had to be concluded in a relatively short time. Fortunately, the main question was quite simple: are visitors going to be concerned or upset about the live bees?

Members joined to the Facebook Group were the perfect sub-group to consult in this case. Many of them are frequent visitors to the Agriculture Museum and have a strong sense of ownership. They are also demographically and psychographically similar to the remainder of that Museum’s visitors (the Agriculture Museum attracts primarily families with very young children).

Although the exhibition development team had a clear issue in mind, the post was purposefully not a question about whether the live bees were scary. It read:

The Agriculture Museum is going to be opening an exhibition about Beekeeping in about two years. The team putting it together is thinking of having a live hive in the museum (in the room across from the Tractors exhibition). One side of the hive would be see-through, and there would be a clear pipe into the wall so that you could watch the bees coming and going.

What do you think?

The reason for this was to see what reactions would arise without prompting. Every data gathering method carries a certain amount of bias. Formats that do not provide anonymity (such as this one) are prone to social desirability bias, meaning people respond in accordance to what they feel is socially correct. Avoiding the use of key trigger word like allergies, scary, fear or stings, the exhibition team was hoping to see if (and how) Members would express those ideas on their own.


To date, 12 comments have been posted in response to the blurb. In each case, the response was positive and encouraging. Interestingly, two comments did mention bee stings and allergies, but not in ways that suggest the Museum should pull this display:

I think that it's a wonderful idea! I know my three-year-old would love to see real bees in action without the fear of getting stung. It would be very interesting to see up close. The museum of Nature had something similar years ago and as a child I loved to watch the "busy bees"

I think this would be awesome as long as there was no way of the bees getting to the patrons. There are so many people with bee allergies. I know my daughter would love this!’

From this step in the evaluation, a sense was acquired that the core audience likes the live hive idea and believes it will be very engaging for their children. Stings and allergies did surface, suggesting that further research would be useful in helping the Museum to shape the messaging around the live hive. Finally, it was interesting to see how many people mentioned positive memories of past experiences with live insect displays in their posts.

Next Steps

As mentioned above, the Facebook experiment was not intended to be the sole method of evaluating the live hive issue. A Web-based survey is in development that will pose more specific questions to a larger sampling of Members. The responses gathered through this experiment are proving very useful in creating that survey. The spontaneous language the respondents used helps with wording the questions. The mentions of memories also suggests an approach for probing respondents about what they would like to see, learn and do with the live hive.

Comments On Facebook As A Research Venue

Every avenue researchers use to study humans has drawbacks and limitations. Social networking sites are relatively new, and that in itself is a challenge for ensuring the quality of our evaluations. Moreover, in environments like Facebook an obvious issue is the public forum format. Social desirability bias is more likely to be at play when the person leaving the comment is clearly identifiable. Along that same line, seeing what others have already said may prevent some from giving a differing opinion. The researcher also gives up control of who responds, and discussions could sometimes take on a life of their own.

Having acknowledged certain issues, the social nature of Facebook does offer great possibilities for qualitative research. For respondents, reacting freely to a post is not as much of an imposition as a questionnaire or interview. Indeed, we hope our Members enjoy and appreciate being consulted. For researchers, the effort, time and money required to post discussion threads are minimal. The data collection can be modified at any point by the researcher, who only needs to post a new comment to affect the discussion. Finally, self-expression and identity are at the heart of social networks, and as such they do offer rich details about how people view themselves and how they think about different ideas.

Measuring Success

Measurement of Web initiatives is a common challenge. Reporting often relies on basic building blocks as indicators. For example, the CSTMC reports several basic, standard measures, such as visits, page views and average duration per visit, across all of its Web sites, for the purposes of its official Corporate documents. While such broad indicators of Web activity are often expected by internal and external stakeholders, they are not necessarily the best indicators of “success.”

This may present other problems for new media projects. If an organization focuses on its official “published” measures, these could logically steer it away from experimenting on new, unproven media where the value is not proven and measurable by the organization’s traditional, established means. Christensen (1997) has written at length about the challenges in nurturing disruptive innovations before they are proven.

Social media are of a different nature than other Web offerings. Ideally, we should start with an articulation of what success would look like – this should help guide both quantitative and qualitative measures. From this starting point, quantitative and qualitative measures can be considered.

To generate ideas about potentially useful measures for social networking initiatives, we can look to some of its social media cousins. Experiences in the measurement of blogs may be the closest analogue. While the genre on social networks may not be as stable as with blogs, the broader goals of engagement with these media are similar. We can hope that some of the thinking about how to measure the success of blogs may carry over to social networking platforms.

Fortunately, there has been some great thought put into the challenges of measurement of blogs. Spadaccini and Chan (2007) have reported in-depth on meaningful options for measuring Museum blogs. Along similar lines, Avinash Kaushik (2007) has suggested six practical measures for measuring success with blogs (with potential for museum applicability, as noted by Seb Chan, 2007). Briefly summarized, Kaushik suggests six measures:

  • Raw Author Contribution Rate (posts per month; words per post)
  • Audience Growth (visits, unique visitors)
  • Conversation Rate (comments per post)
  • Citations / Ripple Index (e.g. Technorati rank)
  • Cost
  • Benefit

These measures imply goals of activity, consistency, engagement, impact, manageability of cost, and tangible benefit. The measures are also practical: the software mechanisms of the blog and infrastructure of the blogosphere (e.g. Technorati) allow for automation in calculating the first four of these six suggested measures.

For activity in a social network such as Facebook, the same data access and automated mechanisms may not be available. A number of analogues are still possible:

  • Raw Author Contribution Rate: posts per month, whether Wall, Discussion Forum or other mechanisms.
  • Audience Growth: either number of group members, or number of fans.
  • Conversion Rate: follow-up comments per post, be it Wall post, discussion thread, or initiated email exchanges. Count for both museum-initiated and audience-initiated.
  • Audience-initiated posts and threads (with or without follow-up).
  • Cost: based on hours spent maintaining the forum.
  • Benefit. This is not as easy to capture, but may be informed by qualitative aspects.

All of these may need to be calculated and tracked manually, not an insignificant issue. For the CSTMC Membership Program’s Facebook Group, we have only just begun to experiment with such measures, in the hopes of determining which may be practical to collect on a sustained basis, and which will provide useful, guiding feedback.

The root of the measurement problem ultimately lies in how success is defined. For the CSTMC Membership Group, we have captured a set of expectations in both the Innovation Radar and Genre models. These models provide us with a qualitative framework in which to evaluate the long-term success.

“Success is determined by audience participation” (Caruth & Bernstein, 2007). In social networks, another significant avenue to gauge such success is available. Ask them.


The social media experiments of the CSTMC have already shown promising results. The posts of visitors to the Facebook group have shown animated enthusiasm in group members. This in turn has generated enthusiasm among other staff within the institution.

A preliminary experiment in using the group for aspects of visitor studies has also been promising, as it is quick, convenient, and flexible in modifying the discussion thread. It has also been a unique way to access a specific and useful sub-group of visitors and help maintain a connection between Members and museum staff.

There are, however, a variety of potential pitfalls with social networking sites. One concern is whether such sites are a fad or flash in the pan. On the surface, sites appear to rise and fall in popularity with surprising speed. A closer look shows that decline often happens for specific reasons (for example, see [boyd, 2006a] on the decline on Friendster). Still, it may not be wise to invest all your efforts in a platform that may be gone tomorrow. The multi-pronged approach of innovators such as the Brooklyn Museum and the Walker Arts Center seems appropriate. Also, keeping your investment light will make it easier to evolve with your constituencies.

Caution is also warranted on other grounds. The Web itself is an open platform, bound by open standards. Blogs, while bound by convention of genre, are also typically standards-based, and can be under the full control of the owner or author. Blogs also appear comparatively stable on a large scale, given the distributed nature of the blogosphere. (boyd 2007a).

The same cannot be said for most other social media and social networking sites. Contributors are often subject to the terms and conditions of another party. For heritage institutions such as museums, closed or restricted platforms can pose significant risks with respect to issues such as long-term preservation. Cultural heritage institutions should proceed with eyes open, and ensure that even if they make use of proprietary media, they can maintain their independence and the integrity of their digital information holdings.

Issues of privacy are another important factor. Users of social networking sites appear to be willing to live with great compromises in their privacy. However, even these broad boundaries have been tested a number of times. Facebook, for example, has risked alienating its users in controversies such as the introduction of the news feed in 2006 (boyd, 2006a), and the more recent introduction of the “Beacon” in 2007 (Hirsh, 2007).

Privacy concerns notwithstanding, these are spaces where museum constituencies can be found. Regardless of whether we are present as institutions, our constituents will discuss us in these spaces, even creating representations of us in our absence. It is interesting to note that two of the first Facebook groups about CSTMC – “Canada Agricultue [sic] Museum Alum” (, and “Petition for a new Science and Technology Museum” ( – were the product of enthusiastic supporters or other interested parties, and were not created by people currently employed by the museum.

CSTMC has decided to be present, and engage in the conversation as it evolves.


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Cite as:

Dawson, B., et al., Social Presence: New Value For Museums And Networked Audiences, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted