Tuesday, April 08, 2014

#HistoryRelived at the British Library: A social media case study

I'm a longtime advocate of turning to your archival material as part of a smart social-media content strategy. While in London late last month, I had the chance to see how one organization got users to dig into its archives to do some storytelling on social media--and its approach may well be one to copy.

The British Library is one of my favorite stops whenever I'm in London, but this year, as part of its spring festival, it offered a daylong storytelling workshop, History Relived, that focused on using the British Newspaper Archive as a resource. Participants included social media consultants, ad agencies, actors, journalists and other creatives.

While many of us came to the workshop hoping to focus on a particular historic person, we soon found out the practical decision had been made to focus our efforts on the 1890s--chosen so we would not run afoul of copyright laws and to focus our time with the enormous archive. It was suggested we start with a specialized newspaper, the Illustrated Police News, as a source for our stories. We were counted off into groups, and the charge to each team was to choose a date (someone's birthday in the group) in 1890 and find that issue of the IPN. We needed to identify a story that appealed to us and allowed plenty of characters for whom each of us would create a Twitter feed. We had permission to create likely characters as well as to use real figures of the past. And that's how I turned into Grumpy Grantham for the rest of the day.
My group (pictured above) included two executives from an advertising agency and an actor, and we had no trouble getting creative with our story, a murder case known as the Kensington Murder. Our characters included the accused, his father, the barmaid girlfriend of the victim, and the judge.

Before we began tweeting, we tackled the practical tasks: Choose and research the characters and the story. Find a picture for your character's avatar in the library's Flickr sets (again, for copyright purposes). Find your three acts and agree on them. Decide whether your team will live-tweet or pre-script and schedule tweets. Create Twitter accounts for your characters and make sure they are following each other and the central account for the workshop.

And then the fun began. My team started with a little bit of backstory for each character, aided by the fact that our murder took place on Christmas Eve, so each character could set the scene with ease. We had a good time adding photos--eventually, I found real pictures of Justice Grantham and added them to my feed-- making jokes, bantering with one another's characters, and creating personas. LOLs and hashtags abounded, but we also used facts and even quotes in the news coverage to put words in our characters' mouths. The central account for the workshop saved our tweets in a list so you can follow the Kensington Murder story for yourself. And later, there'll be video and a Storify posted from the day.

What can you learn from History Relived?
  • Social users need training to get ideas and experience with complex archival material: They may be adept at tweeting, but perhaps not as skilled at working with your digital archives. A daylong workshop was a smart idea, and the Library partnered with Crossover Labs, which runs similar multi-day exercises. The challenge here was boiling that process down into a day, and it seemed to work.
  • Open the doors wide: Not only did we get an overview briefing of the archive, how to use it, and how to narrow the scope of our searches for the day, but the library also provided free access to us while on the premises as well as a code for free access for the next couple of months to encourage more uses. And anytime we return to the library, on-site use of the archive is free. That's a great deal, and one I expect will encourage me to search and blog more about the rich array of material.
  • Provide guidance and stand back: Facilitators roamed the small groups to make sure we stayed on time and were accomplishing all the steps, and to answer questions. Otherwise, they stayed out of the way unless asked for help. The creative types in attendance didn't need any pushing to get right into the fun.
  • Cast a wide net: This event proved you can mix reporters, social media nerds, and other creatives of all kinds easily. No need to restrict this type of briefing solely to reporters, as you might have done previously. The participants at this workshop were a reflection of the wide range of people who might have an interest in spreading your content around.
On May 15, I'll be convening another session of Be The Eloquent Woman in Washington, DC. It's a subversive new workshop that helps women executives and public officials learn how women speakers are perceived and how to turn those expectations on their heads with confidence, content and credibility. You can grab a sweet discount by registering by April 11. Go here to read how the first workshop went and what participants had to say. 

On June 19, also in Washington, DC, I'll convene a session of Be an Expert on Working with Experts that's open to the public. Designed for communications pros who work with subject-matter experts, scientists and policy researchers, this is a popular workshop--and you get an early discount for registering by May 9. This is the workshop I wish I'd had earlier in my career, based on my own effort to understand why the smart folks I work with weren't always willing to cooperate with my communications efforts.

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