New Thought on Audience and Community Engagement

Let me make it clear up front that I am talking about a concept in progress here. That caveat out of the way . . . .

As I have said before here, there is (or should be) a differentiation between audience engagement and community engagement. I have written about this on numerous occasions, but as I speak about it more and more I find that my understanding of the differences is emerging. Here are the current “top of my mind” thoughts.

The word audience (or visitors in the museum world) distances that external constituency from the art and leaves the art and arts organization at the center of whatever relationship exists, making that relationship largely one-way. Audience engagement can also imply a passive, spectator-type role (although especially in the museum world there are good counter-examples). (This is not true in all cases, especially those in which the participants are being trained in the art form.)

But the really new thought to me in this context is that in audience engagement, the interest is in relationship-building with individuals, although sometimes those individuals are part of a collective that is important to the arts organization. It looks upon the relationship from the arts organizations point of view. Even when approached via target marketing, audience engagement uses the target mostly as a means of pinpointing the location of the individual with whom the organization hopes to connect. It does not typically develop a relationship with the target group first other than as a means of access to or “name capture” of the individuals in the group. In community engagement, a relationship is made with a community (large or small–a group of people with common interests) and the relationship is seen from the community’s point of view. (For it to be a reciprocal relationship, the community, of course, must also understand the relationship from the arts’ point of view.) The individual contact comes through relationship with the community of which the person is a member. Community engagement also implies (at least to me) that the well-being of the community is an important consideration. (How could you have a relationship with a community if that were not the case?)

With this understanding, audience engagement is focused almost exclusively on individuals who collectively become part of the arts organization’s audience. (Note the use of a possessive to make that statement! The audience belongs to the organization.) Community engagement is rooted in relationship-building with a community. The individuals who then become audience members/visitors become so as a result of that arts/community relationship.

This is by no means the last word on this topic, but it seems to me to be a potentially significant element of understanding.

Engage (with communities)!


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  1. David McLachlan says

    I think you’ve raised an interesting point here. Organization to individual relationships can seem odd. A giant institution wants to talk to little individual me? I think we all instantly understand the anonymous context and take a step back. However when an individual (usually a blogger) from that institution responds directly it’s a one to one, individual to individual relationship. This doesn’t scale well however. I’ve often thought organizations that address this scaling problem by facilitating relationships BETWEEN members understand how to solve both the scaling issue and the relationship building need which only they can facilitate. It’s not about them, it’s through them. It’s a “powered by” strategy rather than an audience approach.

    I also agree that community engagement starts with me as a member of whatever community (Condo tower neighbours) and then chunks me down in a fractal way (condo tower neighbours > 14th floor > south end) until I’m an individual. In this my identity (neighbour) always precedes my individuality.

    I look forward to your further noodling on this subject.

    – Dave

    • says

      Michael, I thought about your post as I was putting mine together. You’re right that there is a good deal of similarity. In the end, I came down on the intentionality side. I think there are some audience engagement activities that could be argued to be dialogical (although I may not understand your definitions properly)–arts training, dance lessons, etc.–that still leave art and the arts organization at the center of the equation. At the same time, trying to be too precise about definitions of all of this quickly gets in to the realm of “angels dancing on the head of a pin.”

  2. says

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post. I work at a journalism organization and it can be very uncomfortable to talk about engagement on any level. In our work, I think it could be helpful to think about engagement as “content-centered” – along the same lines as your organization-centered idea about audience engagement. For us that would include our post-distribution efforts to connect audience with content and dialogue. Then there’s community-centered engagement, or community engagement in your terms. To me that’s about getting in touch with people who care about the issues we cover and letting stories and content emerge from those connections and conversations. So much harder to put the time towards community engagement because the payoff time seems so far away. But that’s where the richest impacts can come from.