An Evolving Approach to Social Media: Telling Preservation Stories

By Sarah Heffern posted 08-15-2017 16:23


Posts in this series about social media in preservation are digging deeper into community management, storytelling, advocacy, and more. Have questions? Reach out on Forum Connect! Also, keep an eye out for our sessions at PastForward 2017!

One of the biggest buzzwords in nonprofit digital and social media right now is storytelling. The current wisdom is that, in order to inspire people to become advocates and donors in support of our cause, we need to tell compelling stories about why our work is relevant to their lives and communities. Doing the work is not enough: we also need to tell the story of why it matters.


The good news is, storytelling is a natural fit for preservationists. We are passionate about historic places, and we love talking about why they’re interesting, beautiful, and important—and about how preservation can help them continue to be vibrant well into the future. I think many of us would admit that we can go on forever about the buildings, landscapes, and neighborhoods that mean the most to us.

However, this effusive love—combined with the academic backgrounds many of us have in architectural, art, public, or general history—can present a challenge when it comes to social media. Most social formats prioritize brevity, whereas most historians tend towards longform writing. In my early days of working on the web, I often joked about the challenges of conveying a complete idea in 140 characters when I had previously been “paid by the pound” when writing history papers.

Social media has now been around long enough that many of us have adjusted to condensing our ideas into short posts, but a new wrinkle has emerged in the last couple of years: visual storytelling. While Facebook and Twitter were once text-only channels, they’re now image-, GIF-, and video-heavy—and newer channels like Snapchat and Instagram have built their entire brands around images. We are now in a time where we are almost literally expecting a picture to convey a thousand words.

And, of course, there’s the issue of ephemerality, which is anathema to our ethic as preservationists. While regular posts live on forever on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (though older items can be hard to find quickly), Snapchat and Instagram/Facebook stories are designed to have a shelf life of only 24 hours. Taking the time to create a story only to have it vanish feels frustrating at best, especially for those of us in a field focused on permanence.

This fleeting style of storytelling, however, can also be liberating for a number of reasons. First, it lets us tell stories as they happen. There is no longer a need to wait for a weekly or monthly newsletter to share the smiling face of a child connecting with history for the first time, to post an update when an interesting artifact turns up, or to show off a beautifully completed project.

Second, it provides unprecedented access to how preservation works. Social media can show a rehab process as it happens, through either still photos or short video clips of a practitioner at work—your expert can even provide a short series of DIY tips! And livestreaming is a great way to take far-flung followers on a tour or bring them into a public meeting they couldn’t otherwise attend.

Third, and possibly most importantly, it releases us from perfectionism. Crafting a story designed to vanish does not require the rigor of creating a National Register of Historic Places nomination, and this lighter touch helps humanize our organizations—and our movement. Preservation can be a highly academic pursuit, but letting go and showing some of the fun helps people see why we care so much. So, if you’re excited that the window rehab is done? Shoot an Instagram Boomerang of you jumping for joy!

Last, but very much not least, social media is not actually as ephemeral as it seems. Initially, stories on Instagram and Snapchat did disappear after 24 hours, but as it turns out, it’s not just preservationists who want to save things. Many users wanted to be able to hold onto their memories longer, so both channels added the ability to download and save. In fact, both the full story and each of its segments individually can be saved—making that content very flexible for resharing later or on other channels.

Are you ready to get started? Head over to our toolkit full of social storytelling tips—from galleries to live streams and everything in between!

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Sarah Heffern is the director of social media at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

#SocialMedia #Chicago2017 #PastForward #Technology #storytelling

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