This is a presentation given by MuseumNext founder Jim Richardson at the British Council Digital Creative Conference, Tokyo. (It is also available in Japanese here.)
The heart of what I am going to talk about today is how arts institutions in the UK are responding to the changing expectations of their audiences through their marketing.
The driving force behind this change has been the internet, which over the past decade has moved from a place where people go to find information, to a place to create, curate and share content online.
Our society has undergone a socio-cultural shift, with audiences moving from being passive consumers of information to active participants who want to have their say.
In this new reality, cultural institutions have had to move beyond traditional advertising campaigns, and relying on positive reviews from a few trusted critics. After all, now everyone is empowered to be a critic, with the ability to share their opinions with potentially millions of people through popular social media websites like Facebook and Twitter.
Today’s cultural consumers are perhaps more informed then ever before and with this shift, the arts are moving from untargeted advertising to focusing on engagement.
1. Going Social
Facebook is the most popular social network in the UK, with an estimated user-base of 24 million, and the starting point for many institutions has been to establish pages on this website.
This makes a lot of sense, taking content about the arts in to a space where a lot of people are spending time.
The vast majority of UK arts venues have a presence on Facebook, and TATE is perhaps the most successful of these with over 140,000 Facebook users choosing to show their affiliation with the gallery.
One of the advantages of taking an institution like TATE on to Facebook is that users of this website engage with them on a level which simply doesn’t happen on a traditional website. For example, content posted on TATE’s Facebook page regularly receives over 100 comments from members of the public.
The other major social media platform in the UK is Twitter. TATE are also very active on this website, with over 246,000 people signing up to subscribe to news from the gallery through this website. This makes TATE the most popular British brand on Twitter.
Marketing to arts audiences through Facebook and Twitter is quite different from traditional advertising. People spend a lot of time in these digital spaces and they don’t respond well to a stream of sales messages. Instead arts organisations need to build relationships and brand recognition, confident that research shows that those choosing to be affiliated with a brand on social networks are more likely to spend money with them.
TATE have walked the fine line between building a community and selling their product remarkably well, with discounts to Facebook fans proving a particularly successful route to create measurable ticket sales.
2. Starting conversations
While holding engaging conversations is key to social networks, we are increasingly seeing a desire from cultural consumers to continue this on the websites of arts institutions.
In response, museums are changing their approach to websites from places to find information to more personalized, engaging and social experiences.
One such example is Yorkshire’s Favourite Paintings, a website which brings together collections from 24 art galleries and museums. Like a traditional collection, this provides information about the artworks and the artists who painted them, but the central premise of the website is to ask the public for their opinion.
The public are encouraged to do this by an incentive of winning a replica painting, or as the website promises ‘Tell us about your favourite painting and you can take it home with you’.
While traditionally the Museum may have valued the what the curator or an art critic think about a painting, this website acknowledges that audiences also have an opinion on art.
One painting could be selected by several people as their favourite, each with their own story of what the artwork means to them. Often these stories are quite personal. For example, one person wrote about how his grandmother had told him that a portrait looked like her as a young woman, something which he didn’t believe until she showed him a photograph, and now he wished to win a copy of the painting to give to his grandmother.
The stories give people a different starting point when approaching the art and the galleries. The opinions may be different from those of the curators but are just as valid.
The website has generated positive buzz around the galleries that contain the 100 paintings featured on the website. Perhaps the perfect response comes from a Twitter user called @fletchthemonkey: ‘Blown away by the quality of the paintings hanging in @YorkshiresFav, I think the weekend plans are now revised to going to see some!’
Another example of an arts organization bringing lessons learnt from the social web into their own website is National Theatre Wales, an organization founded in 2008.
Perhaps because the theatre was born in the midst of the social media revolution, it has put an emphasis on building a community of theatre-makers and theatre-goers who together can create performances that change the way we look at the world.
The National Theatre Wales website is the platform for this exchange; a social network of over 2,500 people who have helped shape everything from the individual productions to the direction of the organisation as a whole.
National Theatre Wales states that theatre has always been about forming a relationship with audiences and not just selling tickets. But by forming a community around their work, they are encouraging conversation about their work and a sense of belonging, ownership or affiliation with the organisation.
This kind of positive word-of-mouth is incredibly powerful. This is because personal recommendations have always been more effective than traditional advertising and social media magnifies these conversations, broadcasting them to countless people.
The Royal Opera House is not perhaps the most obvious place to find innovative uses of technology; it is perhaps one of the more traditional arts institutions in London.
However, in 2009, the Royal Opera house turned to Twitter to ask members of the public to help them to compose a new libretto, one 140 characture tweet at a time, a so-called Twitter Opera.
This wasn’t really a serious attempt to create a masterpiece, but instead an exercise in reaching out to people who might not think that opera was for them.
The Twitter Opera caught the imagination of members of the public, 900 of whom enthusiastically made suggestions for the final piece. The suggestions were molded in to a 20 minute production by professional composers, and was performed at the Royal Opera House.
While critics had their knives out for the production, the finished result received positive reviews with one newspaper columnist describing it as “actually watchable, listenable and rather funny.”
The initiative attracted a large amount of press attention, generating publicity for the organization both in the UK and further afield, and this together with online buzz attracted 1,000 people to the Royal Opera House across four performances.
This idea of co-producing the arts with members of the public has been embraced by a broad range of institutions from the stage to the museum, changing these organisations from being places to see the arts to platforms for creativity.
This fulfills the changing expectations of British audiences who increasingly want more participatory experiences.
An arts project which took this to an extreme was an exhibition called Democracy that took place in the North of England in 2009.
This project aimed to create the most democratic exhibition in the world. It not only asked members of the public to submit artworks through an open call for entries, but also to select what should be exhibited by voting online.
340 artworks were submitted through the website over a five week period and the most popular 50 pieces were exhibited in a gallery.
The competition to gain enough votes to be shown in the exhibition meant that each participant began marketing the exhibition to their network of friends, spreading the word virally through Facebook and Twitter.
These two social networks were responsible for sending over 5000 visitors to the Democracy website over the five weeks that the project was open, making them an important source of publicity for the exhibition.
In the gallery, this concept of Democracy was continued where the fifty artworks were projected digitally and visitors could vote for their favourite artworks from their mobile phones. A vote would increase the size of the preferred artwork, and decrease the size of those around it, making the exhibition get better over time, in the eyes of the public (who were therefore the curators). This format of a constantly evolving exhibition encouraged visitors to keep coming back to the gallery.
Crowdsourcing is a particularly popular trend with UK arts institutions, and many are using this approach to reach out to their audiences by appealing to their creative side. And while the idea of an exhibition which has been curated by the public may run the risk of being accused of ‘dumbing down’, the trend shows no signs of disappearing.
4. Beyond the walls
With audiences struggling to find the time to experience the arts, technology is allowing arts organisations to find new ways to fit in to people’s busy schedules.
In May 2010 the Museum of London launched a free iPhone app which lets anyone experience a piece of history in over 200 sites across London.
Looking at the screen of your iPhone you can overlay moments from history across the scenes of the present day. These can be viewed as ghostly alignments, or the archive images can be brought up and explored in detail, along with information about Streetmuseum’s photographs and paintings.
The app itself was a marketing tool, launched just ahead of the museum opening new galleries, and it attracted a large amount of free publicity with large features about it in several British newspapers.
I think that where the app really works is in making the Museum of London more accessible to an audience which may not traditionally visit the museum, when faced with the overwhelming cultural choices London has to offer.
Another UK arts initiative which is using modern technology to reach new audiences is National Theatre Live. This broadcasts theatre live to cinemas around the world.
On 25 June 2009, the first of these broadcasts carried Nicholas Hytner’s production of Racine’s Phèdre to 70 digital cinemas across the UK to an audience of 14,000 people and another 14,000 people saw it live in the rest of Europe or North America. The final audience figure for this one performance, when allowing for subsequent screenings, is estimated to be around 50,000 people.
Research carried out by the National Theatre in the UK found that NTLive reached new audiences. Most of those who attended the screenings found out about them through the cinemas showing the productions which indicated that the National Theatre was tapping into cinema audiences rather than losing its own audiences to this low cost alternative.
In fact 33.9% of those who saw the production in cinemas said that watching an NTLive screening had encouraged them to see a production at the National Theatre.
Many other UK arts institutions are also developing new ways for audiences to engage with them through technology, with iPhone applications being an especially popular way to do this.
Many, like NTLive, are discovering not only new ways to reach audiences but new revenue streams which can help support their core activities.
On the same day that the former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s memoir, A Journey, was published to considerable media reaction and controversy, discussion of another topic entirely was topping the trend charts on Twitter.
A one–day event, called Ask a Curator harnessed the networked power of museums and galleries on Twitter to create a global dialogue between members of the public and curators.
340 curators from institutions around the world took part in an event which would have been impossible before the advent of social media technology. Over 10,000 messages were exchanged between museums and members of the public over the course of 1 September 2010.
By working together, these museums and galleries were able to shout above the noise of social media networks and get noticed both by press who picked up on the story around the world and by the public, many of whom were surprised by what they might have perceived as ‘stuffy’ institutions opening their doors to questions on Twitter.
One member of the public commented ‘At last, museums are doing something useful with Twitter, rather than just sending me marketing messages’.
However, Ask a Curator was a very effective marketing campaign. An evaluation found that the majority of those who asked questions said they intended to visit the museums who answered them.
The success of Ask a Curator has been emulated by Ask Shakespeare, Ask a Conductor and several other groups since it took place in September, showing that this form of collaboration can work across several art forms.
A Night Less Ordinary is another project which has brought together arts venues to reach new audiences, in this case young people who haven’t visited a theatre before.
Since February 2009, this government-funded initiative has offered people under 26 free theatre tickets for over 200 theatres across England, the simple premise being that cost is a major barrier to this group attending the theatre.
Young people signed up to get free theatre tickets through a website which brought together performances from across England, providing one easy-to-use website.
The initiative has given away over half a million theatre tickets, and addee these names to the mailing lists of participating theatres.
78% of those young people surveyed said that they were more likely to attend a theatre again after attending a free performance.
The kind of collaborative approach used by Ask a Curator and A Night Less Ordinary is becoming the normal way for UK arts organisations to operate, accelerated perhaps because of the recent financial recession.
Arts organisations are showing that by working together they can make their voice heard in a world overwhelmed by marketing messages.
Another trend which seems to be taking off in UK museums is the gamification of experiences to reach out to audiences who perhaps don’t think that the arts are for them.
There has been a whole generation of young people who have been brought up playing computer games and this poses problems and opportunities for the arts.
A player of a computer game is the protagonist, placed at the centre of the story and this is increasingly the way in which young people prefer to learn. But this is quite different from the experience they get when they visit a museum or sit in a theatre.
Technology is, however, offering answers with mobile phone apps that turn museums into board games and offer both an experience which is perhaps more appealing to young people and also an educational tool to encourage this hard-to-reach group to learn about art.
TATE Trumps is one such example. This game is based on the popular children’s game Top Trumps and is played in TATE Modern using an iPhone.
Players are tasked with running around the gallery collecting the seven artworks which they believe will beat those collected by their friends and then reconvene to do battle.
I think this is an excellent example of a museum using an iPhone app as a marketing tool, extending a cultural experience to a group who may not think that the arts are for them.
Games seem to be an incredibly popular trend in the museum sector at the moment.
This is just a quick snapshot of how the arts in the UK are using technology to reach out to evolving audiences. Those who are innovating are thriving, whilst those who refuse to change are looking more and more out of touch.