From social media, to mobile applications, to virtual reality… What is the “trick” to successful digital engagement within cultural organizations?
I get this question a lot.
And the answer is so simple that well-meaning leaders may be overthinking it at their own peril. I’ve written about this important topic several times over the last few years. That said, it’s worth repeating. That’s why I’ve finally created a Fast Facts video about it. If you’re a KYOB regular reader, then you know what’s coming… and why it’s so important.
Let’s start here: Digital engagement is critical for cultural organizations today. Social media, in particular, plays a major role in motivating visitation. The web and social media are also the top sources of information for likely guests to cultural organizations and long-term success may depend upon an organization’s use of social media. Digital exhibits can offer opportunities for more personalized experiences onsite, and – perhaps even more importantly – easy, online ticketing is an expectation of potential attendees.
The good news is that cultural leaders generally appear to be onto the trend! The bad news is that some folks may be so eager to “technology” that they miss the point – which can render certain expensive investments more or less useless.
The first step in the solution to ensuring that digital engagement methods are successful may be a clarification of mindset in approaching these opportunities:
The most important part of the term “digital engagement” is “engagement.”
This understanding may be the single biggest determinant of if a technological strategy will accomplish anything meaningful at all.
Today, connectivity is king. What matters most is sparking the interest of people in a cultural organization’s content (both online and offline) so that they will carry out a desired action: Visit, donate, become a member, carry out a conservation behavior, volunteer, decide to become a scientist or historian, or something else that aids the entity in mission execution and financial solvency.
When leaders focus too heavily on “digital,” they risk believing that understanding Facebook’s newest algorithm change, HTML, the intricacies of how the sensors on virtual reality glasses work, or how to post a story on Instagram are the most important parts of “digital” success. Understanding these things is an important part of success, but it’s not the most important part.
“Engagement” is the goal around which leaders benefit by strategizing, and “digital” is just a type of tool. It’s a person’s behavior that counts. “Social media” isn’t buying a ticket to an organization’s newest program – a person is using it as a gateway to buy the ticket. Similarly, a digital exhibit isn’t deciding to become a member – a person who may have meaningfully interacted with it becomes a member.
And let’s hope it stays that way, lest we all find ourselves living in a scary episode of Black Mirror.
Digital engagement is about people interacting with content or carrying out a transaction using technology. It is not about technology alone.
This is an important distinction, because when it isn’t made, something counter-productive seems to happen: People outside of the communications department hear “digital engagement” and think, “I don’t know anything about that and it’s not my job.”
Engagement – broadly – is a key goal within nearly every department of an organization today. Remember: there are living, breathing humans behind computer screens – most of the time – and they are the same humans that may potentially pay you a visit, become a member, or make a donation. Digital or not, putting the wants, needs, and expectations of humans at the center of an engagement strategy is the key to a successful strategy.
The expensive and damaging result of thinking digital engagement is more about technology than it is about people:
We live in a digitally-connected, technology-driven age. There seems to be pressure within cultural organization leadership to use the newest technologies possible, whenever possible. Every few years, there’s a new technological “it thing” touted by advocates as a permanent solution to engagement struggles. Interestingly, these initiatives are becoming more and more expensive as time goes on: Pokemon Go, QR codes, mobile apps… right now the buzz is about virtual reality.
Focusing on “digital” instead of “engagement” can result in the least successful accidental strategy of all: Technology for technology’s sake.
This can fuel the development mobile apps that don’t solve any existing problems for visitors, social media posts and gimmicks that do little to further an organization’s reputation, or big spending on fancy website tricks that people don’t even care to use. These ultimately useless “solutions” arise when entities try to understand technology, but forget to first understand their audiences.
As regular readers know, I talk about “technology for technology’s sake” a lot… because it’s a problem. Case in point: Industry-created audience ambivalence toward mobile applications for cultural organizations.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the data is in and lack of adequate offsite technology is a much bigger barrier to attendance than onsite technology. For example, while it may be a beneficial tool when deployed strategically onsite, “they don’t have virtual reality” doesn’t surface as a top reason why people do not visit cultural organizations. But, “I cannot buy tickets online” sure does.
Knowing our audiences also means examining our own assumptions about how people use digital tools. For instance, I’ve heard leaders claim that online ticketing isn’t valuable or “working” because people don’t buy tickets in advance to their exhibit-based institution. Look harder. Data suggest that the benefit of online ticket buying often isn’t being able to plan in advance, it’s about insuring ease of access on the day of a visit.
(Heads up, theaters and some performing arts organizations: Things are a bit different for you, as ticket buying timelines can depend upon the program. In this case, online ticketing is still an important consideration because it can help play on scarcity heuristics. In other words, it can allow an organization to increase the perceived value of the experience by underscoring that its popular and may sell out, in some cases.)
Using social media and digital platforms is increasingly necessary for an organization’s success today. But to make it work, there’s one thing we all benefit by recognizing: