When They Don't Notice: The Implications of Omitting the Arts from General Interests

Tom H.C. Anderson of Anderson Analytics was kind enough to respond to my request to speak to him regarding his company's survey on social media demographics. This was the survey that suggested that the arts are not important to social media users. We talked for a while, and Anderson was helpful and informative. On some level the information that he provided was a comfort, but ultimately it left me upset. It is not the survey's conclusions that imply that "social media users just don't care about the arts." It was the survey's very design which indicates that the arts aren't considered among the things that people might find interesting. Anderson explained that the respondents on the survey were online panelists who signed up to take the survey. 1,000 individuals were surveyed every month for eleven months, and then 5,000 were surveyed in May, prior to the data analysis and subsequent release. Respondents were aged 13 and up. The survey was designed to assist all Anderson Analytics clients (i.e. for-profit, commercial businesses) in target marketing via social media, and used past client-specific surveys as a loose template.

The survey was divided into three categories, each of which asked respondents to rate activities and interests based on how much time these individuals spend investigating them online.

Initially my reaction was "Great! This does not mean that these people are UNINTERESTED in the arts, but they may not consider the web as the best way to get their information." Personally, I would rate my interest in theater as quite high, but if I were to consider how "much time I investigate it online," that rating would be much lower.

Then I thought, ok, well let's look at how the arts were presented to these respondents, and see what specific interests they were rating.

Here is the extent to which art of any kind made it onto the survey. Under the heading "Hobbies" were the choices Photography and Arts and Crafts. Under the heading "Entertainment" were Music, Movies, TV and Theater/Concerts.

...And that's it.

Okay, ignore, for a moment, the upsetting fact that Theater is considered equivalent to Concerts or that Photography is only considered a "Hobby."

Where is Dance or Opera or the Symphony or Museums or Galleries or Painting...just to name a few?

Not to mention that lumping Theater and Concerts together is as absurd as if Anderson Analytics had combined, under "Health and Wellness," the headings Golf and Spa or Sex (yes, a choice on the survey) and Tennis. I doubt that Golf and Spa would ever be a category on such a survey--because people "get" that they could love golf while not being a big spa fan. Apparently, it is not so obvious that I might attend a theatrical production on a weekly basis despite not having seen a live musical concert since April of 2008. Does that mean that I have to take an average of the two "interest" levels? And if I don't, my interest in Concerts is going to rate falsely high. (As a side note, 21% of Twitter users expressed interest in Theater/Concerts compared to 16% of LinkedIn, 15% of MySpace, and 14% of Facebook users.)

It is important to bear in mind that the purpose of the survey was to benefit Anderson Analytic clients (who include Unilever and Intercontinental Hotels Group) by identifying the demographics of specific social media sites. Knowing that LinkedIn users tend to be older, have more money, and like online poker, and that bloggers and coffee-drinkers tend toward Twitter, means companies can tailor their advertising and promotional placement to best target their potential customers.

As we spoke, Anderson unintentionally summed up the most unsettling implication of the survey when he remarked that, if a certain site is most used by 18-year-olds and young adults (who have their own interests), that site isn't a great place to advertise theater. Additionally, if you want to market an opera you should use LinkedIn because the demographic is older and wealthier on average.

There it is, folks. The arts are for the older and richer. THIS is the perception (or reality) that we have to change. While yes, we absolutely need to have a better grasp on who is using social media in order to identify our target demographic and generate the best ROI, ultimately we really need to change the too-often-held belief that arts are so esoteric they doesn't count as an "interest" of the general public (unlike golf...or entertaining...or travel). Why wouldn't a hotel group want to know what level of interest potential clients have in local performances? Or whether it would be worthwhile to establish a gallery space in the hotel?

So, organizations, artists: social media isn't going to magically make audiences out of people who don't care about what we do. Doing the same thing on a different platform doesn't make the people who weren't listening before suddenly perk up and get excited.

On every level we must engage younger audiences, or generate interest in our work from the sex-having golf-playing movie-going tv-watchers. We can't force them to come to us, but we can't keep burying our heads in the sand. Let's RECOGNIZE this challenge, and be realistic about it. Things won't change overnight; but we must whittle away at the overarching lack of interest in who we are and misinformation about who we serve. The arts are for everyone. But it only counts when EVERYONE knows that.