Social Media Strategies – Ethnography and Marketing – Part 1

I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading lately on ethnographic approaches to Visitor Studies.

SO FAR, THE ETHNOGRAPHIC METHOD OF STUDYING VISITORS FROM A DISCRETE SPOT SEEMED TO BE WORKING QUITE WELL. - From the Flickr Commons. By Gottlieb, William P. Portrait of Ralph Burns, Edwin A. Finckel, George Handy, Neal Hefti, Johnny Richards, and Eddie Sauter, Museum of Modern Art, New York, N.Y., ca. Mar. 1947. Part of William P. Gottlieb Collection (DLC) 99-401005. URI:

I’ve also been doing some reading on marketing and the web.  And it got me to thinking, what would happen if you put these two things together? Those wonderful techniques that we use for visitor studies in museums, combined with marketing-type approaches to analysing online interactions?

My thought is this: What are the significant factors from ethnography and marketing for consideration when designing a strategy for social media use by museums?

I started my thoughts on this by identifying how current approaches to participatory museum design could benefit from the adoption of social media.  It seems to me that the most pertinent issue in this adoption is the development of a social media strategy.

So I am proposing to put forward a list of key considerations for museums when developing such a strategy, through identifying how appropriate theoretical approaches in social media research and museum audience studies can be combined.

Introduction to museums and social media

We all know that the idea of the ‘museum’ has had an evolving purpose since its inception, today a consideration of ICOFOM’s definitions for the museum’s functions are a useful starting point: preservation, research, communication, management, architecture [1]. Recent work by Kelly further expands on the social responsibilities of the museum, to provide socio-cultural learning and narrative [2]. In tandem with these ideas, has been the move to achieve conversation, communication and curation through participatory design [3]. Social media provides an ideal arena for this struggle to promote identity through communication [4].

Current approaches in measuring impacts in museums have been heavily influenced by ethnographic approaches, where cultural agency is seen to be constantly negotiated [5,6,7,8]. This perspective with its emphasis on context and agency dictates that culture has a direct impact on societal factors including a country’s economy or socio-political characteristics [9]. It follows therefore that museums could benefit from developing strategies for engagement that have more of an emphasis on the cultural economics of society. Current work around marketing and economics provides us with a useful methodology for engaging with this communication.

Considerations for the development of a social media strategy

I am interested in developing the key consideration that context is essential to the development of any social media strategy. Work on the impact of multi-national settings on the implementation and interpretation of the concept of marketing orientation [10] provides a useful introduction to the impact that cultural values can have on the shaping of that interpretation.

The differences between ethnographic and marketing approaches to analysing social media can be better understood using a comparison with Nightingale’s work on cultural studies and mass-communication studies where the difference is identified as “what texts do to the audience and what texts mean to them” [11]. Marketing-based studies generally concentrates efforts in developing methods for the analysis of the effects of the use of social media on individuals and groups, whereas ethnographic studies use observational methods to establish explanations for the meaning of social media to those using it. Ethnography works to better understand why people act in the way that they do by looking at tacit meanings in actions.

Falk states that museum visitors are active meaning-makers with differing motivations [12], and this ties into Qualman’s work on socialnomics [13], considering the impact of social media on business from a people-driven perspective. Falk’s meaning-makers would benefit from this people-driven approach, whilst Tapscott and Williams book Macrowikinomics puts forward case studies for the new models developing out of current trends online for openness, sharing and acting globally that could be applied to a museums context [14]. Both Qualman’s and Tapscott and Williams’ methodologies take much from philosophy’s positivism, basing much interpretation on the assumption that the world has a fixed observable structure that can be measured if the correct methodologies are identified [15].

More to follow in my next post on marketing approaches to social media…


[1] Davis, A., Desvallées, A., Mairesse, F., (eds), 2010. What is a Museum? Dr. C. Müller-Straten München and the International Committee for Museology of the International Council of Museums

[2] Kelly, L., 2010. ‘Engaging Museum Visitors in Difficult Topics Through Socio-cultural Learning and Narrative’. In Cameron, F., Kelly, L., (eds), Hot Topics, Public Culture, Museums, Cambridge Scholars Publishing: Newcastle-upon-Tyne: 194-210

[3] Grincheva, N., 2011. ‘The starfish of cultural diplomacy – social media in the toolbox of museums.’, The Language of Art and Music: An International Symposium on the Potential for Artistic Expression to Cross Cultural Barriers and the Relationship between Art, Culture, and International Relations, LOAM2011, 17-20th February 2011, Berlin. Available at:

[4] van Dijk, J., 2006. The network society: social aspects of new media, Sage: London

[5] Goulding, C., 2000. ‘The museum environment and the visitor experience’, European Journal of Marketing, 34 (3/4): 261-278. Available at:

[6] Hooper-Greenhill, E., 2001. ‘Changing Values in the Art Museum: rethinking communication and learning’, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 6 (1): 9-31. Available at:

[7] Meyer, J. W., Jepperson, R. L., 2000. ‘The ‘Actors’ of Modern Society: The Cultural Construction of Social Agency’, Sociological Theory, 18: 100–120. Available at:

[9] Yúdice, G., 2003. The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the Global Era, Duke University Press: Durham, NC

[10] Nakata, C., Siyakumar, K., 2001. ‘Instituting the Marketing Concept in a Multinational Setting: The Role of National Culture’, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 29 (3), Summer: 255-276. Available at:

[11] Nightingale, V., 1996. Studying audiences: The shock of the real, Routledge; London

[12] Falk, J., 2010. ‘Situated Identities and the Museum Visitor Experience’, The Visitor Studies Group Conference, 29th January 2010. Available at:

[13] Qualman, E., 2010. Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business, Wiley: London

[14] Tapscott, D., Williams, A., 2010. Macrowikinomics. Rebooting Business and the World, Atlantic Books

[15] Fay, B., 1996. Contemporary Philosophy of Social Science, Blackwell: London