Telling the National Trust story Article icon


Imagine having so many social media accounts that you lose track of them, with no way to know who is posting what and where, but it is all in the name of your organisation. It is enough to send most people into a panic but this was what Tom Barker walked into when he joined the National Trust as head of digital two years ago.

The National Trust had been a relatively early adopter of social media, creating its primary Twitter account in 2008, but the organisation had no firm strategy in place and hundreds of brand-related websites.

When it came to social media and blogs during Barker’s initial audit, his team lost count and estimated that they were somewhere in the low thousands. There were no less than 28 mobile apps available. Barker likened it to looking out at a galaxy and not being able to count the stars. But one of Barker’s stars could hold a serious risk to his organisation without his knowledge and so something had to be done.

‘We needed to do something pretty radical,’ he says. ‘So I created a digital roadmap, which is a five-year plan saying where we needed to get to as an organisation and how we were going to get there. Our tactics tended to be quite high level. For example, we needed to create a responsive website.’ The National Trust’s website had seen a ten per cent increase year-on-year of people visiting from their mobile devices and yet, without a responsive website, it experienced a 60 per cent bounce rate.

The Trust also knew very little about the people using its site and its apps. How many were members? Creating a login step was the next level of functionality that Barker aimed to implement so that the team could measure its audience and create content that would be relevant to them.

‘We needed to have an app that could feed in information as to how it was being used, not just sit on people’s phones and us not knowing anything about those people,’ says Barker. ‘It needed to feed into the other infrastructure that the IT in the wider organisation was preparing. ‘It is important that the way that people use these things on their device is natural to them,’ he adds, saying that the new website was created considering even the way people swipe on their mobile devices, to make usage as easy as possible for visitors.

‘We used to build things and walk away,’ says Barker. ‘Our old website was a lot of sticking plasters over a lot of building blocks.’ Social media was just a part of his big plan. Whilst the strategy for the website was about consolidating content from other sites onto a central National Trust one – ‘there is no reason for that content to exist if it can fit onto our main website which gets huge traffic and is a stable platform,’ says Barker – this did not apply to social media. ‘With social media there is a basic logic of why wouldn’t you want to have an account for a property or place?’ says Barker. ‘They’ve got big loyal audiences. We wouldn’t want to take that away and we certainly wouldn’t want to be speaking as a national brand on behalf of properties which are all completely individual.’

But the problem this approach presents is governance. The National Trust protects more than 350 historic houses, 160 gardens, 1,100 kilometres of coastline, six World Heritage Sites, 28 castles and 60 pubs. It has 10,000 employees and more than 60,000 volunteers. Letting them loose on social media was not an option, not when Barker’s aim was to bring the organisation together.

‘We decided that we needed to at least have a core level of competence in place for anybody that represents the National Trust [on social media], whether that’s on a local property account or even on their personal accounts, because if they are identifiable as a member of staff or a volunteer, they are speaking on behalf of the organisation,’ asserts Barker.

A mandatory training module was created to help implement new, more formal guidelines. ‘When you join the Trust as a volunteer or employee, there are only three mandatory modules that you have to sit. One is fire [safety], another is IT security and now there’s a third, social media, which every single person in the organisation who wants to represent the Trust or post something on behalf of the organisation, has to sit.’

It is a 45 minute module that covers everything from brand consistency – for example, how employees use the logo or how they create a handle – to password strengths and use of photography. ‘Ultimately, that’s not just best practice from a brand marketing perspective, these are legal requirements,’ says Barker. ‘You cannot use people in photographs without their permission et cetera.’

The module is backed up by an official rule book, which acts as the National Trust’s internal rules of engagement. With an organisation this large, it includes rules not only on approaches to procurement and how to submit expenses but also the use of firearms and chainsaws. ‘The rule book now extends to social media,’ states Barker. ‘It’s been given that level of importance. To get a rule book instruction, it has to go through our governance process which means that it has to go to the executives, so the ten or so people who run the National Trust headed up by the director general, for approval. It’s part of our statute. Essentially the way it works at the Trust is that if you break a rule book instruction, then you as an individual are breaking your terms of employment.

‘We have seven regions. Each of those regions has marketing teams and within each of those teams, there is someone responsible for digital. Those people historically had been trying to encourage best practice but ultimately they didn’t have any ammunition to say Well I’m not going to ask you to do it this way, I’m going to tell you. Creating the rule book instructions, and we’ve also done something similar for the website means that they can now go out and say to people You’re not allowed to do it that way, but I’m here to encourage you and provide guidance.

Despite this formal approach, the social media teams are also free to experiment with new digital tools and platforms. Live streaming apps, such as Periscope and now Facebook Live, have been instrumental in helping the National Trust reach larger audiences.

‘When Periscope launched, somebody had the app on their phone and we were out volunteering on a property one day and thought Shall we give this a try? That’s very much our approach to innovation. Try something and if it doesn’t work, allow yourself to fail quickly. And if it does work, actually make it more formal.

‘What we found immediately was that we started getting more interest from people who started following the streams and commenting back. So we created an ongoing plan for live streams on Periscope and we decided to use our development chef Clive to be our front man. We started doing live cookalongs with the guy who is responsible for the recipes across the organisation.

‘In the first week we got a good following, but people started saying things like Can’t keep up with the recipe so in the next live stream, we put up a board with the recipe written on it. And then people started saying I’ d like to be able to feed him comments, but Clive can’t be online whilst he’s cooking, so we got someone to present along with him.

‘Then when Facebook Live came out, we thought Okay, this is all working but we don’t want to do two separate things for Twitter and Facebook, because they’re very similar, so we set up two cameras, one that would feed to each network. Just low level experimentation meant that we gained audiences enormously quickly. Within three months of going live on Periscope, we had twice as many people following us as we did on YouTube.

‘We also found that because of this new strategy and new ways of engaging with audiences, we’d more than doubled our number of followers on Facebook and Twitter in the last two years. It’s gone from a combined audience of about 600,000 to getting on for well over a million.

‘The interesting thing is that this is at a time when traffic to Facebook is plateauing and at best, Twitter is kind of level, so you would think that our number of followers would follow suit, but it hasn’t. It’s showing no signs of slowing at the moment, which is hugely encouraging.’

The Trust’s fastest growing platform is Instagram. ‘I suspect people following us on things like Facebook and Twitter are older, but it would make sense that those people following us very quickly on Instagram are younger. We’ve got younger audiences. It’s just about giving them relevant content.’

Relevant content often means richer media. ‘I think with any organisation they’ll find that the richer the media, the deeper the experience,’ says Barker. ‘Also it helps with your rankings on things like Facebook. If you put richer media on there, you will be elevated by their algorithms to be seen by more people. It’s in our interests to provide richer, deeper, more valuable content.

‘We get tens if not hundreds of thousands of people viewing the content that we’re creating. The engagement levels are really high. We monitor this activity on a daily basis, probably hourly, and if we find that something is not successful, we can react within minutes. And if it is successful, then we’ll keep doing more of it.’

Immersive 360 degree video has proven to be another hit for the Trust. Barker notes that 360 degree video cameras are now available to buy for less money than an iPad and says Why wouldn’t you try it?, but he is also aware that there should be a logical partnership between organisation and the technology. ‘Sometimes virtual reality and other innovative technologies get used for the sake of it, and you can imagine how as a laundry detergent it can be hard to make that seem logical, but for me, virtual reality and 360 degree video bring places to life for people in really innovative ways,’ he says.

‘I think it is really important, not necessarily for people who have the ability to get to the properties, but for the under-served audiences. If you can’t afford to travel and get into places or if you’re disabled, getting up St Michael’s Mount [a small tidal island in Cornwall, linked by a man-made causeway] might be quite difficult but if we can start to think about how to share those experiences with people through new technologies, it might really help them to engage with things that they have become disengaged from.’

Highlighting the Trust’s work is part of the charity’s new strategy Playing Our Part, which is centred on showing the extent of the work it does and the reasons for doing so. ‘In the previous ten years or so, there was a focus on trying to

engage new audiences by saying We are open, come and walk on the grass and climb a tree,’ says Barker. ‘The problem with that is that people don’t realise what we do and why we do it. We’re not a ‘Days Out’ attraction in the same way that Alton Towers is, we’re a conservation charity and the money people give when they visit us, whether it’s in the tearooms or the shop, goes towards the preservation of those places. It’s about saying This is why we exist but we can’t exist without your support. It costs money to maintain stately homes. It costs money to create footpaths.

‘We did an audit of every post we put out on social media in the 12 months before I joined, and what we found was that it was pretty much all about brand activity or marketing. What we weren’t doing enough of was supporting our commercial streams, meaning anything from our shops to our holidays. It wasn’t supporting enough about memberships, donations, legacies and all these other things that are hugely important commercial streams.

‘So as part of the content plan, I said to the social media team, I now want to see a minimum percentage of all of the things we do to support everything that makes us as an organisation. That’s getting the basic foundations in place to make sure we’re talking about what makes the organisation unique.’

There are no plans currently to expand the National Trust’s social networks, though Barker notes that it has holding pages ready should it decide to do so. But expanding will depend on the whereabouts of the Trust’s audiences.

‘There’s a saying Fish where the fishes are so we’re doing that to an extent. There’ll be a national account, every region has a regional account and pretty much every property or even major place will have an account. We’re starting to make sense of it.’