From viral memes to working socially, social media is more than just good communications, according to Abhay Adhikari, digital engagement specialist for arts and culture organisations.
In an article first published on the Guardian Culture Professionals Network, he promotes the idea of “Working Socially” and highlights how cultural organisations and museums can benefit. Abhay is presenting two digital seminars for the Guardian’s Network in mid-October covering How to create an engaging and effective digital campaign and How to establish and amplify your voice on digital platforms.
Abhay Adhikari, digital engagement specialist for arts and culture organisations
Hi Abhay, could you tell us a little bit about you and your work around digital and social media?
I am a digital engagement specialist. Basically, I help people and organisations create the appropriate voice and context for using social media to run campaigns, identify collaborators, find new audiences and create new forms of interaction via arts projects. I have worked on a handful of ACE funded commissions, with Channel 4 and British Council Arts.
How effective are arts and culture organisations at using social media to communicate with audiences?
From a theatre performance to an exhibition, arts and culture organisations are brilliant at telling stories, and some are using social platforms to do it, and to great effect. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Connections project is a fascinating example of taking standard audience engagement – in this case people being able to see the artworks and artefacts in the museum – and enhancing that level of communication by making it social and interactive online.
What could organisations be doing better?
One of the common drawbacks with an organisation's social media use is that the definition of the audience is often limited to the same old demographics, in the sense that a theatre will often only reach out to audiences interested in theatre.
On top of that, social engagement is limited to consuming information (you click a link on Twitter or watch a video on YouTube) – the fundamental problem is that engagement ceases when the action stops. The onus of continuing engagement lies with the organisation to keep that conversation going, but it can often be a very expensive and resource heavy approach. Just think how many of your followers you'd need to follow up on each time they clicked on one of your listings.
What we need to do is create the context for audiences to examine their relationship with the message or product by participating in a truly collaborative and improvised activity. The Exquisite Forest is a fantastic example of this because regardless of technical or aesthetic ability, everyone can take part and shape the direction of this project without fear of judgement.
But it's important to remember that the answer doesn't always have to be new technology. Just think about internet memes – using minimal resources you can broadcast to the whole world, across various backgrounds and ages. Memes show that genuine engagement isn't about technology but about the ability to deconstruct ideas and make them more inclusive.
Does social media offer arts organisations more than just a communications tool – how else can social media be used to their advantage?
A lot of arts organisations use social media to communicate – you deliver a message (marketing, sales, listings, articles), it gets shared and you maybe interact with those who answer. What a lot of arts professionals don't realise is that social media can be used for a lot more – it's also a really valuable problem solving resource, and the next big step for organisations is using social media to co-create. For a fundamentally creative industry, that's quite profound.
Most culture professionals are accustomed to bringing new systems and processes in outside sectors, experts and so on. Social media gives them unprecedented access to a community of experts who they can actively engage with to co-create new ideas and find solutions to genuine problems. With a constant squeeze on the sector, social media can also be used to share resources – that includes knowledge, skills and even physical assets.
What are the inherent problems for arts organisations around social media?
Most of the problems are to do with the negative perceptions of social media, which are often based on stories in mainstream media that highlight spectacular failures online.
Some might be reluctant to engage with social media and social platforms because they're considered to be conducive to dumbing down content, and this often creates tensions between senior management and employees working to implement new digital ideas and projects.
At an individual level, it's about a fear of being inundated by information, the loss of control over one's privacy and the blurring of boundaries between a person's professional and personal lives, all of which may have negative outcomes.
You'll be delivering two digital seminars in October for members of the Culture Professionals Network – can you tell us a bit more about what those two seminars are about?
The seminars are based on my experiences of problem solving and developing digital strategies for arts practitioners and organisations over the past eight years. Most workshops on digital engagement broadly fall into two categories: those that excite people about the possibilities of going online and those that instruct people on how to carry out basic operational tasks. So while you might know how to get things done, you don't necessarily know what to do.
There's nothing more stressful than trying to communicate your ideas, thoughts and what you want to do – without context – into a box on the screen with a mere 140 characters at your disposal.
The October seminars take a more pragmatic approach to digital engagement. The starting point for these sessions isn't technology but ideas. And we'll take a reflective approach to learn how to share and talk about ideas online with the intention of getting things done by involving others. The seminars aren't about telling people how to do their jobs online, it's about helping them bridge the divide between the physical and digital, on their own terms.
What practical skills can arts professionals expect to learn from these?
The focus of the seminars is on creating a sustainable online presence and digital engagement strategy. The sessions will help arts practitioners define a unique voice, context and identity that they can apply to create a profile on any social media website that suits their individual and organisational needs.
Very often arts professionals have to manage more than one project at a time. So the seminars will introduce strategies to create multiple digital identities. They will also introduce essential skills such as curating and moderating digital content while running a campaign.
Participants will also be able to start conversations with others online and in the process learn how to build communities and get access to the right people. And finally, we'll also look at a range of free websites and tools that can be used to implement, manage and measure the effectiveness of their campaigns online.
Your seminars promote the idea of a 'Working Socially'. What do you mean by that and how does it translate to and arts organisation or museum?
Working Socially is about creating a reflective approach to using social media to focus on all three strands of engagement I mentioned - sharing, listening and co-creation. For arts organisations and museums this means no longer looking at social media as a marketing tool. It's about creating a culture that encourages all practitioners to create a digital identity not only to share knowledge but communicate their passion, commitment and enthusiasm for the arts. Through this they can developed a shared responsibility to create sustainable, relevant and meaningful engagement.
Can you give us any examples of venues or museums you've worked with before? What were the outcomes?
I developed and implemented a digital campaign strategy to promote a 3-day classical music festival hosted by an independent record label. The festival has been running for several years and was keen to attract younger audience. The online engagement helped us achieve 69,000 unique impressions on Twitter within a short space of time. This had real impact on physical attendance.
There was also a substantial year-on-year increase across new demographics – younger college students and families from the host city as well as the neighbouring region. We also developed a voluntary hyperlocal micro-blogging team that live-reported the event, providing authentic and high quality commentary. The increased visibility and higher turnout had a lasting impact on the festival organisation. I will talk about this example and various other case studies in-depth during the seminar.