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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.

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