10 Ways to Think About Social Networking And The Arts (the zen of "free" as a strategy)

power.jpgPower in numbers. There ought to be a simple formula to calculate it. Is it better to have a small devoted audience or a massive casual one?

It depends on the scale of what you’re trying to do. TV has power because it has the ability to attract millions of viewers. The New York Review of Books has power because though its audience is small, it is influential.

The problem is when the scale of the audience doesn’t  match the cost of production. The little magazine might be high quality but if it doesn’t raise enough money from its small band of supporters, it can’t survive. TV might have a huge audience, but if the audience slips (which it inevitably seems to) or advertisers cut back, even popular shows get canceled.

So one model is all about the size of audience. The other is about the financial commitment of a community to support something. The problem then, isn’t just finding an audience, it’s finding the scale and kind of audience you need to support you. The little magazine doesn’t just need an audience, it needs an audience committed to paying to support it. The mass TV audience doesn’t have to pay anything as long as there are enough people watching and advertisers willing to pay to reach them.

The formula for audience support changes over time. In the 1980s a symphony orchestra was considered healthy if it made half its budget at the box office. Now the standard is in the 30-something percent range. In the 90s, newspapers weren’t considered healthy unless they earned profit margins in the 25%+ range.

So what’s so magical about a 25% profit or earned revenue of 50%? Nothing really, except that they’re formulas to measure relative success in a structure built to support a venture or industry.

Thanks to the internet, newspapers have bigger audiences
than they’ve ever had, yet because the audience scale isn’t right, the industry is in crisis. If online ad rates were close to
print ad rates, the problem would be solved. Or, ad rates could stay
the same and the online audience expand by a factor of ten and things might be fine. Or the business model could change and the ratio between
size of audience and how the content is paid for could be back in

community.jpgThe audience you deserve?

So what kind of audience does an arts organization need? The more often-asked question is: how do we sell more tickets? I submit that that’s the wrong question. If an arts organization makes less than half of its income at the box office, then its challenge isn’t just selling tickets, it’s cultivating a more committed audience. If tickets were priced according to what it cost to produce that concert, they would be so expensive that we wouldn’t sell enough tickets to support it. So our model is a subsidy model. But a subsidy model only works if there’s an audience committed enough to subsidize.

The typical professional American orchestra performs in front of about 2.5 percent of the people in its area in a given season. This is the little magazine model, and it works as long as that small number of people are willing not just to show up at concerts, but give additional money to support it. In tough economic times, that small 2.5 percent audience has to be more committed than ever. And it must be the right kind of influential audience that can leverage corporate, foundation and government support. That’s a lot of work for a small number of people when 97.5 percent of a potential audience has no exposure to the orchestra and therefore have no relationship with it.

A classic way of developing broader relationships is with exposure through the free sample. Get a shot on The Ed Sullivan Show and millions of people will see how great you are and buy your record. The problem pre-internet was that there were few spots available on Sullivan.

The internet changes the scale of the free sample. If Cory Doctorow or Seth Godin can give away millions of copies of their books, it means their ideas gain currency and some of those millions of readers will be interested enough to pay attention the next time Cory or Seth have something to say. That’s worth a lot. If they hadn’t given away their work, they’d just be a couple more guys expounding to their friends about the way the world works. Giving away work establishes their brand and creates a constituency for them.

So how do we build constituency in the arts?

  • It used to be through arts education in schools. Play an instrument when you’re young and you’ll be an audience for life. But arts education isn’t universal anymore, and despite best efforts of arts groups, traditional arts educational experiences seem to have less and less impact.
  • The press used to review arts events, writing for a big general audience. But arts writing is slipping off the pages of our newspapers.

Add to this an explosion of competition for attention – iPods, online TV, millions of websites – and it gets harder and harder to hang on to an audience let alone build new ones. So some arts organizations see social media such as Twitter and Facebook and Flickr as opportunities to expand their base and create relationships with a wider audience. I recently consulted with an orchestra that cared only about collecting email addresses.The more addresses, they reckoned, the more chances they had to sell tickets.

But using social media as just an opportunity to sell tickets is a bad strategy, the electronic equivalent of junk mail. So the idea is to cultivate relationships with an audience that is increasingly online. Some of the most aggressive arts organizations have begun producing online content, figuring that, as the old mantra from the early days of the internet goes, content is king. But as some of the pioneers have discovered, content may be be king, but it can also be difficult to create and costly to do well.

Not only that, while producing original content might grow the number of people who encounter you, it doesn’t necessarily get you the kind of audience you need (see my earlier point).

10 Things:

  1. The kind of audience you build matters as much as the size of the audience does. 
  2. Social networks show that community hierarchy is not only powerful, it drives loyalty.
  3. An underrated aspect of social networking is that you’re asking people to invest in a relationship. It costs them something – time, attention, their ideas, thoughts, feelings, even clicking their mice. You have to constantly reward them for participating or they’ll go away.
  4. Give away as much as you can and be as generous as you can to show your best to members of your community. Upgrade as often as possible; it’s a powerful reward.
  5. There’s no such thing as free for an arts organization. If someone participates in your community, you should reward them. If they buy lots of tickets, give them a chance to get more tickets if you haven’t sold them. If they’re out talking you up and selling your product, give them upgrades, free downloads, special access, souvenirs. If the incentives are right, they’ll work for you.
  6. An empty seat is a wasted resource. Selling the ticket is great, but there should be many other ways people can “buy” their seats by participating in your community.
  7. Drive-by clicks are seductive and traffic is always nice, but the drive-bys are fickle and low-yield and have no loyalty to you and yours. Don’t spend a lot of time chasing them unless it’s easy.
  8. Outside of your primary artistic role, don’t get into the content-producing business. Video is hard. Magazines are hard (and expensive) to produce and sustain. 
  9. You say you listen to your audience? Prove it. Don’t do fake interactive. People hate being managed. And increasingly they’re wary of institutional voices. Mass TV is generic; arts organizations shouldn’t be.
  10. It takes work to build a community, much more work than to build an audience. But increasingly audiences are becoming communities because of the ability of social networking tools to link them. You can say you can’t afford to invest in building a community, but unless you do, it will be increasingly difficult to draw a crowd.
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  1. says

    This is some of the best advice I've seen for arts orgs, but I do wonder about point #8.
    Video isn't really that hard. I think orgs can create some creative video content that is valuable for its audience without breaking the bank. The good thing about the Internet audience is that they don't necessarily need a produced, polished video. Musicians can tape a quick video of a practice or a musical comment (for example, Dutch author Ronald Giphard is now doing a video dairy about the writing process of his new book).
    Raw content, of course, does not mean uninteresting content. It does need to add value and be worth your audience's time.
    Another point is to let your audience create the content. Provide the raw content and let your audience put together a polished video or multimedia item. When R.E.M. launched their new album last year, they provided raw shots of the band performing a song. Fans could then create their own music video. Think about the possibilities and mashups for arts orgs!

  2. says

    I second Marc's comment. Video is easy to produce these days and gives greater insight into the creative process of making theatre. It might take up more time, but if done correctly can give audiences more ownership of the show/company.

  3. says

    @Marc: I agree – to a point. Video isn't that hard to do occasionally, and the YouTube revolution has changed our expectations about what video production can be. My point – which I didn't make clear at all – was that if you're going to make video, don't just make bad TV. And don't make bad radio or magazines. If you're going to do it well and do it creatively, it takes strategic thinking. And once you get it up and going, you create an expectation that can be a big hole to have to keep filling.
    Also: What I didn't say in this post, but meant to – the real revolution and lesson about social media (I think) are that it's possible to empower an audience. The internet 1.0 was about creating and making content accessible. Web 2.0 is about becoming the infrastructure through which a community can talk to one another. It's fine to create good content; it's much more powerful if you can help an audience to create content itself around what you do.
    Arts organizations are well-positioned for this. People come for the artistic product. They stay engaged because you help them talk to one another. Producing the art is only part of the equation these days. Producing the art puts you at the center of a community and makes you essential to it.

  4. says

    Video dairy… I have to beef up my spelling.
    And yes, I definitely agree with being strategic about the use of video. Don't do it for the sake of doing it. That is, unfortunately, the main reason why many nonprofit organizations get into social media. Keeping up with the Joneses is not a strategy.
    I'm working for a nonprofit now where a Facebook Page is probably not a good fit, but a site like Slideshare might work. Think of what tools are useful in accomplishing your goals. Social media is not a strategy, it's a tool to execute strategy.

  5. says

    I agree with the commenters: actual video production is easier than ever before. On my social networking site for theater lovers, http://www.BroadwaySpace, we produce unique content (like BroadwaySergey, etc.) for a very low cost. And as you'll see with some other video content on the site (Ryan O'Connor Show), which is shot with a webcam, it's not about the high quality of the video, but the high quality of the actual content that makes people interested.
    And that's the hard part about video production.
    Great article! Thanks for spelling it out clearly!
    Ken Davenport http://www.TheProducersPerspective.com

  6. says

    Not only is this great advice, it's relevant to the arts right now. I'm thinking of how there's currently a transition away from newspapers but also longstanding art publications; and the ways in which artists use social networking sites and blogging to reach not only a broader audience, but each other as well.
    Thanks for posting!
    [p.s.] There's no reason why there couldn't still be a marriage of physical content to online. Many real-world projects can manifest as a result of having that readership, and make the experience more valuable to those who are participating. (limited edition books, art projects, dvds, gallery shows, etc)

  7. Catherine says

    Great post. As an industry, we're always trying to "keep up" – and too frequently, we don't consider the necessary adjustments to suit our unique needs.
    Another point – with more and more digital media, it is easier than ever to access and analyze consumer behavior and marketing effectiveness. The need to build our analytical skills in this industry is greater than ever and one of the best ways to ensure that we're properly deploying our scarce resources.
    Thanks for the terrific work that you do!

  8. Trevor O'Donnel says

    It's going to be fascinating to watch this unfold because the arts and the world of social networking function on fundamentally different communications models.
    The arts' model is a top-down or perhaps center-out model wherein the messages are packaged and then handed down (or out) to various publics. There is very little dynamic feedback in this model, as you mention in point #9, and both the message and its distribution mechanisms are tightly controlled by the arts institution.
    But in social networking there is no top or center. This is a fluid, multi-dimensional, unregulated environment where control over the shape and distribution of the message is subject to the collective will (whim?) of the participants.
    I think the arts are still trying to figure out how to package a traditional top-down message and insert it into this environment so that it will "take on a life of its own" or "go viral." But given the difference in models, that seems like somewhat of a square peg/round hole approach.
    Your 10 things appear to be pointing to a new model wherein arts institutions inhabit this new world and start playing by its rules.
    It'll be interesting to see how willing we are to embrace a more decentralized, democratic, audience-centric approach.

  9. Tom Atkins says

    Just to add on from Trevor's comment, Theatre Royal Stratford East in London (noted for its excellent audience attendance rates and community involvement) will be handing over some programming decisions to its audience on the build up to the 2012 Olympics. I wonder if social networking tools will be used in this idea? What a fantastic way to reward and empower those loyal to you though, as well as encourage new audiences to get involved at the same time.
    News Story: http://www.theatrebristol.net/2009/5/1/stratford-

  10. says

    This is a great post, thanks so much for it. I especially like points nine and ten. I think many organizations don't realize the amount of time and how much transparency is necessary to be successful with social media. Often organizations see it as a low cost marketing tool and miss the opportunity to really connect with the audience.
    Thanks again
    Chris http://www.dialoguefringe.wordpress.com

  11. MarcOverton says

    Good advice on many fronts, especially about staying away from content-producing, the more so in fields where the organization may not have expertise (video, magazines.)
    But be careful about recycling received wisdom about the demise of newspapers: it's not so much the scale (internet or print or whatever). Many newspapers that are now closing are doing so not because they are really failing, but because their profit margins — generated at the 17 to 18% level for years — fell to about 6 to 10%, a margin that would be the envy of many another business. There's a good deal more to the so-called "failure" of newspapers than the owners (new or old) are willing to admit, and a good part of that has to do with finally realizing that they had to do something other than roll the thing off the presses at night.

  12. Jessica says

    Very interesting post . . .
    I wonder, has anyone seen research showing a correlation between the amount of free content given away on an organization's website and the number of people attending its live performances? It seems like beefing up your web content and enabling your community to connect online will result in deeper relationships with those already attending . . . but does it really do anything to bring new people into the performance hall? I can't tell exactly what your perspective is on this, Doug . . .

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