Published on Thursday 12 May 2016

Adrian Debattista, Research Associate at Arts Council Malta, offers a few insights on the possibilities offered by social media to the marketing strategies of arts organisations

"Though it may not seem obvious at first, social media and theatre have a lot in common. Both are communal experiences based on a give-and-take relationship, in which one person is performer while the other is spectator."— Jeremy Gable, playwright and actor

Developments in digital technologies are changing relationships between cultural consumers and producers via two-way channels of communication and interaction. Still, some arts organisations tend to view such developments as potential threats to their “safe” business model that might rely on methods that might have been effective at a time when the so-called “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” were still a minority[1].

Such organisations might have the desire to preserve their status as entities endowed with the knowledge, expertise and cultural capital that remains uncontested - which was possible back when the digital space was limited to the once-traditional websites with little to no expectation of interaction from their users. However consumers now have a platform where they can create and publish content while articulating their opinions to a wider audience without the need of extensive resources. The digital element has become a significant component of the overall audience experience that is on offer- its absence is also prone to result in some form of impact.

This importance is reflected at policy level and in its growing research interest. A case in point is the EU Work Plan for Culture 2015-2018 that aims to map the “digital shift” on audience development and the Special Eurobarometer for Cultural Access and Participation carried out in 2013, where ‘Use of the internet for cultural purposes’ is singled out for analysis. In this sense, at a local level, public entities such as Arts Council Malta and the Valletta 2018 Foundation could provide basis for further research into this topic.

However we do hope that more researchers and academics will be interested in analysing different aspects of this digital shift in the cultural sector. This shift can be implemented in different facets of the running of an organisation, among which programming and creation (e.g. live streaming of a theatre production), operations, business models (e.g. digital fundraising) and marketing. In this respect the below is primarily aimed to introduce social media, specifically in terms of its marketing aspect, which may interest both arts organisations and researchers alike.

Social Media in Arts Marketing: Focus on Facebook

According to local market research company Icon, Facebook is the most used social media platform by local marketers in Malta at a rate of 95.3%. It could then be asserted that it is likely to be also the most popular platform among local arts organisations. 2015 also saw Facebook opening up new opportunities for non-profit organisations which can be relevant to local arts organisations, as observed by Culture Republic. With this in mind, the below will focus on Facebook and how it can support the marketing strategies of arts organisations based on research conducted by Hausmann and Poellmann (2013)[2] for performing arts organisations. These uses were grouped in four areas:

Promotion and Communication:

As Facebook posts are brief pieces of information appearing on a user’s newsfeed for short periods of time, constant activity is necessary. It is recommended that posts are balanced between being illustrated announcements and background information; nevertheless they should contain relevant information which the target audience would be interested in. This should not just be about selling - but about communication and relationships. As messages are more varied the selling ones become more appealing. While this is deemed to be cost-effective, there have been reports that organic reach for posts (reach for which there was no payment) has declined over recent years. This has led to more Facebook page owners investing in more adverts or boosted posts. Meanwhile as users can interact directly with the content posted, constant following up of comments by followers is needed to show attention to what they are saying. In the case of annual festivals this can be effective to maintain an active presence even beyond the festival period. For instance the Melbourne Writers’ Festival ensure their Facebook page is active all year round by posting links to past festival performances, programme activities and competitions in the months leading up to or following the festival. The months preceding the festival they provide information on the programme’s progress or snippets on forthcoming events[3].

Word of Mouth:

 In this context we are talking about electronic word of mouth (eWOM) which is characterised by its capacity for high information diffusion, since information is spread online at high speed with very low costs of distribution when considering the awareness potentially created. This is primarily facilitated by the ‘share’ function on Facebook leading to content being spread to an unrestricted number of individuals. Indeed such content carries with it high credibility as Hannah Carroll, Marketing Officer at Birmingham Museums Trust stated in an article published on Arts Professional: “in the era of social media, simply letting people talk is an increasingly powerful marketing tool. Visitors will always believe the opinion of their friends and peers over that of journalists.” She further described how they dedicated an event to bloggers for the opening of an attraction at the Museum and Art Gallery in 2015 that generated so much “buzz” on social media that they are planning a programme of bloggers’ events for 2016.

Market Research and Innovation Management:

 Social media analytics tools such as Facebook Insights or more specialised ones like Hootsuite can be used to measure message reach, impressions, interaction rate and content analysis amongst other indicators. Furthermore online questionnaires can be posted on the ‘wall’ or sent as a message, for instance to gain feedback on audience experience right after an event.  Comments of followers can be analysed to identify new ideas and support the process of innovation management in the arts organisations. Followers can be stimulated to make suggestions for example by forms of rewards or recognition. More information on how an organisation can measure social media activity to fit its objectives is provided by Culture24.

Reputation Management:

On Facebook, dialogue with the target audience can happen at a rapid rate allowing for instant reactions and also complaints. This means that there is the possibility to monitor the online reputation and avert publicity mishaps by being responsive to negative feedback and queries in a constructive manner. It is to be noted that other followers can notice the level of effort an organisation invests in dealing with such concerns. Also the ‘response rate’ badge indicates how responsive an organisation is to private messages which can further contribute positively or negatively to reputation. Ideally having the aim should be towards having a “very responsive to messages” badge, making private interaction with followers affect public perception. Also if an organisation maintains contact with experts and discuss with them topics on its wall helps in increasing reputation and trust.

Furthermore, according to recent research, Facebook has now replaced Google as a primary source for news online. This is interesting given that the 2013 Eurobarometer showed that Maltese citizens’ top two reasons for the use of internet for cultural purposes are to ‘read newspaper articles online’ and ‘searching for information on cultural products or events’. Also this is akin to the pattern presented on average by the EU. It is then high time that local arts organisations become more aware of the possibilities offered by social media especially Facebook, beyond just taking note of the number of ‘likes’ or views garnered.

[1] Luoma-aho, V. (2015). Understanding Stakeholder Engagement: Faith-holders, Hateholders & Fakeholders. Research Journal of the Institute for Public Relations , 2 (1).
[2] Hausmann, A., & Poellmann, L. (2013). Using social media for arts marketing: theoretical analysis and empirical insights for performing arts organizations. International Review on Public and Nonprofit Marketing , 10 (2), 143-161.
[3] Hede, A.M. (2013) . Arts Marketing and Web 2.0-Based Audience Development Initiatives, in The Routledge Companion to Arts Marketing ed. Daragh O'Reilly , Ruth Rentschler and Theresa A. Kirchner . Routledge.