Engagement Is On-going

As she has a tendency to do, Nina Simon has made me think again. (There are days, I will confess, when I wish no one would do that to me.) Her August post in Museum 2.0 about arts experiences being pearls on a necklace needing string to tie them together (What’s the String that Ties One Experience at Your Institution with the Next?) reminded me about the observation I made in my Clybourne Park post. For the person coming to our events, arts experiences are discreet, separate occurrences. Until they are in a  relationship with us, they will not seek out means of connecting those experiences in a way that ties them to our mission. Their interactions with us will be “one-offs,” perhaps even unconscious, in the way that a trip to the Exxon station is. So long as we successfully fill up the car’s gas tank, we are largely unaware of the station itself.

Ms. Simon’s metaphor holds that “[I]f you want to deepen the commitment between visitor and institution over time, you need a string that visitors can hang their pearls on, a thread that holds the growing relationship together. No string, and you’ve just got a bunch of visits rolling under the furniture.” Her post focuses on the opportunity that the end of a gallery visit or a concert provides. Attendee research that her museum (the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History) did made an interesting discovery.

One of the surprises was a series of observations from casual visitors–people who attend an event or two per year, who are not members, and who tend to come because of word of mouth or an invitation from a friend. They all reported having a great time at the museum… and immediately letting go of it afterwards. There was no followup. They had not been asked to join an email list or take a newsletter or join the museum. They had not taken photos in our photo booth and gotten an email about them later. They were not part of our Facebook community sharing photos and stories from the event. They came, they made a pearl, and then they dropped in their pocket with the rest of their day.

We realized from this discussion that we have a huge missed opportunity when people are leaving the museum. On their way in, they are excited, curious, ready to engage. They are not ready to hear about membership or take a newsletter about what’s coming up next time. They bolt right past those tables to the “good stuff.” But at the end, they’ve had a great time, and they want a takeaway from the experience. They WANT to join the email list. If we’re smart, we should be developing a takeaway that both memorializes the visit and leads them to another. In other words, we should be giving them a string for their new pearl.

This is a great observation about the structure of interaction. The end of an arts experience can be for a first time attendee, if I may coin a term, a more “reachable moment” than the beginning. This is an extremely valuable insight.

If I may piggyback on this metaphor (without wholly destroying it), I’d like to add my Clybourne Park observation (“The essential applicable truth of community engagement work here is that the arts experience is just one part of a whole. The energy generated through the art should be the beginning of something rather than an end in itself.”) as a mode of helping to spin the thread that makes the string. (Yep, that really does put the metaphor into dangerous overload.) My point was that crafting follow-up experiences related to the initial arts event (and community needs/interests) can assist in the process of relationship-building. Indeed, such follow-ups are very nearly essential to the process. Ms. Simon’s discovery of the importance of providing the attendee with an opportunity to opt in to the potential for a relationship, coupled with arts-event-related follow-up experiences is a powerful mental model for those arts organizations attempting to engage effectively with their communities.



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