This case study analyzes the social media strategies of two cultural heritage institutions in the District of Columbia and in Virginia. Through this comparative study, librarians and information professionals will gain insight into the successful implementation of outreach programming through social media. Located in Georgetown, Washington, DC, The Dumbarton House is a historic home built around 1800 and it serves as the headquarters of The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America. According to their website, this small museum focuses on preserving the Federal period architecture and interior style, along with some documents and art, to showcase life in the early days of the city and to serve the needs of its members.1 The other historic home in this case study is considerably larger and better known, George Washington’s former home, Mount Vernon, located in northern Virginia.
Both historic homes utilize multiple social media platforms to interact with patrons and to promote their organization, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Vimeo, Youtube, and Flickr. This analysis is limited to observing them on Facebook and Twitter, with special emphasis on the two homes’ Twitter presence. This study aims to demonstrate how the size, fame, and financial support of the different institutions influence their social media postings, and to examine their varying levels of success in accordance with institutional goals.
First, this project sought to analyze the target audience and institutional goals of the two historic homes, and apply that information to the observed social media decisions. The definition of “success” in social media strategy execution will be considered in light of overall institutional goals and mission.
The second step in this case study entailed acquiring data by monitoring the social media accounts (Twitter and Facebook) of both historic homes for thirty days straight, during the month of February 2016 through March 2016. Gathering information based on both frequency and content of posts provided insight into strategy execution and intent.
The author did not contact the organizations whose social media platforms are analyzed in this case study. The data gathering and analysis were conducted as an observatory research project, and involvement of the historic home organizations was beyond the scope of this study.
The final step of the case study methodology involved revisiting the social media profiles (again, Twitter and Facebook) of these two institutions after a time lapse of 18 months. Examining the data again illustrated long-term effects of the two strategies and provided demonstrable, quantifiable evidence regarding successful social media practices. Thirty days’ worth of data were again analyzed to confirm the continued respective strategies and results. The evidence from this study can be applied in the implementation of other cultural heritage institution outreach strategies.
Review of Stated Institutional Goals
The different missions of the two houses affect how they use social media to interact with the public. According to the “About” section of the Dumbarton House website, the mission of the home is “to support the organization’s Corporate Societies and their members, to maintain its historic museum property, and to enhance the cultural life of Washington, D.C. … Dumbarton House promotes the understanding of historic preservation and of the early history of our nation, so that the lives and ideals of early Americans inspire present and future generations.”2 The mission of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (the organization that maintains the Mount Vernon home) “is to preserve, restore, and manage the estate of George Washington to the highest standards and to educate visitors and people throughout the world about the life and legacies of George Washington, so that his example of character and leadership will continue to inform and inspire future generations.”3
Because the Dumbarton House is smaller, because it serves the Colonial Dames (as well as relies on their sponsorship), and because its target audience is 'the cultural life of Washington, D.C., its social media postings tend to be more targeted. George Washington is arguably one of the most famous men in American history, and so there is wide interest in his home and life. Particularly with the location nearby Washington, DC (a city named for Washington), Mount Vernon attracts many visitors, and is less dependent on the financial support of a small society like the Dames. Mount Vernon can post about educational opportunities, outreach events, scenic views and “fun facts” about Washington and his estate, while Dumbarton House has a much smaller audience and a less famous “hook” to draw in visitors and social media followers.
For example, a March 16, 2016 tweet from Dumbarton House reads “Our DC Dames are having a lunchtime lecture on the history St Mary's Colony @DumbartonHouse #nacda.”4 This tweet, shown in Figure 1, features a photo of the Dames at a lecture event. This type of social media posting highlights the role of the Dame sponsors in the support of the historic home, and additionally demonstrates what the investment in the Dumbarton House offers to the Dames. This post has a very targeted audience and features a very specific event, intended for an exclusive group of interested parties and sponsors. The hashtag “nacda” refers to the National Association of Colonial Dames of America, a hashtag that may not be immediately accessible to an uninformed Twitter user.
Figure 1: A March 16, 2016 tweet from Dumbarton House that reads “Our DC Dames are having a lunchtime lecture on the history St Mary's Colony @DumbartonHouse #nacda,” and shows a photo of the Dames at a lecture event.
This kind of targeted post is directly related to the stated mission of the Dumbarton House, which in the first line says, “support the organization’s Corporate Societies and their members [the Dames].” Posts about the Dames and professional development are intended for the demographic that is already engaged with the historic home or seeks greater involvement. Additionally, Dumbarton House appeals to an adult audience, be it the Dames, or just other adults interested in local DC history.
… These fun posts on the Mount Vernon social media profiles serve to both educate about George Washington and to attract more visitors to the historic home.
Meanwhile, within a few exemplar days, (March 14-16, 2016), Mount Vernon posted about behind-the-scenes tours, facts about Martha Washington’s sewing habits, photos of furniture, job postings, visitor tips, #TriviaTuesday facts, #OnThisDay facts, and even “cute” pictures of the Mount Vernon farm animals as seen in Figure 2 below.5 Mount Vernon takes advantage of creative hashtags to share content about the home and about Washington’s life and to potentially increase the views on each post. Additionally, the last example tweet with the baby lambs demonstrates Mount Vernon’s successful integration of Twitter and Facebook. There is a cute picture of a lamb on Twitter, and this image tempts followers to watch a cute animal video by visiting another Mount Vernon social media profile.
Figure 2: A March 16, 2016 tweet from Mount Vernon that reads “Watch Mount Vernon's baby #lambs be bottle fed at 12:30 p.m. ET on #MountVernon's Facebook! bit.ly/GWMVFB,” and shows a person holding a lamb.
Admittedly, these hashtags, “fun facts,” and animal videos are not directly related to the stated mission of Mount Vernon. However, the Mount Vernon mission seeks to educate visitors and people throughout the world about the life and legacy of George Washington, and to inspire future generations. In order to accomplish this mission, the team at Mount Vernon needs to reach a wide audience and encourage visitors to the house, where they can have the opportunity to be inspired by Washington’s life. By highlighting the different features at Mount Vernon, including the historic decoration and furniture, the educational opportunities about Washington and his family, and yes, even the cute farm animals, the social media team broadens the appeal of the historic home and works to convince internet users that they should come experience the history in person. They also work to appeal to a variety of age demographics, encouraging family and group visits. These fun posts on the Mount Vernon social media profiles serve to both educate about George Washington and to attract more visitors to the historic home.
The most obvious difference between the Twitter and Facebook profiles of The Dumbarton House and Mount Vernon was (and remains) the number of followers on both accounts. Dumbarton House had 2,440 followers on Twitter, and 3,118 “likes” on Facebook as of March 2016. Mount Vernon had 23,000 followers on Twitter, and 151,050 “likes” on Facebook, also as of March 2016. The vast difference in audience size necessarily affects the strategies of the two institutions. Table 1 shows a comparison of average tweets per day and number of followers and likes for each institution's platform during the date ranges observed for this case study.
|Organization||Date Range||Average Tweets / Day||Followers / Likes|
|Dumbarton House||Feb 17-Mar 16, 2016||0.4 (12 total)||2,440 / 3,118|
|Mount Vernon||Feb 17-Mar 16, 2016||5 (171 total)||23,000 / 151,050|
|Dumbarton House||Aug 17-Sep 16, 2017||0.3 (9 total)||2,769 / 3,764|
|Mount Vernon||Aug 17-Sep 16, 2017||4 (115 total)||34,100 / [162,000+]|
Table 1: Social media activity statistics from Dumbarton House and Mount Vernon
From February 17, 2016 to March 16, 2016, The Dumbarton House has tweeted twelve times. Dumbarton House thus averaged about 0.4 tweets per day. In that same time period, Dumbarton House posted on Facebook seven times. The content does not overlap between Twitter and Facebook, and the museum appeared to use the two accounts for different purposes, with different information posted to each.
From February 17, 2016 to March 16, 2016, Mount Vernon tweeted 171 times. Mount Vernon averaged about five tweets per day. Most, though not all, of their tweets were also present on the Mount Vernon Facebook page, and some were connected with direct links from Twitter to Facebook. Tweets were more frequent than Facebook posts. However, on Facebook, the lack of a character limit allows Mount Vernon to write posts that are more detailed about historical facts, exhibits, and anecdotes.
Revisiting the two homes’ accounts 18 months later, from August 17, 2017 through September 16, 2017, the posting habits have remained largely the same. Dumbarton House tweeted nine times during those thirty days, a 25% percent decrease in posting from the frequency 18 months earlier. During this time, the Dumbarton House account gained 329 followers (bringing their total follower count up to 2,769), an average gain of just over 18 followers per month. The institution averaged 0.3 tweets per day (August 17, 2017-September 16, 2017). Additionally, as of October 6, 2017, the Dumbarton House Facebook page has 3,764 “likes,” an increase of 646. Despite the low level of activity on both accounts, Dumbarton House did increase its following over the 18 months. However, Mount Vernon’s larger initial audience and frequency of posting resulted in a much more significant increase.
From August 17, 2017 to September 16, 2017, Mount Vernon tweeted 115 times, amounting to an average of just under four tweets per day. While this is slightly fewer tweets that in the month of February-March of 2016, Mount Vernon continues posting at a consistent pace, clearing over 100 tweets in both month-long sample periods. The average tweets per month based on the two samples is 143. This high level of activity proves effective in increasing follower count. As of October 6, 2017, the Mount Vernon Twitter account has 34,100 followers, a gain of over 11,000 followers in 18 months, with an average increase of just under 617 followers per month. The Mount Vernon Facebook page is up to 195,974 “likes,” (as of October 6, 2017 as well), and demonstrates a gain of 44,924.
The Dumbarton House has more obvious room for improvement than Mount Vernon when it comes to social media strategies. On Twitter especially, the volume of tweets affects the number of followers.6 If Dumbarton House increased their tweet frequency to at least one per day, they could increase their following, and thereby gain more exposure for the historic home. One of the weaknesses of the Dumbarton House’s social media strategy is a lack of connection between their Twitter and Facebook profiles. While it could be that the two different formats are utilized for different purposes, overlapping at least some content so that it appears on both platforms could improve their ability to reach the widest audience. Particularly if the Dumbarton House is using Twitter to highlight Dame activity and professional development, these updates could also appear on Facebook, which has a wider user-base, particularly among older adults.7 Additionally, some information only appears on Facebook, like a lecture and book signing with Canden Schwantes in the last week of February.8 That event was not announced on Twitter, which limits the audience reach and promotion of the lecture.
The Mount Vernon Twitter account is active and displays successful integration of Twitter and Facebook content. However, they still have areas where they could improve. Sometimes their tweets have a very tenuous connection to Washington, and are perhaps slightly outside the scope of their mission. For example, a tweet reading “April is #NationalPoetryMonth. Celebrate with the #Poet Laureate of Virginia! http://bit.ly/1pqwR1S,”9 (Figure 3) is only distantly related to the life and legacy of George Washington. This tweet advertises for a modern poetry event held at the Washington Library at Mount Vernon that attempts to incorporate Washington, but this post is clearly a reach compared to other more directly relevant posts. However, beyond a few posts that are clear stretches, the Mount Vernon social media strategy appears extremely successful. They often post engaging and interesting content, highlighting many different aspects of the historic home, including its physical beauty, working farm features, and historic significance. Mount Vernon also successfully utilizes trending topics to maximize the reach of their posts, such as the tweet shown in Figure 4 from St. Patrick’s Day 2016 reading, “Happy #StPatricksDay! In 1780, Washington issued a St. Patrick’s Day proclamation giving his soldiers the day off."10 By using the hashtag “StPatricksDay,” Mount Vernon shares a fact about Washington’s life that will be highly visible on a popular holiday.
Figure 3: A March 15, 2016 tweet from the Mount Vernon account that reads “April is #NationalPoetryMonth. Celebrate with the #Poet Laureate of Virginia! http://bit.ly/1pqwR1S,” and shows a photo of the title page of 'POEMS' by Robert Burns, signed by George Washington.
Figure 4: A March 17, 2016 tweet from the Mount Vernon account that reads “Happy #StPatricksDay! in 1780, Washington issued a St. Patrick's Day proclamation giving his soldiers the day off,” with a close up image of George Washington in front of a green background.
Conclusion and Relevance to Virginia Libraries
The lessons from the study of these two cultural heritage institutions are relevant to Virginia libraries and other cultural heritage institutions as well. Virginia is rich in cultural heritage sites, and in addition, many of the Commonwealth’s public library systems sponsor local history resources and outreach programs. The consequence of this is two-fold. In the first instance, this means that libraries and cultural heritage programs have a lot of competition for interest and patron engagement. A successful and comprehensive social media strategy could effectively connect users to particular collections or institutions. The second indication from this large number of cultural resources is the evident interest of Virginians in their own cultural heritage.
… This case study provides an example of effective social media outreach in cultural heritage institutions, highlights areas for improvement, and offers strategies for organizations in a quest for user engagement and patron interaction with special collections.
Examples of Virginia institutions with potential interest in the results of this case study include public libraries, such as the Alexandria Public Library System. This library hosts a special collection dedicated to local history, which includes materials related to Alexandria and Virginia history, Virginia genealogy, and the Civil War.11 The Alexandria Library maintains a social media presence on both Twitter and Facebook, and could apply the results of this case study to maximize engagement. Posting frequency, capitalizing on trending topics, and including varied and engaging content in public library social media outreach could raise awareness of resources and lure in patrons. Virginia is also rich with historic homes; Monticello, Montpelier, and Highland join Mount Vernon as former homes of U.S. presidents and founding fathers in Virginia. Thomas Jefferson’s home Monticello, like Mount Vernon, exhibits a successful social media presence with a large following. However, James Madison’s Montpelier and James Monroe’s Highland (with 3,619 and 1,947 followers respectively on October 6, 2017) could implement strategies demonstrated by Mount Vernon in an effort to raise their profile and reach a wider audience.
This case study provides an example of the results of effective social media outreach in cultural heritage institutions, highlights areas for improvement ,and offers strategies for other organizations in a quest for user engagement and patron interaction with special collections. Many of the conclusions are particularly applicable to the cultural heritage institutions in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the implementation of the exemplar tactics employed by Mount Vernon could lead to a wider audience and increased support of the missions of these organizations.
Patricia R. Mars Maddatu (firstname.lastname@example.org), M.S.L.I.S. is Outreach Librarian at the U.S. House of Representatives.
Received: November 17, 2017
Accepted: September 26, 2018
Published: November 9, 2018
© Authors: Patricia R. Mars Maddatu. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 International License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/), which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, and that if you remix, transform, or build upon the material, you must distribute your contributions under the same license as the original.
4 Tweet by @DumbartonHouse, March 16, 2016 https://twitter.com/colonialdames/status/710125648052883457.
5 Tweet by @MountVernon, March 16 2016 https://twitter.com/MountVernon/status/710085007654703104.
6 Jayson DeMers, “50 Free Ways To Increase Your Twitter Followers,” Forbes, June 17, 2015 https://www.forbes.com/sites/jaysondemers/2015/06/17/50-free-ways-to-increase-your-twitter-followers/#1803316e25a8.
7 M. Duggan, “Mobile messaging and social media – 2015,” Pew Research Center, http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/08/19/mobile-messaging-and-social-media-2015/.
9 Tweet by @MountVernon, March 15 2016 https://twitter.com/MountVernon/status/709867525031374848.
10 Tweet by @MountVernon, March 17 2016 https://twitter.com/MountVernon/status/710450637041840128.
11 "Local History/Special Collections," Alexandira Library, Accessed October 10, 2017 https://alexlibraryva.org/client/en_US/home/?rm=SPECIAL%2BCOLLEC0%7C%7C%7C1%7C%7C%7C4%7C%7C%7Ctrue.