Not another fucking blog post about how theatres should use twitter.

Image shared by _blank [AT] null66913 on flickr via Creative Commons **

This is not another fucking blog post about how theatres should use twitter. This is a reaction to a small notion in a recent Graun theatre blog post by Lyn Gardner where she discuses the struggling London Fringe, and quotes Rebecca Atkinson-Lord of Oval House as saying that “There is now so much noise from social media that people just switch off and don’t listen any more”. It’s a safe assumption that by ‘social media’ we’re talking ‘Facebook, Twitter, and probably some copyrighted un-remixable images and video on Youtube and Flickr’ (Oh Snap). This is not a dig at Oval House, or Rebecca, just an argument drawn out of that sentiment about ‘noise’ across social media. What’s ‘noise’? Well it just so happens I’m in my last few weeks of three years of studying digital culture and its effects on theatre and I’ve read a few things about the Information Age and all that, I have a definition:

Noise is data without context.
Information is data with it.

What theatre social media accounts (for the most part) offer is noise. Spam, if you like. If it’s not couched in context, it’s not relevant or interesting, it’s not information, it’s noise*. Endless positive review RTs, the same show info again and again. Frozen smiles conjured  by relentlessly positive and chirpy updates, and the likelihood that some poor intern or official office ‘young person’ has been sat in front of the computer and given pre-approved content to whittle down to 140 characters. Noise. It’s not the audience’s fault that’s all you deliver.

We don’t live in the information age. We live in a noisy data-ridden one. Our lives are noisier and noisier, and only through tools like personalisation are we able to filter it back into information. By ‘personalisation’ I mean things like subscribing to people you like on twitter, and getting your information via word of mouth and recommendation and WAIT A MINUTE. THIS IS JUST LIKE HOW PEOPLE ACTED IN THE OLDEN DAYS.

*You can be clever here and talk about the pleasure in noise and noise-art like that of Cage and the Beats, or the non-sense of the Dada movement but that’s always couched in the context of the frame of art – it’s about enframing ‘noise’ to turn it back into beauty/art/information/a re-revelation of the things that daily effect us/a writhing in the pleasure of nothingness, all of which is a context, whether you like it or not. So ner.

I have a question for you:

Who told us these places were going to sell tickets?
Who told us these spaces were good places to try and sell things at all?

Because the act of selling is out of date.
Gone. Going, not dead, but dying.

Because the act of selling is based on a broadcast ‘push’ model of communication that is increasingly irrelevant, when to even be able to tread water in this storm of data we need to be able to hold on to things, ‘pull’ things in context, to pick out information, filter it. I’ll throw some caveats around at the end about how not everyone who goes to the theatre is done with broadcast yet, but if you’re complaining that social media isn’t working for you as a marketing tool, please please ask yourself ‘who said that it should’? Stop using it as a marketing tool. Just stop it.

Some big commercial brands get this. They may present the big clean monolith, out front, but they’re also paying kids to be ‘brand ambassador’s, to mention a certain food or clothing brand to their mates. I frequently get emails and tweets asking for a blog post or RT about some event or other. Usually in return for a free ticket. If you follow me because you’re interested in what I have to say, you might even have been interested in it, most of the time it is actually stuff I would be genuinely interested in. I always say no, though. Where’s my morality medal? What do you mean they don’t make them? Point is, marketing, now, is about corrupting the flow of information. Supplanting data in context. That might sound evil. It kind of is. It’s about manipulating people. Same as stories. We’re all lying. Just sometimes we let people in on the fact (like when we stand on a stage). And sometimes it’s done for things we really believe in, like the arts, or a charity. Hopefully as a marketeer/theatre person you’ve probably dealt with that. The heart of marketing is to change behaviour, to corrupt data, and we do that through 2 of types of manipulation – through architecture (form), and through what you put in it (content). Content we get. Form is something theatre marketing people don’t seem to have grasped yet.

This is a different space, space is important, we shape it but it also shapes us. McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’ (pdf) should still be ringing in all of our ears; it doesn’t matter what you say, how you say it is the important bit, he said. What one train carried wasn’t half so important as the way the infrastructure changed our society. What one spam email contains, or another heartfelt explanation from an ex-lover – it’s one and the same to society, which is actually shaken by the new concept of instantaneous cross-global written communication and how this reorders everything from our relationships to our economy.

The data/information/digital age is changing our behaviour; how we communicate, and how we expect to interact. Using broadcast or ‘brochure copy’ techniques in online spaces won’t find you new audiences (OH HAI EVERY THEATRE WEBSITE EVER); it’s like standing in a crowded pub full of strangers and announcing your good reviews or the fact that you can now book tickets, even if anyone’s listening, they don’t care. And because these online spaces are becoming such a large part of people’s lives, they work less well in real life, too.

So we live in a ‘global village’ (or more accurately, a ‘global gated community’, if you take into account access, that phrase is robbed from Whybrow’s Art and the City, I think), what that means is what is effective, is gossip. Marketing has never worked so well as word of mouth, that’s why reviews were important, and that’s why, now, we filter our information through people we like or are interested in.

Interesting things are shared. There are some good examples of online social media presences being less than dull; the well-publicised BetFair Poker twitter account brought them into all manner of people’s consciousnesses by being, well, funny. Telling stories and being ridiculous in a not-at-all-related-to-poker way. The video trail for the iOS platform indie game Sword and Sworcery game is bloody brilliant, mostly because it tells you not to play the game, and Arcade Fire’s various online jaunts from the Wilderness Downtown to that video which you could control by waving your arm about are way more interesting than their actual songs, which don’t contain nearly enough screaming for my taste. Problem is, these things work because no one had done them (prominently) before. It’s that ‘newness’ thing, which is the easy version of ‘word of mouth’, not ‘this is cool’ but ‘this is new’. And also, all of these things are stuff you can take action on from your desk chair/bus seat/sofa; buy an album, play some poker, download a game. Good marketing.

I recently started a new performance night in a city where there’s pretty much nothing in terms of a local fringe or DIY theatre scene. I’m doing everything from programming, to tech, admin, marketing, design, compering. I’m learning a lot of lessons. The first one, and the one I’m continuing to learn is that marketing is hard. None of it really works. Not the broadcast stuff. All the print and posters and attempts at amusing tweets and Facebook updates in the world mean nothing compared to a friend dragging you along and finding out that actually, this stuff isn’t that boring, actually, it’s kind of good.

Word of mouth is the rule, and curation is how we manage the noise of it.

We need some joined-up thinking, here, we need a place where you can subscribe to information usefully, somewhere that links up to instant ticket buying then and there, where you can opt in to information by individual organisation, location, things your mates are going to, or an amazon-style recommendation system (for what it’s worth, Seth Honnor and I are on that, writing the funding application, hopefully someone will give us some money soon and we’ll start proper development.) That’s how we deal with the content bit. By either allowing people a way to filter and manage the information we want to give about tickets and start times on their own terms (control) and linking it to the actions we want them to take (ticketing, or giving us their data), or being an interesting person, online, who is also a member of the building or company in question (awareness, conversation). See Erica Whyman, Matthew Sutherland, Jon Spooner, Alex Kelly, Andy Field, Rachel Kaye, Jane Earnshaw, Alan Lane, Clare Lovell for a range of venue and company sizes and approaches on that.

There’s also another way of looking at it. The form one. Here’s another thing I’ve been working on over the past year, Stories from an Invisible Town. It’s in very early public beta so very rough around the edges, but it’s important, I think, because it’s looking differently about how you take the feel of a company’s work online. If you’re interested, I’ve been filling a blog with the whole process, and there’s my final report up there for anyone to download, with all the learning we’ve taken from it. But here’s a useful snippet:

Audiences for the most part are now better considered participants. You can determine the level of interaction you want to employ, but know that it has to be a conscious and considered choice, think ‘why’, always. Why interact? Would they come back? Why should they care? Can I talk to them in a more relevant (to story-world or audience-member) way? The greater the input invited, the less the direct authorial control, the role of author might become more like curator or director of photography, or the task might even become massively authorial; the writing of several pieces of dialogue for every non-­‐player character in a whole game world. The important point of reflection is that the relationship between audience and author is no longer typically one thing. Who they both are, the story being told, and the platform it’s being told on all need to shape the techniques used. (me, 2012)

Think about form, please. And think about it starting with your audience, I don’t mean ‘make things for the lowest common denominator’ I mean thinking about the space you design, the experience. I’ve been an ‘active evaluator’ working alongside Hoipolloi to develop this online space that allows people to experience the universe of their stage experience. Simon’s quite open about it being a marketing as well as a creative project, which some might balk at, but seen on a large scale so is the theatre we make, in that we want to make things for people to engage with. Anyway, this space is being developed as a place for people to explore the online version of Hugh Hughes’ childhood, the same thing the live show of SFAIT explores. I’ve been working alongside them on a lot of the thought around interaction design, which I’ve developed into the following mantra:

  • Why interact
  • Why continue to interact?
  • Why come back?

(You could ask similarly of your content; Why care? Why continue to care? Why pass it on?)

I’m not trying to plug this site, it’s an ongoing piece of work, it’s just I think that lesson on interaction design is one of the best things we can take to formal re-thinkings which are just beginning in the theatre world. I’m trying to share where our thinking is at. The SFAIT site might not result in new audiences or ticket shows for the IRL show, it’s an experiment.

Hoipolloi has taken full advantage of the unique circumstances we find ourselves in and have used Hugh Hughes as strong character to build our digital work around. For other companies, I’d recommend spending time thinking about what their own unique circumstances are and how they might utilise these most effectively in the digital world. Is there a great personality within the organisation to act as a digital figurehead? Is there another approach that would pull the digital activity together in a neat strand? I think it’s about being as creative as possible, not being limited by a view that digital and online activity is just marketing only. (Bedford, 2012: appendix a)

There’s loads of formally inventive work reacting to the changes in society being wrought by information/noise/data/global age/village; ConeyCircumstanceInvisible FlockThird Angel, Non Zero One, Hide & Seek, Chris Goode & Company; in both form and content. It’s time for us to extend that into how we think about how we talk about and share the work. That’s all I wanted to say. Just that.

Caveats:

CAVEAT 1: sometimes people do want straight up traditional information such as ‘when does the show start’, ‘how much do tickets cost’, ‘how do I find you’, ‘what is literally happening’. Have that account if you want it. Dedicate it to providing that information, explain the intent in the biog and do so actively. Don’t wait for directed questions, search your Theatre name/show name/company name  regularly for people talking about you but not to you and if it’s appropriate get involved in the conversation. Two years ago I was complaining on Twitter about my ISP, I couldn’t get through to anyone useful on the phone and so was moaning over 3G about it. I didn’t mention them actively (@), but they had obviously searched their name and so replied to me asking what was the problem, and their online customer service team solved it. I since take all my problems through the twitter account and it’s always faster and helpful. Through the publishing of conversational content, twitter and other public social media allow companies and buildings to offer a pre- and after- sales service like never before.

CAVEAT 2: This is another fucking conversation about theatre marketing between theatre interested people. Have we asked our audiences? Have we asked people who aren’t already in them? Have you asked people how they want to receive information? Have you given them the option to share things? Have you given them a space to curate and collect the bits they are actually interested in? Have you listened to them? Have you found the right questions? Have you tested the answers you think you have to them?

CAVEAT 3: some people still look forward to getting a brochure in the post, read it from cover to cover, and then block book their tickets. Some people still pick up flyers, fold them up, and take them home in their pocket. These people continue to exist. There’s just fewer of them, eventually, and currently, not enough.

CAVEAT 4: measurement and investment. We need to give time to evaluate whole processes properly so we can present case studies in new laboratory methods. We need to invest in good people and enough time to find the right questions, and test our answers. We need space to fail, as well as succeed. There is a sense that public subsidy doesn’t allow for this. It should. Let’s tell them that.

CAVEAT 5: This marks a specific threat to marketing infrastructures, marketing people, in fact. I know. And I’m sorry.

CAVEAT 6: Actually, it’s totally up to you how you use Twitter and stuff.

** fun fact, the image, though of static (an anachronism for noise, now, really) is also a Phonautogram by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, of the first known sound recording of a human voice. That woman singing Clair de la Lune that made the radio 4 woman laugh so much. This is like a triple whammy of proving my noise/context/changing communication infrastructure points, and I am Well Proud of myself for it.

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2 Responses to “Not another fucking blog post about how theatres should use twitter.”

  1. Rachel Kaye July 11, 2012 at 8:21 pm #

    Lots of things to think about here….

    And I’m glad you said that, that marketing is hard, because its true and times seem tough across the board right now.

    Arts marketing seems to be go through some big (albeit slow) changes, partly because of digital (and how big those changes are depends I guess on what sort of organisation and audiences yr working with).

    For me, personally, online, digital, social media seem significant in they they offer a two way channel of communication (like talking to people, which is also a good one). And we’re still, really, no where near harnessing the power of that, maybe its because these are organisations and functions who are more used to talking at people?

    And, yes, very much, word of mouth. I’m getting more into the idea of ‘ambassadors’ (for want of a better word); people other than you who go out and spread the word into the places you want to get to. But it’s got to be handled with care, because integrity matters, immensely. And if yr an organisation promoting the work of relatively unknown artists then yr integrity/curation and reputation matters even more.

    In terms of limited innovation and a fall back into push marketing methods resourcing and performance metrics play a massive part. The bigger relationship building/perception shifting, tangential parts of the job are slow burners – building communities, changing reactions to yr city or artform – and when push comes to shove they are they are often pitted against more immediate sales generating activity (even though you know one feeds into the other).

  2. Hannah Nicklin July 11, 2012 at 9:06 pm #

    Hi Rach, thanks loads for the comment, really glad you pulled up the importance of taking care of your audiences, through curation and the offer you might put out to ‘ambassadors’ or whatever we want to call them, I’m fiercely protective of the Performance in the Pub audience for that reason. I only want to show them the best. Because I need to earn their trust.

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