Building digital communities for your heritage project

The original Bagpuss on display in Whiteley's, Bayswater for a special exhibition on Peter Firmin's work, 2011
The original Bagpuss on display in Whiteley's, Bayswater for a special exhibition on Peter Firmin's work, 2011
Social bookmarks (credit:
Social bookmarks (credit:

This is the presentation of my training seminar on building digital communities for heritage projects. It was given to mainly postgraduate students, some of whom were engaged in community projects, at the College of Arts and Humanities, Swansea University.

The session lasted one hour and included time for questions and discussion.

It was part of a Key Heritage Skills training programme offered to postgraduate students across disciplines.

The training session aimed to:

1) Introduce students to the principles and purposes of engaging audiences through digital media, primarily online.

2) Demonstrate how digital media and other media should be used together to get your message across.

3) Introduce students to modes of analysis to evaluate how and whether digital engagement is working, in the context of sector-wide and worldwide usage statistics

4) Use examples from my previous experience and those of others to highlight what worked and what didn’t.

Level of knowledge expected

A basic awareness of digital media tools and their names e.g. blogs, Twitter, web forums, mailing lists.

Key points are given after the presentation. If you would like similar training tailored to your group or society, please contact me.

You are free to download and use this presentation for personal and student research but please do not try and recreate it without asking first. View the slideshow in Full Screen mode (click the 4-arrow icon) for best effect.

[iframe src=”″ frameborder=”0″ width=”480″ height=”389″ allowfullscreen=”true” mozallowfullscreen=”true” webkitallowfullscreen=”true”]

Download Building Digital Communities Swansea 6-12-12 (.pptx, 5MB)

19 Key Points

…the average consumer is apparently subject to over 5000 messages a day – that’s a lot of competition!

  1. Spend time visualising what you want to achieve before you set off: who are your target audiences and what is the message(s) you want to send out? 
  2. Try to communicate rather than only broadcast information – the average consumer is apparently subject to over 5000 messages a day – that’s a lot of competition!
  3. How do different media interact and how can you use this to your best advantage? Think about how newspapers operate their online editions, how posters carry a simple message and a web address inviting people to find out more and how quickly and easily people use social bookmarking to share information online.
  4. How should you structure your digital landscape? Think about how each element links together such as your website and social media (Facebook, Twitter etc), where will discussion take place (if you want it), how and where will you distribute your content (information in the form of text, video, audio, documents, apps, etc.)
  5. For all the people that are now using digital media via their computers, but increasingly through mobile and tablet devices, there are millions who do not; how does your project cater to those audiences?
  6. Be intelligent. How will you find your audiences? Find out how and how many people make up digital communities worldwide. But don’t be dazzled by big numbers, you are a small and focused heritage project, not Coca Cola.
  7. There is increasing data available on digital engagement in arts, culture and heritage. Reports are made available online. Big players such as the British Museum, BBC and National Trust have become ‘trusted brands’ simply because of the size of their followings, and not necessarily because of their content.

    The original Bagpuss on display in Whiteley's, Bayswater for a special exhibition on Peter Firmin's work, 2011
    The original Bagpuss on display in Whiteley’s, Bayswater for a special exhibition on Peter Firmin’s work, 2011
  8. The best advert for your project is to provide engaging and high-quality content on a regular basis. It is important to keep the momentum going throughout your project or you will quickly lose your following. Make your content easy to access and easy to share.
  9. A value of a visual cue or brand in the form of a logo and/or slogan cannot be under-estimated, particularly when you are integrating several social media channels as well as print media into your campaigns.
  10. I believe blogs are the best way to engage people with your project, even beyond its funded life. You have more control over what happens to information accessed via your blog than you do if you only use Facebook or Twitter to disseminate and collect information.
  11. Case-study 1: Copper Day, a free city-wide festival in Swansea on 5 March 2011: how we used digital media to promote the event and collect information from it, including analysis.
  12. Case-study 2: The Elizabeth Treffry Collection, documenting women’s heritage in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, difficulties in building discussion online e.g. via its Facebook page.
  13. Generating active participation is HARD. Do not be disheartened if you feel like you are talking to yourself. It is worth persevering but keep an eye on which channels you are receiving most feedback and then concentrate on those.
  14. Case-study 3: DigVentures, a new model for undertaking archaeology through crowdsourcing, building a community of amateur archaeologists and sharing and discussing excavations online; the web forum or ‘site hut’ did not work as intended because other channels took precedence e.g. Facebook and email.
  15. Be prepared to moderate ‘trolls’ or deliberately provocative behaviour-do not feel inhibited about removing comments altogether if they are not serving your purpose.
  16. Twitter. Used extensively in the heritage world but often without good effect. Be a person, have conversations, welcome people to your following and reply to people who tweet you directly. The worst offence committed by heritage organisations is when Twitter accounts are allowed to become dormant because of lack of use.
  17. Mailing lists or (in the US) Listservs. These a specialist email-based networks which allow for more qualitative exchanges. I have so far found these to be the most effective method of getting messages about projects, events, surveys and discoveries across, especially if they then lead the reader to your website or blog.
  18. Digital photo culture. Documenting heritage visually should not be under-estimated. When you are competing for so little of someone’s time it is always worth building up a bank of good images or even short films or audio clips to grab people’s attention. Although waning in popularity since it first launched Flickr remains a sophisticated and powerful way of storing, accessing and discovering digital visual heritage. Remember that Facebook will never store your original image but present a cruder version and it is very hard to extract images from the system once they are in.
  19. The best way to understand how digital communities work is to take part in some yourself. Find out what works for you and as importantly, what works for others. Do not assume that just because you don’t like something one way your audience won’t either.

Got a comment? Please leave questions and messages here. I will do my best to answer them.