Note from Beth: I had pleasure of facilitating a panel discussion in October at the recent Grantmakers in the Arts pre-conference on technology and media with Rory MacPherson and Jai Sen from Sen Associates where I learned about some of the preliminary findings from the study below they undertook. The full report was published this week and Rory and Mary Trudel agreed to do a guest post summarizing what they learned. I thought the points about measurement were right on and applies to other types of nonprofits.
National Study Reveals: Digital and Social Media Are Delivering for Arts Organizations, Guest Post by Mary Trudel and Rory MacPherson
Just over a year ago, we asked ourselves a question: How are arts organizations using digital and social media, and what sorts of results are they getting?
Many of our clients and fellow consultants working in nonprofits and in the arts were approaching the same question from different angles. But, try as we might, we couldn’t find any research that looked at arts groups’ adoption and attitudes toward digital and social media nationally that also asked all-important questions about how groups are measuring what they’re doing.
We were seeing examples of amazing results and also groups who were struggling to catch up on all the latest developments. A few things were common to both: no one (even those who were successful) had a clear picture of why they were succeeding, how to sustain the good results, or how their efforts and results compared with others’. Questions of measurement, ROI, and how to set goals and define success were plaguing everyone.
How to analyze a moving target?
As readers of this blog well know, digital and social media can be difficult to keep up with. Society at large is still trying to figure them out and understand the implications of this level and type of connectedness.
We could tell that some of the confusion and resistance we were seeing around adoption was due to organizations’ inability to look past the technological nature of these new channels. Arts organizations are not alone in this. But what sorts of hurdles are arts groups facing in terms of human resources and management attitudes, and which channels are working for them? What are they learning from their experiments?
From these questions, our national study, How Strong is Your Social Net? was created.
We were surprised, overwhelmed, and delighted at the level of response to our project. We started with 47 conveners we selected around the country–regional, state, and local arts agencies and membership associations, whom we asked to invite their member organizations to take our survey. The purpose of this invitation-only phase of the research was to make sure we were getting representation from around the country, and not just the coasts and major urban areas. We opened up the survey to all arts organizations in August.
By the time we closed the survey in September, we were up to 1,601 respondents nationally. Almost 80% of respondents completed the entire 26-qestion survey (all questions were optional) and more than 1/3 provided their contact information, expressing interest in having us follow up with them.
The key question we asked is whether digital and social media are delivering on their promise and the hype. Just over 70% of our respondents, a majority, said “yes.”
What we learned: a snapshot
- The panic is over! Arts organizations have turned the corner of being daunted by (or resistant to adopting) digital and social media, and have entered a phase of experimenting and optimizing. More than 2/3 of our respondents report that their management is “excited” about digital communications. The majority of respondents feel their digital and social efforts are effective (80%) and up to date (79%).
- Arts organizations are realizing that using digital media is not ultimately about getting into technology: it’s about using new channels to communicate and share what they already know best. As Robert Stein, Deputy Director for Research, Technology, and Engagement at the Indianapolis Museum of Art told us, “Museums have tended to use [websites] as extensions of marketing.” But as digital media matures as a tool for cultural organizations, groups are using it as a gateway to connect people with art. Stein has found “the highest levels of engagement tend to revolve around content. Content drives engagement for online audiences in social media.”
- Budgets and geography are not a constraint to innovation. More than half of our respondents are associated with organizations with operating budgets under $500,000, and we are seeing interesting activity all over the country. For example, Alberta Bair Theater in Billings, Montana told us they have found ways to use digital tools to cultivate their neighborly spirit and are having success promoting events online. The theater’s Marketing and Box Office Director, Jody Olson, observes: “ticket sales spike immediately when a digital message is sent out.”
- Respondents report that they are achieving meaningful results with digital media in building live participation in events; developing fan networks; fundraising; and ticket sales. We discovered that fundraising is the biggest hurdle, but our respondents nevertheless cited many successes in their efforts to raise money online, and we found more than a few stellar examples. A case in point is Georgia Shakespeare. This theater organization faced closure due to shortfalls in public and private funding. Its managing director issued an appeal on Facebook to save the company and raised $150,000 in two weeks from over 1,000 people all over the U.S. who had been connected to the theater at some point in the past. The donations ranged from $3.77 (users donating the price of a beer at a performer’s request) to $50,000 (a foundation grant).
- There is still a ways to go in some areas, particularly in integrating digital media into holistic communications policy; clarity of ownership of responsibility for digital communications within the organization; techniques of measurement; and acceptance of digital and social platforms as two-way communications tools. Still, in all these areas, we’re seeing positive trends, growth, and emerging best practices that organizations are eager to share with the field. Arts organizations are adopting formal social media policies and most of our respondents’ organizations (70.7%) encourage their staff to use digital media to promote the organization.
- Arts organizations are measuring…sort of. Most respondents are at least using Google Analytics or similar tools to look at web traffic, and they’re counting fans and followers, but there is no clear path to measuring influence, engagement, and interaction.
There’s more, of course. We’d love for you to have a look at our results and join the discussion. We’ve posted our summary report on our website, where all are welcome to ask questions, start discussions, and comment on our findings. Over the course of the coming year, we’ll be profiling organizations that are doing exceptional things as part of the content we’re developing around what we learned with this study.
In fact, we collected so much data that we’ll continue to analyze it over the next several months, doing deep dives into particularly interesting numbers and doing cross-tab analyses of responses by arts discipline, geography, and other factors, and hope to build a community of interest around this topic.
What’s your take on the use of digital and social media in the arts? Do you know of any stellar examples, or groups who have struggled to get results? Let us know what you think.
Mary Trudel and Rory MacPherson are co-principals of Trudel | MacPherson Arts Consulting. Trudel | MacPherson developed and fielded the How Strong is Your Social Net? study in partnership with digital media consultancy Sen Associates.