In the last year you may have come across this. The Absolute Unit from MERL or to give it its full name, the Museum of English Rural Life. What he represents has been a topic which I’ve returned to time again when talking social media strategy. It’s something which has genuinely fascinated me in trying to understand what happened to explain the MERL’s success and more importantly, why? Just how did a small Berkshire museum gain an international following?
After spending a year following the MERL’s efforts I feel as though I’ve been able to piece together some of the answers to explain their success. That time has also allowed me to say with complete and utter confidence that what the MERL has done is for me one of the most perfect examples I’ve seen of an organisation using social media correctly. (Plus after a full year of viral tweets sparked by the Absolute Unit there’s much that can be learnt about how the MERL has handled itself).
So, here’s 4,000 words on how sheep, farming and smocks took over social media.
It’s going to require some explaining.
To add some structure to what’s below I want to cover off:
What actually happened with the Absolute Unit - a timeline of one ram’s rise to stardom
Why the MERL created the perfect conditions for going viral - this was not a one trick sheep. I want to show how the MERL’s success happened through sound planning and analysis
How the MERL’s success is almost impossible to replicate - and why you really wouldn’t want to replicate their success anyway
What we can learn from the MERL for our own social media - so you have something to takeaway
Side note - the MERL is an unusually special place for me. During my time studying at the University of Reading the MERL was the HQ for the University’s Museums and Special Collections volunteer programme. Without them I wouldn’t have ever ended up working in a Herbarium (long story) which without this wouldn’t have meant I would be working in marketing. So while I try to be objective in what I write, what you read is inherently pro-MERL and pretty pro-museums in general.
the birth of an absolute unit
So, the 9th April 2018. @theMERL tweets the below picture of an Exmoor ram from 1962 and accompanying caption. A star is born.
The Unit went viral in a true sense of the word picking up coverage internationally as the tweet gathered momentum. What is a very nice but not well known Berkshire museum dedicated to tractors, hay ricks and archived copies of the Farmer’s Weekly is thrust onto an international stage with coverage in the likes of the BBC, The Telegraph & Buzzfeed - plus countless others. By the year’s end it was on the New Statesman’s top meme’s of 2018.
Many people, myself included thought that the tweet was great but well, if I’m totally honest, thought the MERL got lucky. Right time, right place and all that.
Until the MERL did it again. And again and well, again.
The MERL successfully launched viral tweets (all with accompanying coverage) to bring us:
Asking the British Museum to give them their best duck - sparking responses from the likes of the Smithsonian, the Royal Academy and the Louvre. Generating 3.5k re-tweets + 13.5k likes
The Chicken in Trousers - with responses with JK Rowling. 20k re-tweets. 43k likes
Finding a bat in the archives 10.7k re-tweets. 25.8k likes
Every few weeks myself and 130k other followers from across the globe have become accustomed to seeing the standout account doing what they do best.
That is where I would have left things as if I’m honest I’ve been meaning to write this post since Christmas. But just as internet culture would have meant the Absolute Unit becoming a distant fluffy memory the story took another turn in recent weeks.
Almost a year to the day since the Absolute Unit first appeared, with no prompting from the museum itself, Elon Musk of all people swaps his profile picture out for the famous ram. The MERL responds in turn and once again the Museum is suddenly trying to persuade the 25th most powerful person in the world to visit the Berkshire County Show. Musk’s tweet gained 8.4k re-tweets and 75.4k likes but with plenty more off-shoot conversations besides. Once more headlines from around the world were made.
what about us?
The reason I love what the MERL has achieved is that it’s a perfect demonstration of how to do social media the right way. So many organisations look at the social profiles of multi-nationals, invariably those with big teams and even bigger budgets.
MERL did this with a budget which was zero. Nothing. Zilch. But damn, if a museum in Reading can achieve this, where on earth does that leave the rest of us?
The reason, in my view anyway, is that seeing something as successful as the Unit (and other animals) is the culmination, the end point if you want, of some core plans and principles which MERL has deliberately followed. It doesn’t explain it all but it does go a long way in helping to understand their success.
But the real reason why these factors rarely get mentioned is that in the world of marketing they’re quite frankly dull. Really dull.
Marketers like drones. They like going out to make videos and jumping on the latest trends. It’s cool and fun and very 2019. It’s classic shiny object syndrome. What in fact marketers are less fond of but helps generate the success the MERL are things like of sound planning, training and some solid spreadsheets of resources.
So, let’s take a deeper look into what things the MERL and museums at large have been up to lately to make this happen.
understanding the museum market
When the Absolute Unit first appeared I was intrigued. Was what had happened the work of a dedicated social team who had discovered the magic formula for success? Or was it a rogue employee hell bent on tearing up MERL’s otherwise conservative brand guidelines?
Either way it was an unusually bold move, one that truth be told seemed fairly at odds with everything that the MERL had published previously. It’s an industry I’d love to work in so over the last year have been keeping a keen eye on what’s been done and not done to explain all this to try and get my head around the who, where, what and why of the MERL’s social media strategy. Firstly, what’s going on in the industry at large?
Normally in business the concept of being ‘out there’ on social is one where senior management may allow the occasional use of emoji’s. Social media managers face a hard battle, often by a variety of challenges that constrain content, creativity and other non-essential meetings which eat what remains of their time. Things are often even more compounded as they or their teams are often, isolated in a corporate hierarchy, where you need permission from people who don’t get or don’t care about social media to do pretty much anything.
Museums are not immune to this. In fact, the challenges museum marketing people have are often even harder when you add in limited budgets - with most replying on donations or grants to finance their existence and a passionate but part time armies of volunteers. Normally the kindest people who have the most incredible knowledge and passion but have a hard time of translating why their work matters to an indifferent world.
All in all, even some of the best museums in the UK produce content which is good, but bland. Not surprising really when you consider what they’re up against. Pictures of tea & cake, sunsets and the front entrance are often go-to staples of many an account. I love nearby Dunster Castle but this is a perfect example of what I mean.
Enter the 21st Century
At the same time the last decade has seen a fundamental shift in the way people engage with content. Visitors now have ‘experiences’ and all the other marketing fluff that describe how people who go to anywhere listed on TripAdvisor behave. It’s why investment in tea-rooms and gift shops are so important for most historic places.
While museums are by their very nature slow moving, traditional and generally (but not always) behind the times, certain locations are moving from a collections 1st, experiences 2nd approach and flipping it.
Now the chance to grab perfect Instagram shot is more important than the history and heritage. A couple of examples:
This great article from Vox on how Instagram is changing museums is a great watch as places see great returns from shifting from a no-photography allowed to actively encouraging images.
Plus Beyoncé and Jay-Z helped the Louvre break visitor records in 2018. Experience 1st. Collections 2nd. One brings in the visitors. The other keeps them there.
Meanwhile, in Reading, I may be wrong, but I’d guess the MERL doesn’t have the budgets to hire Beyoncé or the visuals of priceless world antiquities to help make it big on social. What it does have however is still hugely significant:
How the MERL wins Social
What follows doesn’t explain it all but I hope goes some way in helping to understand the MERL’s success.
The man behind the curtain of the MERL’s social channels is a Mr. Adam Koszary, the Programme Manager/Digital Lead for both @TheMERL & @readingmuseum. Adam has had 2 rare qualities which are rarely seen together in social media managers.
The 1st is his extraordinary wit and creativity at being able to tell the stories the MERL tell on Twitter. Making something which is traditionally dull into something that scores re-tweets from around the world.
The 2nd more overlooked trait is a determination to internally create change happen at the museum. That means getting buy-in from senior management. It means building connections from other staff through workshops and training. It’s a slow and I imagine pretty frustrating process explaining to people how making jokes about smocks and cow semen contribute to the museums strategic vision. But doing this means as a result that he can get hold of these stories in the first place. It’s about building trust.
It’s a very similar game plan as the Met Office’s approach to digital transformation via their academy.
Adam’s blog on the behind the scenes of social media life has been incredibly insightful with some of the most thorough well thought out policies of running social media in an organisation. You can bask in its glory here.
There’s also a stack of resources which he has openly shared which are some of the best I’ve seen.
A finger on the pulse of popular culture
The success in part the MERL has achieved over the last year has come from the ability to know what’s trending and react accordingly. It’s also meant understanding the nuances, language and meme’s that internet subculture throws up and more importantly knowing what to respond to.
That isn’t to say that organisations should be jumping on every trending hashtag. But organisations could do so much more to work out their content calendars to align themselves to planned events that relate in some way to their identity. Obvious ones include seasonal markers like Easter, which you can see the MERL put time and effort into. It wasn’t a knee jerk reaction. It was planned - something which many business this Easter miss as they tweet another blurry image of some disappointing chocolate eggs.
Other events though, those one’s that explode onto the scene, require having the right people (see above) who also have the time and energy and know-how to know of where to look and then translate what they’ve found into content.
The best sources for this are always going to be
Reddit. - take https://www.reddit.com/r/happycowgifs/ for instance
Specific Twitter hashtags - https://www.trendsmap.com/ -start with this one
Google Alerts - https://www.google.co.uk/alerts severely undervalued
Creating content at this speed though requires…
Freedom to try what’s new is pretty critical. You don’t need me to tell you how fast things change on social. But allowing people to take ownership is what’s needed in the first place.
Businesses tend to operate an all or nothing approach when it comes to who has permission. Either every message has to be signed off by senior management, suffocating any form of engagement with followers. Or the person in charge is let loose with no accountability for what they’re saying in your name.
Choosing how much autonomy you give your teams is no easy thing. With the MERL people like Adam have been working there for years, building trust and gaining an understanding of how far things can be pushed. But having that freedom is inherent to pushing away from the #mondaymotivation posts which proliferate Twitter.
And what if things do go wrong?
When the MERL have fallen short, most notably when they discovered the language like ‘thicc boi’ connected with the Absolute Unit has deeper roots that could have been offensive they owned it, highlighted what they’d done and realised they needed to adjust things for the future. A finger on the pulse of popular culture is one thing but it still needs some fairly thorough investigation to ensure you’re not jumping on the wrong bandwagon.
A policy I try to encourage is that social teams should at least try and if it doesn’t go to plan work out what went wrong and adjust for the next time round.
The knee-jerk way content for social is created is miserably prevalent across so many industries. With little to no planning most mediocre messages exist only because someone at some point decided that you need to be tweeting once a day, everyday. At 2pm.
The MERL though has demonstrated they have systems in place and that these systems work. Systems which I admit I’ve tried to encourage clients to implement but rarely do we get the full set. There are systems for:
Tone of Voice & Brand Guidelines
Calendars for knowing what content to produce and when
Tools and training for scheduling content
Understanding on content can be re-worked to achieve different organisational objectives
How to measure the success of content - against pre-agreed KPI’s
Crisis management processes for what to do if things don’t work
Creating these takes an extraordinary amount of time and effort but having these in place means everyone knows the right and wrong ways the marketing in an organisation should function.
Perhaps most often overlooked in the grand scheme of things is that the MERL has some serious time to respond and engage with fans, especially on Twitter. This isn’t time which is normally covered by employee contracts but the hours spent replying to almost every mention going has helped to magnify the MERL’s already incredible efforts. Having time to respond to people means:
People get a personal 1 on 1 experience from what is a major account helping make fans into superfans, more ready and willing to share and engage than last time (and defend you if something bad ever happens).
It gives the MERL a band of people who almost automatically will tag and share farming related news making content sourcing all the easier. It’s the very definition of UGC.
The sheer levels of engagement. with responses to the responses helps keep the algorithm gods happy, rewarding both them and me with ever greater levels of reach and engagement
but why would you want this?
Throughout all of these goings-on the big question I had was why? Why would you want this? It appeared on first impressions to be the classic ‘look at all the big numbers’. Management see the big numbers and want more big numbers. So kicks off a never ending race to find who can score the biggest number. Because everyone likes big numbers.
The importance with everything that happens on social is that it should always be tied back into your marketing objectives; which should always be tied to your business objectives. Let’s focus on the Unit once more:
Say the MERL’s ultimate goal was to make the internet a happier and funnier place. Job done.
Say the MERL’s ultimate goal was to sell more jam, pencils and postcards from the gift shop. Not so much.
Thankfully, the MERL’s goal aren’t rooted in achieving either of them (although making the internet a happier and funnier place it’s definitely smashed). From where I sit it looks as though the museum’s ultimate goal is to raise awareness of the museum through promoting its collections online and increase footfall.
And do the sheep, ducks and bats help achieve this? They sure do. In the last year they’re able to start tying these broad numbers into defined metrics to be able to say that their output, the time, energy and honestly cold, hard ROI is worth the investment into making the MERL a success.
So many other businesses though automatically look at this and ask how can we have our own Absolute Unit?
What success looks like to you varies from one business to the next, and depending on what you’re overall goal is going viral on Twitter, however fun that may be is pointless if it doesn’t tie back to why you exist in the first place.
Why you can’t have your own Absolute Unit
If you’re able to learn from the MERL then I think your social media will be all the better for it. But honestly, even if it tied to organisational objectives it’s going to be almost impossible to replicate the Absolute Unit phenomenon. Bosses point at sheep and demand their own fluffy unit viral moment. But honestly, you might get close but you can’t replicate what the MERL has.
Why? Adam Koszary.
I explained above that how successful social rests on passionate people but I think the one majorly overlooked element of how the MERL did what they did was unequivocally down to him. Regardless of the systems you have in place the MERL have on their hands someone who not only gets social media in a way most of us don’t, but clichéd as it sounds really does go above and beyond.
Reading his blog you can see this is someone where the job is not a 9-5.
Running an account like the MERL has come from an incredible number of hours of overtime which few employees would (or should) have to do. You can see from the responses on Twitter that out of hours work just doesn’t stop with hundreds of responses attached to each tweet. Most of which get the most fantastic responses from Adam. The Elon Musk affair landed on at 10pm on a day off and every viral sensation brings with it a flood of PR requests, DM’s and general comms which all need responding to.
Employees like this are incredibly hard to find (and keep).
the hug of death
Most of my time in marketing is spent what can best be described as worrying. Commercially it’s known as forward planning. As much as we want to push forwards with things, so much time is taken up with the if’s, but’s and maybe’s which could see what I’ve already worked on being annihilated by mistakes, algorithm changes and the like. For something like the MERL I imagine that there’s been some serious good which has come about from all this. However, the internet giving you a similar rewards could be a very much hug of death for most (thanks to Tim Ferris for that saying).
For me I would worry about the people and the systems and their basic capacity to cope with what’s about to be thrown at them if anything like this happened.
For marketing teams it means all hands are on deck to deal with DM’s and engagements, taking away from the other day to day necessities of marketing an organisation. Legitimate questions get hidden in a flood of everything else and you spend time working through the weird and wonderful. The people who actually pay your bills can be unfairly ignored. Adam mentioned in on experiences with Elon Musk how DM’s were pouring in from people thinking the MERL really was Mr. Musk asking for jobs, Tesla’s and money.
It also hits the wider business when the systems and processes just aren’t in place. Off the back of the Unit’s success a limited run of t-shirts were launched and knitted animals sold. Without an e-commerce platform to sell these though it was another rapid improvisation to actually allow people to give them money.
Finally there’s something of an Icarus complex; that is what you do is caught by the attention of the higher ups. Just because the internet loves you doesn’t mean senior management will. I’d imagine if you had a plan robust as the MERL’s to explain your thinking and your process you’d be ok. However, if their final judgement is that you need to stop, or significantly change your output then it can scupper plans.
If this all still aligns with your strategic goals and you have the resources to cope with viral demand then go-ahead but I’ve seen time and again that success can be subtle and small scale but still generate the results you’re after.
So, with all that in mind what are the key takeaways from what MERL has accomplished? What could you use in your own organisation?
Try as best as humanly possible to allow yourself to implement the things in How the MERL Wins at Social. Get yourself a system, ownership, time and some passionate people who have their finger on the pulse of popular culture.
Try and make sure you have the systems in place across so that is something is successful the business doesn’t fall over as a result
Realise that because someone said years ago that tweeting X number of times a week may not be the right approach. The MERL have regularly seen that one kick-ass campaign a month is far more effective. It' should always be quality over quantity and trying to test and adapt your approach.
Don’t let what you’re doing on social overshadow your real purpose. Does what you’re planning help the cause? For the MERL their efforts certainly increase footfall and awareness but that’s because it’s tied back to a solid strategy of what they want to achieve.
Don’t neglect the day to day. From upcoming events to selling Mint Jelly in the shop, the MERL still has time and space to still win at social by applying the same principles to the less fun that that’ll keep your boss happy.
Realise you’re not always going to be a success. What’s been written largely rests on the success of the MERL on Twitter. The quirks of the channel and the nature of the audience mean its ideal platform for the kind of stuff they do. But if you take a look at their Instagram, or their YouTube channel then the numbers are much more down to earth. And you know what? That’s OK. You’re not going to win at every channel so play to your strengths.
As a final thought Adam Koszary has the best quote I’ve seen in a long time on doing social:
“Don’t be crap. Do be good.”
And I’ll leave it there. Cheers for reading and if you’ve got comments, questions or a mutual appreciation for the MERL then tweet me or add a comment below.