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Marketing a museum in lockdown

Updated: Aug 22, 2020

Marketing our museum looks like it should be a simple job. Fire engine fans? Captive audience; let them know about all the marvellous machines they can see on a visit to NESM (and don’t forget to mention they can ride on them too!) Passionate about the police? You won’t be able to resist a visit to our original Victorian cells. Local history lovers, why not come and explore our unique 120-year-old building? Or if you’re the parents of a bored toddler, a trip to NESM is guaranteed to entertain. There really is something for everyone here! (Especially if you like alliteration; we adore alliteration at NESM.)

So far, so good.

But then what if a global pandemic hits and the doors close on all those exciting and marvellous things? What if the public can’t visit NESM to see all the wonderful stuff you’re telling them about? What if the continued support of your fans, friends and followers (oops, at it again) is going to be absolutely crucial to your museum’s survival? How do you make sure that you continue to engage, excite and enthuse people about NESM when they can’t come and see you?

As marketing and PR co-ordinator for the museum, that’s been my challenge over the last six months. And a challenge it has been, trying to come up with new and interesting content across our social media channels - all from the comfort of my own sofa. (That’s not just laziness; like some of us at #TeamNESM I was working from home during lockdown. Although easy access to chocolate digestives is always a bonus).

The first thing I had to do was make sure that our followers and potential visitors knew exactly what was going on at NESM, from the day we closed in March to the point where we announced our reopening date. We had so many people getting in touch asking us how things were going and letting us know they couldn’t wait to come and see us again, it was really important that we kept everyone in the loop and up to speed. And that’s a very apt way of putting it, given the rollercoaster we’ve been on for the last six months.

Some of the stuff I could share was the fun and exciting stuff; like a behind the scenes peek at our improved and enlarged archives spaces, the unusual discoveries we made during refurbishment work or the transformation of our main display room. Yes, here at NESM we can even make watching paint dry sound exciting!

But keeping everyone informed also meant being honest about the huge challenges we were facing during the lockdown and sharing the bad news as well as the good. I had to do this when I told our followers that we had been turned down for, or were ineligible for, any emergency coronavirus funding and there was a real risk we might have to close for good. I did it again when we launched an urgent fundraising appeal to #SaveNESM, and again when I was able to shout THANK YOU from the rooftops to everyone who responded to that appeal, giving us a lifeline at the height of the lockdown.

It was really important for us to share all these ups and downs with our followers, supporters and visitors through our social media. As a self-funded, independent museum we wouldn’t be here without our visitors. Keeping everyone up to date felt like the right thing to do and a way of keeping people engaged with the museum while we were closed. To borrow a phrase, we are all in this together!

Another thing we tried to do through our social media is replicate some of the interactive elements of a visit to NESM. One of the things that people love about our museum is how hands-on we are; there’s always something to be tried on, climbed in or coloured in! But hands-on is a challenge when everyone has to be hands-off.

So we launched some weekly hashtags for our younger fans. #SketchItSunday challenged them to draw a different picture each week inspired by either items in our collection, by the work of the emergency services or by what they were doing during lockdown. We had some great responses and I think we might have discovered a few budding Picassos!

#MakeItMonday provided learning activities kids could do at home that linked in to some of the school workshops we usually provide on themes like crime and punishment, fire and water safety, or the Great Fire of London. From making a peelers’ hat to building their own lifeboat, we were able to offer some fun activities that also gave people a little taste of what was waiting to be discovered at NESM.

Even though we’ve been unable to welcome visitors for the last few months, social media has been a great tool for taking our museum, our collection and the stories we tell into people’s homes. We joined in the #MuseumAtHome hashtag, sharing photos and snippets about some of the items in our collection and the work we do to care for them – big AND small. This was a really worthwhile effort because, while it was interesting to many of our existing followers, it also took our name and work out to people within the museum and heritage sector who might not have known what we do. These are links that we can hopefully benefit from long into the future.

#WartimeWednesday, #ThrowbackThursday and #FridayFact gave us an opportunity to share more not just about objects but also about the people and stories that we celebrate here at NESM. Coming up with interesting stuff every week was difficult at times, but with the whole of the emergency services represented at NESM and more than a century of history within our building there was usually something to whet the appetite.

And talking of our historic home, the combined police, fire and ambulance station that houses the museum turned 120 in July so that was a great excuse for a whole week of social media activity celebrating its history and the lives of the people who worked here. Volunteers Week in June also gave a great opportunity to spend seven days celebrating our wonderful volunteers.

Overall my aim was to keep our followers updated and entertained, let them know how hard we were working and, of course, make sure that they didn’t forget about us. And it seems to have worked. We’ve actually gained followers during lockdown – topping 7,000 on Facebook just recently - so I’m claiming that as a win! Plus we’ve been liked, shared and followed by people from inside and outside the sector who might not have known about us before so our reach continues to grow.

Now, as we work towards our reopening on 9 September, it’s back to business - not quite ‘as usual’, because visitors will notice a lot of changes at the museum that have been introduced to make us Covid-19 safe. But now I have the fun job once again of being able to encourage visitors back to NESM, trailing all the new things to be explored and, of course, reassuring people that we are ready to make their visit exciting, fun AND safe.

You can keep up to date with all this on our social media channels. We’re on Twitter and Facebook (@NESMUSEUM) and Instagram (@NES_MUSEUM). And don’t forget, if you already follow us I’d love to hear from you about what content you enjoy the most and what you’d like to see more of.

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