To tweet seat or not to tweet seat; that’s the question on everyone’s mind. After a rather engaging conversation at the Theatre Communications Group Annual conference in Dallas, I went home thinking about the pros and cons of new technology and how it can be used to engage today’s audience. If our audiences are evolving, why are we still connecting with them in the same manner as the previous generation of administrators? After the success of email, facebook, and blogs, it only makes sense to give the Twitterverse a try, right? But what I realized in Dallas was that the question, “Why?” can be applied to anything; and should actually be applied to everything. Your success with Twitter, just like your success with any initiative, will have a direct correlation to a clearly defined “Why?” It’s easy to think that you should jump on the tweet seat bandwagon because supposedly everyone is doing it, but that is simply not the case. If your “Why?” is something like “I want tweet seats because XYZ Theatre has tweet seats,” then you will have a hard time finding success. Every organization is unique and you should do what is in its best interest.
As far as theatres go, I’m not seeing much of an impact when it comes to audience engagement through tweet seats. Following an organization on Twitter takes one click; and that does not mean all of your followers are active and engaged audience members. Without a buy in, like purchasing a ticket, how do you know if this engagement initiative is working? The Providence Performing Arts Center in RI got a lot of press for its addition of tweet seats; but what a lot of the press failed to mention, was that the seats were free and other than a few guidelines, the tweeter had very little buy in to the product. Sure, they got a lot of people using the hashtag they were given, but very little true engagement because they were not engaging with the art and PPAC audience. It appears as though the theatre picked tweeters based on the number of followers, not on their relationship to the art. While this is a recommended course of action and it might bring you a new audience or add to awareness of your organization, is that the only criteria to use when those people are representing your brand? Maybe so, but that is one question of many that certainly needs to be asked before implementation. The PPAC certainly hit one milestone that I’m sure they were aiming for: Trending. Based on the illusive twitter algorithms, they were popular! But was the audience truly engaged with tweets about how much someone loved a costume (without a picture), or how great that song was (without any frame of reference), or how the cast got a standing ovation (for a show no one on the internet saw.) And were the followers on Twitter even able to participate by attending the event in the first place? An organization might have thousands of followers, but if only 5% of them are local, is spending the resources on Twitter worth it? Again, you have to define your “Why?” If trending and followers is the goal, they nailed it! If engaging your local audience, while making strides to find a new audience is your goal, then trending might not cut it.
It’s worthwhile to mention that other interesting models exist and I am intrigued by what the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is doing. It certainly takes more time and effort, but I think it’s a better model than just letting patrons talk about you on the internet. If you sit in a tweet seat, not only can you talk about the performance, but someone who works with the orchestra talks back! In an NPR article, Chris Pinelo says, "Basically, it functions like interactive program notes. You have an assistant or associate conductor backstage giving some insights into the music you're experiencing, and then you're able to respond, and it's like a digital conversation." I think this can work for the symphony in a way that it doesn’t for other art forms. You can listen to the music while looking at your twitter feed and learning more about it. Orchestras are not tied to visual communication or bound by the rules of willing suspension of disbelief like theatres or dance companies, so a running dialogue can prove useful if your goal is educating the next generation of orchestral audiences. However, this example means that the burden falls to the CSO. Instead of having members of the audience tweet the content for the organization, a staff member must be present to do the work adding a heavier work load.
Another venue willing to try something new, but without sacrificing “the” moment, is Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. As a company they agreed that tweet seats were not for them, but still wanting to use social media, they introduced #Twittermission in January. This venture is yet again more labor intensive on the part of the staff, but it opens a dialogue between the audience and the artists. During intermission, patrons can tweet questions or comments and a member of the production team will respond. From wigs, to software, to projection design, audience members were able to ask questions and get real time answers. And for those who don’t tweet or have a smart phone, the dialogue was projected in the lobby for everyone to see. Their goal wasn’t trending; their goal was to give the audience a little glimpse into what it takes to do a show and I think they were able to accomplish that.
Ultimately you have to decide why you want to tweet seat or even utilize Twitter at all. If your reasoning is any of the following, you may be spending too much time, energy, and money for very little gain:
- I think it’s a neat idea (Neat ideas do not always equal audience engagement. You have to have a goal.)
- Everyone is doing it (They’re really not. Less than 15% of the population uses Twitter and only a handful of arts venues have tried tweet seats.)
- If we’re Trending, they will come (There’s no proof of this. No one has to buy into Twitter, you click one button and you’re following someone.)
- Because it’s free advertising (It’s never free!)
- It will engage a younger audience (Will it? Tweets are easy to ignore and there’s no proof that if someone follows you on the internet, they will buy tickets.)
Meet Our Guest: Debra Sherrer
Deb is a second-year Master of Arts Management student at Carnegie Mellon University. She holds a B.F.A. in Stage Management from Point Park University and has spent many years traveling the country as a stage manager and box office manager. Currently, Deb is the Marketing Manager for the CMU School of Music and is an avid stilt walker and juggler.