I spoke today on a panel at the Australia Council for the Arts looking broadly at the futures of online engagement by arts organisations.
The opening presentation of the day was given by Stephanie Hutchinson who set up the ‘Discover’ education programs at the National Theatre in the UK. I was really inspired to hear about this extensive program of community engagement by a major institution in the UK both in practical, face-to-face activities and their extension into the online environment. It was the philosophy of community engagement that I found really compelling because it’s the place where any successful online strategy needs to start.
It’s true the National Theatre has several natural advantages over its Australian counterparts. It is already an established global brand that has strong associations with names like Laurence Olivier and Helen Mirren. It’s budget is also relatively large yet neither brand nor budget are necessary pre-requisites to adopting a strategy of direct engagement with audiences.
The online sphere is still young enough that it is possible to build a substantial global presence from scratch given institutional commitment to community engagement. This needs to be followed through on all channels, including online. I don’t see this leap being made often enough in Australian arts institutions and it’s a shame because it obviously creates many new opportunities.
These are the notes I prepared for my brief presentation which outline my views on the future of online engagement in the arts.
Does online digital media have a big future in the area of arts education? The answer is yes but the jury is still out on whether traditional arts organisations will lead online or if they will be supplanted by more nimble creative players.
The challenge of online is not about ‘having a good web site’ any more. It’s about maintaining a constant presence online that is dynamic, exciting and 24/7. And to do this properly it costs money and requires a serious long-term commitment to community engagement both in the physical and online worlds.
To succeed in the online world you need to consider who your competitors are: this is a global medium and there are no barriers to entry. Remember, the long tail of content is about professional and amateur content co-existing side by side. Artists aren’t so special any more, you need to take amateurs seriously, online they are your competition and also potentially your strongest supporters.
You need to commit to publishing useful information for people online. One of the biggest challenges faced by all educators is to compete with the vast amount of information that is already out there and available online. While a lot of this information is not great, the best material does tend to rise to the top of search engine rankings – the sheer weight of numbers of people contributing and viewing material online is overwhelming.
To engage with an online audience you have to understand how the medium works. People are out there looking for answers to questions online – and they find them through online search or through ‘human search’ – crowd-sourced answers to questions on social networks such as Twitter. If your answers are relevant this is one way you can ensure you are found online.
Arts organisations all have high levels of expertise in various specialist areas. A commitment to education is a commitment to sharing that information with a community and also a commitment to listening to their input. Social networks demand that we put out more about ourselves online – this also follows for institutions. Because if institutions are to successfully make the transition to the online world they have to humanise themselves which means not only answering questions but also listening for them.
The ability of any organisation to be found online is going to become a bigger challenge in the future – for everyone. Because it’s becoming harder to bring traffic to your own web site and more and more important to distribute your content on as many online channels as you can – particularly those social networks.
Overall though, it’s about how you communicate your artform and passion most effectively to an online audience – monitoring what questions are being asked and how best to answer them. It’s about value adding to what you are already doing –providing rich resources online – video, photographs, games alongside relevant and up to date information.
So is this education or is it something else? Borrowing again from the National Theatre strategy, maybe ‘discovery’ is a good way to look at it.