Archives For Audience Engagement & Development Musings

A collection of thoughts about how artists and arts organizations are practicing “audience engagement” and “audience development.”

I’m working with the Arts Marketing Association UK’s Audience Diversity Academy (#ADA). One of my responsibilities as a mentor is blogging. Here’s the second of two posts I wrote for the pilot round (July 2016-January 2017). To access posts from all the fellows and mentors, click here.


Before I started writing this blog post, I did the following:

Read the newspaper
Check Facebook
Check Twitter
Think about the other blog post I had to write
Check personal email account
Text
Start writing the other blog post
Check Facebook
Text
Read a few online articles
Make a cup of tea
Text
Have a Skype date
Facebook
Text
Email
Think about this blog post
Make a snack and eat it
Start writing this blog post

To rush to my defense: it was a Saturday and I was sick, my spouse was out of town, the house was clean, I canceled my work engagement. I didn’t need to do anything. And yet: an invisible force compelled me to compose two blog posts.

heart lightThe invisible force resulted from the value of “productivity”—being active and yielding a result, outcome, or accomplishment. I value productivity and I will prioritize productive activities vs. non-productive ones (like streaming crap television), even when I’m under the weather. It makes me feel good. Obviously this doesn’t mean I work in a streamlined manner, because I also value creativity and the creative process. I understand it takes time to knit ideas together. In order to produce two blog posts, my mind needed to wander and web. So I negotiated the intersection of productivity and creativity throughout the day, working my way toward my end goal of two blog posts.

Likely at this point you are asking yourself “What does this have to do with working agilely and engaging new and diverse audiences?!?”

Answer: everything.

No one who works in the arts, heritage, and culture sectors is walking around declaring “inclusion?—who needs that!? not my value!” (Or not openly.) Arts, heritage, and culture organizations tend to be ardent supporters of diversity and inclusion. Practitioners and employees want everyone to be able to celebrate and exchange, learn and be transformed from their experiences artistic experiences. However: most don’t have “inclusion” as a core value of their organization, stated alongside, for example “artistic excellence.” This means: “inclusion” will never have an invisible force compelling practitioners and employees to negotiate it with other values. When “inclusion” is an implicit or implied value, one deeply-held-but-never-discussed, it’s a sure bet that it’s not understood or shared in common, and almost never actively worked toward.

While one can’t simply fire up all cylinders and race to a finish line of becoming an inclusive organization from top to bottom, you can begin to prioritize diversity and inclusion focused programs. And definitely get involved with initiatives like the AMA’s Audience Diversity Academy that provide guidance, resources, and structure.

Structure is key. The Academy was designed to focus on exploring “small bites”—questions of diversity, examining organizational culture, creating new metrics for success and different ways of measuring them, tackling a long term, strategic and systemic problem with short term tactical experiments. The Audience Diversity Academy worked on diversity (the representation of people from diverse backgrounds represented throughout) and not inclusion (a mindset and practice—like yoga—of active, intentional, and ongoing engagement of the diversity of an organization, its culture, its programming, in order to create equal access, well being, and a sense of belonging for all.)  Being involved in the Academy provided its Fellows a first step toward defining the value of inclusion with their organizations, but it is only because they prioritized working on diversity. It is a muscle that needs exercise. Overtime, as diversity increases as an internalize priority for everyone, inclusion becomes a necessity.  

Defining, exercising, and building your values—not easy! Makes me think of the Important/Urgent Matrix: you draw an X-Y axis where Y = Important and X = Urgent, resulting in four quadrants: Important and Urgent; Un-important and Urgent; Important and not-Urgent Un-important and not-Urgent.
urgent-important-matrix (1)Handy in many ways, but I’m gonna put a different spin on it here. If we don’t have a value, with its corresponding invisible force, telling us a body of work should be done… that body of work defaults to the bottom of the “Un-important and not-Urgent” quadrant. What would it take to move it and keep in the “Important and Urgent” quadrant? Can you image how united that artful community would be? Anything might be possible.

I’m working with the Arts Marketing Association UK’s Audience Diversity Academy (#ADA) as a mentor for their pilot round (July 2016-January 2017). One of my responsibilities is blogging. Here’s a post I wrote. To access posts from all the fellows and mentors, click here.


I approach my work with an experimental state of mind and tend to forget, as we all do, that not everyone shares my world view. In a session with one of my academy fellows, I was reminded how intimidating the word “experiment” can be. That word alone was holding her it back. It was her kryptonite. Every time she heard “experiment” she thought “laborious and detailed,” “precise and sterile,” and “complicated, boring, and HARD TO DO AND NO ONE WILL WANT TO DO IT INCLUDING ME.”**

And it doesn’t matter if you pair “experiment” with terms like “agile” because the predominant narrative or implicit bias is the one around “experiment.”

So step one is to change the narrative; step two is to put yourself in the experimental state of mind.

photo-by-teresa-wood-from-dog-pony-dcs-workshop-of-toast

Audience activity from dog & pony dc’s workshop of TOAST; photo by Teresa Wood.

CREATIVE (& FUN)

Picture a cartoon chemist in her lab. She’s wearing big owl-eyed glasses that hang from a beaded chain around her neck and a white lab coat. The light-filled lab is packed with colorful liquids in glass flasks connected by tubing. The chemist carefully pours solid-colored liquids from two different test tubes into a beaker and it yields–a rainbow colored result! And then explodes with sparkling smoke and leaves her hair all wackadoo. “That wasn’t what I expected,” she exclaims and makes notes on a pad. She’s smiling, because experimenting is creative and fun. It’s a creative and fun activity that’s designed to teach you something. This is the change in the narrative that my academy fellow needed to make first and foremost. Whenever you see, hear, or say “experiment” replace the word with “learn something in a creative and fun way.” “Creative and fun” is also the fundamental principle for the “experimental state of mind,” especially for all of us working in the arts. Why would we want it any other way?

(And “fun”? It’s a flexible term, obviously. But I’d wager we can agree that completing a written survey via email or paper with likert scale questions is neither fun nor creative.)

NO THING IS TOO SMALL

For the academy, the AMA created a great form called a “progress record” for the fellows to track their experiments. (Forms–not commonly considered creative or fun, but incredible handy none the less.) When shaping an experiment in the context of systemic change (like diversity) and asked to track progress, suddenly there’s an overwhelming feeling that the experiment needs to be long, interconnected series of events with a (positive) growth outcome. This is not the way to exist in an experimental state of mind. Get zen and think small. Remember that an experiment is a planned activity from which you hope to learn something. Any intentional divergence from the status quo could be considered an experiment. The way you facilitate one meeting could be an experiment. The types of questions you ask during that meeting could be an experiment. The method you collect answers can be an experiment. It can feel a bit silly when you’re working systemically and long term, thinking tactically and practically IS the experimental way.

ALWAYS WINNING

When you adopt the experimental mindset and the emphasis is on what you’re taking away from each of your activities the emphasis is always on what you learned. You line up the experiments, one after another. What did I expect? What happened? What did I learn? What will I do differently next time? Then repeat! This means the emphasis is on the quality of the learning not the execution of the experiment. I believe that’s why experimenting in the arts is often labeled “working scrappy” and can bring about a little experimenter shame. Eff-that! Trying to be perfect is antithetical to the experimental state of mind. It means you already know the answer; it means people might mess up your experiment. Our experiments in the arts around audience and diversity all have people at the center and therefore must be inviting. (See point #1 about creative and fun.) More importantly, we should not ever expect to know what the answers will be. Experiments begin with a question or a hypothesis, and we should expect to–even be excited about–discovering our previous understanding was completely off base. That we were wrong. This means we were “failing.” Hooray! Now we can “fail forward,” learning from our experiment and, we hope, make improvements. Learning is winning.

To wrap up, the experimental state of mind is not for everyone. Some of us come from a fixed mindset rather than a growth one. Fixed mindset folks like established routines and avoid challenges; nothing wrong with that at all. Those of us who are looking for change could stand to adopt some experimental practices. Remembering to think small and look for opportunities to experiment everywhere, emphasize the learning no matter to outcome, and permit yourself to be creative and fun will flip the script of what creating experiments is all about. Now what are you waiting for–get to work!

 

** On the other hand: some will think that if you’re only doing an “experiment” it’s not real or valid work. That it can’t amount to anything, build a foundation, or propel your forward. Not so at all. It’s the foundation of a growth-mindset environment in which you are working responsively to the world around you.

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.

CA4MsXsU8AAYJRa.jpg

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.

Last Wednesday, I had the honor of conducting an “Audience Engagement Boot Camp” in Columbus, OH for arts administrators and artists from across the state on behalf of National Arts Marketing Project as a guest of Columbus Arts Marketing Association (CAMA).

Jessica Foust, Trash2Treasure83 Etsy.com

Jessica Foust, Trash2Treasure83 Etsy.com

From the M words in both of my host’s names, safe bet the attendees would be predominantly marketers. The registration list and a rapid-fire round of live introductions confirmed that a good 70% of the attendees worked in a marketing-related area.

However: in planning calls CAMA’s committee set out goals for the workshop…

  • address the shift in participation culture in the U.S.
  • question whether arts organizations are embracing or fighting this shift
  • establish foundation of understanding for audience engagement
  • provide methods for inclusive planning
  • share tools and resources
  • inspire action

This is the PDF of my slides for that day. If you’ve taken an audience engagement workshop with me before, they probably don’t look radically different. And yet, CAMA’s agenda shifted something inside me. Their titling the workshop a “boot camp” and cheekily calling me a “drill sergeant” in the description allowed that shift to manifest. What good was I doing providing all this information without laying out the hardline truths in the process?

Hardline Truths about Engagement of Audiences in the Arts:

  • We are not caring for the spines of our organizations—the audience, the patrons.
  • We continue to confuse marketing (selling) with engaging (involving).
  • We are not making the audience’s experience with our organization (around the artwork) meaningful, resonant, or relevant.
  • We make or uphold so many rules of conduct, that it prevents creative experimentation and forward progress.
  • We perpetuate status quo (e.g. interpretive collateral materials have to maintain consistent size, shape, layout to “maintain brand identity”) and look at people who challenge it as renegades.

Companies like Nike and Dunkin spend thousands–no, millions–of dollars engaging consumers around their products, and their products are shoes and donuts. We, artists, make products that are themselves high impact experiences. We are experts in making meaningful experiences, and yet we shroud our products, our works of art, in austere identities and formulaic experiences. Our most common excuse is that we don’t have the resources (e.g. money) to try something new. But it should be that we don’t try, or we don’t think we can try.

If I learned anything from my time in Columbus, it was this: now is the time to make a change. Now. People drove from across the state to attend my workshop. They were hungry. They had lots of new ideas. They were pumped. They just needed permission to break rules. They needed to know you could think big first, and then look at how to essentialize your idea to scale. They simply needed to recalibrate. They needed to remember we love the audience. Artist + Art + Audience = Amazing


I was so inspired by conversations I had in Columbus, I came up with these ideas. Take and use ‘em as you wish:

  1. Take the dollars you were going to spend on an advertisement and spend it on something like paying 10 local artists to sit in a crowded coffee shop with tshirts and talk amongst each other in pairs about the plays of the season. People can over hear. The artists should have coasters or stickers which they can casually hand to interested parties. At least you know you are having person-to-person contact.
  2. Don’t pay for a printed program–put it all online. Email it to ticket buyers. Take that money and invest in postcards with pre-paid postage. If people liked the show ask them to take a postcard, write a quick message about the show, and send it to someone local. If that friend calls or orders tickets online, the original audience member gets a personal thank you note and the ticket buyer gets a personal welcome and a free drink. (The postcard should be branded, obviously!)
  3. Put a call out to street artists and buskers in your city. Invite them to experience a preview of your latest exhibit; feed them; engage them in conversation with one another about the work. Ask them if they would, for a small fee, perform something inspired by this exhibit when they are next out. Give them a piece or two of collateral to have on hand. Raise awareness about art on the streets in your city to your audience.

#ohellohio

Melanie here. Welcome to the fourth go at this blog post.

In the previous three tries, words all sort of fell out of my brain – a big jumbled mess of ideas and self-admonishments and details about what happened that were suddenly coming back to me. All in all, it was a little overwhelming. To think back on a time when I was doing the best I could, and then ask, what could I have done better? was a daunting concept.

At NAMPC this year, I heard a low grumbling from several attendees about the kinds of projects that come up over and over – major success stories. These are awesome, and everyone loves to hear a good success story… but what about the big hairy mess-up stories? What about the stories where you trip and scrape your knee a little? How do you get up, recover from those pitfalls? While this post isn’t about a big hairy mess-up ™, it is about a project that was a little off-base, that didn’t quite achieve what it set out to do: bring the art, artist, and audience closer together. Instead of picking it apart like a turkey carcass, I’m going to pull out three important things I learned from this one particular project.

To set the scene: in their 32nd season, Woolly Mammoth produced Jason Grote’s play Civilization (all you can eat). At the time, I was flying solo in Woolly’s connectivity department, so a lot of the formulation and execution of the engagement activities fell to me. The show presents a constellation of characters, all loosely connected to each other, who are all trying to wade through life in the wake of a recession. There is also a character named Big Hog, an anthropomorphic pig, who escapes the slaughter house in order to “make something” of himself.

Now: for what I learned.

ONE. In new play development-land, it is really difficult to try to craft a plan to deepen the audience’s investment in the work when the work keeps changing. And you need to forgive yourself and stay flexible, focusing on the entry point as much as you can (or whatever theme remains true that will serve as a filter for your ideas.)

TWO. It is more helpful to take a step back from your work than it is to keep shoving your nose into the grindstone. The most fruitful moments of discovery for myself, as well as the dramaturg and director of Civilization, was during an open read of the show with a bunch of community members, friends of Woolly (read: audience) over some pizza and beer. Their feedback and reflections on the performance was drastically different from what the team assumed the audience would get out of the play. While this was just one sampling of folks, it was still a great indicator that the engagement plan we had was being built on our own assumptions of what the audience would want to engage with before and after the production, instead of what they actually needed.

THREE. Simplicity in design is so important. I sunk a lot of money into an activity that I wanted to do in order to illustrate the concept of “selling out” by getting folks to do ridiculous things for consumable prizes (free drinks at the bar, snacks, etc.) A few people engaged with it, not for lack of interest but I really think for lack of understanding. There were too many ways to engage with the activity (there were three different activities you could do within this ONE activity, ::facepalm:: ) and the directions were not super clear. Most importantly, the core of the activity did not have enough meaning in it: so what if people wear a pig nose to get a free drink? What is that really saying about the nature of “selling out”? How is that really even “selling out” at all? It was easy to get caught up in the little details and the gimmick of the activity without making sure it fit through my entry point lens.

And, as I promised myself, I’m going to stop there.

Since this project I have continued to fill my connectivity toolbox and sharpen my skills. I still have not figured out time travel, so while I can’t go back and change the past (and why would I? wouldn’t that mess up my future?!) I can carry these lessons with me into the future and identify similar pitfalls as they come up.

Here’s hoping we’ll all keep talking about our mistakes so that we can all learn from them.

How long have I been percolating on engagement and the arts? At least since 2006.

In cleaning my office, found these notes from the 2006 TCG Annual Conference in Atlanta. The topic? “Building Future Audience”

Thought I would share some notes from Kevin McCarthy’s “Understanding Arts Participation as a Behavioral Process,” a panel entitled “Who is the Audience of the Future?” with Guy Garcia and Wendy Puriefoy, moderated by Susan Booth and a closing address from TCG’s former executive director, Ben Cameron.

Enjoy (if you can read) and THANKS TCG for being awesome.

Previously on A Big Eyed Fish, in defining audience engagement I noted that it was “artcentric” and differed from community engagement and audience development.

In order to better show the relationship between a work of art, audience and community engagement, and audience development, I whipped up this infographic using my low-tech graphic design skills in PowerPoint:

Slide1Totally clears it all up, right?

Ok. Unlike a really excellent infographic, mine needs a little additional explanation.

Starting with the work of art:

  • The artwork drives our audience engagement programming choices. There’s a strong one-way relationship there and lots of overlap.
  • IMHO: audience engagement programming creation works best if we involve many different micro-communities or stakeholders  in the process. As a result of the art making or audience engagement program creation, we may form relationships with individuals outside our current artist/staff/board/audience/volunteer sphere. As soon as these new-to-us individuals or organizations become key participants in programming, this transitions into “community engagement.”* There is a strong two-way relationship between strategic community engagement and audience engagement, with some overlap.
  • The strong two-way relationship between audience and community engagement can result in a strong, positive audience growth for that specific artwork/art event or audience engagement program. It’s possible that as a result, this could result in future audience and community engagement programming.

While my infographic pales in comparison in terms of creativity and exploration of content, I believe it serves as a helpful reminder.  Each “programming area” has a distinct objective and, while related, they do not seek to achieve the same ends. Actors cannot play two objectives. Neither can engagement programmers. Don’t ignore what else is happening, but play out your part to its fullest.

 

*Note: as soon as one embarks on “community engagement” a different set of rules of engagement (pun intended) apply. More at another time but worth saying that you cannot “drag and drop” people. 

New blogger request for forgiveness, the original post needed more before I moved on. All updates, made 1/24/15 appear in this fetching orange.

A Google search of audience engagement yields a bevy of infographics:
Audience Engagement Confusion

And many definitions… (underlining all mine)

From Doug Borwick’s blog Engagement Matters:

“Audience Engagement is a marketing strategy designed for deepening relationships with current stakeholders and expanding reach over time. Also internally focused (artcentric), it may result in new modes/venues of presentation and means of illuminating/explaining the arts to the public. Typically, ‘outreach’ is an example of audience engagement.”

From Trevor O’Donnell’s blog Marketing the Arts to Death(link updated)

“Development professionals are unusually adept at initiating, nurturing and sustaining relationships with community members so the fit is ideal: engagement is merely an extension of the work that development departments already do.”

From WolfBrown’s Report Making Sense of Audience Engagement:

“Audience engagement is defined as a guiding philosophy in the creation and delivery of arts experiences in which the paramount concern is maximizing impact on the participant. Others refer to this vein of work as ‘enrichment programming’ or ‘adult education.’

Is it a “marketing strategy” as Mr. Borwick suggested? What does that mean for measuring success–ultimately only in numbers of people and dollars through the door?

Is it more relationship cultivation akin to development as Mr. O’Donnell suggested? If we embraced this, might it dramatically alter arts funding practices?

Is it essentially an organizing principle + strategic thinking framework as WolfBrown suggested? Why look outside of arts organizations’ artistic programming to do that; why not radiate from the artistic experience outward? Engagement as artistic imperative?

#thisdefiningaudienceengagementshitcanbesuperconfusing

SO WHY DON’T YOU TAKE MY WORD FOR IT!?!

Slide3

You caught me: I launched another definition into the blogosphere. But the intention of doing so, as an artist-administrator obsessed with integrating artistic and organizational advancement work, is to simplify and personalize, and stop the “whose responsibility should it be” back-and-forth that many definitions of audience engagement result in.

Points of clarification:

  • “Artcentric”: extending Mr. Borwick’s definition, audience engagement is driven by our role as artists in our community; therefore, our sweep of activities is going to be driven by our work (a.k.a. the art).
  • Mission Oriented (or even driven!): audience engagement should be an extension of your raison d’etre. Work within the enabling constraints of why the organization exists and what it seeks to accomplish.
  • Organization Curated: at the most basic level, someone inside the organization originated the audience engagement program idea or is saying “yes” or “no”; organizations can provide tremendous leeway and agency to collaborators and partners but audience engagement is selected and “held” by the organization.
  • Different from Community Engagement and Audience Development: these all have different outcomes. (More on IMHO the difference in a future post).

In addition to knowing why your particular organization (based on its mission) is embarking on this “audience engagement” thing, a baseline of shared values must exist and woven into the fabric of every activity.

Slide4

And that seems as good a place as any to stop, and step away from the keyboard. 

Do you have a preferred definition of audience engagement, whether it’s your’s or someone else’s?

We at A Big Eyed Fish would love to hear it!

Are we being honest with ourselves about audience engagement work?  Let’s take a second look…

 

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time-for-a-change-pic

 

 

I resolve this new year, two-thousand and fifteen, to use words with meaning.

As in, not to use words without the idea that is being represented by the aforementioned word.
As in, not to use words to describe something and then not do it.
As in, to attempt to mean what I say and say what I mean.

In the early Fall of 2014, Rachel and I were crafting a 2.0 version of our National Arts Marketing Project pre-conference (Playing in the Deep End of Audience Engagement) and she asked what I thought we needed to cover this year that we did not cover the previous. I love these conferences and the way they bring people together, but for me, industry conferences can also be a hotbed of jargon.

jargon print screen merriam webster online

Merriam Webster.com (the source from which this except was Print Scrn’d from above) goes on to define jargon as:

1

  1. confused unintelligible language
  2. a strange, outlandish, or barbarous language or dialect
  3. a hybrid language or dialect simplified in vocabulary and grammar and used for communication between peoples of different speech

2

  1. the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group

3

  1. obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words

In my opinion, jargon is a poison. Once the word crosses the threshold into jargon, it is almost certain it will not be able to recover its soul, its authenticity, or its respect in the eyes of those who employ the use of the word. It will suffer a fate similar to terms such as “buy-in,” “synergy,” and “best practices. ” It loses its actual meaning, and is therefore subject to empty usage. This is my fear for the term Audience Engagement.

Type this term into Google and you’ll get 13,600,000 results, ranging from the WolfBrown study Making Sense of Audience Engagement, to articles on blogs with titles like “Innovation Insider” and “Life Business Integrity dot com” where they show you 12 Powerful Audience Engagement Tools (which are actually all just different kinds of survey platforms), to word clouds that include “value” and “brand” and “follow.” This to me is a broad (but accurate) representation of how Audience Engagement is viewed in the arts field — some really digging in to make sense of this term, engaging in critical thought and discussion about it, and some tweeting a link to buy tickets and ticking off their “audience engagement” counter.

It is hard to take jargon seriously — easy to tack jargon on to the end of a business plan or grant report to appear impressive to a panel of experts.

My fear is that Audience Engagement, real, authentic, face-to-face interactions and reciprocal conversations with audience members, is becoming an effort that is hard to take seriously and easy to talk big about.

All that I am asking is that you really dig in, make sense of what Audience Engagement means for your organization or your art form. How can you make it feel true to you and what you’re doing? What are small steps you can take to not just release content, but create dialogue and conversation? See beyond your outputs?

 

Melanie Harker is a conspirator with dog & pony dc, as well as Rachel Grossman’s sidekick. You can see her musings @MelanieGwynne on twitter.