Social Media and the Arts: a groundbreaking new study

Photo: “Wet Spider Web” by Brad Smith from Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

Photo: “Wet Spider Web” by Brad Smith from Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

In my role at Theatre Bay Area, I commissioned Devon Smith of 24 Useable Hours (and now, of Threespot in Washington, DC) to conduct what she termed a Social Media Audit of the arts and cultural sector. In an effort to provide guidance to the field, Theatre Bay Area commissioned “The Tangled Web: Social Media in the Arts” in conjunction with a year-long intensive workshop series called Leveraging Social Media. This series, designed by noted social media expert Beth Kanter, provides Bay Area nonprofits with in-depth guidance on how to take advantage of social media with a limited amount of time, resources and staff. Ultimately, the report ended up looking at 207 arts and cultural organizations from all over the world.

I’m happy to say that we released the monograph yesterday. This research, one of the most comprehensive surveys of social media use in arts organizations ever conducted, is fascinating in that it provides a valuable snapshot of how the arts and cultural center is using social media to engage artsgoing audiences across the country. The full research report is available at

Top-level findings from the research include:

• All told, the 207 arts organizations in the study utilize over twenty networking platforms.
• The average arts organization is active on three social networks (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) and uploads 66 new pieces of content each month.
• Facebook Pages that are updated multiple times per day, use a customized URL and feature a custom Welcome tab have more fans, who interact with the page more often, than those who do not.
• Arts and cultural organizations that tweet more than four times per day and do not replicate Facebook content on their Twitter feed have more followers and a higher rate of engagement than others.
• Venue pages on Yelp and Foursquare that have been claimed by an organization have more user engagement than those that have not.
• Arts organizations who use a custom URL and a custom template for their blog have more engagement than those who do not, but overall blogs offer a very low rate of engagement regardless of format, structure or frequency.

What I find fascinating in these results (and let’s be honest, they’re really top-line, and don’t (by design) go into much depth on the reasoning behind the decisions made by these organizations) is the various spectrums of depth vs. breadth depending on the organization. Some organizations attempt to juggle up to 9 social networks at any given time, while others focus on one or two. And what seems to be clear from the data is that depth is actually the stronger indicator of success in social media.

These results also reiterate to me the role of social media – it is simply not a direct line to further income. It’s not really a way to directly sell tickets. It’s a way to engage, to have conversations, to make people remember your organization. Over time, at least in theory, that repeat recognition of the company outside of those moments when the patron is not directly buying a ticket leads to more relative value being placed on your organization when the time comes to buy.

The full research report is available for free at, and the entire dataset compiled by Devon Smith can be found at

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  1. says

    Thanks Clayton – great research, great post!

    Your last paragraph is an important one, that this isn’t “marketing” in the traditional “buy an ad, sell a ticket” sense, it’s more community building and conversation developing. Yes, over time you’d expect organizations with a commitment to content to find exposure and success, but this is, net-non-neutrality and government enforced scarcity aside, this is the century of letting go. Of letting our content, ideas, and walls, be more free and permeable. This means that the most powerful way for the ideas you care about to thrive is, as with your literal children, to let them go, not to try to “own them,” but to let them find their own way in the world. If you’re developing ideology and aesthetics this might threaten your ego a bit, but it also feels right. If you’re trying to sell tickets, it might be frustratingly diffuse.

    Of the most relevance for me personally, is your finding that Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook have the most impact, and that blogs have low impact. This isn’t surprising and it is understandable, still, it is a little disappointing. I do get it, we have way too much information and in the joyous diversity of Read-Write culture vis-a-vis the previous century’s Read-Only culture, we have a lot of voices and a “shortage” of ears! The immediacy of a Tweet has tremendous power over actually sitting down and reading even a shorter blog post. It was the “me” generation even before the rise of the social networks and this new technology of “voice” feeds that tendency well.

    Perhaps my own work would find a wider audience if I blogged less and Tweeted / YouTubed more. That’s a serious idea I’ll think more about. But I do love the blog as both a format for Performance Documents and the development of ideas and their articulation. The very act of blogging, even in the absence of an audience, still develops your thinking and makes you better able to express it. So, I’ll blog on. But perhaps more micro-blogging or more focused micro-blogging will be a good strategy.

    Thank you again for your research and for sharing it!

    • says

      Vanessa, I couldn’t agree more about the sadness around blog responsiveness, especially as someone who spends an ungodly amount of time creating and editing content for blogs. But I see a silver lining there, in the part where Devon talks about search engine optimization and also in other statements that Devon and founder Douglas McLennan said last weekend at TCG about participants versus lurkers. The truth is that, for most arts organizations, there aren’t very many opportunities for search engines to pick up your work. Blogs, I think, allow various people in the organization to free-flow around ideas within a show without being as straightforward as a press release. When I look at the search terms that get people to this blog, I’m constantly amazed that that search thread even pulled up anything I’d written–but then I do it myself, and I discover that by allowing for less marketing-driven thinking I’m broadening my audience base.

      The second thing that gives me heart is that, while social media is measured in interactivity, blogs are (or perhaps, can be) measured in readership. Depending on who you’re listening to, out of every 100 people who visit your blog, between 1 and 10 will be likely to comment. The rest just lurk. I think those numbers are actually optimistic. This post, for example, has been read by nearly 1,700 people, and has garnered exactly one comment and one ping.

      I find the language around microblogging to be problematic as, unless you’re a fantastically talented Tweeter, you are not free thinking around a coherent topic as much as you’re throwing out bon mots or — better yet — throwing out links to, you guessed it, blogs and editorial that you find a more coherent statement of your thoughts than you can get in 140 characters. That said, Tweets are immediate, they take seconds to write and read, and they can instigate true immediate response. So maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Ah well, I’m a long-form guy at heart.

  2. Martina A. says

    Hi Clayon,

    The link to the report is not working (I get an error message whenever I click it), can you repost it? I’m really interested in reading the report!

    Martina A.
    Yancey Arts Consulting