Should Arts Organisations Use Twitter?

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