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Arts organizations take to social media to share collections, shows

Thomas Weitz from Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Thomas Weitz from Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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Updated: February 11, 2013 9:05PM

Participating in social media is no longer simply a useful option for arts organizations.

Worldwide monthly users of Facebook alone have grown from 500 million in July 2010 to more than 1 billion as of December, which includes more than half the population of the United States.

That means that a sizeable percentage of current or potential theatergoers, museum visitors and music fans are communicating and interacting on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social networking sites. To reach them, arts groups have little choice but take part, too, and nearly all are.

“Social media is how so many people are engaging with the outside world, not just with their friends but with things they like, their activities, their hobbies, their passions,” said Phil Koester, vice president of marketing for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “So, you have to be there and you have to participate.”

While tending to social media is now part of a staffer’s larger job description or a shared responsibility within many arts groups, larger organizations often have one person who’s dedicated to the task.

Filling that role, for example, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is Abraham Ritchie, whose position of social media coordinator was just added in April 2012.

Once an orchestra or theater company ventures into social media, how does it gauge success in that realm? Part of it is simply looking at the tally of online adherents. The Chicago Symphony, for example, has about 80,000 Facebook fans and 25,000 Twitter followers, including many as far away as Europe and Asia.

But Douglas McLennan, a Seattle-based social media consultant and editor of ArtsJournal, a national arts website, said that impressive numbers alone do not tell the full story.

“I could have a million followers of my social media,” he said, “but if I say something to them and it doesn’t make a ripple, nobody decides to do anything with it, nobody retweets it or comments on it, then it doesn’t really mean much.”

One of the biggest mistakes arts groups make, he said, is treating social media as just another way to blast information on their activities — essentially a vehicle for free advertising.

Instead, he said, they need to think of social media as a “connector of people,” a catalyst for building an online community with similar interests and engaging in an ongoing, back-and-forth conversation with them.

Stacey Recht, associate director of marketing for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, said her company doesn’t want to have a relationship with dance fans that is merely “transactional” and only kicks in when it wants to sell tickets.

“We don’t look at as a [marketing] tactic,” she said. “It’s actually part of our mission. We’re engaging people in their lives and the way that they interact with each other. We’re part of the conversation, and we’re always promoting, encouraging and sharing dance.”

A telling example of the kind of productive exchange that social media can engender recently took place at the Field Museum. Jane Hanna, its social media strategist, posted a photo of a katydid previously thought to be the lone species within a larger genus. A scientist working in Costa Rica saw the online image and responded with newly discovered information about related species of the insect that will, in turn, help researchers at the museum.

But to achieve that kind of successful impact with social media, said Thomas Weitz, digital assets director with Steppenwolf Theatre, requires ongoing organizational commitment and quality control.

“There’s a perception,” he said, “that it’s magical or somehow fundamentally different than anything else we do, and it’s not.”

Most experts believe that the participation in social media is going to explode even further, with the sharing of videos playing an even bigger role and new niche networking sites potentially emerging.

“I don’t know,” Recht said of where the field is headed, “but I feel we have to be part of that conversation going forward to remain relevant.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local free-lance writer. Follow him at @kylelmacmillan.

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