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AMA: Sweary spaces and loyal fans

(Another in my series of write-ups about this year's Arts Marketing Association Conference which took place here in Brum.)

The AMA Conference Wednesday afternoon keynote “Audience Inspired Visioning” featured several speakers. I’m going to write about two of them – Alli Houseworth and Richard Evans.

I just want to start though by quickly explaining my use of 'f***ing' asterisks in the write-up of Alli’s talk.

I’m not one for censoring – and have even been known to use blue language myself – but I don’t want this post to be blocked by those with more sensitive filtering. And you know what the word should be.

[As previously, my thoughts and/or afterthoughts are bold and in square brackets.]

Alli Houseworth's tweet from the stage, before her talk

A Stupid F***ing Lobby Experience

Alli Houseworth – Method 121 (for Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Washington DC)

Alli Houseworth was Director of Marketing and Communications at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, and now runs Method121 working in digital engagement.

– Woolly Mammoth Theatre has a large lobby area which wasn’t being utilised, so they decided to experiment using as a digital engagement space; the Digital Lobby Experience.

– They didn’t have a huge budget, so planned for lots of the tech to be re-used – e.g. they picked iPads over other tablets as they already look nice, are simple to use and familiar to the public, and could be re-used by staff afterwards.

– They made sure people weren’t left floundering when it came to tech by having ‘Creatives’ in bright orange t-shirts on-hand to informally talk people through how to use the tech, and/or to discuss the work.

– The first Digital Lobby Experience was called the Stupid F***ing Lobby Experience, in honour of the play being shown at the time, Stupid F***ing Bird (based on Chekov’s The Seagull). [Ha!]

– One of the ‘experiences’ was a magnetic board, with individual words from Chekov monologues that people were able to rearrange into their own prose or poems; the idea being they’d then tweet their creation. [I did something very similar in my final exhibition at art school! But there was no Twitter then …] But of course, people don’t always do what you expect, and most folks ended up posting a photo to Instagram. No problem! The team re-jigged the exhibit to make it Instagram- rather than Twitter-focused. [Being this quick to notice and react to audience response is great – and will stand out.]

– The … Bird set designer was put in charge of a Pinterest board, showing her inspiration for the look of the show. [Share behind-the-scenes stuff.]

– I’m not going to write too much more about it, instead this Washington Post article describes it much better.

– For another show, folks were asked to photograph themselves in a booth, and the images were projected onto the wall, live. This was massively popular as people love seeing photos of themselves. [I'm not completely convinced this is true of Brits – though I guess the queues to be on TV talent shows hardly says 'shrinking violet' …]

– For the Detroit lobby experience, 1950s household scenes of a living room, barbeque etc. were set up, with much more subtle hints at how to engage – such as the hashtag printed on napkins. Not quite as big on engagement numbers this, but new ways of doing things are always worth a try.

MAIN TAKEAWAYS:

Prepare audiences prior to performances – they’re more likely to get more out of it. (Someone ran out after Stupid F***ing Bird, looking at the set designer's Pinterest board and yelling “It all makes sense!”) [That’s what it’s all about!]

Photos rule – especially photos of people.

[I can’t let the opportunity pass to give a big round of applause to Woolly Mammoth’s fantastic graphic design. I love it. It has a great sense of style, and really represents how the venue relates to its audience; it’s confident, loud and a lot of fun!]

===

A lovable Gran of a museum

Richard Evans – Museum Director, Beamish

Beamish logo

– Richard described Beamish, which is in County Durham, as “a living museum that’s like a lovable Gran.” [Audience won-over, right there]

– He was going to attend the conference in his usual work clothes, but the train ride in full costume put him off. [Shame. But never fear! I found a nice image – if you ignore the creepy doll – on The Journal’s website.]

Richard Evans, Museum Director at Beamish – The Journal

– Beamish used to be funded but is now completely independent; and thriving. Despite being the most expensive museum in the UK, and in one of the least-well-off parts of the country, they have massively increased their ‘loyal regulars’ – that is locals who have season tickets, and use them. [Wow! That’s brilliant. I can't completely explain how they’d done this, but in general it was down to thinking like a ‘punter’ rather than an arts professional/historian.]

– They introduced season tickets, which have proved very popular. And people are using their passes with increasing frequency too.

– Turnover has grown massively and visitor numbers have doubled, so the museum is doing what non-profits do with ‘profits’ and reinvesting it back into the museum. Richard was keen to point out that he does not receive performance-related pay … [Ha!]

People’s motivations for visiting the museum aren’t necessarily what you think they are. They’re not bothered about preserving the agricultural heritage of North East England – they do want to have fun, and benefit from all the social interaction that goes with an attraction like Beamish.

Richard anecdote No.1: He overheard some people saying they’d had a lovely day around the town – but that it was a shame they hadn’t found the museum. [!]

Map of Beamish

Richard anecdote No.2: A woman approached him to let him know her husband had recently lost his job, and that it’s expensive to have a season ticket to Beamish. BUT. She wasn’t complaining – quite the opposite – she went on to say that they were putting £1 in a jar every week to make sure they can afford the season ticket next year too, as they don’t want their kids to be left out of such an important experience. [Wow again! This place really has their local community on-side.]

– Continually improving and changing has been part of their success.

– The next Beamish project is a 1950s village, and they’ve put the local community at the heart of what they’re doing. They had a public vote to decide which local’s 1950’s house would be recreated *precisely* as part of the new development. (The winner was Esther who has lived in the house since it was built.) [An excellent story, meaning more positive local press = perfect]

– As the new 1950s development falls within living memory, they’re having to be open to people’s feedback – even if that's being told they're mistaken! “Nope, that’s not how it was. Sometimes the history books are wrong.”

– Focusing on individual stories within the community is important to Beamish's philosophy.

– The next goal is to increase visitors from further afield. [I guess this could be more tricky – although I sense the majority of the audience were up for visiting by the end of what was very entertaining talk, so there's an extra 650 visitors.]

MAIN TAKEAWAYS:

Digging deep – people will pay (lots) for arts and culture if they can see the value in what you're offering.

How to create growth – match what’s possible to what’s needed. Simple!

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More from the AMA Conference 2015:

Influencing Upwards
Adapting your message to reach different target groups

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