Social Media Communications Today: It’s the Wild West

This article is part of the “Communications 2022” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Amanda Sobczak, Betty Brinn Children’s Museum

In the early spring of 2020, it’s likely that we all shared a similar feeling. Unlike many other businesses and institutions, most children’s museums could not accommodate the developing and rapidly evolving recommendations for combating COVID-19. Children don’t social distance and they want to touch everything. Plus, mask wearing was a very new concept in the United States. I vividly remember Betty Brinn Children’s Museum‘s CEO, Brian King, solemnly saying, “This isn’t going to be just a few weeks.” And he was right.

First Responses

By April 2020, the majority of the U.S., and even the world, was in shutdown. After the initial shock, children’s museums began to regroup and reimagine communications without a facility open to the public. With only limited means of connecting with our audiences, many of us were forced to develop a communications plan that made sense in a suddenly new environment that didn’t. What information would be helpful? What would keep us relevant? While these questions are always at the forefront of marketing and communications, many of us were not prepared for a lengthy pandemic, or the changes it brought to communications in general.

Initial, post-shutdown online content from our peers included simple activity videos, messages of encouragement, and reminders that our industry needed help to survive. If, like me, you spent a good amount of time on social media, you were able to see which museums were able to adapt quickly. Soon, online content became more sophisticated. Videos were polished and well-branded, activity and programming prompts became more elaborate, and donation appeals popped up left and right. Suddenly, with no intentions of ill-will, online messaging became extraordinarily competitive. It was hard not to be envious of larger children’s museums with specialty functions like theater departments. At the same time, it was hard not to feel distraught the first time I saw a social media post about a children’s museum announcing they were closing their doors for good (although, amazingly, very few did). The day-to-day anxiety kept many of us going.


Present day, the world is itching to return to a state of normalcy. At Betty Brinn Children’s Museum, we took the steps to reopen, with evolving best practices for health and safety guidelines, including masking. I cannot begin to describe the mixed emotions behind photographing children’s smiles after two years. What started as a crash course in crisis communications ended with a more gradual transition back to what feels familiar, although colored by new trial-by-fire learning. I doubt any of us will be able to shake the lingering thought of future pandemic experience. That worry might stay with us for the rest of our careers.

So here we are. Open and growing. Undoubtedly, many institutions are still rebuilding their teams. Shout-out to the one-or-two-person departments. Shout-out to all the marketing professionals who orchestrated triumphant communications plans to reopen with as much umph as they could manage. As the excitement of an industry rebirth settles, we are all faced with the challenge of our new plans.

New World Communications

As we all know, no matter what the environment, there are some marketing and communications principles that do not deviate much. We monitor reach, growth, and KPIs, but marketing strategies have always changed, and they always will. We try to keep up, but also use our experience to anticipate where we think we are headed. Who else has recently had the discussion about the efficacy of printed marketing materials? Does location-based advertising through cell phone data make anyone else a little uncomfortable? Audience acquisition and marketing resources will continue to develop and become more refined. In tandem, people will continue to rely more and more on their smartphones and computers. And, like it or not, marketing departments, in turn, will continue to track and plan for that.

In the expansive world of social media, video content continues to serve as the most popular means of engagement. Platforms like Instagram and TikTok have made creative video construction achievable for anyone with a smartphone or tablet. Balancing our need for advertising with general entertainment among multiple platforms means curating a substantial amount of content. A recent marketing recommendation suggested 30 percent of social media posts should be focused on event or other promotional advertising and the rest of it—70 percent—should be about everything else. Audiences will expect a children’s museum to post information about membership and a link to a purchase page. For interested families, this is a quick and easy way to access pertinent transaction details. But connections to audiences can also be made with no call to action at all. Videos of our museum mascot or an April Fool’s Day post about installing a waterslide in our climber exhibit have been very popular. When more serious topics have presented themselves, such as conversations around social justice in summer 2020, it was imperative to reiterate our support for equality. In addition to being the voice of the museum, social media posts offer opportunities to show its soul.

When The Weeknd performed at the 2021 Super Bowl, some children’s museum social pages were quick to equate his chaotic visuals with how it looks when a child plays in the museum. One caption read, “When the museum closes in 15 minutes and your kid needs to see everything one more time.” It was clever, and if you were one of the first to share the post, you may have reaped the benefits from your audience. Applause and appreciation to the originator. It was relevant, relatable, and quickly created—three concepts that lead to social media success, in my opinion.

There is certainly no lack of ideas for content, but marketing professionals sometimes wonder if oversaturating their online platforms really aligns with and advances the organization’s mission. In inevitable bouts of frustration, I find myself questioning if it is really worth interrupting a guest’s experience to add one more post to a social story. I doubt the three-year-old will do the little dance again if I ask. They don’t really realize what they did to begin with. How often are we committing to being present to capture those click-worthy moments that pass so quickly? When to jump in? It’s difficult to make hard and fast rules about when to approach visitors for photos. I make sure to approach when it just feels right, such as if a parent is taking a photo, or if someone makes eye contact with me or acknowledges me.

Most nonprofit organizations face the same budget constraints, and we all know click-through rates don’t necessarily equate to a profit. Just because a user follows your page, it does not mean that they will support your content. Some posts, no matter how strong you felt in development, just won’t yield the results we hope for. Facebook and Instagram have created exceptionally unpredictable roadblocks for the success of organic content. I have a hunch (supported by numerous online media articles) that pauses in social media activity can be beneficial in fighting algorithms meant to suppress impressions. But the pattern is loose. I have seen spikes in numbers a few times after a pause. But the parameters have been very specific: the post has to yield impressions through organic interaction before a pause yields the attention you’re hoping for.

With online resources and new platforms on the rise, children’s museums are faced with the challenge of content creation, distribution, and hopes for monetization. What does social media success look like? Of course, it all depends on the goals of each post, but if we all understood the alchemy behind getting a lot of likes, shares, and comments, we would all be using the same template. If we could go viral every day, the concept wouldn’t be as sought-after. It really is the Wild West: new territory where children’s museums continue to build their social media skills and understanding, hoping that their follower counts build along with it.

When The Weeknd performed at the 2021 Super Bowl, some children’s museum social pages were quick to equate his chaotic visuals with how it looks when a child plays in the museum. One caption read, “When the museum closes in 15 minutes and your kid needs to see everything one more time.” It was clever, and if you were one of the first to share the post, you may have reaped the benefits from your audience.

Amanda Sobczak serves as the director of marketing and communications for the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.