Arts & Social Media:  Using New Tools to Engage and Communicate with Audiences

By Jennifer Sadler

The way people are searching for and receiving information has changed dramatically over the last few years. The biggest catalyst in this change has been the use of social media, which has become much more integrated into everyday communications. Social media refers to online media—like text, photos, messages or video—that engages people in conversations and encourages them to share information with others.

Arts organizations and artists are increasingly recognizing the opportunities presented by social media and social networking tools. Using outlets like Facebook and Twitter to reach out to constituents is becoming the norm. Social media tends to cluster likeminded people together and sorts them into groups or sets. From a marketing standpoint, this can save hundreds of hours in research in trying to reach target audiences. By using social media, an organization can get right to the people that matter most to them.

Social media also can help artists and arts organizations “talk” to audiences. It offers an opportunity to share more about what they do—to share a more personal story behind the art they create or services they offer, and it adds a more participatory element that wasn’t possible before.

The Greater Columbus Arts Council first joined the social media “conversation” when the Columbus Arts Festival made its move to the Discovery District in 2008. At that time, reaching out to constituents through Facebook was a brand new concept for most arts organizations.

“In the beginning, it was a way of looking beyond print, local media and e-mail to spread the word regarding the move to the Discovery District,” says GCAC’s VP of marketing, communications and events Jami Goldstein. “I think we've really begun to take advantage of the opportunities there.  Not only can we drive fans back to our Web site for more information, we can engage and share in a way that we couldn’t before.”

Since GCAC started their Facebook fan pages, the Festival and GCAC fans combined have climbed to more than 4,400.

During that first year exploring Facebook, GCAC discovered it could be used to share information about Festival opportunities and deadlines, and keep fans up-to-date regarding the changes and news about the Festival—but more importantly, it offered fans a behind-the-scenes peek into what it takes to put on such a huge event.

The Columbus Arts Festival ended up putting together a new event promotion plan tailored specifically for social media including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. The plan included blog posts from several key players for the event to share before and during the event. It turns out that fans were very interested in hearing personal experiences from artists, coordinating committee members, police officers and volunteers who make the event possible.

“Facebook and Twitter have also been great vehicles for us in recruiting volunteers and gaining interest in the Festival in general,” says Leah Alters, director of the Columbus Arts Festival. “This year we will be hosting our third annual Flickr Photo Contest and our second annual Twitter scavenger hunt, ‘Tweet and Go Seek.’ It’s fun and encouraging for us to see fans giving us feedback, sharing their stories and photos.  We can keep people interested and engaged regarding the Festival year-round with social media, so it’s been useful for us in developing new ideas for future events.”

In addition to the Columbus Arts Festival page, GCAC also has its own Facebook page to share information, events and updates in association with community arts education programming and announcements and deadlines and workshops for grants programs. GCAC also has encouraged other arts organizations and artists who become fans of the page to post information about their own events and news to share on the GCAC wall.

Another example of an arts organization that has made good use of social media is Wonderland Columbus, a group of local arts and business leaders that have come together to manage the former Wonder Bread factory as a collaborative space that will include artist studios, music studios, shared office space and retail space.

Wonderland’s Facebook page fan numbers soar over 6,000. They’ve used the networking space to introduce the concept of their plans in the beginning, to draw people to their unveiling, to promote a t-shirt design contest and much more. Now they are pushing a campaign to help raise funds for a much-needed renovation of the factory.

In October, the Wonderland Columbus team introduced several ways for the public to support its efforts to create a multi-use creative space in the former Wonder Bread factory at 697 N. 4th Street including a campaign for a Pepsi Refresh Grant  to fund renovations for the building. The monthly granting program provides funds of up to $250,000 for worthy causes, with final recipient selections based on the results of online voting. Wonderland organizers are asking supporters to vote early and often and have used Facebook and Twitter to spread word about the campaign. Votes can be cast daily through November, online at, or via mobile by texting 103235 to 73774 (standard text messaging rates apply).

Social media is such a new and developing tool that it’s hard to find any true experts in the field. But most smaller arts organizations would agree that it’s necessary to invest at least one to five hours per week on the developing social media communications.

CAPA, a local non-profit, award-winning presenter of national and international performing arts and entertainment, has a full-time social media person on staff. Joe Cortez serves as CAPA’s Web & social media coordinator. His responsibilities include overseeing all social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for CAPA, CATCO-Phoenix, Broadway Across America, Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Festival Latino and soon the PNC Arts Alive All Access program. In addition, Cortez’ job also entails investigating new interactive technologies to better reach and serve CAPA’s audiences—including mobile technology—and working with other arts and community organizations to find correlations to their organizations and the arts.

Cortez says that one of CAPA’s best uses for social media is to energize and excite audiences about the arts in Columbus.

“Its one thing to go to a website to buy tickets for any given show,” says Cortez. “But how exciting is it to go to a Web site, Facebook page, or receive a tweet from CAPA and get a backstage view of a show with interactive assets like preview videos, production photos, or behind-the-scenes interviews?”

CAPA has found that this sort of interaction gets online patrons excited about shows and ultimately can compel them to purchase a ticket or become a donor to the organization.

“By using our social media platforms, we are opening up a new window to the performing arts world,” says Cortez.

Social media can be a great customer service tool for event and ticketing questions allowing patrons to send messages through Facebook and Twitter. Cortez says that in many cases, CAPA is able to answer questions within a matter of minutes.

Some organizations that are new to social media may get frustrated in trying to gauge the success of their efforts. Of course it’s a good idea to recruit as many fans to a page as possible, but if the content an organization offers isn’t engaging and prompting fans to share information, the page isn’t working successfully.

Cortez says it’s difficult to measure direct ROI from social media. To determine the success of a particular CAPA campaign, Cortez measures three things:

“1) How many people liked or retweeted the message? For everyone who likes or retweets a message, it gives us expanded visibility, and maybe gets in front of someone who didn’t realize that we have a presence on Facebook or Twitter. 2) How much response did we get, or how many people clicked on our links? With tools like Hootsuite and Facebook Insights, we can track how many people have clicked on a link that we are promoting. 3) If we did a giveaway on Twitter, how many people who got tickets talked about the show? Did they check in on Foursquare, tell their friends to see it, or talk about how excited they were to go to the show? If so, then it is an indicator we successfully excited an audience about a show, and will hopefully make them continued patrons of the performing arts.”

To stay on top of the new technologies that are being developed, some organizations are bringing in full-time staff members, like Cortez, who have some expertise in information technology. But Cortez says that it can be difficult to forecast which tool is going to be the “next big thing” in social media. He keeps an eye on the new technologies that are being used out there and makes sure he is aware of how they work so he can stay ahead of the curve when the public is ready to adopt them.

“Sometimes in my research, I look at what the larger arts and entertainment groups are doing to excite their audiences. What are the bigger theatre companies in New York doing? What are magazines like Variety and Entertainment Weekly doing?”

Social media for arts organization shouldn’t be seen as merely a marketing tool. It can encourage new ways of interaction and participation with audiences—and even build relationships with other arts and cultural organizations.

“I absolutely feel that these technologies have helped us not only stay better connected with other organizations, but they’ve also helped us to be better citizens in the arts community,” says Cortez. “For instance, the Columbus Children’s Theatre was looking for ushers, and put out an S.O.S. to their followers on Twitter. We re-tweeted the request to our followers as well, hoping to give them a greater reach. When [other presenting organizations] do well, it makes for a stronger and healthier performing arts community as a whole.”

Image:  OSU and CAPA Present Aida.  Courtesy of CAPA.

Murder Mystery Dinner - Whacked at the Winery!
Presented by Wyandotte Winery

"Another Op'nin"' - Great Songs of Broadway
Presented by Capriccio! Vocal Ensemble

CityMusic Presents: Opera Columbus - The Diva Made Me Do It!
Presented by CityMusic

Ohio State Theatre and CAPA Present Aida
Presented by The Ohio State University Department of Theatre

Columbus Music Co-op Workshops for Musicians
Presented by Jazz Academy

Holiday Lights Festival
Presented by Gahanna Convention and Visitors Bureau