The World Wide What Next

by August Schulenburg

in Social Media,The Haps

The end of 2010 has seen a surge of surveys and reports dealing with online audience engagement.  From our own recently completed Snapshot Survey of online ticket sales and contributions to Network for Good’s Online Giving Study; from Patricia Martin’s look at engaging Millenials Tipping the Culture to Bridgespan Group’s take to Getting Social Media Right; from Kivi Leroux Miller’s Big Impact in Small Spaces marketing guide in the age of 140 characters to Facebook’s founder launching a not-for-profit focused social network; what a theatre’s online presence should be is becoming an increasingly central question.

The inciting incident for this move from the margins may have been the NEA’s June 2010 report, Audience 2.0: How Technology Influences Arts Participation. After their 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts revealed the ongoing decline in non-musical play attendance, the Audience 2.0 report bore  a striking resemblance to a life boat; revealing that not only were those who participated in the arts through electronic media more likely than non-participants to attend live arts events (58.5% to 20.5%); but attend more frequently (5.76 live arts event per year versus 3.05).

Furthermore, a report from Chadwick Martin Bailey revealed that Facebook fans are 51% more likely to buy from brands they follow, with Twitter followers 67% more likely. These groups were also 60% and 79% more likely to recommend the brand.

66% of our participating theatres of our Snapshot Survey reported an increase in online donations, with 93% reporting an increase in online ticket sales. Yet while 40% of these theatres are primarily focusing their ticket sales through online efforts, only 6% are making online efforts their primary focus  for contributions.

This discrepancy between marketing and development online efforts may come from an uncertainty of best practices. After all, as Adam Kmiec wrote in his post, Why Your Social Media Initiatives Will Fail In 2011:

“In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers he identifies 10,000 hours as the amount of time needed to reach expert status. If we take Gladwell’s data to be true it would take someone approximately 5 years to be an expert at social media marketing. So if we have “experts” today, that would mean someone would have been practicing social media marketing since 2004. For all intents and purposes that’s impossible.”

Into this void of expertise, the above reports and surveys each reveal a unique approach to how cultural organizations can best engage online.

Network for Good’s Online Giving Study shows it’s all in the timing, with weekday giving more successful than weekend giving, and 22.2% of all gifts occurring on the last two days of the year.

Patricia Martin’s  Tipping the Culture focuses on the Millenial Generation’s interest in user-centric interactions that value honest emotional connection and foster a sense of belonging. Allowing people to participate in the creation of content is the best way to keep your message sticky.

Bridgespan Group’s Getting Social Media Right builds on the idea of community-generated content, adding that all social media efforts must be driven by the mission. To help theatres navigate between the noise and the North Star, they propose following seven C’s: Cause, Communication, Community, Collaboration, Costs, Capital, and Competition. They ask, “What is the direct link to our mission for this investment and this activity?”

Kivi Leroux Miller’s Big Impact in Small Spaces shows how even in a tweet or email subject line, keeping it personal is the key to success. Her top five email subject lines – each with an open rate of over 30% – all had some variation of a “you” or “my” in the text.

Driven by mission, fed by collaboration, dependent on timing and sustained by personal relationships; it almost sounds like theatre. As Rocco Landesman wrote in Audience 2.0, “So now we are faced with the Internet, social media, and other new technologies, and I believe the arts field must embrace them and integrate them into our work. Not to replace it, but to extend it.”

I like “extend it”, and wonder if it’s possible for theatre’s engagement to go beyond a simple extension of marketing and development into the creative act itself. Like New Paradise Laboratories Fatebook, I find myself increasingly interested in transmedia storytelling,  where the world of the play moves across many media, strengthened by collaboration with an online audience that culminates in a live event. As 2AMT author Max Koknar says, “Don’t just write/produce/devise a new play. Build a new world and loose it upon ours. Do it incrementally and make the live performance your premium content.”

After all, theatre is the original participatory platform for content sharing; and as Jonah Lehrer advised us in his 2009 TCG National Conference keynote address, theatre remains the “most direct form of empathy.” It may be that social media is closer in spirit to what’s happening on our stages than anything we’re stuffing into a direct mail campaign. We may be on the road to a creative ecosystem where the openness of online collaboration and the intimacy of onstage play build on each other to make a truly expressive community.

Where does electronic media live in your theatre’s mission and programming?