A year after setting up a blog, Hilary Machell and Yvonne Battersby reflect on their experiences from initial nervousness to an award shortlisting.

Screenshot of blog page
The Friends of the Harris Blog

Our blog began a year ago when we were concerned that the Friends’ page on the Harris Museum & Art Gallery website was of little use as it simply repeated information that members had already received. It was also easy to forget to update it regularly and a pain to delete out-of-date information.

We wanted to help our members feel even more involved with the museum and gallery, as they are critical to our ability to demonstrate the local support we have that helps us generate funds. As a local authority museum (Preston City Council), the Friends, as a charity, are also eligible to apply for grants that we cannot, and they are the key to us generating donations and legacies from members of the public. The members are among our most important supporters – ambassadors and champions for what we do – as well as often volunteering their own time and expertise.

We were nervous about blogging – surely you needed to be young and tech savvy – but our Audience Development Officer Sam Mason advised us to use Tumblr, a straightforward site to manage. Sam set up the initial pages for us using one of its standard ‘themes’. We deliberately chose the theme that we felt was the clearest to look at, bearing in mind the average age of our members. Sam was also able to link the blog to Twitter, which means that every time we post an update, a Tweet is sent with the first part of the post and a link through to the blog. In addition to the main blogging page, there is a ‘Friends Funded’ section where we can add information about projects the group has supported. We  also added a link to join the Friends for non-members. Although aimed at Friends in particular, the blog is public. We wanted to use it to promote membership and the work that the Friends do.

To be a genuine Friends of the Harris blog it needed to include content created by members

To begin with it was a challenge to know what to blog about. The first post welcomed people and was quickly followed by a reminder about the Friends’ AGM. However, the uncertainty did not last long. In a busy museum and gallery like the Harris there is always something to photograph or write about. Early posts included behind-the-scenes shots of an exhibition installation, promotion of a Friends’ quilting event, a review of museum activity in 2012 and photos of that AGM.

Initially, we did not promote the blog too widely - we were concerned we would fall into the trap of telling people about the blog for them to discover that there were only a couple of fossilised posts. We thought of this as a ‘soft launch’. However, within a couple of months we felt that there was enough content to interest people so we added a link from our website and promoted it in email updates to members.

At this point we were conscious that all the posts had been written by staff for the Friends. To be a genuine 'Friends of the Harris' blog we felt it needed to include content created by members, as well as information from us. So we asked members to contribute and received articles and reviews of exhibitions, event photographs, even creative writing inspired by the Harris. This was fantastic. Suddenly we were finding that we needed to plan blog posts to prevent too many different items appearing at the same time. We were even lucky enough to get a ‘scoop’ when one of our Friends won a trip to the Turner Prize awards ceremony in Northern Ireland. It is the variety of content that we think has given the blog its strength – we never quite know what we might come across or be sent next. One of our favourites is a piece of creative writing by a member who chose to ‘write a letter’ to international artist Bruce Nauman as if from his aunt, describing her reaction to the exhibition ‘Artist Rooms: Bruce Nauman’ on show at the Harris. We were slightly worried that he might be offended but he clearly has a sense of humour as, to our astonishment, when we tweeted a link to the article, it was favourited by Bruce himself.

At the end of last year some of us attended a training course, Social Media for Women, which included a session on blogging by Sarah Cruickshank. We felt we still had plenty to learn and indeed discovered that we really should be adding ‘tags’ to blog posts to help readers search for what they might be particularly interested in, such as the name of an artist. We duly added tags to our old posts and now add them to new ones. It was at the conference that we heard about the UK Blog Awards and were encouraged to apply. To our surprise we made it into the shortlisted ten in our category, Arts and Culture. Considering that the eventual winner was the British Library and the highly commended award went to Tate, we were delighted to be finalists.

This January we were thinking more actively about the blog in the context of our other social media presence. With an active Twitter account and regular Facebook activity it was important that the different social media channels complemented each other. The Harris’ Tumblr account also includes two other blogs, ‘Preston remembers’ (based on a World War I project we are a partner in) and ‘Inside the Life of a museum trainee’ (now archived as the traineeships have been completed).

What we do know is that our audiences for Facebook, Twitter and the Friends’ blog are very different, although there is some crossover. Our Friends tend to be aged fifty plus with a strong, active interest in the museum and are usually frequent visitors, many with a specialist interest in say textiles, contemporary art or the history of Preston. They attend events although do not all manage to see as many as they would like. The blog’s content reflects this – we try to provide pictures that are not seen elsewhere and reviews and write-ups of talks and activities that not everyone can attend. Our Facebook users are often family-orientated so we focus on events and activities for children, although our most popular Facebook post ever was a picture of one of our museum assistants standing on a ladder painting a gallery wall. On Twitter we have a huge variety of followers and our content reflects this. We post everything from our bank holiday opening hours to photos and comments supplied by visitors, pictures of exhibition installations and information about what our curators have been up to that we think people might find interesting.

All of these channels offer the opportunity for interactivity, but it is the blog which is the least interactive – it appears that people like to read it rather than add comments. This may reflect the fact that, while many of our Friends have access to the internet, they are not inclined to register for their own Tumblr accounts, and seem to be less interested in interacting than our younger audiences. But all of this contributes to developing strong, long-lasting relationships with our Friends, and is essential to our work developing individual giving and encouraging new members and audiences. 

Hilary Machell is Business Development & Fundraising Manager and Yvonne Battersby is Business Development & Fundraising Assistant at Harris Museum & Art Gallery.

Some key blog posts that you might want to read: In the art store with Victor MoodyBehind the scenes at the Turner PrizeLetter to Bruce NaumanConfessions of a museum attendantPreston Dock Skulls: Meet the forensic anthropologist.

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