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It’s A Wonderful Arts Organization

We in the arts are frequently enjoined to ask ourselves what value we have in the community and whether we would be missed or the community would be worse off if we closed.

The subtext, at least when I hear and read this, is that arts organizations better make sure they are providing some service their community views as valuable whether it is shows, classes, outreach events, providing expertise and resources to others–whatever the case may be.

I think this is driven by a final grant report/justify your government based funding mentality. The concern that you aren’t doing enough to be of value to your community could easily be a matter of lack of data collection rather than lack of doing on the arts organization’s part.

Basically, it is the “It’s A Wonderful Life” problem. George Bailey doesn’t realize what a positive impact he has had on the community until he gets to see what life would be like if he weren’t around. He lacked knowledge of what sort of impact his presence had in Bedford Falls.

No one can ever really know the full repercussions of their presence or lack thereof without the help of an angel interpreting cause and effect. If you had asked the residents of the depressed Bedford Falls if their lots would have been better with a George Bailey around, they wouldn’t have had any concept of the extensive differences between the two timelines.

Still, people do have some idea of what would have happened had they not had certain opportunities available to them. George never asked and was never told how important his building and loan was to the community.

Well, at least not until the end of the movie which results in a scene very familiar to many arts organizations– People in the community react to the imminent closure of their beloved organization and donate a large amount of money in the hopes of staving off disaster.

Bedford Falls or An Arts Organization You Know?

Bedford Falls or An Arts Organization You Know?

Optimally you don’t want to wait until a crisis to find out how much your organization really means to the community. Gathering the responses from a wide range of people is required, asking those who don’t participate as well as those who do. It is often suggested that those who don’t attend or participate be queried so that you can figure out how to better serve them.

While this is true and important, there are people who will never attend or participate in your programs. However, they may still value the presence of your organization in the community. For example, I don’t participate in Habitat for Humanity construction projects, but I certainly know that life in the community would be worse if they weren’t around.

What I don’t know is what are the best questions to ask. The things that immediately pop to mind are reminiscent of high school kids trying to find out if that other person likes them too. My impression is that the questions need to investigate what people value in the cultural ecology and how your organization fits in to it rather than “what do you like about us? what is it that we do that you would miss if we stopped doing it?”

My other impression is that this is the sort of questioning that has to be done in person rather than in a written survey because a conversation can force deeper consideration than an opportunity to jot down a response. Engaging in deeper consideration will probably cause the respondent’s feelings on the matter to acquire a deeper resonance as well.

Despite this being a labor intensive process, since you are collecting the data to assess the perception of your organization in the community and not to provide results by a deadline for a grant report or to decide whether to being a new initiative, it is possible to conduct this process in a relatively informal way.

The purpose is to get a sense of whether people would miss your organization if it closed so you are constantly asking your questions and paying close attention to the responses. The process never ends.

It occurs to me that if you are being honest and asking both those who support you and those you don’t, you can end up identifying non-participants you will want to formally survey to find out if there is something you can do to serve their needs.

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The Phonebooth Returns! (Sort Of)

There is an initiative starting in NYC that I hope is really successful and catches on in smaller cities and communities because it can help under served communities and potential provide arts organizations a central communication channel to these demographics.

According to a CityLab article, all but three pay phones in NYC will be replaced by eye-catching Links stations. These stations will provide free public Wi-Fi, free phone calls anywhere in the US, free charging for mobile devices and serve as sources of information (maps, directory of city services, etc.)

The services will be paid for by advertising and public services messages displayed on the screens on the sides of the structures.

But what caught my eye was that the acknowledgment that these stations need to be placed in poorer neighborhoods. I agree with them that is where these stations are needed most. (my emphasis)

But if what the service providers are aiming for is the big bucks, could they bypass poor neighborhoods in favor of spots that attract high-end advertisers?

City officials say no. About half of the pay phones that will be transformed are in the lower-income outer boroughs, says Anne Roest commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications .

“There’s an assumption that poor people don’t spend money,” she says at the press conference. “One of the tricks is to figure out the advertising that’s providing what folks in all communities of New York are actually buying.”

Low-income individuals are more likely not to have expensive mobile phones and data plans, and may be more likely to need links to make calls or access the internet.

As I said, it would really be great if this model proved to be successful in NYC and became attractive enough to replicate in other cities.

It is unclear to me in the section I bolded if they are oriented on finding a one-size fits all neighborhoods advertising approach or will work on studying and segmenting the advertising. If they pay attention to what different approaches to advertising worked in each community demographic, perhaps the basic lessons could be applied elsewhere.

With that data in hand, companies can use specifically targeted advertising on these Links stations and have better insight into what general services these communities desire versus those in more affluent neighborhoods.

As the saying goes, if you are not paying for the product, you are the product. I have no doubt that usage data will be collected, crunched and sold. There is no reason this data can’t be crunched to provide social benefit as well.

I suspect the perceived value of these stations in low income communities which lack Internet, WiFi access and wide spread access to the amenities of smart phones, would generate positive associations making them valuable advertising vehicles.

It can be tough to get your advertising viewed on people’s individual televisions, computers and phone screens. There aren’t central communal sources of knowledge like there were when there were only a few television channels, broadcast radio stations and newspapers.

In addition to learning how to better design programs to suit the demographics of an area, this is the opportunity to raise awareness of your programs at the place people gather to make calls or charge their phones. (If you have ever been in an airport with charging hubs, you know demand won’t be an issue.) This could be the best chance to get low cost events and classes on to the radar of people whom you might not be able to reach in pretty much any other way.

Competition for advertising time in places like NYC might make the costs prohibitive there, but it could be more reasonable around the rest of the country. The success of this program is something worth keeping an eye on for a number of reasons.

(Of course, these stations don’t solve the problem of restoring locations for Clark Kent to transform into Superman.)

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Single Cute Person I/S/O More Than Just I Need You

“I Need You” used to mean something at one time according to Seth Godin. Perhaps that was back in the 70s when the phrase was just a song by the band America. Since then, says Godin, the phrase has gone through some overuse and abuse.

YOU doesn’t mean you in particular. It actually means, “anyone.” Anyone who can see this site or read this email or drive by our billboard. If you’ve got money or clout or attention to spare, sure, we want you.

Political fundraisers have turned this from an art to a science to an endless whine. So have short-term direct marketers with access to a keyboard and the free stamps of internet connection.

We used to have our ears open to anyone we loved or trusted whispering, “I need you.” It’s been overwhelmed lately, though, by selfish marketers shouting, “WE WANT ANYONE.”

This should sound like a familiar concept to many people in the arts. For years now the message being communicated that we hope everyone learns is  you can’t define your target market as everybody living within a 50 mile radius of your venue. Yes, in the ideal world, everyone would be interested in traveling to see what you are offering, but that isn’t realistic so you need to focus your efforts.

To a certain extent, it is somewhat comforting to know that political groups and marketers are making similar mistakes to those made by non-profit arts organizations. Until, at least, you consider they have a lot more money to burn on such foolishness than you do.

But really, it does go to show how difficult it is to appeal to people who aren’t already involved with you. It is easy to make political ads that appeal to your base or to your existing customer base. It is more difficult to craft a message that is appealing to those who are uncommitted to any one candidate or product.

Which is why so many people resort to the shotgun “I Need You” approach Godin mentions. It probably comes as no surprise that people have gotten really good at tuning those appeals out. Eye tracking studies show that people have cultivated “banner blindness” (scroll down about 5 images) automatically tuning out banners on webpages.

Godin alludes to the solution in that last sentence where he mentions “that we used to have our ears open to anyone we loved or trusted.” I don’t think people stopped listening to those they love and trust. The list of those they trust has gotten smaller due to the barrage of appeals.

Even though people often put more stock in online recommendations from people they don’t know rather than those they do, those personal relationships matter. All the recent conversations in the arts community about connecting with the community boils down to the goal of cultivating trust with people.

Just like retail politics is expensive and time consuming, because it is conducted in a relatively personalized way, it is often more effective than a shotgun approach. While this doesn’t deter political campaigns from engaging in both a personal and widespread effort in an attempt to get votes, they only require a commitment that lasts until election day.

Arts organizations generally need to secure something a little more long term.

 

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Follow Us Here…And Here…Here Too…And Oh Yeah, Here

Thomas Cott shared Colleen Dilenschneider’s recent post about the futility of using social media for the sake of using social media.

“…spending copious time on the newest social media features (that none of your audiences are using), measuring success by vanity metrics, and building out features that nobody is asking for…why do organizations do these things? They don’t help support bottom lines like getting folks in the door, building affinity, increasing donor support, or sharing knowledge if they aren’t relevant to your market or strategically integrated into an engagement plan…. and yet organizations brag about these useless endeavors to their boards and at industry conferences.

Many organizations seem to be feeling so “peer pressured” to be utilizing social media that they are using it to do stupid, time-consuming things for audiences that don’t matter”

I am right there with her. I have often suggested organizations shouldn’t be jumping on to the latest social media bandwagon. Especially since news of these apps/tools is often self-perpetuating out of proportion to the percentage of the population actually using them. Once a critical mass is reached, they get reported on because everyone else seems to be reporting on it making it seem like far more people are using it than actually are.

However, I can understand why arts organizations are doing it. Yesterday the Here and Now program on NPR interviewed Amanda Palmer and the conversation got around to referencing Taylor Swift’s story about two actresses being up for a part and the one with the larger Twitter following getting it.

While Palmer goes on to talk about a large following not equaling depth of engagement just as Dilenschneider mentions, the idea that breadth of exposure is better than depth with a few people is still the dominant criteria.

Print, broadcast and online media still talk about the number of eyes and ears they can deliver when trying to sell you advertising.

Grant reports will often ask about the number of hits your website received during the grant period. I called one funder to clarify criteria to use for indirect exposure because it almost felt like an invitation to wildly estimate using a contagion theory. My guess is that some of the sources of their funding have proved to be impressed by these numbers so we are being encouraged to provide them.

And actually, when I looked up contagion theory to make sure I was using the term correctly, I found out complex contagion theory is a term associated with social media. So it isn’t entirely unreasonable that funders are interested in reporting about a shotgun approach.

The same thinking that motivates a movie or stage production to cast the actor whose commentary on their involvement in the project will reach the most people, influences the values of arts organizations and their funders. If an organization is trying to expand its reach with using the hottest new toys, don’t they appear more ambitious and progressive than the organization that has a solid 500 people savoring their every post on a single social media site?

Visit the Facebook pages of two arts organizations in a city you have never visited. When you decide which is better are you basing it on how cool their header image is and the number of likes? Or did you actually take the time to evaluate the quality of their posts?

Colleen Dilenschneider is fairly accurate in her assessment about how these efforts will not provide any meaningful results, wastes time and potentially sets your efforts back. The answer to her question about why organizations engage in futile social media efforts is that the illusion of progress is valued.

To some extent, you might ask the same question about why people use alcohol as a social lubricant instead of working on changing themselves to become more adept at handling these situations. Except that the illusion generated by this activity is widely expected and accepted. (Insert your own joke equating the idea of wasted resources and the need to use the restroom after a beer.)

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