It’s All About The Details

Yesterday’s post alluded to the latest round of articles in Molly Sheridan’s Blogger’s Bok Club series. It’s a fascinating review of The Whuffie Factor: Using the Power of Social Networks to Build Your Business by Tara Hunt and each article considers the self-described premise of how the performing arts are embracing technology and social networking for better and worse. Granted, I haven’t read Ms. Hunt’s book, but the ongoing conversation has been fascinating and I wanted to chime in with some thoughts before I leave on vacation…

But since it isn’t practical to leave comments scattered across several separate posts on one topic examined by several authors, I decided to put everything together in one place. As such, here are some of the points that leap out at me.

The “is it really good for us?” question.

hygieneYes, I know some performing arts professionals are still debating the merits of social networking and new media efforts but really, this is a moot point folks. The reality is that social networking/new media are here to stay, just like television and radio. And come on now, are we really surprised to learn that some professionals are slow to adapt or even acknowledge emerging communication vehicles? Just let them gripe about it and then smile as they wonder why they lose their jobs to peers that get it.

The devil is in the details but that’s no reason to be afraid.

Of the terrific contributions so far, Matthew Guerrieri’s post was especially useful. His points are all thoughtful and cut right to the heart of the matter. Like most of his blogging colleagues, he focuses on points from the book that do and don’t translate well to performing arts organizations (PAOs) and in his opening paragraph he touches on what I think is main issue with most PAOs social networking/new media efforts:

“Reading The Whuffie Factor, I similarly sensed a solution in search of a problem. I noticed that both of Hunt’s key points–that online social networking covers an enormous, unignorable demographic swath, and that social capital will translate into financial capital–were illustrated anecdotally, not comprehensively. The case studies were interesting enough: obviously, some entrepreneurs have been able to leverage social networks with some success. But every time the book moved into its broader don’t-miss-the-boat rhetoric, it felt a little like a salto mortale.”

toolsUltimately, most of the problems with social networking/new media efforts boils down to a simplistically complex issue: measurement. Guerrieri laments the abundance of anecdotal evidence in Hunt’s book, which is a good thing. The vast majority of PAO social networking/new media efforts (in fact, all I’m aware of) are designed with little to no thought directed toward measuring effectiveness; at the same time, this should be expected.

With any new communication vehicle, it takes time to develop refined mechanisms capable of adequately determining how, why, and where user interaction can be definitively tied to individual action. To a large degree, this is due to the inherent nature of social networking/new media.

In a comment to Guerrieri’s post, Marc Geelhoed points out what he sees as the strengths of social networking/new media:

“Social networking isn’t about something so boring as profit, it’s about pizzazz, flash, bling-o, whatever you want to call it, that indefineable thingness that makes people want to hang with you! And maybe once they really trust you, they’ll buy something. But first you have to dazzle them with your slick interactive web 200.0 combination bell-whistle.”

I don’t know if Geelhoed is being sarcastic (after all, he does posses that certain type of intellectual wit that makes divining sarcasm from straightforwardness sometimes tricky, in a good way) but it doesn’t really matter because he’s correct*. And here’s the trick, there comes a time when these intangibles need to be tied to material action. So even though it is difficult to determine the impact of social networking/new media efforts, that doesn’t mean PAOs are excused from setting goals and benchmarks.

The reality is that compared to traditional efforts, they’ll have to dedicate even more time and energy since the vehicle’s lack of maturity (combined with hyperactive development cycles) precludes the benefits of established measurement tools. Can PAOs just sit back and wait for these tools to be developed before jumping on the bandwagon? Sure they can, but that simply means they’ll end up spending even more time and energy trying to catch up with those who have learned from experience.

Granted, it is easier to wallow in the crapulence of blissful ignorance by turning a blind eye toward developing meaningful measurement tools and focus entirely on designing a social networking/new media platform. But these folks will end up in pretty much the same place as those who ignore social networking/new media altogether, or worse, develop the sort of mojo Geelhoed refers to and then let it go to waste because they don’t know how to convert it into measurable user action.

One size does not fit all.

dont do it!I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that much of the discussion taking place at Casa de Sheridan doesn’t focus exclusively on organizations; case in point, Alex Shapiro’s post. Whether she intended to or not, Shapiro does a wonderful job at providing a glimpse into how PAOs are going to begin making progress on moving from using social networking/new media platforms to converting them into action.

Shapiro approaches the points in Hunt’s book from the perspective of the individual, in her case, a composer. She provides a number of examples behind how her own social networking/new media efforts have translated into action that has benefitted her career. It is analysis at its simplistic best; I write about something which created a professional opportunity that developed into profitable action. Cause, effect, and measurement. Beautiful.

It’s much easier to measure this activity as a cultural Army of One as compared to the cultural equivalent of whatever the US Armed Forces called the Army back in the 1980s but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done, it will simply take more time. What’s important to note here are the issues which do and do not translate between individuals and organizations as they should be taken to heart by anyone examining these issues.

It is an addition, not a replacement.

Molly Sheridan’s post was a real treat. She has that way about her that allows her to candidly point out the most obvious problem on a touchy subject in a way that doesn’t seem to piss off anyone. If she were the kid in the Emperor’s New Clothes, she wouldn’t just point out that he’s naked but also mention that he’s really out of shape and should have a doctor look at that mole on his posterior. And she could do it in a way that motivates the Emperor to call his doctor first thing in the morning and start a diet and exercise plan.

But I digress.

relocate homeUltimately, social networking/new media vehicles aren’t replacements for traditional marketing and relationship building activity, they are simply additions. And like any good addition, they need to be designed in a way that integrates them into the original configuration while simultaneously enhancing the overall structure.

At the same time, bigger is not always better and the real benefits of any effort require identifying a formula that produces a process capable of generating the best results for an organization (note the use of singular here). Here’s how Sheridan addresses the issue:

blockquote “There is no real reason to reinvent every website and social networking tool that comes down the pike, but I watch cultural institutions try to do just that over and over again. That may offer more control and precision, but why do we seek these qualities in this area of our work? Are those really our top goals when it comes to building bridges with our communities?” /blockquote

Sheridan also touches on what I think is one of the contributing factors toward the lack of PAOs developing social networking/new media efforts: loss of control.

“Often when I speak with reticent artists/arts organizations about their online presence, a lot of their fears make them sound like presidential candidates about to appear on national television: I can’t talk about this, what if that person says that. And I have to wonder: Just what are they doing in there that, if every passerby on Central Ave. knew about it, would be damaging? Seriously, what’s the worst thing we could find out about you (and if it’s that juicy, maybe we should make a side project out of it)? What’s the outcome of professional transparency you most fear? Am I being naive here?”

No, I don’t think Sheridan is being naïve; instead, she’s simply pointing out another one of the Emperor’s flaws. Unlike traditional marketing vehicles, social networking/new media requires a certain degree of sincerity and transparency in order to produce maximum results (assuming you can figure out what those are in the first place). For most PAOs this is where they get off track and was the impetus for creating my How To Connect With New Media resource for performing arts organizations back in 2008.


Ultimately, Sheridan & Co. are producing a useful discussion platform and I’m looking forward to see what the remaining voices have to say. Consequently, you should set aside some time to read all of the articles and related comments. At the very least, you’ll benefit from getting all of these thoughts and questions into your head so you can start figuring out your own answers.

*Given that Geelhoed is one of the upcoming bloggers in this group, I hope he’ll expand on the points from his comment.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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