How should arts companies use digital? Lessons from SMI: Arts

Over the six years of NativeHQ’s work, we’ve been developing our approach to delivering the best social media learning and development process for our clients. We aim to improve our clients’ own capacity to deliver good quality online social media communications that actively serve their mission.

We have developed a method that helps them to understand relationships with their networks, think through their digital strategic goals and develop skills and knowledge for turning their ideas into reality. We call it our Social Media Insights (SMI) programme. It takes place over a series of half-day sessions, which are scheduled between two weeks and a month apart.

Social Media Insights: Arts

Between 2013 and 2014, we worked with Arts Council Wales to trial this method with five arts companies at different stages in their development, working in a range of art forms across Wales in both English and Welsh. This post is about that project, and the lessons that we learnt through the work.

The SMI process starts by exploring the networks of people and organisations the company works with, who has relationships with them and how those connections impact on work. We then pin down their artistic and business aims within each set of relationships. This is the basis of a creative ideation process that helps us to develop ideas about how specific uses of digital media could improve the effectiveness of the work they do.

From this set of possibilities, we draw up a shortlist of initiatives, and the training and launch processes they need in order to start. The company picks the initiatives they want to prioritise and we plan a bespoke programme for them to take place over the remaining sessions of the programme.

NativeHQ’s work with Arts Council Wales

SMI: Arts Applicants Map

SMI: Arts. Applications

Arts Council Wales was interested in learning about how we support arts organisations in this way and commissioned us to deliver this service to five arts companies in Wales, and to learn from the experience.

We announced the project via social media and our call for applications received 45 applications from a variety of companies all across Wales.

There were many high quality applications and only space for five (MOSTYN, Dawns Powys Dance, Urdd Gobaith Cymru, Hijinx Theatre and Response). We then set about delivering our service to them between October 2013 and June 2014.

Responses to the programme

Here are a couple of the positive responses to the programme:

“Social Media Insights came at just the right time for Hijinx. We were in a period of change as a company, so it was the right time to stop and reflect on who are we, what we do, and how digital and social media could help us do that at a foundational level. NativeHQ have helped us to take a holistic approach to digital and social media as a company: to see digital’s potential for serving the company’s entire mission, rather than just as part of the marketing strategy.”

Vanessa Morse, Hijinx Theatre

“When we embarked on the Social Media Insights I really had not anticipated quite how the project would touch on every aspect of what we do and how we operate. Instead of some glib, generic advice on what to do / what not to do on social media, the project went so much deeper than that and required us to unpack who we are, how we do things and how we want to be and do. It was very, very bespoke and accommodated everyone’s’ skills and needs as well as the organisational needs. As a result of the SMI Arts, we now manage our projects; communicate within the team; manage our time; market ourselves; make and edit films and of course, use social media – much better than before!”

Amanda Griffkin, Dawns Powys Dance

Learnings

While writing our report to Arts Council Wales, we reflected on some of the lessons we had learnt. We are constantly learning and updating our methods and have now adapted our programme to incorporate them. Here are a few:

Blocking of essential internet services

Many arts companies, especially those working within the public sector, are struggling to access consumer web services (e.g. Facebook, Google Drive) that are being widely adopted by collaborators and audiences beyond their firewall, often because of IT security concerns. We now work with clients to help them tackle these issues within their company.

Need for strategy and the centrality of social media

Many people are still unclear about why they are using digital media and social media, which is increasingly a normal and central aspect of their network’s communications landscape. A result, they struggle for clarity about what their learning needs are, or how to manage their competing digital priorities. We start by helping them to think through their strategic priorities before we begin to plan a training programme.

Broadcast approaches

Many people take a broadcast approach to their social media presence, continually pushing information and talking at people. As this approach often fails to develop the potential of the medium, we work through alternative communications patterns, such as listening and conversations, collaborations, research and investigation. We seek to think through the possibilities of these digital patterns within their work objectives.

Leadership, sustainability and resourcing

While many organisations leave the work of social and digital media to the communications manager, digital media impacts on the whole organisation and is best tackled by a group that includes wider leadership and a breadth of team representation. While many organisations are worried by the resourcing requirements of a good social media presence, there are areas where more efficient communication skills can win time for them to make the work more sustainable.

The need for bespoke training programmes emerging from strategy

Having started with a focus on strategic aims, the training programmes that we delivered to the organisations involved in the Social Media Insights: Arts were unique to each company. Over the programme, we delivered training sessions on a very wide range of topics.

Training types chart... SMI Arts NativeHQ

One interesting statistic was that 58% of the training topics we worked on were delivered to just one organisation, and only a minority of topics were prioritised by more than one of them. The lesson from this was that there is limited value in “general” social media training, because the training needs of organisations are unique to them, if you pay close enough attention.

We have taken encouragement from this finding that our approach of focusing on thinking about strategic priorities first with our clients will result in a bespoke programme that will accurately prioritise their development priorities.

Programme adjustments

We learnt lessons about the programme, which we delivered as an eight-session programme over eight months. During the strategic development process, we have found value in compressing the sessions so they’re closer together to concentrate the thinking and creative process. Our training programme remains one in which sessions are spaced out by at least three weeks (preferably a month), so that new learnings have time to be embedded into working practices. Our current Social Media Insight programme is now structured as follows:

The programme’s impact

In our evaluation of the programme, we asked each company if they had experienced a change in confidence in their ability to:

  • understand how their work on digital platforms contributed to the company’s mission;
  • develop tactics for projects and initiatives;
  • how they resourced social/digital media;
  • innovate and develop new approaches;
  • run their own media, with existing skills and knowledge;
  • evaluate their own digital work effectively by knowing what metrics mattered to them.

Across all categories and organisations, there was an increase in confidence of 45%.

Dig deeper

If you would like to know more about this programme, our approach, or how we might be able to help enable your organisation, please leave a comment, or question, or get in touch.

Free Folk collaborative map project

Free Folk Map

We’ve just finished putting together a collaborative map project for Forest Forge Theatre Company for their new production, Free Folk.  The Free Folk map is a place where anyone can add their story to the map in a place that they have lived in the past, whether or not they stayed.

The map is a living document of people’s relationship with the places they’ve lived, and asks them to tell their story, and answer the specific questions; did you stay or did you leave? And was that your choice, or did you have to?

Built on Google Maps, the Free Folk map builds on work we did to create a similar public mapping site for National Theatre Wales for their show Love Steals Us from Loneliness. We worked with the young people in Bridgend to help them tell their stories using digital media, and populating the map – mostly with stories of love.

Now, we’ve updated the platform, giving it a responsive design that works on tablets and smartphones, and uses the updated Google Maps API for it’s interface. Many thanks to our associate Marc Heatley for his contribution to the project

The Free Folk map will be used to engage with audiences on the theatre company’s national UK tour of Free Folk, which throws five strangers together on a dark night and asks; who will be left come the morning?

 

 

Engaging theatre audiences through the internet: presentation

Theatre and the Internet

I was recently invited to speak to an audience of theatre makers at Somerset House – a wonderful venue in London that looks out across the River Thames to the National Theatre (England’s, that is…). The presentation looks at some of the work Native has been doing with National Theatre Wales.

As well as developing the National Theatre Wales Community, we’ve been using the internet as part of a multiplatform theatre design for a number of productions, including the Passion of Port Talbot and The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning.

You can view the presentation file (I used Prezi) and listen to the presentation below (my presentation starts 32.20 minutes into the SoundCloud file):

The Passion of Port Talbot: Michael Sheen

Michael Sheen multiplatform

It’s nearly a year ago since Michael Sheen’s The Passion of Port Talbot – one of the most acclaimed pieces of large scale participatory theatre in recent history.

The play that transformed the South Wales town of Port Talbot on Easter weekend 2011 was also live blogged to the world across multiple internet platfoms thanks to a project that we ran with a team of volunteers from the town. It’s one of the most exciting multiplatform events we’ve been involved with.

Port-Talbot.com was framed as a local blog within the world of the Passion story… writing as if everything happening in the show was happening for real. During the weeks leading up to the show, we built up the storyworld in the town, spreading news of a missing teacher from the town and a sinister multi national company ICU industries, which was due to arrive at the town soon.

We set in motion a transmedia experience with an alternative reality game (ARG) that took people from codes on graffitit defaced posters in Port Talbot town, to phone numbers, live events and the web, leading to the release of a unique short film with Michael Sheen as the character, The Teacher.

We lived blogged the events that took place in Port Talbot over the weekend, filming the action and editing and uploading it to the web within a couple of hours. The final crucifixion scene was witnessed by twelve thousand people on the streets of Port Talbot and tens of thousands more online from one hundred and twenty countries.

Live blogging has the advantage of bringing an event to the web, enabling people from all over the world (from 120 countries!) to feel involved and connected to events on the ground. With the Passion, we created the blog as a new character in the story – a media outlet that was part of the world in which The Passion took place.

Looking back to The Beach: the multiplatform design

It’s hard to believe that two years ago I was caked in sand, doing early development of The Beach theatre game.

I thought I’d blog some of the background to the multiplatform work we did, partly because we have come to regard this as one of the core specialities of NativeHQ and partly because multiplatform theatre is a growing area of innovation. I also wanted to pull together some of the relevant links in one place.

The Beach was a pioneering theatre production combining drama with gameplay, produced by National Theatre Wales in association with Hide & Seek. The live event ultimately took place on the sands of Prestatyn, Wales in late July 2010. If you’re curious about the live game itself start with the blog post about game design and others tagged ntw05 on the theatre’s community site.

But as I said, let’s consider the multiplatform aspect to the production.

Theatre-goers were given the opportunity to interact with the characters of Charlie and TJ in advance of the game via discussions on their personal Facebook profiles.

I was reminded of the importance of time here. Time is among a multiplatform producer’s best assets. I think one particular challenge we had was that we were building not only character profile pages (which is trivial) but social networks of audience members to be friends for the characters (which requires promotion of some kind). If you don’t have time to build these networks of friends/followers, you need massive exposure. That same summer in 2010 Bethan Marlow (who was one of my co-writers on The Beach along with Rhiannon Cousins) worked on Such Tweet Sorrow which was an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet on Twitter. The Royal Shakespeare Company, the producers of the show, made excellent use of the Twitter fever and their own reputation to build the characters social networks rapidly. Another advantage RSC had was that their production, while multiplatform, was online-only whereas we were sharing the attention between online and the live game on the beach. If anything The Beach used online as an adjunct to the live game.

While this was happening and the live rehearsals were beginning I captured a few One Minute With video interviews, which weren’t part of the drama but intended to be a chance to meet members of the production team behind the scenes.

The characters also produced daily phonecam videos where they gave story details and began to recruit members to the mission, i.e. members of the audience. These and the other social media activities were an integral part of the theatre production, the drama and its interactivity. Members of the audience began to consider themselves participants and had some early affinity with the characters. Because each video was uploaded while fresh it felt very spontaneous and dramatic, very much like theatre although the medium was online video. This contributed greatly to the later success of the live event. From a theatre production standpoint, the videos provided additional opportunities for the director Catherine Paskell to help the actors develop their characters in advance of the live game.

A key aim was to guide the online storytelling strategy and ensure that the drama was expressed believably through social media. I’m very pleased with how this was done and in the process I definitely learned some valuable insights about character and story from my colleagues on The Beach project.

National Theatre Wales Community in the Guardian

The Guardian published an article I wrote about the National Theatre Wales Community today in their Culture Professionals Network. Here’s the link – it’s called “The next step to social networking is to build your own online community” and looks at how the community, which is built on the Ning platform,  has been used by the theatre to develop as a company.

One of the most important ways in which the community has affected the growth of the company has been to enable them to invite participation in their development of policies and initiatives. Everything that they do is communicated through the community, including the framing of their approach to commissioning, casting and theatre criticism. The community site allows the to throw the virtual doors open and invite comments and debate about their work and the direction of theatre in Wales.

Encouraging people to participate in an online community isn’t easy – it’s not just a simple matter of ‘build it and they will come’. It takes commitment from the people at the top to set participation in online discussions by the staff as a clear priority for the work of the company, something that John McGrath the Artistic Director has given in spades.

John is one of the most committed bloggers on the site, regularly sharing his thoughts and reflections about the work of the theatre, responding to people who seek his views. We trained their staff to administer the network, to blog and to help people to feel welcome and encourage them to participate in the debates and discussions held online/

One thing is certain – setting up an online community for a major national institution has been an exciting process and has brought some changes to the way that the company operates – it changes the demands on the staff team, requires training and guidance and it changes the feeling that people have about the institution – hopefully people have felt more involved and listened to.ask for his thoughts and leading debates about where theatre is going – see for example this recent discussion on the shape of political theatre.

There is still a lot to do for the company to realise all the opportunities to connect and communicate with the arts community in Wales that this resource offers them, but they have made a tremendous start and we wish them all the best as they continue to develop their online community, and the theatre community as a whole in Wales.

National Theatre Wales conversations in full flow

We’ve been working with National Theatre Wales on their online community strategy. Earlier this year we unveiled a social site based on the Ning platform.

It’s similar to Facebook in some ways except that it allows a level of detailed conversation probably not possible before. We’ve had many people join and, importantly, participate on there – actors, writers, directors, technical people and of course audience (like me).

NTW wanted something which would complement and support their work and their ethos of boldness, openness and experimentation. National Theatre Wales are like the host of a party – on the site there’s a great deal of freedom in the topics you can discuss. Feel free to sign up and try it.

If you want to be precise about terminology you could say it’s both a “social network” site and a “social networking” site. It’s a subtle difference in wording but a big difference in practice. In other words, it not only supports existing connections between people (like Facebook friends) but encourages new connections to form between people who wouldn’t otherwise know each other. (If you’re interested in some background to this distinction, check out USA-based researcher danah boyd’s thoughts in this area. Not for everyone but you might like it.)

So it’s been fun to work on the site – with NTW and their visual branding partners Elfen – and now see people discussing things and blogging about theatre and related topics. And it’s genuinely exciting to think that people will meet “in real life” and work on new projects together as a result of this online community and the various groups it now holds.

Currently we’re gearing up to November’s announcements of next year’s theatre events. More news soon.

In the meantime, here’s a great example of a discussion which resulted from a blog post.

The Safe Foundation website

NativeHQ present the Safe Foundation’s new website. Built on WordPress, the site gives the charity the capacity to operate online.

The Safe Foundation are a Cardiff-based charity that raises funds for small community projects overseas. They organise fundraising balls, parties and other events in the UK, getting contributions from their networks for communities they connect with directly.

Their new website provides them with a platform for operating online:

  • A latest news blog with RSS feed
  • Profiles of the projects they work with
  • An events calender for their fundraising events
  • A donation page where you can donate via PayPal, using Chipin
  • A Flickr group gallery for their photos
  • A cideo channel

The site is built in WordPress, giving the Foundation an awesome open source platform that is infinitely extendable.

You can also connect to the Safe Foundation team on Twitter:

For their first online fundraising effort, the Safe ladies are raising money to send a Flip Camcorder to the kids they work with in Sierra Leone. They only need $125 (about $90), so why not give them a big welcome to the web by Chipping into their fund?

UPDATE: It took then 1.5 hours to raise $125! So the Safe Foundation are going to raise another $450 for Flip cams for the kids they work with in India, Ghana and Uganda too!