Ars gratia populi

larkrise01Last summer I wrote this and it set me on a slow plod to try to get theatres and arts organisations into the blogging and social media space. I pitched to a couple of theatres and sent material to lots more, but It’s never really got enough momentum behind it and there seemed to be a lot of resistance too – not least, worries about interference with the creative process and lack of cash, or more accurately other priorities for the relatively small amount of cash available.

Yesterday, the very lovely Katherine Wood at the Society of London Theatre pointed me in the direction of this report from London Calling. It’s the findings of a survey carried out among a range of arts organisations across the country in June 2006 (actually the same time that Debbie was melting the phones in the Pimlico branch, trying to get us in to speak to theatre comms people).

In addition to the no cash problem (more than two-thirds of respondents have a budget for web development of less than £10k) the survey identifies “no clear grasp of the benefits/opportunities” and the fear that “digital solutions only add to workloads” as lines of resistance to embracing these technologies.

I read the following general strategy into the answers given about the rate at which different technologies are being understood and adopted: “We’ve got to have a website, this is primarily for online ticketing, though we can do some other merchandising and marketing with it too. Then we game the search engines to make sure people come to us. Get their e-mail addresses and spam them” As usual I exaggerate for effect, but it all feels a bit 1997. Thank God most of them haven’t heard of Bluetooth…

The section Engaging with Audiences reveals more about what “engagement” seems to mean in this context. To focus on which technology to use gets it the wrong way round (it’s about people, people!) – but all of the technologies presented are best suited to a mindset of one-way communication – what I see as a narcissistic approach to engagement – see how beautiful and clever I am and you will want to be my friend and then buy my products – rather than saying “I, like you, am a human being, I love making and enjoying art and I see that you do too, let’s talk about how we can work together for mutual benefit – how I can help you and you can help me” That’s what I consider engagement.

There’s lots of work to be done here – it’s part of Web 2.2, of what Nancy has termed “the second wave” and Debbie keeps calling “the post-geek phase”. I’m interested in doing education and experimentation in this area, but most of all shifting the mindset from one-way to two-way – how do you do that? One mind at a time, baby, one mind at a time.

These lastminuteliving diaries for Cabaret and Wicked (there are others too) are a start and so is this rat blog from Soho Theatre but I can’t help feeling they could be so much more engaging (and more easy to find!) and I worry that without the mindset shift, they will be seen to not have worked and therefore be abandoned.

If you’re like those in the survey, 64% of whom said they face no internal resistance and 76% of whom said “No” to the question “Would you say that your website meets all the needs of your audiences at present?” or if you’re working on sites already and want to bounce ideas around about making them better, give me a ring and let’s have a chat about it.

[btw yeah, that’s me at the back of the picture on stage at the Swan Theatre, Worcester in the 1982 production of Lark Rise, directed by John Doyle, and including Adrian Phillips and Rufus Norris in the cast – I have no pictures of Rufus, but there’s one of Adrian on my flickr stream – heh!]

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5 thoughts on “Ars gratia populi”

  1. Hi Lloyd 😀 Is this about selling theatre, or making the whole experience more interesting/creative? or both? Do you think theatre is particularly suitable for this treatment? been talking to people about trying to introduce web 2.0 type stuff to otherwise quite boring e-commerce sites (for both the above reasons). except I didn’t really know what I was talking about cos I’m not a geek. I think I must be a post-geek (Hi Debbie ;-)*waves*)

  2. I think it comes down to a simple premise – that good, lasting, profitable business arises out of good relationships. How do you improve any relationship? You give more and that’s how you get more. As you sow, so shall you reap, if you like (omigod, i can’t believe i’m quoting scripture… on my blog!)

    So what I’m saying is that by giving more to the online relationship (making content, telling stories, providing a homely comfortable space, encouraging creativity among the audience, breaking down the barriers between artists and audience) rather than spending their energy on finding more efficient ways to extract money out of people, everybody ends up winning.

    Theatres spend an awful lot of money trying to do those things above, but only in a physical space – and the crazy thing is, that it doesn’t cost a huge amount in order to do this stuff online.

    OK, I’m going to get on the phones again in the morning…

  3. Hi Lloyd – I think you can guess what I’m going to say, but in my 13 years of being in the quagmire that is arts marketing I’ve encountered a mind set that runs through many of my peers that repeats the mantra ‘print is god, print is god, down with evil technology’. Because budgets are SO small for most venues and companies it is only the ‘big boys’ that splash the cash and try out things like SMS, blogging or even pod casting. The trouble is that until these techniques enter the mainstream they will only ever get dabbled with by people that are still raking the moon out of a duck pond.

  4. My point about the arts not spening money is a general one. Blogging may be dirt cheap to do properly, but investing time and effort into something ‘new’ is something in UK arts that MOST marketing people are still loathe to do – I wish they weren’t.

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