The Me/Us/Them model: Prioritizing museum social-media efforts for maximum reach

Jonas Heide Smith, The National Gallery of Denmark, Denmark


In their efforts to reach social-media audiences, museums may prioritize self-made content, the personal profiles of staff, or the facilitation of visitor sharing. This paper reports on experiments on maximizing Instagram reach conducted at SMK, the National Gallery of Denmark, and reflects on their implications for museums in general.

Keywords: social media,instagram,reach,analytics,strategy,communication,evaluation,user-generated content.

1. Introduction

Between July and August 2014, the National Gallery of Denmark (in Danish: “Statens Museum for Kunst” or often “SMK,” which I’ll use from here) increased its Instagram reach by 2,500 percent. This occurred by implementing an approach supporting visitor sharing of photos from the museum and led to a change of social-media strategy. The measuring techniques developed and the insights gained from this semi-experimental approach, as well as their strategic implications, may be useful to other museums. Although strategies and priorities differ between institutions, all museums must decide where to apply their resources (be they modest or plentiful), and the aim of this paper is to provide tools for making this decision.

Firstly, this paper briefly discusses the state of social media in museum communication, followed by an introduction to the specific context of SMK and its goals and communicative landscape. This leads to a discussion of methodology and a presentation of results. Finally, the results are distilled into the “Me/Us/Them Model,” a strategic tool for prioritizing social-media efforts, and perspectives for the future of social-media communication are offered.

2. Museums and social media

Social media have emerged as powerful tools for museums to interact with existing fans and address audiences that are difficult to reach through other channels (see, for instance, Spiliopoulou et al., 2014). These platforms, often far beyond anything experienced on classical museum websites, have allowed for dialogue and viral effects that amply explain their appeal to marketing and communications departments.

And yet, perhaps predictably, it’s hardly a rose garden.

Working on borrowed (i.e., non-owned) platforms puts one at the mercy of the service provider, and large investments may become devalued virtually overnight. When Facebook, in 2013, chose to (effectively) punish pages with inactive fans by aggressively decreasing their organic reach, institutions that had invested time and money to acquire fans now partly had to consider these same fans a liability (Kluber, 2014).

Perhaps more importantly, the “banal banter” connotations of some social-media platforms may place them at loggerheads with institutional self-images. Some have seen social media as threatening to undermine the respect surrounded august institutions—or to simply inspire an inappropriate mode of visitor behaviour, as in the case of smartphone photography and the “museum selfie” movement.

Whatever one’s stand on these trends, resources are always scarce and not prioritizing carefully is a sure way to waste them. Towards the end of this paper, I’ll briefly return to these larger issues.

3. SMK at a glance

SMK is the country’s largest fully government-funded art museum. It’s located in Copenhagen, hosts a collection spanning seven-hundred years of European art and has close to four-hundred-thousand visitors each year. First opened to the public in 1896, a new wing housing the modern collection was appended to the original building in 1998. The intersection of the old and new wing is a popular site for visitor photography (figure 1).


Figure 1: the old building (left) meets the new building (right), a popular subject for visitor photography (photo by the author)

SMK’s digital communication

Like many museums, SMK works across a wide range of platforms. The museum website functions as a central information hub, and around this center other platforms continuously increase and decrease in importance. Currently, the strongest focus is placed on Facebook (in Danish), Twitter (in Danish and English), and Instagram (in English).

Traditionally, the museum has often published material from the collections, but increasingly the social channels are used to report on current events. SMK staff are encouraged to help in this reporting effort by submitting photos and other material to the digital communication team (figure 2).


Figure 2: smartphone photo submitted by a staff member to the digital communications team during an event

Museum staff is also informally encouraged to share museum-related content on personal profiles. In particular, such activity is beneficial on Twitter, where the official museum voice is somewhat formal (being seen primarily as a point of contact for professional relations). With individual staff members or departments tweeting more idiosyncratically, the combined image of the museum ideally becomes one of both professionalism and personal enthusiasm.

Measuring success

As one rough measure of success, SMK simply measures “reach” (i.e., the number of people who see the published content). By this reckoning, the raw number of followers becomes of little relevance in itself. Also, while “number of interactions” is a much-used measurement for many institutions, this phenomenon becomes of secondary importance. Although SMK appreciates dialogue as a way of creating and maintaining strong bonds with its online following, interactions such as likes and comments (in the limited perspective of the “reach” focus) become a means to increased visibility.

4. The experiment

For some time, the digital communication team had wondered about the efficacy of the traditional plan–produce–publish approach. While achieving satisfactory reach (particularly on Facebook), it seemed clear that museum guests were not generally committed to interacting with the official profiles. Thus, while these profiles attracted a steady stream of new followers (figures 3, 4, and 5), there was little synergy between the efforts of the museum and the sharing activities of guests. Meanwhile, it was also hypothesized that the potential of guest sharing was poorly tapped due to inconsistent use of museum hashtags, unclear rules for photography, and lack of physical signage.


Figure 3: Instagram followers over time


Figure 4: Facebook page likes over time


Figure 5: Twitter followers over time

The team decided to use the month of July 2014 as a baseline. During this month, social-media activity was kept to a minimum and no special initiatives were taken to encourage guest sharing. The only exception was a streamlining of usernames and hashtags meant to simplify communication on posters, etc. (figure 6).

Instagram name change

Figure 6: communicating user name change and new recommended hashtag

During July, this approach (or indeed “non-approach”) predictably led to a very low reach: 16,140 people saw SMK Facebook content, 14,883 saw direct mentions of SMK on Twitter (measured as retweet reach plus mention reach), and an estimated 9,083 people saw SMK-related Instagram content.

Measuring Instagram reach

Now, before proceeding it is worth specifying exactly what we mean by Instagram reach. At this time, Instagram does not provide analytics nor offer data to other services on the actual performance on specific content. In other words, “reach” (number of people who see content) is a matter of estimating by applying slightly arbitrary assumptions. Disregarding the fledgling algorithmic/viral features of the Instagram app, an Instagram image is seen by the subset of followers who happen to experience the particular item in their feed, by users who follow one of the hashtags applied, or by users otherwise alerted to the image (e.g., by being mentioned in comments). This makes it difficult enough to estimate reach, but the museum also wanted to eradicate the distinction between “official” and “user-generated” content and so wanted to track—on equal terms—all content related to the museum. To do this, a system was set up (using the service) that collected all Instagram posts that were geotagged at one of the museum’s two physical locations or that applied one of several commonly used hashtags. These images were appended to an online spreadsheet after which doubles (i.e., the same user appearing several times) were deleted. The result is a list of Instagram users posting SMK-related content in a given month (figure 7).

Google Drive sheet

Figure 7: Instagram photos arranged automatically in spreadsheet

Simply adding together the total number of people who follow all users in the spreadsheet would clearly result in an unrealistically high reach. Followers will overlap and users, on average, are bound to see only a subset of everything in their stream. On the other hand, the system does not capture photos without location or without monitored hashtags, and thus not everything is counted (for instance, Danish pop star Medina posted from the museum to her more than three-hundred-thousand fans without being automatically tracked ( In an attempt to accommodate these imprecisions, the team has elected to add all followers together and divide by three (a decision informed by analytics from other platforms). Reach, then, is the total number of followers of trackable users who post SMK-related content divided by three: a somewhat arbitrary number, but one that is directly comparable month by month.

5. Encouraging guest sharing

In the months following July 2014, a series of initiatives were taken to encourage guest sharing. These initiatives are described below, followed by a discussion of their combined effect.


In August 2014, SMK had its first “official” Instagram event. Organized in collaboration with Instagram staff in town for Copenhagen Fashion Week, the event was small-scale and modeled on the #emptymet events of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Krugman, 2014; Kaufman, 2014). Twelve participants gathered at the museum one hour before regular opening hours and started posting under the #emptysmk hashtag (figure 8).

First Instagram walk

Figure 8: Instagramers meet at the museum entrance (photo by the author)

For this first endeavor, the group was set up for a regular guided tour of the collections. This effort was largely wasted, however, as it soon became clear that taking pictures left little surplus attention. For subsequent Instagram walks, actual guides have not been employed.

Fifty-four photos were shared during this event to a total of 107,983 followers. Dividing by three as described above, the reach of these photos was 35,994.

The concept was repeated in a refined form. In particular, a much more flexible approach to the planned route was employed, as Instagramers would often be inspired by particular, hard-to-foresee light effects or want to spend time organizing the group in visually interesting patterns. Participants did not, typically, find most inspiration in the actual exhibitions, perhaps because light conditions in these locations are too controlled to allow for surprising visual effects (see also, Weilenmann et al., 2013).

Figure 9: In a typical Instagram moment, a museum guard passes below casting a long shadow. Photo by Instagram user @laurenlila (used with permission)

Figure 9: in a typical Instagram moment, a museum guard passes below, casting a long shadow. Photo by Instagram user @laurenlila (used with permission).

As participants will often scatter uncontrollably, group size has been kept manageable at around fifteen people. Keeping groups small is also a prerequisite for maintaining a casual atmosphere. This is important in order to make sure everyone feels comfortable and to respect that the events are entirely voluntary and not a for-pay promotion initiative.

New signage

To further encourage sharing, a sign was placed in the museum lobby asking visitors to “please take photos.” Now, ubiquitous smartphones have stirred up controversy around museum photo policies (Miranda, 2013), with strong opinions voiced on both sides of the issue. The position of the SMK has been that, while smartphone photography could potentially be an irritation to certain guests, the collections belong to the citizens of Denmark, and the museum should place as few restrictions on their use as possible. With the museum’s very liberal online sharing of images from the collections, heavily restricting on-site photography would be difficult to explain. Thus, decidedly encouraging wording was chosen (the Royal Cast Collection, a part of the museum located in a separate geographical location, went so far as to adopt signage encouraging the use of flash).

The social exhibition

While the museum strongly believes in leveraging the potential of guest sharing, there is also a strong desire to keep the effort meaningful. Encouragement to share should have an art focus or be directly tied to exhibitions. An example of such a “social feature” was a “selfie mirror” placed in conjunction with an exhibition of works by the artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset focusing on contemporary conditions for writing one’s own biography (figure 10).

Selfie mirroe

Figure 10: visitors take a picture of themselves in the selfie mirror set up for the BIOGRAPHY exhibition (photo by the author)

The mirror attracted many visitors, often in groups, who enjoyed the semi-structured opportunity to climb a small plateau to snap a picture. During the exhibition period from September 2014 to January 2015, approximately 850 selfie mirror photos were shared on Instagram, most using the suggested #smkselfie tag.

6. Effects on reach

Clearly, the museum’s “experiment” was only semi-structured. Many overlapping initiatives were launched, and it’s impossible to isolate the effect of any one in particular. Nevertheless, the combined effort led to a marked increase in activity (figure 11).

Instagrambilleder per dag

Figure 11: Instagram photos by day (data from automatically generated spreadsheet). The two first spikes show Instagram events, while the third is an “SMK Fridays” event.

Between July and August, the total of shared images increased from 147 to 604 (410 percent), and reach increased from 9,083 to 227,605 (2,506 percent). This made Instagram the channel with by far the highest reach in August (table 1).

Platform Number of users reached
Website 27,908 (unique users)
Twitter 72,303
Instagram 22,7605
Facebook 30,302

Table 1: reach by platform in August 2014

What is particularly interesting here, of course, is that the high reach continues into subsequent months (without specific Instagram events). This suggests, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the effect of social-media initiatives is not isolated but rather snowball-like as activity yields interest and awareness, which again yields activity.

7. The social ecosystem

Based on these figures, it may be tempting to conclude that encouraging guest sharing is more effective by far than nurturing the museum’s own accounts. And largely this has been the conclusion at SMK. But clearly, official profiles are uniquely suited to communicate those aspects of the museum that are not immediately visually striking or are inaccessible to the public. SMK wishes to be perceived as open, welcoming, and indeed unintimidating, and these goals are not necessarily furthered by stark, contrasty shots of shadowplay, however impressive these may be. Also, future events are obviously mostly communicable through the institution’s own platforms.

But there is also a more subtle relationship between the institution’s own platforms and those of guests. Official profiles often function as hubs around which the various conversations can orbit. Guests will, if they find it worthwhile, point directly to official profiles (figure 12). They tend to find it worthwhile, and to find the usernames, hashtags, etc. memorable, if these profiles are active (and somewhat well run). Also, of course, some guests may go to the trouble of mentioning the official profiles in the hope of having their update reposted/reshared. This motivation obviously depends on the quality/popularity of official profiles. Thus, activating guests is likely to increase the visibility and popularity of official profiles, which again motivates more guests to share.

Figure 12: A guest goes to the trouble of mentioning the museum profile and using the “official” hashtag. Photo by Instagram user @linconjosh (used with permission).

Figure 12: a guest goes to the trouble of mentioning the museum profile and using the “official” hashtag. Photo by Instagram user @linconjosh (used with permission).

8. The Me/Us/Them model

As we have seen, no single approach to social media is necessarily optimal in isolation. Nevertheless, museums must distribute their resources across posting content on official channels, supporting staff sharing, or inspiring guests to share. Each approach has its pros and cons (figure 13).

Paper- Museums and the web-b

Figure 13: pros and cons of the three approaches

Most museums find official social-media profiles useful as they combine control with the opportunities for dialogue that websites often lack. Thus, the approaches taken by museums (editorial organization, genres employed, platforms chosen, etc.) are legion, but few museums choose not to establish owned social profiles if focusing on social media at all.

The “Us” approach, leveraging the personal profiles of museum staff, is often seen as both promising and problematic. The advantages are obvious: protagonists close to the action, with deep knowledge of the subject matter, express a personal and genuine enthusiasm rarely achievable on institution profiles. More prosaic arguments may also count in favour. For instance, as Facebook continuously minimizes organic reach of “pages,” content shared by actual people often has a greater chance of making it onto newsfeeds.

The challenges, however, are not difficult to spot. Museums can hardly make demands on personal profiles (and to the extent that they can and do, may be courting controversy), and staff may well not wish to overload their friends with what could be construed as promotional material. Different countries or regions may also have difficult-to-interpret laws prohibiting “covert marketing” that, at best, need to be navigated. Finally, for some museums this approach involves educating staff on not just technical details but also etiquette and best practice of specific platforms, not to mention copyright regulations and issues relating to secrecy surrounding security measures (e.g., backstage photos may reveal the location of surveillance equipment).

But for many, whether this approach is actually effective will arguably depend on the digital mindset of the museum staff. Staff members with little previous experience with a given platform (and perhaps with no existing contacts/followers on that platform) will require a very large time investment in order to contribute significantly to the communicative goals of the institution.

This brings us to the “Them” approach, in which guests are motivated to share information about the institution to their followers. As shown, the initial results of this approach have been most promising for SMK. But what, more generally, are the prerequisites for its success? In general terms, it relies on three sets of criteria, briefly discussed below: practical conditions, the physical nature of the collections, and organizational priorities.

Practical conditions

Labeling the following issues “practical” may understate their complexity. Matters of copyright are of obvious concern to most museums with (more or less) contemporary objects in their collections. They are often non-trivial to navigate and, for many concrete questions, difficult if not impossible to interpret. For instance, some jurisdictions may have a fairly liberal attitude towards “private” use of photos, while laws, at the same time, may be unspecific about the nature of personal social-media profiles (are they private?). Obviously, these regulations (constantly being interpreted and reinterpreted) must be respected and distilled very simply into language that a busy museum guest can understand at a glance.

Among more prosaic concerns, we find access to the Internet. A surefire way to limit sharing is to have guests unable to reliably access their platforms. Though highly dependent on local conditions, strong cell-phone data-network coverage may be sufficient for non-foreign guests. But for many tourists (again depending on local conditions), easily accessible free Wi-Fi is essential for sharing.

Physical conditions

The Wi-Fi may be unlimited and the law may be on one’s side, but if there’s no appealing subject matter, photo inspiration may be hard to muster. As mentioned above, SMK Instagram walkers show little interest in documentation-style imagery of artworks. It is the surprising shadows and the unplanned visual patterns that attract their lenses. Clearly, this strongly favours museums with a striking appearance and impressive light conditions and penalizes museums (and archives and libraries) with more modest facilities or where lighting conditions are highly controlled and neutral.

Of course, the draw of light and shadows is just one trend. Another is the museum selfie, which is much less demanding of museum architecture. The dynamics of the museum selfie, however, still favour the large and the famous, as the practitioners of the genre often use it to associate themselves somehow with famous places or objects. A case in point, über-celebrities Beyonce and Jay Z famously had their portrait taken in front of the Mona Lisa in 2014 (Duboff, 2014).

Organizational conditions

Encouraging guest sharing may clash dramatically with other institutional priorities and certainly be perceived as a strong contrast to traditional notions of ideal visitor behaviour (subdued, contemplative) in certain museums. And of course, frivolous and playful visitors may potentially be considered a nuisance by more traditionalist patrons.

Similarly, playful visitor behaviour is a challenge to traditional security paradigms. The “Museum of Selfies” project ( captures faux selfies seemingly made by people portrayed in paintings. To work well, these photos must typically be taken very close to the painting, and supporting such endeavors clearly means inviting a certain degree of risk.

Striking a balance

The Me/Us/Them model is a tool for thought. Efficient social-media strategies are highly context-dependent and indeed often hinge on idiosyncrasies of specific editors following their particular interests. But thinking in terms of three distinct approaches may at least spark awareness of alternatives to true and tried “Me” techniques.

Paper- Museums and the web2-b

Figure 14: requirements for the three approaches

It may go without saying (and indeed it has already been noted above) that the three techniques are not mutually excluding. Rather, visibility of one type typically boosts visibility in other quarters as people jump between platforms and link between profiles. In this sense, the “ideal” social-media strategy surely involves finding a locally appropriate mix between the three approaches but also (as social-media managers know) continuously adjusting focus between platforms, adjusting signage, contributing to communities, handling customer service enquiries, managing controversies, and a host of other disciplines related to guiding the conversation about one’s institution. It may be referred to as “strategy,” but it often feels more like conducting an orchestra in a smoky room.

Openness as strategy

Notably, a plethora of other practices can increase a museum’s social-media imprint. The SMK’s “SMK Fridays” series of party-atmospheric art events, for instance, lend themselves nicely to photo sharing by visitors (see #smkfridays on Instagram), and festive physical events in general provide appealing subject matter.

But subject matter can obviously also be digital. Digitizing collections and offering easily accessible high-quality photos of artworks or other objects can (in addition to all other advantages) be a powerful driver of reach. Demand for high-quality, free-to-use illustrations is constantly high, and providing such material may well mean that it gets picked up and used in blogs, Wikipedia pages, and in more casual social-media conversations. As a museum priority, such an undertaking must clearly be strongly embedded in core strategy and has implications far beyond the realm of social media, but in the narrow terms of the Me/Us/Them Model, we can see it as a strong support of the “Them” approach.

9. Discussion

The analysis of this paper has been decidedly utilitarian. Now, unabashedly aiming to increase a museum’s online reach can strike some as problematic, even disappointing. Such feelings are understandable, and yet they are hardly unique to the museum world. At least since the heady early days of Web 2.0 optimism, notions of the transformative potential of digital media have, in general terms, been a history of decline (see, for instance, Hindman, 2009) brought about, in part, by revelations of massive government surveillance, the sale of personal data, and shameless marketing strategies.

Such disappointments may be particularly frustrating given the oft-touted “potential of digital media—and social media, in particular—to inspire civic and cultural engagement and, thus, aid the process of democratisation in cultural institutions” (Baggesen, 2014).

However, while certain initial social-media visions of deep and constant dialogue have surely met the harsh light of reality, whether or not social media (in their present, all-too-imperfect form) have sparked positive change is a question of definitions. Though admittedly often partly appropriated in the service of marketing or customer service, social media have at least made many museums more sociable and accessible. Museum knowledge gets communicated in alternative ways capable of appealing to audiences that might never physically visit the museum, and knowledge seekers around the globe suddenly have very real and efficient points of contact with the world’s museums. It’s not what everyone dreamed of, but while (self-)criticism is a healthy discipline, dismissing those effects does require a dose of cynicism.

Now, maximizing reach of course implies aiming for a specific, quantitative goal, and as media scholars Kirsten Drotner and Kim Christian Schrøder note, “The commercial nature and communicative rationale of most social media with their quantitative rankings and evaluations play into existing pressures for museums to treat (potential) visitors as consumers of particular services and to think in terms of visitor volume (clicks, “likes,” unique views) as indicators of communicative success” (Drotner & Schrøder, 2013: 6-7). Although it would be strange not to consider expressions of interest and satisfaction from users/guests/citizens as indicative of success, the concern is very valid. Reach (or clicks, likes, etc.) can only ever be one indicator, and museums must continuously strive for supplementary yardsticks to ensure that social-media efforts align with broader communication goals and ultimately the core goals of the institution.

10. Conclusions and suggestions for further work

Content calendars, editorial processes, and all other trappings of efficient social-media publishing are important. But for SMK, there are strong indications that encouraging visitors to share their experience online is a better use of resources, and other museums may well be able to reach similar conclusions. To support such decision processes, this article has suggested and discussed the “Me/Us/Them Model,” simply illustrating that efforts should be distributed thoughtfully in a mix between posting self-produced content, encouraging staff sharing, and inspiring guests to share.

Of course, finding a suitable mix of approaches leads to new challenges. First of all, existing tracking tools, while manifold, are often limited to measuring one’s own content. Social-media platforms (recent examples are Instagram and Snapchat) tend to launch with limited analytics facilities, indeed often visibly trying to hinder marketing-style efforts until the platform is well established. Thus, in order to track reach (for instance), one has to find creative workarounds often involving some degree of uncertainty. Museums and similar institutions are likely to benefit from sharing practical details on how to make tracking “realistically workable.”

Also, while some museums, by their very grandness, elegance, etc., may immediately inspire photo sharing, more modest-looking institutions will need to work extra hard to inspire guest sharing. Approaches not reliant on immediate awe are an issue worthy of exploration.

Furthermore, ensuring positive relationships with guests is crucial and must be given thought. As mentioned earlier, inviting visitor photography can involve a degree of risk as eager photographers seek out interesting angles perhaps involving precarious balancing acts. Museums must be inviting while still communicating applicable rules and limitations, and guards may have to be trained to handle this double ambition.

Clearly, working with user-shared material as a resource also entails coming to terms with legal ambiguities. Rules and principles differ between regions, but to make the most of user-generated content on websites, info displays, etc., museums must fully understand the rules and may need to work together to push for clarifications or changes from governing bodies.

Finally, and most importantly, museums must continue to critically examine the effects of their social media to ensure alignment with higher goals. Tough questions of effect must be asked and, to the extent possible, answered convincingly. This is both to ensure that museum resources actually pull in the same direction and also to further internal interest and legitimacy. It is much easier, and indeed more enjoyable, to motivate staff to participate if social-media activities are deeply integrated in the culture and daily concerns of the entire museum. In the end, social-media success is a matter of collaboration and the careful interplay of initiatives.


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Cite as:
. "The Me/Us/Them model: Prioritizing museum social-media efforts for maximum reach." MW2015: Museums and the Web 2015. Published January 31, 2015. Consulted .