Wine drinking, shenanigans and hams – they’re all in a day’s work at the Royal Academy. We speak to Fionnuala Deasy, social media lead at the renowned institution and longest established art school in Britain, to hear how its collections have inspired conversation and creativity for over 250 years.
Uncover how the RA has balanced its ardour for the arts with a dexterity for the digital to blend entertainment with education perfectly on their social channels, and find out how to be top of the class at Twitter by listening into some Sound Advice from Sprout’s own social media agony aunt Stacey.
Share your own social media dilemma by emailing email@example.com, and see what the the RA is up to by connecting using @RoyalAcademy on Twitter and via @RoyalAcademyArts on Instagram.
CAT ANDERSON Welcome to Social Creatures, a podcast from Sprout Social. I’m Cat, and I’m here to explore some of my favourite success stories from the world of social media. This is a space for everyone. And, really, nearly anything goes. But what makes an account successful or popular? Honestly, it’s hard to know. But that’s what we’re here to find out.
Throughout the series, we’ll talk with the brands behind the accounts you know and some that you don’t to explore the weird and wonderful ways that businesses, organisations, and individuals have achieved success on social media, all with tangible insights that you can apply to your own social strategies. And we’ll be heeding the advice of Stacey, our social media agony aunt, who’s here to guide you through some of your trickiest digital dilemmas.
This week, I’m joined by Finn Deasy, social media lead at the Royal Academy. For those who don’t know, the Royal Academy of Arts or the RA is an art institution based in Piccadilly, in London. It was founded in 1768 and has a pretty unique position as an independent and privately-funded institution that’s led by eminent artists and architects. Its purpose is to promote the creation, enjoyment, and appreciation of the visual arts through exhibitions, education, and debate.
But how does the Royal Academy relate to social? It uses social to bring art, both the appreciation and the creation of it, to the masses. It’s fun while being cultural, it’s historical while being modern, and it’s serious while being silly.
You’re not the only one as the Royal Academy boasts hundreds of thousands of followers right across all of its platforms. If you want to check them out, you can do so @RoyalAcademy.
Finn, welcome to Social Creatures.
FIONNUALA DEASY Thank you. Very nice to be here.
CAT ANDERSON I’m delighted to have you here. Because I think there’s – there’s a lot to talk about with the Royal Academy. And I think, probably—. The Royal Academy has been championing art and artists since 1768. So, I mean, is it fair to say social media’s a pretty new tool in your arsenal when it comes to the promotion and appreciation of art with these audiences? Perhaps, you could tell us how you use it and some of the results that you’ve seen.
FIONNUALA DEASY Sure. So, as you mentioned, the RA is in Piccadilly. It’s this amazing big building with tons of brilliant exhibitions, and it’s just a really beautiful place, all about kind of championing art and artists. And we just basically try and do that on social. So, we want to be a nice place where people can visit. They can see some art. They can learn about how to make a woodblock print or how to hold a paintbrush or, you know, see Grayson Perry wearing a nice dress, or any of the sort of amazing stories that come from this building that houses a ton of different activities. And we just try and tell those stories and share that across Instagram, Twitter, Facebook.
There’s a lot of staff at the RA. A lot of people are doing—. They’re rt of curators, exhibitions. A Summer Exhibition every year. And we basically try and have social as a place where all of our colleagues can feed in and be involved, and we can try and reflect all the amazing work that’s happening on our channels and give our audience something that’s valuable. Even if you can’t actually come in to Piccadilly, you can still find something nice and arty on our feeds.
CAT ANDERSON Well, and I think you do a wonderful job of that, because when you explore your Twitter and Instagram feed, it kind of feels like having an art lesson with your – your favourite teacher. You know? There’s a really lovely mix of humour and genuine passion for art and also the world that we inhabit, but it’s all done in a very accessible way, which I think—. I don’t know. Sometimes, people could be forgiven for thinking art is very hard to connect with. And I love that you really put an effort on making it super, super accessible.
I think how you’ve used social then marries that. Plus, you know, it’s very obvious that you’ve understood social’s capacity to communicate and connect with audiences, like, at large. Was this a strategy then that the RA always had with social media or was it something that developed over time?
FIONNUALA DEASY So, in 2017, we had a bit of a sort of overhaul to celebrate the two hundred and fiftieth birthday. We brought in a new strategy for our digital content [unintelligible] very, like, journalistic approach. And then, in terms of social, we were trying to really create valuable content that worked for our audience wherever they may.
And in terms of strategy, it’s—. You know, we try and be really data-driven. It’s—. And, ultimately, you’re constantly getting feedback. And you can always tell how things are doing. So, I think it’s kind of reporting, listening to our audience, seeing what’s doing well, seeing what’s bombing, seeing what people aren’t interested in, and then using that to inform how we approach going forward.
CAT ANDERSON Would it be fair to say, as well as the data-driven side of things, you like to experiment? And, like, one such campaign that I think just seemed so fun and maybe it kind of gave me the vibes that it could have been a little bit of a “Let’s see if this works,” and then it absolutely snowballed into success, was the #RAFridayDoodle challenge.
So, for those who haven’t seen it, it’s where you invite your followers to submit a doodle on an artistic theme of your choice that week. So, there’s been things like windmills, lionesses, and hams. Like, ham. It’s so funny, but it’s such a – a lovely way to engage with your audience every week. Did that start off as a little experiment? And what are the strategic benefits to having, you know, silly, little fun campaigns like that?
FIONNUALA DEASY Yeah. Very much an experiment. So, that campaign began as the daily doodle in the dark depths of the beginning of lockdown when we essentially closed our doors and had to think of a way to keep our audience interested in us and art and also just keep them entertained. Times have changed a bit, and we’ve sort of coming back to some sort of normal—. We’ve gone to our Friday Doodle. So, just a weekly drawing event. And also, we try and focus on or use the Friday Doodle to really highlight our collection.
Because I think a lot of people think of the RA, our strength is our exhibitions. So, people come to the exhibitions. But we do have an amazing permanent collection built up since, you know, 1760s of Michelangelo or The Last Supper or these incredible works that are on free display at all times.
But yeah. We use the Friday Doodle now to kind of share those objects and get people to draw them. I think, last week, we had the Venus de Milo, and we wanted people to kind of draw their own arms onto it and things like that.
RA-themed fun is the doodle. And it is, like—. Yeah. That campaign is totally the highlight of our week on social. We have this amazing group of people who draw every week and just super talented and really make our Fridays.
And in terms of strategy, it’s like—. It’s super authentic to the RA. We’ve got an art school, the RA School, which we mentioned, but it’s the longest established art school in Britain. And, you know, right now, we’ve got, downstairs, students making art. And so, in terms of the RA’s strategy, the doodle just feels like a Twitter version of that. We had Turner and William Blake here drawing our strategies and things when they were students here. So, to continue that on Twitter just—. It feels like a modern version of it. And anyone can take part. It’s super open.
And we—. You know, it’s been great to watch the doodles get even more [unintelligible]. Sometimes share, like, older ones and “Look, how I’ve improved.” And it’s, yeah, very rewarding for us. So, we love it. And, you know, it’s nice to have an engaged group of people every week. So, there’s benefit in that, but also it just makes us smile. So, that’s important.
CAT ANDERSON I love that so much. And it’s so amazing to hear you had Turner and William Blake as students there. And I think what’s really great about the RA is, I think, it really challenges the misconception that art is only for, like, the upper classes and it isn’t for everybody. Because, more often than not, artists are not necessarily from the upper classes.
But you did mention the art school, which means I am going to have to mention that it got a very huge cameo recently in Bridgerton. So, like, the RA was low-key one of the—. Like, a pretty important storyline in Bridgerton this season. I wonder how that impacted you. And did you know about that? And was that something that you could incorporate into your social media strategy as well? Because, obviously, Bridgerton is such a huge cultural moment, whether you love it or hate it. It’s massive. And yeah. It was kind of crazy that the RA was a big part in it this season.
FIONNUALA DEASY Yeah. It was a – a big character. It was—. Yeah. It’s a surprise for us. We – we didn’t—. We didn’t—. Well, I – I wasn’t aware of that happening. So, it was, yeah, very exciting to get an email on a Friday about our feature. And we put out a little tweet. I think something like, you know, “If Bridgerton brought you here, welcome,” which is very, like, low-key. We saw some people coming to the website who were kind of wondering what it was and stuff. So, everyone was super excited to be featured.
And the RA had an interesting part, let’s say. Benedict Bridgerton is our newest alumni. And he had some good times at the RA. Some wine was drunk. Some shenanigans were had. But we are working on something with our archivist and librarian to maybe kind of fact-check our – our representation, shall we say, or at least just have a little review of it.
There’s a scene, I think, that is quite clearly at the Summer Exhibition. Netflix don’t sue me, but I think it’s the Summer Exhibition. The Summer Exhibition has a very distinct way of hanging where we pile the art on top each other and, like, get, like, thousands of fireworks in there. The queen’s there and things like that. So, yeah. It was good to see the RA.
CAT ANDERSON Oh, wow.
FIONNUALA DEASY Yeah. It – it was a surprise for us. But everyone’s very happy to be in it and happy to have people who maybe haven’t heard of the RA, you know, seeing it on Netflix.
And the school still exists and is still open, and we have students right now who are RA school students just like Benedict Bridgerton. I mean, not just like him. They’re much better behaved.
A lot of galleries in London, amazing galleries. The national galleries just around the corner. But we are the only one, I think, that still has this operating art school as a huge part of what we do. So, to have Netflix notice that feels okay.
I basically want to do, like, a fact-checking piece about what Bridgerton did get right, what it got wrong, because we want to tell our side of the story, not just the wine drinking and the lecherousness.
CAT ANDERSON Yeah. The shenanigans,
FIONNUALA DEASY The shenanigans. Yeah. Maybe not lecherous. The shenanigans.
CAT ANDERSON Yeah. But some shenanigans are good, though. And I think that—. You know, what I think for what is a very well-established, respected arts institution, you aren’t afraid to introduce your followers to content that could maybe be considered a little bit indelicate or a little bit silly. Recently, you championed the work of, and you might have to keep me right here, Finn, on the pronunciation, Kawanabe Kyōsai.
FIONNUALA DEASY Kawanabe Kyōsai.
CAT ANDERSON Yeah. You’ve nailed it. I’m not very good at that. But they’re a nineteenth century Japanese painter and a master of traditional and satirical paintings. And the RA decided to feature details of a painting of his called Fart Battle over a series of tweets. And I know people can’t see this on the podcast, but you’ve got a massive grin on your face there.
So, these – these pictures showed figures farting at each other and wind leaking and exploding—that’s your quote—and farts blowing away heavy sacks of rice. There’s kind of no two ways about it. This is pretty bawdy content by most standards. But, you know, it’s fun. It’s playful. It’s silly. And I kind of wonder: Is that—? Again, is that something where you’re purposefully pushing people’s boundaries to shine a spotlight on this sort of art?
FIONNUALA DEASY The kind of bread and butter of the RAs are exhibitions, and they’re super varied. Last month, we had Francis Bacon and his super dark, twisted paintings, alongside Whistler and his very sort of his depiction of people dressed in white, alongside other artists. And also we opened, last month, Kawanabe Kyōsai’s exhibition, which is made up of Israel Goldman’s collection of this nineteenth century Japanese masters’ scrolls and prints. And he’s kind of gone quite under the radar compared to someone like Hokusai or, you know, these more renowned Japanese painters.
But Kyōsai was essentially a super bawdy. He was a sake-drinking, partying maverick, and, you know, as well as being a very skilled and brilliant artist. A lot of the work he was producing was satire. So, when you see the Fart Battles, that’s very much about kind of teasing people. And, actually, that – that tradition depicting fart battles goes back to the ninth century. So, it’s a—.
CAT ANDERSON What?
FIONNUALA DEASY It’s—. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s been around. It’s not something that he made up. And, yeah, he does some crazy things as, like, frogs that are people and, like, all kind of used to satire and – and, like, Westerners as skeletons and all this [unintelligible] fun show.
All of the copy you saw there as pretty much taken from our catalogue. For every exhibition, the RA produces a catalogue with tons of background and information, and the curators of that show, RA Publishing, who we collaborate with a lot when we come to making exhibition campaigns. You know, if you want more Fart Battle, buy the catalogue. And it was fun, ’cause we could share that on April Fool’s Day to sort of ride that wave of, like, silliness. But it wasn’t April Fool’s. There really are Fart Battles currently, like, hung up in the RA, and they’re great.
CAT ANDERSON That’s amazing. But don’t you think it’s funny? ‘Cause, sometimes, we have people on this podcast, and they talk about the curation of what will work on social and maybe what won’t work. And, oftentimes, silliness really goes a long way on social. It’s amazing to hear that it’s not really social that’s created this appreciation for silly content, because fart battles have been around since the ninth century. Like, that’s what I’m going to be taking away from this conversation.
We’ve always had an appreciation for this silly content, and just social’s shining a massive spotlight on it now.
FIONNUALA DEASY A hundred percent. Yeah. We’ve always been fart-loving people.
CAT ANDERSON I do love that you shine a spotlight on this full breadth of content from the stuff that’s sort of classically beautiful and recognised right through to our fart battles as we’ve mentioned.
During the pandemic, your accounts promoted better mental health by encouraging meditation and offering followers relaxing images as well. And you mentioned that earlier that, you know, there was stuff that you were doing when your doors closed just to kind of keep yourselves busy as well. How important is it to offer a variety of ways for people to connect with your content?
FIONNUALA DEASY Yeah. We really had to adapt when we were making content that wasn’t sort of promoting people coming in. It was thinking about how we could be valuable to them at home or in any way. So, as you say, we did these sort of mindful Mondays. Things like slow pans with landscapes, with some mindfulness, breathing exercises, and things like that. You know, people really enjoyed.
Now, I think it’s—. You know, that’s been a good lesson that the RA can reach beyond the building and we can produce things that it’s not just going to be a good post if you’ve seen the exhibition. Like, even if you are in America or, I don’t know, Timbuktu, you can read our Instagram and read a nice story about Francis Bacon, and you don’t have to be in the building. And I think that’s, yeah, something valuable social can do in terms of, like, extending the brand and the reach.
And – and I think we would want all our content to be really accessible and open for everyone. So, you don’t need a degree in art history to connect with our content. You can be very new to the RA and hopefully still kind of get it.
CAT ANDERSON Oh, that’s so nice. I wonder, actually, in terms of the stuff that you’ve maybe shared on social, like, are there any pieces that you’ve shared and they’ve really just resonated, like, in a massive way more than that you noticed?
FIONNUALA DEASY You know what people love? People love paintings and portraits of dogs, pets. Animals are super popular. So, that would be very engaged with content. But, generally, I think people like seeing, you know, artists they know. Like, our David Hockney exhibition was super popular on social.
CAT ANDERSON That’s so funny as well though, because, again, we obviously touched on how the bawdy content has been around since the dawn of time, way before social media. But everybody loves animal content on social media. So, it’s so funny that, like, from a classical art perspective, you can completely fulfil this desire for people.
Now, here at Sprout Social, we know that social media is a wild and wonderful beast. It can surprise and delight, but it can also confuse and perplex even the hardiest of social media users. Who better to turn to for help than our social media expert, Stacey Wright, who’s here to answer your questions over a cup of tea and some biscuits in the part of the show we like to call Sound Advice?
STACEY WRIGHT Right. I’ve got my cup of tea and I’ve got my letters, which can only mean is time for us to take a break and cosy down together. This is the part of the podcast where I, your social media agony aunt, Stacey, guide you, our dear listeners, through your trickiest digital dilemmas.
Right. Let me see what social media conundrums you’ve sent my way today.
“I’m keen to learn how to improve the engagement on my flourishing Twitter account for the primary school class that I teach. As far as the school goes, it’s pretty successful, if I do say so myself. It’s had praise for many of the parents and has also caught the eye of the education trust that we’re a part of. They want to use it as an example amongst other schools like ours of putting the community brand value into action.
“Whilst I’ve gained a couple of thousand followers already, making me celeb influencer status in teacher terms, I’m struggling, however, to foster any interaction on the post beyond a couple of likes. How do I encourage conversation and active interactions on my tweet to enhance that community feel and go full teach-fluencer with A-grade content?
“Your sincerely, Mr. Scott.”
Mr. Scott, seemingly gone are the days when your mom would only know what you were up to at school by going to parents evening. Let’s do a quick Social 101. Let’s get back to a few basics that will see you flying even higher in no time.
So, firstly, get back to the classroom. Twitter runs their own free academy called Twitter Flight School for social media newbies, and it covers all levels from the basics of tweeting right through to campaign planning and advertisement strategy on Twitter. Plus, you’re busy enough lesson planning and moulding young minds. So, it’s helpful that the courses are all broken down into speedy, very digestible chunks.
Next up, copywrite in quick wins. Firstly, use emojis. They’re eye-catching and [unintelligible] to grab attention.
“Any questions?” Psychologically, people think that they should respond even if it’s rhetorical. So, use questions. And also use active verbs. It makes people feel part of the action and more likely to respond to your tweet.
For those of us who aren’t teachers out there, past tense could be “Class 4S really enjoyed World Book Day” compared with active verbs, “Class 4S are really enjoying World Book Day.”
Then, you can add a question at the end. “Who is your favourite fictional character of all time?”
The PTA will be all over that.
Once you have that down, also mix in some post types that are defined by engagement themselves. So, things like Twitter polls. And you can make it fun. Like, “Class 4S smashing there nine-times tables. How long did it take you to work out what nine times twelve is?” And give them options, like, “a couple of seconds,” “a couple of minutes,” “never going to happen without a calculator.” Really start to play with the audience that you have built up already.
Lastly, do a bit of promotion among your immediate community. So, get your tweets in front of people in a timely manner or where they may consume it more frequently. So, ask your web admin to add the Twitter feed to the school website or encourage parents and guardians to switch on push notifications from your profile, so that they see posts in real time. They’ll get a ping as soon as you tweet.
And also use a scheduling function where you can. Let’s face it, Mr. Scott. As sensational as you are on Twitter, you have more important things to do. So, rather than feeling the fear of “What do I post every day or this week?” when lesson-planning, add some questions or fun facts to drafts or post them later using the schedule function for those days when inspiration and patience might be in short supply.
So, Mr. Scott, I hope these pointers help make you top of the class.
Until next time, listeners. Stay strong and stay social. And now back to the interview.
CAT ANDERSON So, we mentioned Bridgerton, of course, which was, as you said, unexpected, but delightfully received. But what other partnerships and collaborations have come about as a result of your use of social media?
FIONNUALA DEASY So, I would say maybe not so much collaboration, but, like, ongoing. The daily doodles I have mentioned. We have this weekly group of doodler who, every week, will be doodling and sharing these amazing artworks with us, which is, like, a partnership because, you know—. And we need them.
And then, for our Summer Exhibition, which is the biggest exhibition in the world, last year, I think it was fourteen hundred artworks and that’s fourteen hundred artists, roughly, involved in that. And through that, we love to tell their stories. And most pieces of art have a good story behind them that works really well on social.
Last year, there was this amazing painting that was this guy asleep on the overground in London. The artist got in touch with us to tell us that the story behind it was someone had taken a sneaky photo, as you sometimes do, on the tube. Then, a year or so later, they saw the subject of that painting walking around and they ran up to them and said, “I’ve – I’ve painted you from a picture.” And they became really good friends as they’re actually both artists. And we could tell that on social. And our audience just loved it, ’cause it’s so relatable and brilliant and surprising and, yeah, just really sweet.
And so, because we have this huge exhibition with tons of people and, you know, members of the public. You know, anyone can [unintelligible] our Summer Exhibition. There’s a lot of unexpected collaborations in terms of people bringing us these incredible stories that we can then use our platform to share. I think that’s kind of the whole point of the RA and the Summer Exhibition. And to extend that onto social just feels really natural and great to have engaged artists who want to share their stories with us.
And I would also say our Young Artists’ Summer Show, which is a bit newer than Summer Exhibition, and that’s for, I think, artists under nineteen. I probably should have mentioned that campaign, because we essentially share every week a piece of art by a young artist. And those have just been extraordinarily successful. People absolutely love them, which is unexpected in some ways, because we are—. At the Royal Academy of Arts, we have these associations with this traditional type of art. But, actually, you know, young artists should be celebrated. And the work they’re producing is so joyful. And that’s—. It’s not technically a Picasso. But to me, it’s just as good. And to be sharing it and having people enjoying that and wanting to engage with those young artists. Finding those artists, partnering with them, telling their stories, that’s probably my favourite part of my job.
CAT ANDERSON So nice to hear that. Again, even just being called the Royal Academy maybe signs a little bit intimidating. But for these young artists to share their art with a community of people who are – who know their stuff about art, but to get that lovely, warm reaction and for their art to be so well engaged with must be a really important moment in the life of a young artist.
And I think that kind of marries quite well into the next question, which is that, obviously, we’ve mentioned already that you’ve been supporting artistic endeavours since 1768, which is a very long time. What do you think that the artists of the pre-Internet era would have made of social media?
FIONNUALA DEASY The RA was founded by Joshua Reynolds, the artist, and a group of artists, and they essentially wanted the academy to be a place where artists could kind of meet up and paint and draw and make art. But also, they put on lectures for the public. And people could come to Summer Exhibition and everyone could come in and, you know, learn a bit about art and we continue that. That’s still totally what we’re all about, not just having amazing exhibitions, which is what people know us for, but also promoting the practice for an art itself.
And I think, yeah, I think Joshua Reynolds, therefore, would probably like social media, because we’ve managed to reach a lot of people. You know, we make—. With our learning team, we make brilliant videos about different kind of techniques. And then, sharing them on social as well as on our website, you know, can reach a lot of people. And I think that would be—. The founding members of the RA, I hope, would be pleased with that.
CAT ANDERSON The final question that I have for you is a question that we will be asking everybody who comes onto this podcast, which is that if the RA had to delete all of the accounts that it follows on Twitter, leaving only one, which would it be and why?
FIONNUALA DEASY I think if we had to follow someone, maybe Grayson Perry, not just because of the phenomenal outfits, but also Grayson’s art club, the TV show that he does on Channel 4 with artists all over the country.
CAT ANDERSON It’s funny. When I asked that, I wondered—. Grayson Perry popped into my head, because I feel like he maybe embodies a lot of what the RA is about as well. That’s a great choice.
Well, Finn, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today. It’s been really lovely. And I, for one, need to get my butt into the RA. I need to come and, like, check everything out. You’ve really inspired me. So, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today. It’s been absolutely lovely.
FIONNUALA DEASY Oh, thank you. It’s been really nice to be here.
CAT ANDERSON You’ve been listening to Social Creatures with me, Cat Anderson. Many thanks to Finn Deasy of the Royal Academy for joining me today and to Sprout Social for making this podcast possible.
Make sure you catch the rest of the series by subscribing on your favourite podcast platform, where you can tune into a new episode every two weeks.
You can continue the conversation around today’s episode by getting in touch on our social media @SproutSocial or by sending your social media quandaries to our agony aunt, Stacey, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for listening, and we’ll catch you in two weeks.
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