Corporate VS. Cultural: Which Industry is Better for Social Media Managers?
Here is a question regarding the difference between professional Social Media Management for corporations and cultural institutions. It’s a great question that I am psyched to get into it!
(Question has been edited for brevity and clarity)
Q: I am considering leaving my Social Media Manager (SMM) position at a large for-profit “lifestyle” corporation. Right now, I am a team of one and overwhelmed by the unrealistic expectations set by my managers (who are also the owners), and the company at large. My colleagues seem to think my position is a catch all for anything related to the online space, encompassing everything from e-commerce, digital ads, KIP and ROI analysis, ideation, creation, copy editing, influencer engagement, community monitoring, management, and maintenance - all of it - across more than a dozen platforms. This doesn’t even get into budgeting, video and photography production, research, scheduling, and all the behind the scenes stuff I do to make the company look good on social.
Let me be clear, I love my job. I love that I am always busy and never lacking in projects. But my position is so deeply tied to the company’s bottom line and expectations set by investors who have little to no knowledge of how social media actually functions. All they know is that, “people are making millions on social media,” and believe that, “we can do the same.”
I work extremely hard, but when I hit my monthly goals, the result is that I am asked to do even more without any additional support. If I miss my monthly goals, the validity of my job is called into question. I hear things like, “I see all these ‘teeny-boppers’ (real words) raking it in off stupid photos of their coffee order!” And, "if you can’t do it, then maybe we need to bring in someone else who can.”
I don’t think they will fire me, but the narrative is demoralizing. I have a friend who does social media and marketing for a local museum and she’s constantly telling me to leave the for-profit world and get into the arts. She says because her job isn’t tied to her organization’s bottom line, there is less pressure from within but still opportunities to do career advancing work.
What do you think? Should I leave my corporate social media job for one in the museum or arts world?
A: Oh no! My SMM heart absolutely bleeds for you. I am so sorry you are having to deal with this crappy experience at your current job. There is nothing worse than feeling like your hard work is misunderstood and under-appreciated. I don’t know you, but from your letter, I can promise you are doing great. If you love your job and doing your honest best, then you’re a total rockstar in my humble opinion!
Before I get into this question, I want to be transparent. I currently manage social media for a museum, but I am days away from leaving my museum to enter the for-profit agency world! The opposite of your situation. Regardless, I believe with my whole heart that, while agencies and for-profit businesses can be wonderful places to work, there is something special about being a SMM for a museum or non-profit arts organization. I have spent my entire SMM career in a medium sized museum, with a small physical footprint, but a large global presence. I have loved my job am lucky to have had an amazing team full of geniuses who also love their work.
But in the end, corporations and businesses pay the big bucks! So, first and foremost, you need to expect a pay-cut if you venture into the wild landscape of museum and non-profit social media management. The average is between $30,00 - $70,000 a year depending on your region. Where I’m at right now, in the Southwest US, I get paid a little over $47,000 a year.
However, working in the museum and arts and culture field can be incredibly rewarding. It isn’t a cake walk, but there are wonderful things about it. Such as working for a cause you can believe in, working with colleagues who believe in the work as much, if not more, than you do, steady, long-term employment, health and retirement benefits, and a culture of creativity and community unlike any other industry.
All that being said, I think it is important to note that you can’t expect to saunter out of a corporate job right into a job in a museum or a non-profit arts organization. For-profits and non-profits are nearly exact opposites in the ways they function both in terms of mission and social media presentation.
For example, for-profit businesses rely heavily on advertisement and all the things that means. Lifestyle brands are especially focused on dollar to dollar sales, and using proven successful tropes - such as the pretty white model, colorful visuals of products on a white background, large typography on a generic minimalist image, and a singular focus on conversions.
That is not the way museums and arts organizations work. Unlike for-profits, museums are not all that interested in what’s trending or marketable. Rather, museums are about shared culture, deep knowledge, scholarship, intellectualism, and the history of human ideas presented in ways that are accessible to all. Most importantly, museums are invested in providing content FREE to the public. People don’t ever need to buy anything from a museum to be considered valuable. Folks, regardless of who they are or where they come from, get equal access to beautiful and interesting content whether or not they ever spend a dollar.
If you try to bring that “Shop Now!,” “50% off sale!,” “cute white girl in straw hat” content to the museum world, you’re gonna have a really bad time. So before you start sending applications be sure you have a solid understanding of the arts field. And when I say arts, I mean the ARTS. Both whats popular and recognizable, and the “random dude standing quietly in a room for 2 hours” style performance art, and “giant white canvas with a black dot in the middle” type art. Don't sleep on that “weird shit.”
Not everything will be 100% relevant, but knowing the landscape is critical. You need to educate yourself quickly on the historic bits, as well as the buzz worthy contemporary stuff, along with important and influential voices in the industry.
Never read “Know Your Own Bone?” Well, get on that!
Never perused resources from the American Alliance of Museums (AAM)? Do it yesterday!
You need to have your pulse on the moment, but within the context of the industry. What slaps for a lifestyle brand is almost never the same as what slaps for a museum. Go in to your search knowing that.
The good news is, your corporate background will be very attractive to museums. They will see your ROI experience as a plus, especially as the museum industry matures in its understanding of how social attracts new blood. Your knowledge on how to sell, how to make content relevant to specific audiences, and your expertise on back end analytics will make you shine. Museums are just now catching on to the idea that teenage summer interns can’t run an institution’s online presence long term. So your professionalism and experience will set you apart from the fresh outta undergrad cohort. Museums, as a rule, are woefully behind in terms of understanding the power of social media, and your ability to articulate and showcase its importance and impact will be a huge value (but frustrating in its own way - a topic for another post).
However, if you show up to the interview and can’t answer (in museum speak) - “Who is your favorite artist and why?” Or, “How would you promote our museum’s most recent NEH grant for conservation on this obscure piece of scholarship?” Or, “How would you illustrate the historical context of his cultural object in an Instagram Story?” - You may as well just throw on your flashers and double park on the street - your interview will conclude before you get a parking ticket.
Don’t get me wrong, museums care about money. But, institutions have interests that are broader and more nuanced as compared to corporations. Museums care deeply about sharing knowledge, more than they do about monthly sales of a particular product. Museums are members of a community and have a deep desire to do right by the people they serve. Museums have missions, and those missions are tied to strongly held beliefs that often transcend the almighty dollar. This is both a good thing and a bad thing - depending on the situation and one’s perspective.
In my case, Black Lives Matter is a perfect example of a common challenge museums face:
The museum where I have been employed for the past four years is one that focuses on a single artist. This artist is a white woman known for bold flower paintings (10 gold stars for you if you know who I’m talking about). The museum’s social media content is focused on sharing the work of this artist, and using its collections to provide an online space for relaxation and beauty. The museum does not, as a general rule, get involved in day-to-day meme culture, or hop on whatever is trending. Content is focused and kept consistent within the mission of, “preserving and presenting the legacy of an iconic, American, woman artist.” Period.
However, that iconic, American, woman artist also happens to be white, born in the 1800s, quite progressive, but a product of her time, and has been dead longer than I’ve been alive. So when the Black Lives Matter movement began dominating the headlines, the museum struggled with its response.
Certainly, the museum I work for cares about justice and anti-racism, but its collections and content do not necessarily address these subjects in a direct way. So, a determination was made (by me) to assert the institution’s position that Black Lives do, in fact, Matter, and leave it at that. However, one critical piece of feedback the museum received from the public was centered around the fact that, on social, the museum doesn’t actually share much regarding the Black experience.
Luckily for the museum, I myself am a Black woman and I have 0 time for anyone who wants to come for me or the social content I create in the context of my institution. Critics were right to point out that the museum’s social accounts don’t share much surrounding the Black experience, but that’s not because of racism - it’s because of the nature of the institution, its collections, and its single artist focus. For me, (on behalf of the museum) to suddenly start scraping the bottom of the archives barrel in an attempt to appear relevant would have come across as performative, disingenuous, tokenizing, and “pick me.”
While the critics were kind of dicks about the whole thing for a few days, I was able absorb it, temper the emotionality, and calm the institutional impulse to “do more” by reminding my team about the museum’s social media goals and the importance of staying true to the overall mission.
Hooray - good for me, right? Well, yes, but more importantly, the only reason I knew this approach was best is because I have a deep understanding of museums, how they operate, and what the public actually wants from them. It was not necessarily a popular position to say, “Hey, we’re just going to post an affirmation that Black Lives Matter, then go back to business as usual.” There are probably those reading this now who would disagree with this approach, and that’s 100% fair. But, it is important for museum SMMs to know and understand audiences, and the position of their institution in terms of both the local and global landscape.
What works for Nike, Goop, or the NFL is not at all the same as what works for a museum.
Being able to “read the room” is critical. I was able to determine almost immediately that audiences, for the most part, were not all that interested in hearing the museum’s thoughts and feelings on the issue. Why? Because the museum is not an expert, it does not have the scholarship, facts, or data to back up its opinions, and, at the end of the day, the museum’s social media goal is to provide relaxation and beauty. That’s the only thing audiences want and the only thing they expect. This is not a bad thing! Relaxation and beauty are always needed in difficult times, and it something that can be enjoyed by anyone and everyone. So, if that’s what the museum can offer - then that is the right approach to take.
For me, it was a split second decision, based on my intuition as an experienced museum professional, and I am lucky to be part of a team that takes me at my word.
I realize that was a bit of a tangent - but the idea I’m getting at is working for a museum means understanding museums, understanding museum audiences, understanding the role of museums in culture, and creating content that speaks to often unarticulated, but culturally understood expectations. Almost every human on earth has experience with corporations, businesses, marketing, ads, and the like. But, comparatively few people have experience with museums and cultural institutions (we can certainly get into the reasons why that is - but that is perhaps best left for another post).
So before you jump ship from a corporation to a museum - just know that you’re dealing with a whole different animal and it certainly won’t be easier. You will still be met with people who don’t understand. You will still be met with challenges that will make you want to quit your job and go live in a yurt on a remote island.
What you really need to ask yourself is: Would working for a museum or arts organization make me happier? If the answer is yes, then go forth! (And send me your credentials so I can help you find the job of your dreams!)
I hope this helps!
Have you jumped ship from corporate SMM to museum SMM? Tell us about your experience in the comments!
Love you dearly,