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Should Arts Organisations Use Twitter?

Posted on 05 May 2011 Written by

I’ve been using Twitter for the past two years, and as an individual it has offered a wealth of communication and interaction within the theatre industry. It’s connected me to those that I would have met somewhere along the line of communication between organisations, but its allowed it to happen now, instead of months later. It’s also allowed me to interact with those outside the theatre industry who are still just as obsessive about it as I am. It has connected me, it has engaged me, and it has empowered me.

I’ve recently been debating the potential power that Twitter has, or could have for arts organisations (I work for two, but these are my own thoughts). If truth be told, I am getting frustrated. Frustrated and furious. After two years of my own connection with Twitter there has been a steady increase in the number of arts organisations using it to promote their work and engage with their audiences. Whilst it is considered a must-have for organisations, you would have thought that some consideration would have gone into the management and engagement that Twitter offers. Clearly not. Twitter isn’t a complex beast that needs taming, it’s like a constantly-moving shoal of fish.

There is, however, a vast array of organisations which seem to feel that social media equates to marketing. They don’t swim with the shoal, they are the fishermen above casting their lines in an attempt to hook something. The problem comes when none of the fish want to be caught on a hook and dragged to the surface to land up on some fisherman’s dinner plate. Ok, time to drop the fish references, but it’s true: Twitter folk are those that are clearly connected to the world, they are a slight cut above your average audiences because they at least understand how the internet and engagement work on this social media platform. They can see a marketing tweet a mile off, and, quite frankly, none of us like it (unless you are actually offering free tickets, then you can tweet all you like).

A dialogue goes two ways

Twitter is part of ‘social media’, and organisations need to realise what these two words mean: social – the interaction of individuals or groups in a social manner, i.e., talking, engagement, and communication; media – through aspects of media based items, i.e., text, image, video, media devices and the internet. To put it simply, Twitter is a communication tool used to create dialogues. A dialogue or an engagement with your audience, and, most importantly, with your potential future audience. A dialogue goes two ways. It doesn’t involve a single wavelength of broadcasting which doesn’t get a response. Twitter is about the engagement, the communication, the interaction. So why do certain arts organisations seem to be on a mission to alienate their audience by getting them to plug in to a constant stream of marketing material?

It was recently suggested to me that Twitter should be taken out of the hands of marketing departments and placed within communication and outreach. At least these departments understand the two-way conversation that is needed to build trust, and encourage an audience into a seat. Dan Bye wrote a brilliant call to arms for theatres to challenge the way that they promote themselves on Twitter, to move away from marketing and use it more creatively. Dan wasn’t talking about the epic scale adventures of the Royal Opera House’s twitter opera, or The Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘Such Tweet Sorrow’, he was referring to the everyday challenge that can be addressed with organisations seeking to use Twitter. He made it clear and simple: We’re fed up of marketing, give us something more creative.

I sometimes wish that I could reinvent Twitter and give everyone a chance to find something creative within the messages. If arts organisations can’t find the creativity within their online engagement, then should they even be pursuing it in the first place? Is there a need for organisations to use Twitter?
If you are a large organisation then I would say yes, because part of having Twitter is about having your brand in a popular medium (yes I am referring to a marketing idea here). For smaller organisations I would question why you want to use it. Is it because you see it as a current ‘here-and-now’ marketing device that everyone else is using? Or is it about building and engaging with your audience, actively promoting yourself as a small venue seeking to find your voice, and talking to newer audience?

Just stop using Twitter

Regardless of whether you are a large or a small organisation, I can’t help but to think that as the cultural sector we should be creative. Arts organisations each year put on cultural events that excite, engage and empower their audiences in the darkest of economic times. We’re a form of escapism, we’re a form of enlightenment, but we’re also a way of presenting the world in new formats. Why is it we can produce such outstanding work as venues/organisations and then produce such mind numbing marketing Twitter feeds?

Let’s stop. Just stop using Twitter for a week and think about what it offers as a form of communication. What does Twitter offer to our audiences that they can not get from us elsewhere? What is Twitter’s unique selling point? If you work for an organisation and you can’t think of anything beyond “I use twitter myself and I want to use it at work”, then I beg you to reconsider.

Twitter is communication. It’s about breaking down barriers, it’s about the immediate and it’s about the informal look at an organisation. If those of us working in the arts honestly can’t produce anything other than marketing material to promote our work then we shouldn’t be allowed Twitter.

Unless you are the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Theatre you can not sell a ticket through Twitter – so stop trying to. Stop treating your followers as potential ticket buying people and start seeing them for who they are: passionate lovers of culture. Start offering them the exciting Twitter insights into your organisations.

Let’s do away with marketing, let’s move beyond strategies, let’s think creative and do what we do best. Creating damn good art – and let’s do this on Twitter. OK?

You can follow AYT on our Twitter account: @ayoungertheatre or our Editor Jake on his personal account: @jakeyoh

Jake Orr

Jake Orr

Jake is the Artistic Director and Founder of A Younger Theatre. He is a freelance writer and blogger, a theatre marketer and a digital producer. He is also Co-Curator of Dialogue.

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17 Comments For This Post

  1. Acorn Theatre Says:

    Utterly in agreement. Companies forget the basic and essential way forward:

    1) Remember that you’re in a conversation network
    2) Find the networks that are appropriate to you and your followers
    3) Add value to everyone; people you tweet at, followers, people you RT.

    Twitter is hugely valuable as a way to create an open and honest network of London theatre companies and reviewers – a way for people to bring great work BY OTHER PEOPLE to everyone’s attention.

    It’s a way to create relationships between companies and reviewers, to break down the boundaries between these groups, and an open-source way to engage everyone in meaningful discussion to push theatre in different directions.

    It is not, nor, hopefully, will it ever be, a way to sell 20 extra tickets.

  2. Michelle Says:

    Part of the problem maybe the client the individual venue is using for the Tweeting. The Twitter website is not at all intuitive when trying to follow a conversion, third party clients like Twiteriffic are much better.

  3. Aaron Says:

    Isn’t there a stat that says something like 90% of tweets come from 20% of twitter profiles? or something? Most users clearly don’t see Twitter as a medium for conversation. It’s rare that i use it for that. However I really appreciate Twitter as an information service. Quicker than email, far less wordy than email – and i find out about so many things i wouldn’t find out about otherwise. Twitter is fast becoming the go-to source for up to date information – now quicker than standard news services. It’s a great way of giving people little reminders without bombarding people’s inboxes.

    Arts organisations simply haven’t got the money or time to waste on thinking out innovative tweets. I’m glad you mention ‘Such Tweet Sorrow’ though – that was diabolical. Whilst the BetFair Poker feed is good fun, its still marketing – it’s just discreet marketing – that slowly brainwashes you into think a product is worth your time and money. There are plenty of artists doing creative things on twitter – Tim Etchells, Kim Noble, Andy Field all use Twitter creatively and i enjoy reading their feeds (and they’re not secretly after our money either) but I don’t see why organisations have to follow suit. Let’s leave the creativity to the artists and give the arts organisations a break.

  4. Clare Lovell (views posted here are my own not necessarily those of my employer, etc. etc.) Says:

    As a theatre-goer, I’ll say that I think you’ve got it backwards when you say “Unless you are the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Theatre you can not sell a ticket through Twitter”. I’ve certainly bought tickets for shows that I heard about on Twitter. Often – particularly with smaller companies – I’ve ONLY heard about the show on Twitter.

    There’s a huge amount of amazing theatre going on in this country. I receive get things in the post from a lot of them, but that’s hardly ideal. Mailing season brochures means costs for the theatres, clutter for me and an awful lot of trees being cut down for paper. Plenty of them send me emails, but there are limits to the number of emails I can receive, it takes time to read them and to be honest, my inbox is alwasy full to the point of exploding anyway.

    Twitter is my preferred way of keeping on top of what’s being performed around the country. A tweet isn’t a huge time investment; it doesn’t fill your inbox or clutter your coffee table. It just lets you know that there is a show taking place and if it sounds like something you’d be interested in, then there’s more info just behind the url shortener.

    I follow theatres when I’m interested in hearing about their work. If the signal to noise ratio means it’s no longer worth my time to do so, I’ll unfollow them. (@hamps_theatre, I’m looking at you!)

    Anyway, that’s my defence of marketing tweets as a theatre-goer. In my capacity as somebody who updates the Twitter for a fairly big regional theatre, I’m definitely interested in ways of expanding what we use it for, which so far is mostly…

    Asking people for input into our programme – (http://twitter.com/BirminghamRep/status/65718818852446208)

    Competitions – (http://twitter.com/BirminghamRep/status/60368683175911425)

    Quizzes – (http://twitter.com/BirminghamRep/status/25683195105)

    Behind the scenes updates – (http://twitter.com/BirminghamRep/status/55248831436173312)

    Outreach work – (http://twitter.com/BirminghamRep/status/45511453502996480)

    Theatre history – (http://twitter.com/BirminghamRep/status/42925499512659968)

    Silliness – (http://twitter.com/BirminghamRep/status/38262753340690432)

    I’m always open to thoughts on more creative ways of using the account (and enjoyed some of the practical suggestions that came out of the debate started by @publicreviews on the subject). But any suggestion that theatres use Twitter to “take risks” in order to “be creative” has to allow for the fact that I’m accountable to more people when tweeting as @birminghamrep than @clarelovell.

  5. Richard Voyce Says:

    I don’t use Twitter at all, and have never been to the web-site. I use Facebook, and have signed up to a couple of feeds to keep me informed of theatre stuff. However, it is very much one-way traffic. I don’t think Twitter is, for the most part, anything other than one-way traffic for the majority of end-users, but give us some credit for having a brain. If I were to sign up for something that turned out to be nothing more then a marketing channel I’d pretty soon unsubscribe. I’m sure I’m not alone. Twitter isn’t the be-all and end-all of web based communication, but its chief benefit is that it provides bite-sized chunks of information and keeps me up to date, however vicariously. If I want in-depth analysis on a product I’ll get on the web and find an article. If I want to comment, I’ll go somewhere where I can comment. However, I won’t use twitter, as there really is no point for two-way communication.

  6. Amy Says:

    Totally agree that an arts organisation wanting to use Twitter should primarly be using it to engage audiences (exising, new and online audiences) rather than “sell, sell, sell”. The selling of the ticket (or whatever it is you’re “selling”) should be the happy consequence. I think arts marketers on the whole are clued up about engagement (it’s been on the arts agenda for years) and anyone who works in an arts marketing department would say that although the job is to make revenue for the company, there is also an equal commitment to audience development and attracting new audiences (whether this is to the venue / company or online engagement), of which social media now plays an important role.

    I’m not sure whether we can define “who” should be the person / department tweeting on behalf of the org. I tweet (as the company I work for) because I’m the person who was initially interested in it, pioneered the use of it and understood it. I don’t think it particularly matters whether it’s the marketing, comms or outreach who do the job.

    Finally, an arts organisation should be on Twitter because they want to be a Twitter, not because it’s the thing to do and they need to keep up. It’s need be understood and resourced properly in order for it to work well and effectively.

  7. Michelle Says:

    There’s nothing to understand or to “resource”, it basically text messaging. Whomever is using Twitter just need good communication skills and the ability not to act like a drone. We’ve said this before, on Article19, why would anyone want to be involved in a conversation with someone when all the other person does is talk about themselves?

  8. Amy Says:

    @michelle

    The resource issue comes into play when you are opening up a 2 way conversation and I think this is where a lot of arts organisations fall down. It’s one thing to post something on Twitter, but when you open up conversation, someone has to be there to respond – otherwise it’s one way conversation, isn’t it? Most arts orgs don’t have a social media / online community manager – and posting, responding, and managing an organisation’s social media presence is almost becoming a full time job.

  9. The Ballet Bag Says:

    This is a very interesting discussion. In the dance world it’s relatively easy for companies small and large to engage their audiences: via photo albums, juicy backstage blog posts and video content, all of which we have been so starved of, although some organisations would benefit from more training in how to market their links effectively & how to get more traction from them.

    But we imagine that for the theatre this must be an even bigger challenge, given few of these orgs are resident companies? Do any even blog? Are there be any topics of interest they could blog about (or tumblr about – dance photos are a huge success on tumblr) for theatre goers? Just curious as our experience in the dance world seems to be so different.

  10. Nicki Says:

    Very interesting post and debate. I work for a ‘large’ arts organisation and yes, we use Twitter. As others have indicated here, one of the key problems we have is getting other people within the organisation to engage with what we are trying to do on Twitter which is – like everyone else, I imagine – getting as many people as possible to engage with us, give us their thoughts on what we do, share information and, yes, buy tickets. The latter is how we justify the need to have a Twitter account and indeed an active social media presence. We all know a tweet does not (usually) directly equal a ticket sale, but it’s about building up the buzz of a show or a project, and we all want that show or project to do well.

    I think personally Twitter should be used to do this by tweeting a balance of ‘marketing’ messages and more engaging, human-level messages – responding directly to queries, replying to feedback, asking for people’s thoughts and replying, etc; as well as (hopefully) giving the sorts of insights into our shows. etc, that people can’t get anywhere: for example, I have in the past ‘live-tweeted’ from press nights (disclaimer: not during the actual performance, of course!), or rehearsal rooms, and where we can we do a lot of video footage showing behind-the-scenes that people will not get anywhere which we pass on to people via Twitter.

    There are 2 potential problems with this though – one is, as I think Amy said, that doing all this more or less makes social media a full-time job, and most arts organisations I know of do not see social media as something that should be a full-time job. Which is the second problem. It’s hard to get across here, as we’re all obviously Twitter users and familiar with the idea of using the web as two-way comunication tool. That is not the case for many people in the arts, in my experience. I’ve been asked previously why I’m tweeting at an event – “put your phone down”, that sort of thing – and we have to run a lot of our messages by others to make sure we’re nto giving too much away. Of course this is not good when you’re trying to do an off-the-cuff tweet…

    I know it’s US-based, but this article gives an idea of what some of us are up against: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/theater/for-broadway-shows-group-ticket-agents-still-sell-seats.html

    So although I completely agree that we SHOULD be using Twitter as an open dialogue, there are some things that make this harder to do than it might otherwise seem.

    What do people think are solutions here? What should theatre organisations who do not have the budget or time to be doing more creative things (ie Such Tweet Sorrow) be doing – replying to people? Giving more behind the scenes access? Any ideas welcome.

    Also to end my massively long splurge of thoughts (sorry!) I do disagree on one thing: in the best cases Twitter might be about communication and dialogue but there are lots of individuals as well as arts organisations who use it as a marketing tool – from celebs who don’t respond to friends who promote their own personal blogs and shows. I found this post via a tweet from Mark Shenton, and what’s posting a link to something in the hope people may read and engage with it if not a form of marketing? ;)

  11. Michelle Says:

    There’s no need for a “social media manager”, whatever that is. Just act naturally, communicate naturally and ease off on the marketing speak and ticket links. Time is just a matter of personal time management.

    In the past it would have been unthinkable for a student dancer to be able to talk to an established dance company but now they can, anytime they want to. The only problem is the dance company is not listening.

  12. Lenka Says:

    Brilliant article, can’t but agree! From the individual point of view – twitter is helping me in an incredible way to engage with other showbiz folks, teaches me so much and I really have a feel of a community over there. And much more, as I’ve written about it on my blog http://lenkasactingjourney.blogspot.com/2011/08/twelper.html

    But again, you can see how actors use it differently – some of them fall for the marketing way of using it and make it all about themselves, whereas other use it as a way of communicating with others, sharing tips and overall the ultimate resource – and probably the fastest one.

  13. Kyle Says:

    I’d have to agree with the comment above above twitter not being a medium that lends itself to conversation. At least outside of a one-to-one exchange. The whole point of want to have an engaging conversation with one’s audience is being /seen/ to be having those conversations. Unfortunately, twitter makes this very difficult, except, as was suggested above, the user has one of the many clients available.

    Also, coming from inside an theatre, I can understand why the marketing department, and management in general, are reluctant to allow others within the organisation free reign on twitter. If they are allowed to go beyond simple marketing messages, they fear that one day someone will say the wrong thing. Arts organisations are torn between wanting to appear as an entity comprised of it’s individuals, and at the same time as presenting themselves as consistant brands. This is why organisations employ social media managers. But their task should be to guide and embody the brand’s values allowing the individuals in the organisation to make good use of social networking.

  14. Kate Rose Says:

    My first reaction here is to agree with Claire Lovell and Aaron above – I personally use Twitter as my main information source, and I have seen a number of productions where Twitter sold me the ticket. I don’t have the time to go and check each theatre’s website regularly, and most of the time I don’t get around to reading emailers, even though I’m interested. So hearing “X is on tonight” on an evening I have free, is pretty much the only time I end up going.
    For me, that is *sufficient* reason for an arts org to be on Twitter. That said, I also agree that more thought needs to be given to what else Twitter can do – the two way dialogue, longer term relationship building with advocates, and “behind the scenes” insights – than shows up in a lot of “corporate” arts feeds. Those are the areas where time and resource pressures (and often high staff turnover in poorly paid or unpaid roles) make things really challenging.

  15. The Love Bites Plays (Katy) Says:

    I agree in principle with your view but do feel that twitter deserves a bit more credit than you give: ‘I sometimes wish that I could reinvent Twitter and give everyone a chance to find something creative within the messages’

    The very nature of twitter is that it is a self-selecting process – users simply won’t follow organisations that use it as a marketing tool as opposed to a two way dialogue, if it is not to their personal preference.

    After setting up @lovebitesplays we have found twitter not only an invaluable way to engage with our audiences, but feel it has given us an equitable voice which we may not otherwise have across other media due to the size of our organisation.

    We also use twitter as a news source. It is a great way for organisations to get a snap shot of what is going on in the industry and gauging opinion.

    It is one thing to break down the barriers by the mantra ‘organisations don’t tweet, people do’ but sometimes I find twitter pages from organisations that go out of their way to have an overly social /quirky tone to be as patronising as the direct marketing approach.
    Either way, an important debate, thank you for raising.

  16. Elliot Roberts Says:

    I can certainly see the benefits to using Twitter, particularly for small Arts Organisations however I find Twitter to be overrated as a medium. I’m not sure that I can agree with your generalization about the users of Twitter “Twitter folk are those that are clearly connected to the world, they are a slight cut above your average audiences because they at least understand how the internet and engagement work on this social media platform” as unless I have misunderstood your use of the term audiences I think the idea that Twitter users are by default “a slight cut above” to be favoring the medium too much. Also when Twitter is referred to as connecting people to the world I think it should be remember that it only connects those who use Twitter to people within certain ‘bubbles’ of interest, by nature people will predominantly link themselves with likeminded people. Which is great but it isn’t the same as engaging the wider world in discourse.

    Recently I was at a performance by a small but growing theatre company who encouraged the audience to tweet during the performance to express their feelings about the work as it happened. On the one hand I appreciate the importance of Social Media hype to their publicity as a company but I question the kind of behavior this instills within an audience. Firstly I would expect these tweets to be a particular kind of reactionary response, which tends to polarize their reaction to a piece and also on a larger scale could there be concerns that this encouragement might reduce an audience members attention span. I realize that theatre should if done well leave an audience little room for boredom but the idea that you might instantly tweet your damnation of the piece without giving it your attention and patience seems like the wrong attitude to theatre.

    There are good point and bad points, Twitter is just a medium and is therefore only as good as the content it facilitates.

  17. USA Twitter Says:

    Stop using Twitter? Umm..yeah. Good move there. The arts need social media to survive. Of course, some are gonna do it better than others. But stop? Come on. Get a reality check. If groups can’t use it correctly, guess what…people will stop following. Simple as that.

    Maybe you need to check out some innovative uses of social media in the USA arts.

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