Lessons Learned From Conducting Outreach via Facebook

“If the goal is to make a collection maximally cool, then we need to build up the context in such a way that it appeals to a wider variety of people — we’ll call them ‘the public.’  This may mean pulling in resources from many different places, even if it means that the end product contains a very small proportion of our own collection material.  This is what we try to accomplish by making an exhibit, whether online or in a gallery.”

-Matt Herbison

Matt Herbison’s blog post, Useless and Boring: The four types of archives collections, gets to the heart of archival outreach, and outreach done via social media is all about being “maximally cool.” Facebook, in particular, acts very much like an online exhibit that allows your audience to easily interact with and share your posts (i.e. reach a wider audience). And people tend to share the cool stuff.

With this in mind, I began posting content to the North End Historical Society (NEHS) Facebook page in January of 2014. At that time, the page had 414 fans.

My Goal

To organically build our Facebook audience and to increase the audience’s engagement with the Facebook page.

Where to Start?

While discussing Facebook at the March NEA meeting, Erik Bauer recommended posting photos, postcards, quotes, and trivia; these items are the most engaging to his institution’s Facebook audience. But while Bauer (and other well-established institutions) has collections from which to draw content, NEHS is only a few years old and does not yet have extensive collections. Instead, I rely on freely available content on the web.

My posts include photos, news articles, and videos that highlight some aspect of the North End. I pull content from the Boston Public Library’s Flickr sets, the Library of Congress, Google’s digitized historical newspapers, YouTube, and contemporary news sites. I have frequently found good content while conducting unrelated research, and often find excellent leads on Wikipedia.

What Works Best?

Although the North End’s history includes the colonial stories of Paul Revere, the Old North Church, and the Mathers, the most engaging posts on Facebook have been about the neighborhood’s recent history – between 20 and 60 years ago. This is not surprising – the majority of our audience consists of adults who spent their childhoods in the North End, and the popular posts allow the audience to reminisce about that time.

One unexpected hit was a post about the Molasses Flood. Although the event had been noted on the NEHS Facebook page in prior years (always on the anniversary of the event), the 2014 post went viral – it reached 2,763 Facebook users! For a page with under 500 fans, this is an extraordinary reach. It shows that there is sometimes serendipity at work, and that it’s worth marking the anniversaries of notable events every year.

The Result

As of this writing, the NEHS Facebook page has 491 fans (an increase of 18%) and a consistent level of engagement via “Likes” and “Shares.” 

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