While in graduate school for museum studies, I realized museum YouTube videos weren’t popular because museums did not understand the culture of the social media platform. In my quest to aid museums, I wrote the following article, which appeared in the July 2012 issue of MUSEUM magazine.

YouTube is the most important, least understood social media tool in a museum’s arsenal.

Currently, most museums use YouTube exclusively as a broadcast tool—one-way communication that does not invite comments from viewers. But YouTube is a social medium, not television. If used correctly, it can build a strong sense of community out of almost nothing—making it a museum’s most powerful and useful mode of communication.

When you subscribe to a YouTube channel, you don’t know that much about the person who has developed it. Maybe you’ve watched one or two videos and think they are funny or creative. When you start watching the videos regularly, you get to know whom the developer collaborates with most often and you probably subscribe to those people’s channels as well. These groups of people form one part of the YouTube community. Through watching, “liking,” commenting on and participating in the videos, you, too, become a part of that community with its inside jokes (often printed on t-shirts and other merchandise), shared stories and experiences. You feel like you are a part of an exclusive group that “gets it.” You are part of a community.

How does a museum go about creating such a community? The social barrier of starting a conversation with a faceless museum is too high. It would be like talking to an idea or a building. Instead, try using an actual person, or people, to be the face, voice and personality of the institution—a vlogger. On YouTube, the most commented-on, “liked” and discussed videos are video-blogs, or vlogs, or in which one or two people talk directly to the camera (and hence the viewer), usually in a close-cropped shot with silent moments edited out. Vloggers often incorporate comedy sketches, humorous graphics and annotations into their videos, or footage of their experiences. If the material is interesting enough, and the creator has the right connections (i.e., popular YouTube friends), the rise to the top of the most-subscribed list can be meteoric.

This personal aspect of vlogging spills over into other social networking outlets as well. YouTube stars get hundreds of comments on Facebook posts and have hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter. Vloggers attain the status of “friend” and move up the priority list on Facebook and Twitter because viewers feel personally acquainted with them.

The Whitney Museum in New York has ventured into vlogging by creating American Sign Language (ASL) vlogs. This is a terrific initiative. Not only is the museum playing into the YouTube culture with vlogging, but it is serving an already-defined community—people with hearing impairments. Currently, the Whitney’s vlogs don’t have many viewers or much interaction, but just a few tweaks could increase participation.

In vlogging, there has to be some form of interaction with the audience. Each popular YouTuber is unique, but their videos are funny, creative, entertaining and, most important, ask the audience to participate. In addition to talking straight to the camera, YouTubers often ask for specific comments or ask their viewers to challenge them to do something in future videos. They might also ask viewers to send in videos or comments that will later appear in a video.

Museums entering the YouTube community should be aware of existing communities on YouTube. Tap into them! If you have a vlog for people with hearing loss, check out similar vloggers. Reference their videos, invite them to your museum, interact with them. This goes for any vlogger: Invite other vloggers to join you, reference them and draw inspiration from them. Join the community within YouTube at the same time you are building your own community of viewers.

Another good option is to create a distinct style of video for your museum. Then it won’t necessarily matter who is in the videos, only that the style stays the same and the quality remains high. (Having a consistent narrator, however, is very helpful in building a loyal audience.) An example is YouTubers who use illustrations to tell a story. They film their hands drawing, speed up that footage and record a voiceover for the video. You can also use graphics to create the same effect. There are many other styles of video that can act as inspiration for museums. Watch YouTube to find a style that speaks to your museum.

Currently museum videos are not compelling people to hit the subscribe button. Museums typically use YouTube as a highly formalized, one-way communication tool. Common formats are interviews with a person talking to someone off camera, TV-style behind-the-scenes videos with generic music in the background and artifacts showcases. These types of videos have merit, but their execution is at odds with the YouTube culture of informality, humor, approachability, interactivity and collaboration between fellow YouTubers and viewers—talking to viewers, not at them.

Museums should allow unfettered comments, respond to comments, comment on other videos, subscribe to other channels and participate in discussions across the YouTube community by making videos that draw on other stars’ characters and material. Simply watching YouTube is also important so you know what is happening on other channels and can react to popular trends. Following this maxim, the Atlanta History Center successfully joined the YouTube conversation earlier this year when they uploaded a video called “Stuff Museum People Say.” In December 2011, an uploaded video called “Sh*t Girls Say” had become extremely popular. Hundreds of people across YouTube created their own videos based on this concept. The Atlanta History Center’s video shows that not only were they paying attention to what was happening, but they were willing to join the fun. It is by far their most watched, shared and commented-on video.

Joining the YouTube community is an opportunity to show a large audience in a fun, exciting way what your museum does. The most-subscribed channels on YouTube have more than 5 million followers, with millions of views and thousands of comments. None of the most-subscribed channels are museums, but that can change. If nothing else, there is vast room for improvement. Right now even the largest museums in the country are lucky to have a few thousand subscribers; their videos often have less than 1,000 views and under 50 comments.

YouTube fans are among the most active online groups. If you are able to engage them, they will likely want to visit your museum, tell others about that cool thing your museum is doing and maybe even donate their time to your institution. Many YouTubers have also been very successful at raising money online—a potential application for museums.

YouTube is the one form of social media through which museums can connect with an ever-increasing audience in a meaningful way over and over, building strong bonds and sharing experiences with them regardless of whether they are regular visitors or have never set foot in the museum. The potential uses of such a powerful tool are immense.

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