The 2021 annual MuseWeb conference, a series of online sessions featuring exemplary applications of digital practice for cultural heritage, is well under way. Due to wrap up on April 30, the event platforms voices that provide unique professional insight and perspective — and there’s no better example than that of Seth Spillman, Chief Marketing Officer of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, who spoke at the April 16 plenary session on audience engagement in the COVID-19 era of museum interface.
And Spillman can speak from experience. Over the course of the past year’s lockdown, the regional museum experienced an unprecedented social media coup: their head security officer, the straight-shooting, Stetson-donning Tim Tiller, went viral on social media, garnering the museum a whole new life online and ultimately, IRL. Here’s what worked and how.
Doing it different
When the museum closed its doors to visitors in March in response to pandemic regulations, Spillman was on the hunt for ways to keep communicating with its audience. Since security workers, deemed essential by the state, were still going to be interacting with the collections, he pitched the idea of turning the museum’s social media accounts over to Tiller, a mustachioed grandfather without much in the way of copy experience. Tiller, with help from Spillman (aka “Seth from marketing”) and the rest of the marketing team, hammed up the Luddite angle of his online affect, trafficking in warm, charming dad jokes and an everyman-on-the-scene style of reportage. The museum’s 8,000 Twitter followers grew to a staggering 300,000 in less than five months, and engagement increased by 385,000 percent.
“We broke all the rules,” said Spillman during his presentation. “We didn’t reply [to followers], we posted crummy pictures, we showed merchandise without posting a link, we took Sundays off. In a word, we did ‘different,’ and ‘different’ is what made it authentic.”
Meeting people where they are
In response to the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s success, the burning question on the industry’s mind was a simple one — was this intentional? “Yes, it was intentional,” explained Spillman. “There was always a team.”
The museum specifically wanted to avoid a “milkshake duck” fiasco, i.e., the perennial virality problem of platforming a character who may eventually prove to be problematic. Because Tiller was a known entity without a significant social media history, this problem was deftly avoided. #HashtagTheCowboy was picked up by customers, celebrities, and even Disney on social media, helping this small institution to gain national media attention at a record pace. Tiller’s posts, security guard uniform, and fan letters he received were further gathered in the #HashtagTheCowboy exhibition, which runs until August, and serves as a semi-playful monument to the challenges and unexpected delights of our lockdown reality.
Now, the issue is keeping up the hustle. “We knew we could translate this into butts in the door. We hooked them with Tim, but we don’t have to be a sideshow to keep people interested,” said Spillman. “We learned to pivot, we stayed nimble, and we learned to meet people where they are.”
This pivot included cohering the online Cowboy into a sleek social distance awareness campaign, The Cowboy Way, which used Tiller’s signature homegrown, affable vernacular to help underscore the importance of mask-wearing once the museum could accept visitors again. The Cowboy Way earned recognition from the American Alliance of Museums, further putting Spillman’s efforts on the map. By “doing different,” the Cowboy Museum, in fact, did better than anyone could have imagined.