Chapter 3. Reimagining Social Influencers through an Invitation Culture

  • Lori Byrd-McDevitt

Every day opportunistic social influencers come knocking on our museum doors with requests that leave us bewildered, even as 40% of millennials are considering “instagrammability” when deciding their next travel destination. Museums are increasingly expected to compete with big, corporate brands on digital platforms while managing significantly fewer resources. But in an oversaturated market, museums are lucky to have the heart that many big brands lack. We can cultivate social influencers into communities who provide authentic connections to those audiences we have not been able to reach. Truly connecting with social influencers means embracing an invitation culture—building relationships, sharing experiences, and bringing the long-term, human connection back into our museums.

What is an invitation culture? The term may be most prevalent within the context of Protestant churches, encouraging congregations to invite new members to join their communities.1 More recently, it has extended well beyond this scope to encompass underserved communities more generally. The premise is based simply on the notion of outreach. Invitation culture is the practice of inviting someone to join in when they would not have considered it themselves, or even would have felt actively prohibited from participating. A simple invitation can be incredibly uplifting and empowering for the individual who has until then felt unseen or undervalued.

At The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, we have built on the idea of invitation culture within our social influencer program since its inception in 2013. As the world’s largest children’s museum averaging over a million visitors annually, we are a natural draw for influencers and tourist writers in our region. We knew that establishing a strong network of influencers would help us connect to the local community and, by extension, build the museum’s brand. No matter the museum’s size, influencers matter. Every museum has something to give, and there is an influencer out there that loves your mission and wants to share it.

Over time, our existing group of influencers at The Children’s Museum began to recommend others with like-minded interests who we may have overlooked. This caused our community to exponentially grow into a network of loyal ambassadors for the museum. We now have relationships with around fifty core influencers who consistently attend events. These fifty are among 130 local and regional influencers who remain actively on our list. Over seven years, due to the niche interests of specific exhibits, we have been in touch with over 200 total influencers, and our list is ever-growing.

A key way to invite influencers to connect with you is to host events. The Children’s Museum’s exhibit preview parties have occurred for over five years, and have become a tradition in the community. The previews are more than an exclusive sneak peek to an exhibit, they are our way to invite influencers in, to show them we value their support, and to make them feel a part of the museum family. They are also an opportunity for attendees to network and build partnerships with one another. The events are focused on ensuring attendees have a great time—providing food, giveaways, social screens, and low expectations for promotional coverage. The social media comes authentically and organically, while building something even more important—loyalty and trust.

When doing all of this inviting, how do you know when someone is truly a “social influencer?” When documentarian Asri Bendacha traveled the world to speak to social influencers about their rise to fame, many did not feel comfortable calling themselves “influencers.” Rather, they felt this distinction should come from the collaborator.2 The definition is also not about follower number. What’s more important is audience and brand relevance, which will be specific to your museum. In the marketing field a capital “I” “Influencer” is an Instagrammer with millions of followers, like celebrities.3 More recently, “micro-influencers” have become commonplace in marketing collaborations with many brands. Micro-influencers are defined as accounts with tens to hundreds of thousands of followers. Now the “nanoinfluencers,” those with as few as a thousand followers, are the trend.4

A nanoinfluencer—any social media user with an engaged following, no matter the follower count—is beneficial for a museum. In an era when online users are tiring of subliminal influencer advertising, authenticity is crucial. Museums have experience-based content that influencers will enthusiastically share to break through the monotony. Instagrammers with fewer followers are often eager to collaborate and efficiently share your message while expecting less from you. A museum’s true community, who is more likely to care for your museum and its mission, can be found in these nanoinfluencers. Sometimes, implementing an invitation culture means inviting someone to be an influencer when they did not even realize they could be one. Imagine the joy you can instill by messaging an unsuspecting social media user to tell them their social account is valuable to your museum and you want to invite them to join in exclusive opportunities? You have officially secured a loyal influencer for years to come.

We’ve learned at The Children’s Museum that social influencer strategy should not stop at the social media manager’s desk. If the corner-office is discussing partner or donor buy-in on a project, they should be talking about influencer buy-in, too. Influencer support is extremely important due to how fast they can spread the word online, or be your eyes and ears in the private back-channels of the internet. For us, what started as invitations to participate in collaborative events grew into personal relationships with our team, and over the years, even friendships. This came out of the mutual trust built by maintaining the key understanding that the influencer email list would not be used for promotional purposes. Now our influencers are proactively loyal and willing to help whenever needed. For instance, our team can send a quick Direct Message to a couple of friends to get some honest feedback on a campaign. Frequently, influencers will tag us in local Facebook groups when questions or concerns arise before a situation gets out of control.

Do not underestimate the power of a successful long-term influencer relationship. The Children’s Museum has repeatedly called upon key influencers to share about major announcements at important times. One example is when local blogger, “The Queen of Free,” used her column on the city tourism website to announce our complicated admission change to Dynamic Pricing to illustrate her buy-in on a change that could have had a negative reaction. This was an example of a long-time relationship coming to our assistance at a decisive moment. At The Children’s Museum, over the years ultimately we gave a little, but we received a lot.

When you take the time to put your heart into a social influencer strategy, the result can be at its foundation a mutually beneficial bridge to your community, and at its best a long-term friendship with a loyal group of online ambassadors. So tap into that thing that makes your museum win at “instagrammability”—that unique experience, the fun, the learning, the inspiration. By embracing a culture of invitation, we can allow social media influencers to bring an authentic human connection back into our museums.


  1. Jim Burnett, “Creating a Culture of Invitation,” Facts and Trends, LifeWay, April 6, 2017, (accessed February 9, 2019).
  2. Asri Bendancha, dir, Follow Me, (Singapore: Netflix Productions, 2018)
  3. Brett Farmiloe, “The Power of Micro-Influencers on Instagram,” SocialMediaToday, Industry Dive, August 23, 2018, (accessed Feburary 10, 2019).
  4. Sapna Maheshwari, “Are You Ready for the Nanoinfluencers?,” The New York Times, November 11, 2018, (accessed February 10, 2019).