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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.

I.  SOCIAL MEDIA

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.

Overview:

-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.

Pros:

-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.

II. USER GENERATED CONTENT

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.

Pros-

-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.

WHAT TO DO?

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.

How can digital media collaborate in delivering the Arts?

High art should not lower down and mess up with technology: the purists would faint at the mere thought! What, Mozart in YouTube? Picasso’s profile on Facebook? The Metropolitan Opera leaving its sacred marble temple to show in movie theaters across the globe? Oops. I guess that’s been done!

How can the new media collaborate with cultural organizations in general to help them reach larger audiences and breach geographical and cultural divides, within a limited budget?

New digital media allows us to do what we never thought we could: shorten distances, experience several situations at a time, and participate in events that take place miles away. I haven’t found it yet, but I am sure that someone out there is using 360º cameras, live streaming, interactive mapping or HD television to blow up the possibilities of a great event, art exhibit or local tradition. I want to find out what is going on, but here’s the catch: I want to see if it can work in a country that is not completely wired and over-connected. The Met and the National Theatre have figured it out, but there must be affordable ways of mixing culture and new media.

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Catching up with the XXI Century- culture and the Web

Hi, everyone. I am happy to join this conversation as the newest addition to this Topics in Digital Media class– Quick presentation: My name is Jimena Lara, second-semester MCC student from Mexico City. My general background is in Communication and Cultural Public Policy. I’ve been working in different areas of Mexico’s Ministry of Culture for the past few years: mainly in cultural project development in general, grants and scholarships for the arts; and marketing for the performing arts.

My experience there has shown me how technology’s role within the Arts has become increasingly important; both as means and platforms for creation, and as a priceless tool for marketing, communication and cultural advocacy– especially in a country with such diverse cultural needs as Mexico.

I would like my first plunge into digital travel to go down this path. I believe that there are awesome possibilities of making arts organizations and new media join in an amazing, firework-deserving, explosive relationship. Some of the issues that I’d like to explore are:

1.  Outreach–

Unlike the United States, cultural policy in Mexico is mainly a governmental issue. The majority of the cultural institutions and the education and cultural policies are under the control of the Federal and Local Governments through the National Council for Culture and the Arts; and the vast majority of cultural institutions (all of the archeological sites and most of the museums and concert halls, as well as the main orchestras, dance and theatre companies, etc.) are financed with public funds.

Therefore, it is a primary objective and responsibility to make culture and the Arts as accessible as possible for the whole country. This means reaching an extremely  diverse population (both socially and economically) with, of course, a very limited (actually, shrinking) budget. The sizzling urban centers might be bustling with theater, film and museums, but also the small rural towns in the middle of the mountains, the jungle or the desert need to be taken into account and their own cultural expressions to find a spot in the national stage.

How can digital media help to establish a true cultural dialogue between urban and rural? What possibilities does it offer for crossing the multi-language barrier in a country with 62 indigenous tongues? In the world of streaming and 360º cameras, distance should be a much lesser problem, right?

2. New audience formation–

In order to survive, any cultural institution needs to keep reaching for different segments of the population and engage new audiences in its offers. Digital media can prove to offer amazing tools to interest the younger generations, as well as other alternative, highly politicized or underground communities.

3. Digital marketing and publicity–

I can’t say if it’s a wider phenomenon, but least in Mexico the tendency of cultural organizations (both public, private and non-for-profit) is to focus their advertising and marketing efforts mostly on the media that they have known for so long: newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, flyers, posters, and billboards. In my experience, the older and more ‘respectable’ the institution is, the more it doubts the effectiveness of digital alternatives of advertising. Furthermore, they seem to tremble at the mere thought of opening their websites to the uncontrollable world of social media (“but what if someone criticizes us and everybody reads it?”). Although traditional media does give positive results, there is no questioning the impact of digital media and, particularly, social networking as a faster, much cheaper means of publicity and circulation. I’d like to further explore the communication strategies that have worked for local art institutions.

4. Networking–

How can public, private and non-for-profit cultural institutions make the most of digital networking? Strong connections are essential for funding, idea exchange, joint advertising, and other forms of cross-pollination. Even more than institutions, independent artists and collectives can benefit enormously from joining systems, lists, and other collectives to show and even commercialize their work– like this cool project from hitRECORD.org Still, in the ever-growing sea of options that is the Web, it’s hard for smaller actors to gain visibility. What are the best strategies for this?

Anyway, I know I need to narrow this down a lot and set a clearer path to travel or I might end up walking in circles–and without a GoogleMap, of course.