misnomer dance theater

Fear not what "They" will say: Relinquishing control and opening up the conversation

Misnomer Dance Theater's "Breakfast With You"

Arts organizations, especially in this economy, rely heavily on positive reviews and audience raves to generate ticket sales and interest.  As technology improves, so has the speed and reach of these review: one voice can be heard across an infinite distance, and one individual's bad experience can be heard around the World Wide Web.

Damage control, clean up in the wake of widely-disseminated destructive commentary, is never as good as the kind of real-time management that is possible when an organization is able to react and engage as the conversation is developing.  Even better when the conversation takes place in a forum that is controlled by the organization and populated by unaffiliated supporters who can voice unsolicited positive defense of the organization.

This is one of the most powerful elements of Web 2.0, and one that seems to strike the most fear in the hearts of arts managers. The NAMP Conference was an eye-opener: arts managers are really afraid of relinquishing control over the conversation.  From the keynote to the final session three days later, attendees at every Q&A expressed concern about allowing organization-related conversations to publicly occur with outsiders and audience. (For example, allowing user-generated comments on a blog on the organization’s website, comments on the YouTube channel, Twitter conversations, Facebook dialogue.)  The question asked by managers time and again: "What if 'they' say something negative?"

The reply? “They’re saying it anyway.”  Would you rather they said it behind your back? Imagine that your organization begins to open up the conversation. Great examples of this can be found by looking at the Mattress Factory Museum's Friendship 2.0 page, or Misnomer Dance Theater's blog, which links to a variety of other interactive possibilities (though Misnomer's Chris Elam would like to improve upon this even more, by having an aggregate feed that pulls in the conversations happening in various forums and making them accessible in one place on the site). Perhaps you have a way for visitors to post publicly from the venue, or link to articles that have been written about your organization and allow users to comment. Maybe you have a Flickr page to which your audience can contribute, or a YouTube channel. People start commenting on a piece or an interview, a post or an exhibit.

Let’s look at the positive outcome of enabling and encouraging audience participation online.

It is generally accepted that people are more likely to complain than they are to express happiness about something.  That changes as social media and Web 2.0 enable people to easily share thoughts and feelings, and so they do not have to make the same kind of effort to offer praise.  They can take five minutes (and feel good about) publicly expressing to you how good they feel.

Remember, “everyone wants to be an insider.”  When they can express themselves on your site, or engage in dialogue with your organization and its other supporters, that person feels like they are special.  They are being included and being respected as a participant--which givees them a sense of ownership.  And they will hopefully keep returning to their conversation, see who has responded to their opinions, and continue to engage with your organization and with other supporters.  This builds loyalty, especially when you acknowledge them, and your relationship may lead to this person's friends also getting involved.

But certainly the fear of negative public feedback is not unfounded.  Along comes a disgruntled patron.  This unhappy patron lambasts your organization for the offenses you have, in his estimation, committed (dirty bathrooms? Offensive scene? Maybe they just thought the work was garbage?).  This person comments angrily on your blog, and complains on your Facebook wall.  Your organization can now fully benefit from the power of Web 2.0.

If this person posts to your sites, count yourself lucky (if not, you can keep tabs on what is being said about your organization elsewhere with Google Analytics, and respond on your site, thereby directing the traffic to your organization) .  This negative view now can be addressed directly by you—both publicly and personally—and a conversation can occur.  You can find out the real source of this person’s vexation, and you can demonstrate that your organization is invested in the experience of its audience.

You are also aware of something that has fallen short of an audience member’s expectations.  Sure, maybe that person was just having a bad day, but perhaps there is a greater issue there that you can now work to solve.  If you were not involved, it is possible you never would have known of their dissatisfaction.  You might have missed them renewing their membership, or you might have lost friends of theirs.  But you might never have known why.

New visitors to your sites will see this dialogue and appreciate your honesty. (Who isn't skeptical about something that NEVER receives negative feedback?  It smacks of censorship, and seems disingenuous.)  Your loyal followers may also have gotten involved and expressed positive opinions in your defense. By endorsing both the positive and negative views, by demonstrating your appreciation and value of both sides of a situation, your organization gains credibility for its honesty and forthrightness.

Elam urges organizations not to avoid something out of fear that might prove a most powerful tool.  “If you don’t open the floodgates you have zero comments.  If you do open them and you get 100 comments and three are bad, you are building energy around your work.”  But be aware: “If you have 98 that are bad, that tells you something about your organization.”

Remember, opening the conversation can be incredibly powerful, but you must not just sit back once you have made available the possibility for user-generated content. Your engagement is important to keep the conversations relevant and to connect your organization to the discussions being had.