Digital Marketing Heroes: Oklahoma Museums Adapt During COVID-19

Published: April 28, 2020  by 
museum-goers inside the Oklahoma City Museum of Art peruse the gallery
Image courtesy of Oklahoma City Museum of Art

Let’s talk about this pandemic. 

We can’t do so many things right now: have porch beers with our friends during this fleeting near-perfect Oklahoma weather, or celebrate our birthdays and anniversaries surrounded by all our pals on the kitschy artificial grass of R&J Supper Club, or meander through cultural hot spots while we pretend to understand the artwork.

In short: Everything’s been kind of a bummer.

The coronavirus and COVID-19 have us planted at home, waiting for the tide to turn and life to go back to normal. It’s taken a toll on many businesses, as restaurants shutter either temporarily or permanently, grocery stores constrict hours of operation, and brick-and-mortars scramble to launch online shops and curbside services to keep business moving.

But, through the doom and gloom, one beacon of optimism shines particularly bright for me: Oklahoma museums. As a digital marketer, I’m in awe of their resilience, ingenuity, and adaptability as they find new ways to engage the public without actually opening their doors to the public.

Social posts from the following museums have bubbled to the top of my timeline because of their crazy-good engagement: National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, the Philbrook Museum of Art, and the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. To simplify this blog post a little, I focus mainly on Twitter (where I spend the most time), but these museums engage audiences across all social platforms.

Now let’s forget our coronavirus worries for a sec and see how these museums have used a pandemic as a catalyst to engage with their audiences in new ways.

Tim from the National Cowboy Museum Steals the Show

Tim is a security guard from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, and that right there is Tim’s first tweet. 

Museum artifacts are too precious to abandon, even during a pandemic, so the museum’s marketing director (referred to by Tim as “Seth from Marketing”) looked to the one person manning the museum to also man social media efforts. What follows is pure internet gold.

Armed with a cellphone and impressive institutional knowledge of the museum, Tim won the world over with his amiable demeanor and dad jokes, his loose grasp of social media best practices, his blurry but endearing selfies, his cowboy uniform worn unironically, his graying fu manchu, and, most of all, his wholesome, educational content.

Each tweet reaffirmed that Tim is what’s good in this world. 

“I didn’t expect the attention that it would receive in the midst of a global pandemic,” said Seth Spillman (aka Seth from Marketing) in a story by The Oklahoman newspaper, a partner company of BigWing under Gannett. “I thought that it was a very clever way of remaining engaged with our audience. I didn’t anticipate how much that voice would resonate with people in the middle of this difficult time, and seeing it grow like it has has just been amazing.”

“This voice that we’ve found in Tim is something that is going to resonate in a way that just telling them something on social media wouldn’t have accomplished.”

Tim’s social media success was instantaneous. In order to understand the full scope of it, let’s first look at the museum’s pre-Tim Twitter engagement. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll analyze the full month of February (Feb. 1 to Feb. 29). In those 29 days, we see:

  • 36 timeline tweets
  • 10 total comments, or 0.27 average comments per tweet
  • 107 total shares, or 2.97 average shares per tweet
  • 624 total likes, or 17.33 average likes per tweet

Now compare that to tweets in the Era of Tim. Here’s how it shakes out from the outset of Tim’s tweeting, March 17, through the end of my workday on April 14 (29 total days), when I recorded these numbers:

  • 98 timeline tweets
  • 16,004 comments, or 163 average comments per tweet
  • 49,791 shares, or 508 average shares per tweet
  • 1,036,400 total likes, or 10,575 average likes per tweet

Obviously this is a meteoric rise, but humor me while I crunch the numbers to see the exact increase in engagement from one month to the next: 

  • 172% increase in timeline tweets (we’d post more frequently if we were getting that kind of engagement, too!)
  • 159,940% increase in comments
  • 46,433% increase in shares
  • 165,989% increase in likes

And just for fun, let’s take a look at Google Trends to see how search queries spiked around Tim’s newfound fame.

I feel like after this is all over, the museum needs to compile a scrapbook ala baby’s first steps. We’d see Tim take his first selfie, use his first hashtag, and learn how to capitalize on a good thing and sling museum merch online.

Tim’s gained so much notoriety that he was featured on CNN, Travel + Leisure, Southern Living, Wall Street Journal, and my personal favorite, NPR.

“That’s what we’re trying to do, (give people a sense these places will still be there when this is all over),” Tim told NPR’s David Greene. “We want to get people out there. And we hope all the people that have said that, you know, ‘Hey, when you guys open back up, we’re going to come see you,’ we really hope that they do. This is an exciting and fabulous place with a lot of art and history of the West, and I think everyone needs to see it. Even those that aren’t interested in the West I think would be amazed at some of the collection that we have here.”

Lessons Learned from #HashtagTheCowboy

Here’s what I’m taking away from Tim and Seth from Marketing. They took stock of the resources available to them, and one of those resources happened to be moseying around in an adorable cowboy hat with access to literally everything inside the museum. Why not take advantage? I’m sure Tim’s just as likeable offline as he is on-, and Seth from Marketing recognized that in him. When you’ve found a star, let them shine.

Write to the Garden Cats at the Philbrook Museum of Art

This one here is especially near and dear to me, because, not only did I used to work at a museum (shoutout to the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History), but I am an undeniable cat person. So when I saw you could keep the Philbrook Museum of Art’s garden cats entertained during the pandemic by writing them letters, I knew I was once again seeing internet magic.

The museum announced on Instagram on April 12 that the two garden cats, Cleo and Perilla, were lonely and desperately needed some social connection with the museum on lockdown. If you wrote to them, they’d write back.  

Genius.

Jeff Martin, the museum’s communications manager, gave some insight into the Philbrook’s coronavirus game plan.

“Right as we started entering this new phase, we put together an internal task force and in just a few days completely overhauled our website to have a new homepage with these #MuseumFromHome offerings,” Martin said in an email to me. “We also implemented a daily program schedule, and put together a four-point community program called #PhilTheGaps. And of course we launched our garden cat pen pal project.”

The #PhilTheGaps program does the following: 

  • Provides funds for the Tulsa Area COVID-19 Response Fund
  • Establishes a new Philbrook Victory Garden, with output donated to community food banks
  • Provides additional platforms to showcase and market the work of local artists through a partnership with the Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition
  • Continues the museum’s #MuseumFromHome social media programs, which include museum takeovers, curator talks, gardening tips, artist interviews, live performances by local musicians, the Museum Confidential podcast, family art club activities, DJ sets and more

It doesn’t stop there. You have to notice even the tiny changes, like the museum updating its Twitter bio name to “Philbrook Museum of Staying Home” and “Chillbrook Museum (stay home!)” in its Instagram bio.

All this has led to what Martin called an “amazing response” from the museum’s online audience. 

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in traffic and are doing weekly analytic reports for our teams,” he said. “It’s a bit early to see larger trends, but that will change as this new normal continues.”

I asked him if he was impressed with what other museums locally or around the country are doing in response to the coronavirus and museum closings, and it looks like Tim the Cowboy has some fans from the Philbrook.

“We love the security guard project at the Cowboy,” Martin said. “They tapped into just the right escape-worthy content we all need right now. And yeah, we are a little bit jealous.”

Sigh. Aren’t we all? 

Lessons Learned from #MuseumFromHome and #PhilTheGaps

Never underestimate the power of good PR. Sure, this campaign was about ways to keep folks engaged with the Philbrook during a period of uncertainty, but it was also about being good stewards to museum-goers and your community at large. The museum made it ridiculously easy for their audience to find valuable resources to stay safe and entertained at home, and they devised ways to help the Tulsa community at the same time — acts that will have a positive impact even after the pandemic has died down.

OKC Museum of Art Draws Audience in with ‘Virtual OKCMOA’

Talk about a quick response … On March 18, the Oklahoma City Museum of Art shifted its strategy to serve its audience online and updated its website to display its “Virtual OKCMOA” initiative. What’s really cool about this is the newly devised content replaces the days the museum is open (Wednesday through Saturday), so it acts as a substitute for an actual museum visit.

Those recurring content themes are:

  • Wednesdays: deep dives into the museum’s rich collection of works from the curatorial team
  • Thursdays: #MuseumMomentOfZen, which replaces the physical space where visitors frequently find moments of tranquility and rest and provides them with a synthesized experience of visuals and sounds
  • Fridays: movie recommendations and insights from the museum films team
  • Saturdays: local art and artist video features
  • Sundays: collection connections and art activities from the learning and engagement team

“It has been a team effort with nearly every department in the museum contributing to our digital channels,” said Zac Fowler, OKCMOA’s digital communications specialist, in an email to me. “It’s definitely been a challenge, but with things like the Virtual OKCMOA Theater and beyond, I think we are doing an excellent job pivoting.”

I’ve always had a fondness for downloadables and other assets your online audience can find online and use off-, so it was especially cool to see OKCMOA promoting a coloring book in which folks could paint works from the museum’s collection. The museum also continued to double-down on blog posts that not only teach about art, but allow families to entertain themselves while staying safe inside (like this post on how to make a splattery Sam Francis painting).

And, like the Philbrook, OKCMOA has practiced good PR. During the quarantine, museum staff delivered art supplies to SSM Health St. Anthony Hospital and provided remote video instruction to teens in in-patient care.

Lastly (although I could go on for days with all the cool stuff OKCMOA is doing), I loved this tie-in with sidewalk chalk and the museum’s upcoming exhibit, “POP Power from Warhol to Koons: Masterworks from the Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation.” The museum has asked its audience to canvas their sidewalks with messages of hope. 

Cue collective “aww!”

So, what are the numbers like? Of course, without the museum audience checking the website to see museum hours, current and upcoming exhibits, films playing, or what to shop for in the store, website traffic is down, Fowler relayed. However, every social media metric (aside from Facebook) is up when comparing the days open beforehand to the days now closed (as of April 20), and click-through rates are up in the museum’s e-newsletters. 

“I attribute that to the excellent job the staff has been doing creating content that people want to spend time with,” he said.

OKCMOA has gotten positive reception from their online efforts, and one of the best parts, Fowler said, is serving as a substitute for, or supplement to, the formal education students might be missing now.

“Some of the content we’ve posted on YouTube has been met with comments from students telling us their teachers had sent them the link to the video. To me, that’s one of the best feelings; that we’re assisting educators teaching about art, art history, etc., while their classrooms are unavailable.”

Lessons Learned from the Oklahoma City Museum of Art

I want this team on my side in case of emergency, because their response to the coronavirus and subsequent quarantine was SWIFT. They recognized the obligation to their audience immediately and leaned into online content that would keep their audiences learning about and creating art, right from their homes. A+ for having a plan and creative content to back it up.

These are just three of the many Oklahoma museums that have caught my eye because of their creativity and social engagement. But I’m curious to hear from you! What Oklahoma museums, or even museums around the world, could teach digital marketers a thing or two about adapting? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter!