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Cultural Organizations & New Media: The art of engaging the audience on- and offline.

My interest in the potential relationship between the arts and new media ignited this travelogue two weeks ago. The aim was to see:

1. In which ways do cultural organizations (CO) actually use or collaborate with new media,

2. How do those practices help them expand their audiences inside and outside their geographical area of influence,

3. Can this new media prove to be a useful tool in breaching cultural divides, by offering access to a more diverse audience; and

4. Which of these new practices can be accommodated within a limited budget.

Since the task seemed way too broad to cover in two weeks’ work, I tried to narrow the search by focusing on point 1, and then analyzing and understanding the pros and cons of those existing practices while keeping in mind points 2-4 as questions to aid my research process.

My first searches showed that a very wide range of cultural institutions are interacting with digital media. The majority of the activities that arts institutions are engaging into can be categorized in two large groups: SOCIAL MEDIA and USER GENERATED CONTENT.


The most popular activity for a CO, by far. In personal experience I’ve encountered a lot or resistance to venturing into uncontrolled terrain, so it was great to see that there’s an increasing interest to know what exactly SM can do for COs. There’s quite a lot of research being conducted on the topic—both by marketing or PR consultants such as Marc van Bree and Devon Smith, as well as by arts advocators, news reporters and other types of cultural analysts. It was great to see that this field of knowledge is open to networking and conversation, and there’s a lot of information being generously  shared online.


-They are used mainly for marketing purposes: more visibility and hopes of free, self-generated publicity.

-Everyone is doing it. Almost any CO with a web page engages in some kind of SM: a blog; Facebook profile or fan page; Twitter account or in more sophisticated cases, FB Connect or YouTube channel.

-According to Smith, COs should concentrate on the 3 stars of Social Media:

And completely forget about MySpace, Flickr and Blogs

-Going back to Shirky’s levels of participation, these activities only rank on the basic stage of sharing. Activity is usually limited to publishing status, using the ‘like’ FB feature, tweeting, and rating videos.


-It provides the CO with a lot of information virtually for free. Paraphrasing Mushon on Dan’s post: “this is PR paradise … by becoming a fan, you gave your contact and demographic details; you’ve advertised to your friend and placed (essentially) an ad on your profile page.”

-It exponentially multiplies their online visibility. According to FB and some of its reviewers, FB Connect blows up traffic, engagement and registration to the sites up to 200%

-It creates networks that go beyond the usual captive audiences, by creating exposure to follower’s friends.

Cons:  Almost nobody knows exactly why or how they’re doing it—as shown by a very useful study by Marc van Bree on orchestras’ usage of social media, there’s an urgent need for COs to plan their SM strategies: his recommendations focus on formalization of goals, as well as strategic planning of the budget, people and strategy needed to accomplish them. Smith proposes setting goals and monitoring success depending on the platform.


I found creative, original programs that  COs are constantly launching through the same platforms (FB, Twitter, YouTube) to engage their followers in activities that generate online content. (See Twitter Community Choreography and We Tell Stories for two cool examples).

Overview- Less popular and more complicated than just recruiting followers, projects that attract users into more engaged participation are becoming more common.


-Getting followers to devote time and energy to a project definitely engages them deeper with the institution & strengthens relationships and loyalty.

-I believe it is an effective way of bringing art closer to specific groups that are more likely to be active on the Web than on real-life cultural activities, such as attending exhibits.

-The projects themselves can be high quality ideas with great possibilities—perhaps the richest field of interaction that actually exists between culture and the Web.

-If used correctly, these activities can be useful tools to help develop analytical abilities that would result in a more critical audience.

Cons- Although these projects can result in interesting content, there is an essential step missing that would bolster audience online participation into actual real-life engagement as art consumers. I totally agree with Mushon in the risk of users “no longer com(ing) [to these institutions] to ‘be exposed to art’ they come to create art, to be seen, heard… This is great but this is not the mission statement of most of these organizations, and that should be acknowledged.”

These online interactive projects are usually left on a basic level of results, without generating a bigger payoff for the organization by helping it promote its work, generate substantial audience growth, obtain new members and/or funding, etc. The activities they host attract a group of people that won’t necessarily turn into audiences that attend their events. I believe that this is result of the lack of planning and strategy shown in van Bree and Smith’s studies.


I believe that both social media and user generated content are amazing tools for expanding audiences through cultural divides with a small budget, in a way that truly brings people closer to consuming artistic products. Shifting from consumption to sharing and producing is fine as long as it doesn’t distract the public’s attention from the actual content that the CO is trying to deliver. As with any other marketing tactic, online activity should aim at making the audience cross the virtual line into real life consumption—being it online or offline, depending on the organization’s nature.

The process should be engaging followers/fans in creative activity that is indivisibly connected to the consumption of the organization’s main avocation.

Finally, I found an excellent example of how this can be successfully achieved– the Royal Opera House’s “Twitteropera.” the ROH summoned their users and fans into participating on the creation of a complete opera script through short, 140-character contributions @youropera. All the tweets submitted were worked through by a scriptwriter, then handed to a composer and finally staged on two presentations. The whole process took 1 month and engaged 1900 users on Twitter. The complete ROH media combo was engaged in a marketing strategy: the tweets were constantly being worked into the script, which was updated weekly on their blog. The audience was guided throughout the process to produce what the organizers needed: comic relief, more drama, or a strong conclusion.They taped the dress rehearsals, produced teasers and generated a lot of expectation through traditional and new media. Tickets were free for both presentations, and those who participated had the option of being interviewed for TV on the day of the event. Audience was encouraged to photograph or record the staging and to share it with the ROH to be uploaded into their webpage. They generated a lot of buzz, audience participation, free media coverage and actual, live audience enjoying two sold-out shows.

In all, social media offers great possibilities for low budget arts institutions to broaden and diversify their audiences. The nature of each Cultural Organization dictates the possibilities of Social Media, and it is not an automatic process. In all cases, it requires:

  1. Setting clear goals
  2. Knowing the platforms: their different languages, possibilities and risks
  3. Structuring a comprehensive strategy that includes several platforms
  4. Establishing mechanisms that engage the audience and are indivisibly linked to the Organization’s main purpose
  5. Maximizing the results by generating buzz both on traditional and new media
  6. Constant evaluation and adjustment of goals and strategy.

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  1. nadine 12:10, Feb 16th, 10

    What an interesting project of the Royal Opera House. I like that they brought the final product back to the producing public. As you pointed out, the questions remains open if these new fans become frequent opera visitors. However, it is a great way to familiarize new audiences with the opera world, and lower the barriers that people feel towards the “high arts.” I believe that one of the missions of a public art institution is to raise awareness about the arts. From that point of view, the project is a success, even if it doesn’t lead to higher ticket sales.

  2. Leslie 22:38, Feb 17th, 10

    Hey Jimena- I just got a DM from someone on Twitter about a social networking site that’s launching that’s completely dedicated to art. It’s called BetweenCreation. Have you heard of it? Thought I’d share it with you, in case you haven’t- looks really cool! http://betweencreation.com/

  3. Jimena 14:21, Feb 19th, 10

    Leslie, I hadn’t heard about it! It looks really cool.
    Your comments were super helpful throughout this travelogue. Thanks for the interest & feedback :)