Building Audience Diversity Through Social Networking - Part One

When I was working in the trenches of a theatre company in the Midwest about a year and a half ago, the arts orgs in town got together to have a round-table discussion about social networking. At the time, I had grown my theatre’s social networking from mere presence to full-blown strategy and was seeing our friend numbers grow exponentially. I was proud of my Facebook page and our (at that time) fledgling Twitter site, but the MySpace page was the real shining star of the bunch, with almost twice as many friends as the Facebook page and three times as many as Twitter. Most intriguingly the people on MySpace didn’t feel like the people on the other networks at the time. They were much more diverse in terms of race and age. They didn’t have a professional feel like Linked-In or Twitter (in some cases). It was a network open to everyone, one that didn’t start as a “gated community” catering exclusively to historically white colleges and universities like Facebook. Best of all, they were asking questions through private messages that indicated that they hadn’t heard of the theatre or weren’t sure how to get information on shows.

At the meeting we went over the popular social networking sites and discussed how MySpace was losing its market share and how some of the orgs had abandoned it. I raised the question "But is MySpace really and truly dead?" to which about five people in unison responded "YES!" and someone said "let's move on". Ok, then...

Now around the same time, I read that MySpace was still growing, just at a slower pace than Facebook and Twitter, but that it was the social network of choice for African-Americans and other ethnic minorities. (This is referenced in Hispanic Trending and in the below video.) Interesting, huh? But I didn’t speak up again. I figured, the people have spoken. I became disenchanted with the MySpace page, still checking it, but not putting in much effort. Since that time, the very thing that made MySpace a great social network—its openness to all users—also led to its demise in popularity. (Although a study from FSU from July 2009 showed that the ill-favored network was still quite popular with English-preferring Hispanics, preferred more than 2:1 to Facebook.) However, the fact still remains that I gave up on something that at the time, for our org, had brought us close to those elusive “interested, but unaware” prospects that could be tomorrow’s patrons.

Video from Black Web 2.0

I didn’t put the two incidents together until Martin Luther King Day last week when I was thinking about diversity in the theatre. We shouldn’t just be thinking about audience diversity on MLK Day, or Hispanic Heritage Month, or when our grant proposal is coming due, but some organizations do. For most orgs, audience diversity is something we might value, but it often isn’t a part of our social media strategy or even a part of the marketing strategy. It’s easy to write off, because it is very difficult to track based on race or ethnicity. Maybe we don’t have the time or staff. Maybe we’re not completely sure how to do it effectively. But, the fact is, the world in which arts orgs operate is changing and not just because of the technology that has revolutionized that way we entertain ourselves or engage with the world.

The make-up of U.S. culture is changing. The census bureau projects that, by 2050, the Asian and Hispanic populations in the U.S. will have tripled. The percentage of African-Americans in the U.S. population will also continue to rise, at the same time they grow more affluent. Perhaps because of this, the for-profit business community has begun to recognize African-Americans as the hot emerging niche market, even profiling behaviors to help advertisers reach this audience. And, as Dr. Eszter Hargittai prophesied in the video above, the playing field for minorities in social networking is getting more level.

The past few years have seen the rise of niche social networking sites for African-Americans as well as Hispanic Americans. Additionally, the 2009 study at Florida State University referenced above found that equal percentages of English-preferring Hispanics, Asians, and non-Hispanic whites under the age of 35 now access social media sites 2-3 times a month. The study concludes with the following paragraph:

"Few marketers are proactively targeting ethnic minorities online and even fewer are leveraging social media to do so. A first mover advantage is available for those that devote the time and resources to engage these critical audiences in ways that they find meaningful. The fact is that we now have an unprecedented ability to reach and interact with ethnic minorities; and companies that deliver value to this segment today will be rewarded with the long term loyalty of this market."

So what are arts groups doing to build audience diversity in this market? In Part Two, I’ll "take to the streets" and chat with marketing directors (including Thomas Cott of Cott Mail), a media buyer, and more. Stay tuned!

There's been a vibrant debate going on in the arts blogosphere about diversity, how to best reach new audiences and the relevance of American theatre. Here are a few of the posts:

'Outrageous Fortune': Playwright book full of whine and din, Chris Jones of  Theatre Loop (Chicago Trib)

What if we are all wrong?, J. Holtham of 99 Seats

More on diversity, Greg Sandow (Arts Journal)

Lyn Gardner: "We Need to Act Now to Save Theatre", Scott Walters of Theatre Ideas

No history?, Rob Weinert-Kendt of The Wicked Stage (American Theatre)