Break that control habit!

July 21, 2016 — Leave a comment

Show of hands: who would be significantly unsettled, if not be completely terrified, by the idea of handing over your organizational social account to stranger for a day? Login, password, the whole kit and caboodle?

I’m not saying this is you, current hand raiser, but I was reminded that this is still viewed as a highly risky digital-based audience engagement strategy. Why? Because in the end we in the arts are more concerned about maintaining control than we are about engagement.

13698055_10209328921352477_3418008333301346286_oLast week I had the pleasure of running a session (twice) at the Arts Marketing Association U.K. conference I cheekily call “Eff-Up the Pop-Up” (first iteration developed at NAMP). It’s targeted toward arts managers interested in interacting more meaningfully with current audiences and/or audiences “inclined toward coming through the door.”

The session was developed on these assumptions:

  • We get stuck in habits of practice.
  • We don’t approach our work creatively, like artists.
  • We interact with audience as a monolithic whole, not as collection of individuals with different behavior patterns.
  • We adopt audience engagement programs and practices, and deploy them regularly, without analyzing whether they’re right for the artist, artwork(s), types of engagers in our audience, or the impact we want to have.
  • We want to be in control more than we want to engage.

I shared with attendees that our jobs are to consider how we can develop a sweep of activities that would more intimately entangle the art, audience, and artist (which includes the producing or curating organization). Every artwork presents us with a new opportunity; we need to consider how to develop a number of new entry points for different types of engagers to entangle themselves. We can do this by “effing-up” strategies used before, but keeping in mind who we want to engage and the impact we are interested having this time around. But what we can’t do is control the outcome, we can simply create the platform (or platforms).

I gave an example before we moved into the practical “effing-up” section of the workshop. And this is where unconscious prioritizing of “maintaining control” surfaced.

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My words illustrated by Carolyn Sewell

My example: I gave a 30-min talk for CreativeMornings/DC in February 2015 around the theme “Climate.” My thesis: changing the climate in the room, in a theatre. During my talk I was allowed (after much conversation with the organizers) to engage the attendees in a basic participatory experience. It involved Rock-Paper-Scissors and Thumb Wars, and the Prologue to Romeo & Juliet. (My colleague Wyckham Avery and I have since gone on to refine and use this in multiple workshops–it’s so much fun!) But if we look at this from a work of art framework, this was participation embedded within the performance itself (my talk). Not an activity designed to more intimately entangle the audience with me, CreativeMornings/DC, and theatre.

So I created an engagement program that was an “eff-up” of Twitter take-overs. It was an expression of my interests in integrating audience into performance,  creating performance on social, and changing the climate. I handed over dog & pony dc‘s Twitter account to the 150-ish people and told them it was their’s for the next 24-hours. From my speech notes:

We are inviting you to the task to interrupt a ritual, take a picture, and post it. Invest in make believe, take a picture, and post it. Challenge our followers to do something that involves one of these tasks. The agency is yours. Do with it what you will. We trust you.

Like any live performance, the great CreativeMornings/DC Twitter experiment was ephemeral. You can’t document continual changes to profile and cover pictures and organization description, but this Storify captures some of what occurred.

That was the example I gave at my AMA conference session about how to “eff-up” an audience engagement strategy (Twitter Takeover) that’s also a commonly deployed marketing strategy. (See here. And here.  Two random Google search results.)

Questions from my AMA session attendees arose immediately: How could I do this? Did anything go wrong? What if something bad happens?  Me: Like what? Them: Like someone says something inappropriate? Me: Like someone posts a video [raises middle fingers and fake says string of expletives]?

This is what stops us, right? Fear of something going terribly wrong. And, to a small extent, rightfully so. There’s this story which I read a few weeks before giving my CreativeMornings/DC talk in 2015 full of people posting “innocent” but IMHO foolish statements and pictures on social, and then be severely and continually punished. Or consider the confused reaction on social of Beyoncé fans after Lemonade was released. Poor Rachel Ray was never “Becky with the good hair” but she definitely got a lot of shade thrown her way. However: these are examples of the Twitteratti or fans gone wildly  negative, not examples of arts organizations intentionally and creatively using social to involve digital engagers.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating for anyone to do what dog & pony dc and I did. It was right for me/us on that day.

But engagement is a two-way street. If you aren’t trusting your audience, they aren’t going to trust you. If you aren’t providing agency to most or all of them, seeking to actively engage them how they prefer, then only the few who are already engaging will continue to do so. The rest will never move from their current relationship level with you.

You, like some of the AMA conference attendees, might look at my CreativeMornings/DC Twitter experiment example and say “I could never do that.” Well 1) maybe that’s not the strategy for you; 2) maybe you could in a different format. But don’t make it an end stop, make it a point of departure. An inspiration.

Seth Godin recently wrote about the difference between objections vs. excuses. He suggests that people make objections because there’s something in the way of them saying “yes” and if they can get around it, then s/he can progress. “An objection is an invitation, a request for help in solving a problem. Excuses, on the other hand, are merely fear out loud.”

To Godin’s differentiation I respond: right on! If we are committed to engagement, committed to breaking out of our habits of practice, we have to break our habits of maintaining total control. So object, and then seek a creative solution with others that provides agency to your audience. This is what’s going to move us all forward toward more intimate entanglements between art, artist, and audience.

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