Case study: Twitter experiments

This case study, from our Let’s Get Real action research program, explores using Twitter to share interactive content and spark conversation and debate with users. The aim was to look at how to increase social media engagement with real-time activity.

About the participant:

Name: Louise Cohen

Organisation: Royal Academy of Arts

Jump to:

What was the research question behind your experiment? | Why was this important to your organisation? | What did you do to implement this? | What happened? | What were the personal challenges you faced when carrying out this experiment? | What did YOU learn? | What did YOUR ORGANISATION learn? | What next?

What was the research question behind your experiment?

How can we increase our social media engagement with real-time activity?

Feedback from our digital audiences has told us that they want more interactive content, debate and conversation on our channels, so we’ll be looking at how we can incorporate live activity alongside scheduled activity to grow our audience and increase its engagement. The hypothesis is that by readdressing this balance of our content and engaging more with our users directly in relevant ways that matter to them, we will create a larger, more engaged community.

Why was this important to your organisation?

Reaching new audiences is key to the future of the Royal Academy, and of course social media and digital content is a vital tool in this. How we use these channels to engage most deeply with these groups on social media – to both bring them into the galleries and to encourage them to embrace the values we champion – is one of our ongoing challenges, and will form a part of the content strategy which we’re currently working on.

What did you do to implement this?

We began by looking at Twitter over the course of a single week, putting aside 30 minutes each day to try out a different kind of real-time interaction – social sharing, social networking, capital building and joining a popular hashtag. We then iterated on our findings as below.

What happened?

We found that putting some effort into joining a relevant hashtag was by the far the most successful method for us. We started with a very simple idea; asking people to tell us their favourite dog breeds for #NationalDogDay, and said we’d see if we have a relevant picture in the collection for them. We were deluged with responses, and were able to share dozens of images in our collection with people who adored their subject, and probably hadn’t realised that the RA could have any relevance for them. Seeing it was going well, we then took it further and invited those who had taken part to sketch the dog we’d sent them – which many did, and we collated these in a Pinterest album. Sharing an image relating to a trending topic is something we do regularly, but by changing the angle and inviting response on a topic that mattered to our audience – and taking the time to monitor what came back – we saw a spike in followers, mentions and engagement.

Finding social sharing – tweeting a series of articles from many different publications about a single topic – not as successful as expected, we developed this into a week-long experiment to see if a sense of expectation would increase engagement. To involve the wider RA network of staff, we tried a rota, with a different staff member tweeting their reading recommendations every day. We found this still didn’t yield a great increase in engagement and required quite a lot of time and effort to co-ordinate, so we concluded that this wasn’t a content strand worth pursuing for us.

Replying individually to every comment was also not very effective for us, and we concluded that with the volume of incoming comments we have, unless they are questions or particularly interesting/topical comments, it’s likely not worth our time to respond to all of them.

What were the personal challenges you faced when carrying out this experiment?

The main challenge I faced was fitting the regular 30 minutes of live activity into my working day, and having enough time to analyse the results and iterate on them.

What did YOU learn?

Through the hashtag experiment, I learnt that to really engage people with our organisation it’s no good shouting about all the things we want to tell them; we have to find the overlap with their interests, even if they aren’t always those central to our own mission.

I also became aware of how important it is to invite interaction in a way that’s manageable and fits the fleeting, dipping-in-and-out way in which people use the platform. With the dog hashtag, the barrier for entry was extremely low – all they had to do was tweet one word stating a preference they already held, but the exchange that developed out of it was in many cases significant.

I also became aware that a genuinely two-way communication requires significant full-time attention, which we previously haven’t given it. Incorporating this sort of live conversation – whether joining a popular hashtag, or running Q&As or other formats – seems to be the biggest improvement we can immediately make to our social channels, so we’ll look to develop this as a regular presence as part of our content strategy


The idea that rich, interactive content will help us meet our goals in the longer term, above repeated one-way loudspeaker messaging about our activities will form a key point in our content strategy, which we will communicate around the RA.

We have also been made increasingly aware that successful digital engagement is time-consuming, and requires a way in which staff around the organisation can easily contribute.

What next? 

As above, we are currently developing a content strategy and will be incorporating these learning points into its framework, making them a regular feature of our content. It’s likely we will take decisions to do less content overall and do it better, creating richer, more time-consuming and genuinely interactive content.