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The Tangled Web of Social Media

I’ve had the great opportunity to be working with Theatre Bay Area and Zoetica Media (aka Beth Kanter) on a year long project called Leveraging Social Media that includes mentoring 10 arts organizations while they create a fully fledged and operational social media strategy. To kick off the program, we created a digital media audit for each of those 10 arts organizations: reviewing their current use of social media, comparing that use to their peers, and observing where they were being talked about online (you can see the series of audits on slideshare). We had so much awesome data that TBA commissioned me to write a monograph, which was released yesterday, to much fanfare on twitter natch. So if you haven’t seen it yet:

By happenstance, this report comes out almost exactly a year since the similar research study I did for #TCG2010, and 18 months after the original Theatre & Social Media in 2009. Of course, they’re all based on different populations of theatres–from LORT, to TCG, to 207 arts organizations, only a percentage of which were theatres, so we can’t make direct comparisons, but it’s interesting to see that the field hasn’t changed all that much. Even when it feels like we’re constantly overwhelmed with new tidbits of insights about social media, we continue to struggle with how best to engage online, who to engage with, where to find them, and to what end.

But if you want to talk future of social media in the arts, and you happen to be at #TCG2011, join me for Earning Your Social Media MFA: 9 months of material in 90 minutes Cool Shit I Want to Talk About at 2:30 in the Biltmore Hotel Heinsbergen Room. I’ll be posting that presentation here soon as well, along with other thoughts & insights from this years conference.

The Epic Facebook Experiment

For months now I’ve been wanting to do an experiment on Facebook but haven’t had the time. The Daily Beast finally beat me to it with their Cracking Facebook’s Code article yesterday, which shows essentially:

  1. If you don’t have a lot of friends, you won’t show up in the news feed of your friends
  2. If your status updates don’t have a lot of likes or comments, you won’t show up in the news feed of your friends
  3. The type of status update you have (photo v link v video etc) matters in getting into the Top News feed of your friends
  4. Even the Most Recent News feed has an algorithm (isn’t purely most recent)
  5. Stalking your friends won’t get you noticed (visiting a friend’s page won’t make you show up in their feed)
  6. Having friends who stalk you will get you noticed (if other people visit your profile a lot, you’ll show up in their friend’s news feed
  7. Links show up in the news feed more than plain text
  8. Photos and videos show up in the news feed more than links
  9. Status updates with more comments or likes are more likely to show up in the news feed of your friends
  10. Even if you do all of the above, your status updates still might not make it into the news feed of your friends (aka, there’s more to the algorithm than just these 9 factors)

Their experiment had to do with profiles, which I think follow a different but similar algorithm (aka EdgeRank) than pages, but still immensely relevant, and an interesting model for an experiment.

Then today, MuseumNext tweeted

And suddenly I had a revelation. It took me 5 minutes to figure out what Pages I’m a fan of. It turns out, about 50 different pages, only 10 or so of which I could have recalled off hand. Here’s why: they never show up in  my news feed. Maybe not never, but VERY rarely. As opposed to Twitter, where I KNOW what brands I follow because they show up in my stream much more regularly. One big difference is I have a thousand friends on Facebook, but only follow 250 on Twitter. But my ratio of brands:people is much higher on Twitter. And if I follow you, and you tweet daily, I’m going to see your tweet. Not the case with Facebook. Of course, this is a double-edged sword since it’s much easier to “unfollow” someone who’s tweeting too much, than it is to “unlike” a page who shows up in your news feed too often. You’re probably more likely to push the “hide” button on your news feed, rather than take the trouble to go to that page, find the unlike link, and click it. So here’s where we end up:

On Facebook, I’ve got 50 pages that I “like,” which is about 5% of my Facebook network, but for all intents and purposes they’re invisible because they never show up in my news feed. And they’ll stay invisible forever, because I won’t go through the trouble of un-liking them. Their only residual value to me seems to be when I click on a page that I’m considering “liking,” I am always curious to see how many of my friends already like that page, and this may sway me into pushing that like button.

On Twitter, I follow about the same number of brands (but how to account for the people I follow because they work at institutions I’m interested in hearing about?), but it’s a much higher percentage of my network–20%–and I see them all the time. My churn rate on Twitter is likely much higher though. I’ll try out following you for a bit, if I don’t like your tweets, how often you’re tweeting, etc, I’ll unfollow pretty quickly. And that same “residual value” exists in Twitter’s “you both follow” and “also followed by.”

There are some interesting implications here in the difference between Facebook fans & Twitter followers, in how we interact with these audiences. It turns out fans with small networks are really valuable to me on Facebook (I’m more likely to show up in their news feed, all else being equal they like or comment on my content, that increases my probability of showing up in the news feed of other unrelated people). It turns out followers with large networks are more valuable to me on Twitter (if they only follow a few people and/or successfully utilize private lists). If you’re visual like me:

Difference between Facebook and Twitter

Now, there’s all sorts of caveats. My propensity of sharing links on Facebook versus Twitter. The likelihood of my friends versus followers being interested in the link that I’m sharing. The number of “spam” accounts following me on Twitter versus the number of Facebook friends who no longer use Facebook. The network size of the “average active user” (for Facebook the long touted number is 130 average friends, on Twitter it’s around 30 followers). How often I’m on Facebook versus Twitter. I could go on. But we’re finally starting to see a way to mathematically model the (social) value of a Facebook fan versus a Twitter follower. This is heady and exciting stuff for a data nerd like me.

And here’s where you come in! I want your help. I think it will be fairly simple, relatively painless, and really really really useful once we get the results. Here’s the idea:

On May 2, we begin a 30 day (or maybe less…thoughts?) experiment. I select 5 pages I already follow on Facebook, I write down a bit of information about them. I select 5 new pages I’ve never been a fan of (I have some sense Facebook prioritizes this, and I want to test the hypothesis), and “like” them. Then I simply go about my usual routine on Facebook, counting the number of times I see those pages in my news feed. If I’m compelled to click on their content, great, if not, that’s okay too. I don’t want to change my behavior (Heisenberg be damned). I just want to record what I do, and how that changes what I see (if at all). And I want you to do this too!

It would be awesome if they were nonprofit pages of different shapes, sizes, and colors if you will. It would be awesome if all of you were people with different Facebook network sizes and habits. It would be even awesome-er if you took notes in a form that looked something like this, and sent them to me so I could compile, analyze, and report back to you on in aggregate:

Facebook Record Keeping

Are you interested in taking part of this experiment? Do you have suggestions for how I could change these parameters to make it more useful? Other ideas? You think I’m crazy?

Location Based Social Networks and the Arts

I’ll be teaching a workshop in a few weeks on Location Based Social Networks and the Arts in San Francisco. We’ll be chatting about Google Places, Yelp, Facebook Places, and Foursquare. I know there will be total novices in the crowd who’ve never used (or maybe heard of?) some of these, and other folks who think check-ins are old hat. So here’s where you come in dear reader. Take a gander at my slides. What kind of questions would you have? Are these the LBS you would expect me to talk about? Is there more research you’d like to see? Other cool case studies you’ve heard about? I’ve still got 2 weeks until the workshop, but I need to shift over soon to creating the deck for “The Mechanics of Measurement.”

Big News: Devon Gets a Real Job

I’m thrilled to share that next month I’ll be joining the great folks at Threespot to lead their social media consulting practice in Washington DC. The promise of continuing to work for awesome nonprofits, with the support of really talented coworkers, and the demand to build a successful consulting practice is an adventure I can’t wait to tackle.  Not much should change here on 24 Usable Hours–in fact, I hope this means I get to post more research, more often. Woo hoo!

SXSW 2011: A Peek at My Notes

At this year’s SXSW, I didn’t see any break out hits or major controversies. Foursquare continued to bask in the press’s glow, group-texting services battled over who could give away the most free tacos, and Chris Brogan wasn’t around to pitch a fit over douchebag marketers.  The keynote interviews were fine, if not exactly revolutionary. There weren’t any outrageously scandalous parties, although, this happened. Even though Southby has the reputation of Nerd Spring Break, there are some awesome panels that take place during the day. It’s a shame more arts organizations can’t afford to take part in this great learning opportunity. So I wanted to share some of my notes with you.

Or check out the Samsung hub, or on Slideshare for more Southby presentations.

Using Twitter to Improve College Student Engagement (#twesearch)

Leximancer is a content analysis tool with a heat map and a frequent words map, linked by key concepts. It’s expensive, but it’s the prettiest maps I’ve seen from one of these tools.  Studies show that in college, academic engagement –> critical thinking, social engagement –> psych-social adjustment, extracurricular activities –> student retention, degree attainment, pursuit of non-traditional careers. In order for Twitter to be useful, instructors & students need training & encouragement, tool should be integrated with course content, and collaborative learning should also be encouraged off-line.

Colleges can use Twitter for

  • Continuity of class discussions (more time on task is better)
  • Low stress way to ask questions  (leads introverted students to be more extroverted in class when they can engage online first)
  • Class/event reminders
  • Help students self organize into study groups

The Game Layer

Seth Priebatsch, founder of SCVNGR, gave examples of how game mechanics are or could be used to solve 5 different problems: education, customer acquisition, customer loyalty, location based services, and global warming. I thought the most interesting one was about school. School already looks like a game—you have friends and foes, you advance through levels, you earn points for completing tasks on a deadline, there are cheat codes, etc. With this understanding, there are at least 2 ways we could make the education system “work better” (this coming from someone who dropped out of Princeton in his first semester):

  • Decrease the correlation between grades and success: earn enough cumulative points, you move on to the next level, always at your own pace.
  • Decouple subjects from grade levels: you could be a level 6 math wizard and a level 2 writing warrior, and in that case you should spend more of your time that year working on your writing skills

Provocatively new ideas, no? Seth also gave a shout out to the book The Social Fabric of Gameplay by Jane McDonegal, whose name I heard thrown around by more people more times than anyone else at the conference.

Real World Moderation: Lessons from 11 Years at Metafilter (#RWModeration)

Keys to effective community management

  • Be the best participant in your community
  • Don’t be overprotective by setting too many rules
  • Give users a place to vent against you
  • Involve users in the process of community management
  • Good moderators notice patterns
  • Really important to share information between moderators
  • Put sketchy users on a pre-emptive watch-list and then watch them carefully
  • Spammers are getting much smarter
  • Commenters have a lifecycle-those that are highly active tend to burn out quicker

And a note mainly for Ian to say, I was wrong about community managers needing to scale with networked communities. Metafilter has 12,000 active users per week (including 300 heavy users), 200 posts/day and 3,000 comments per day, and employs just 4 community managers. But they’ve spent an extraordinary amount of time & effort building their own tools to make community management more efficient.

StackExchange uses good community game mechanics; if this is the kind of thing you’re into, Matt said has a ton of papers on community management, just ping him on twitter for access.

TED: Radical Openness How We Grew TED by Giving it Away

Online views of TED talks breakdown to:

  • 20% on TED.com
  • 20% downloaded via iTunes
  • 15% YouTube
  • 5% embedded on other sites
  • 5% other

YouTube told TED that embedded plays are the tipping points for virality. TEDx came about because people kept asking, not as a brilliant idea from someone on staff—now there’s been 1500 Tedx events in 95 countries in 35 languages, TED has begun crowdsourcing speakers from these events.

What makes an open strategy work:

  • Put forward a clear goal that inspires
  • Draw a passionate user base
  • Provide clear guidelines with rewards & consequences
  • Allow the community to police itself
  • Make the community rockstars

The Science of Influence

TweetMap is a mapping tool showing how content spreads—the maps often look like an inverted pyramid, meaning that the quantity of followers you have matters more than quality of content you put out. Needlebase is a company I’ve been excited about since hearing about it from the panel’s moderator, who promoted it again: it’s a really smart, intuitive web scraping tool. Social proof is a myth. Dan Zarrella, whose work at Hubspot I’ve been a fan of for awhile, did an experiment: A/B test the same blog post, the only difference being the TweetMeme button showing how many times this article had been tweeted. CTR rate was highest on the button showing the least number of tweets.

Recommendation Engines (#DiscoTalk)

This is one of the best panels I went to. Engineers & founders from YouTube, Pandora, StumbleUpon, and Google HotPot all described how their service uses algorithms to recommend new content to users. It was a great mix of practical advice, debate between panelists, and truly interesting questions from the audience.

Most recommendation algorithms combines Who you follow/friend, What’s trending, and Your historical preferences. For example, only 50% of searches on YouTube are looking for a specific video, the rest want to explore. So YouTube uses “related videos” to keep users engaged with the site—these can’t be 10 videos of the exact same topic, you actually need variance within the cluster to keep people interested. YouTube also gave a great example of sometimes we want to find what’s least popular—what’s that really awesome video that none of your friends have seen yet, that allows you to look like a tastemaker rock star by emailing them about. Telling users why you’re recommending these videos to them increased click through rates.

In order to make a good recommendation engine, you need metadata about your content, canonical metadata is even more useful. In the beginning, brainstorm what “perfect metadata” would look like, even if you know you can’t get it yet. This will help you build towards that direction.  People tend to overestimate the burden of manual labor in collecting this information—Google has driven cars around nearly every street in the country, has people scanning books by hand, etc. Sometimes the best way to collect the metadata you need is to put in some legwork.

Off the shelf recommendation engines exist—Hunch & Gravity were both mentioned, but it turns out nearly all recommendations are vertically oriented. Just because I know what books you like to read, doesn’t mean I know what kind of music you like to listen to. Beware that better recommendation engines hinder some traditional web stats—page views may decrease because people spend less time flipping through non-useful pages. Pay attention to metrics like time on page.

The Thank You Economy

I’ve read Crush it!, I follow @garyvee, I’ve heard stories about how engaging he is in person, but it turns out Gary Vaynerchuk is even wilder, funnier and swearier in person. Here’s a bunch of paraphrased brilliant one-liners:

  • Don’t be a 19 year old boy, don’t try to close the deal in your first minute.
  • All you have to do is outcare the competition. People are going to start battling out on the care front—it’s too practical not to.
  • I spend 20 minutes taking an episode of WineTV, and 20 hours building a community online
  • Don’t retweet the nice things people say about you, that’s being a braggy douchebag. It’s a dickmove to do off line, don’t do it online.
  • Content calendars suck. Do you take a script that you wrote last month to chitchat at a cocktail party?
  • Saying hello when a customer walks through your door doesn’t have an ROI. Being online is about building a relationship.
  • If you’re not a CEO, it’s really hard to change your organization from the bottom. But Egypt did it.

And now for something a little different. For 3 sessions, I tried new playtoy Storify. Click through each page to see the live digital notetaking I did…

Continue reading SXSW 2011: A Peek at My Notes

The Social Side of Sundance

The Oscars were kind of lame last night so I decided to multitask and finally wrap up my research from Sundance. Last year I attended the Sundance Film Festival for the first time, and was struck by how much I relied on fellow festival goers to decide which films I should go see. You’re standing in line for one film and overhear the couple ahead of you debate the merits of another; you’re browsing the #Sundance hashtag; you’re perusing the Sundance website to read reviews; you’re noticing which film venues are trending on Foursquare. These aren’t the traditional cues for movie selection. The one picture or poster associated with the films probably hasn’t been market tested and is almost certainly a little rough around the edges. All of the descriptions sound interesting. Celebrity actors probably won’t be a good predictor of which film will be the break out everyone’s going to be talking about.

I returned to the Sundance Film Festival this year with the intention of diving into the role of social media in independent film. It’s taken awhile, but I’m finally wrapping my head around some of the numbers. I also had vague notions of trying to see if social media buzz is a good predictor of sales to distributors and/or Sundance awards, but haven’t gotten around to building that model yet. Today I’ll share some impressions of the Sundance FestivalGenius website & Facebook. Later this week: Twitter & other uses of social media.

From what I’ve seen this year, Sundance films were (and could be) using social media in a variety of ways:

  • In the absence of a website, a Facebook page can be a great place to drive audiences during the festival circuit for more info about the film
  • An audience plugged into social media probably increases awareness about a film during screenings
  • A large & passionately engaged social media fanbase might be the kind of social proof that tips the scale for a distributor to buy the film
  • The Music Never Stopped has a “request this film in my city” section of their Facebook page. Even pages without this function at least know the geographic distribution of their fans, and could use this data to plan screenings.
  • The role of filmmakers and actors on social media to promote films is significant. Though I’m interested in (for example) the relationship between Carol King‘s personal Facebook page and the Troubadors Facebook page–there’s a wide disparity in the number of Likes between the two.
  • YouTube/Vimeo are being best utilized by critics & fans to promote/curate lists of films they love/hate.
  • The relatively unsophisticated “search” functions of social media sites can be a real hindrance, especially when you have films with generic titles (Homework?!), blogs with incredible SEO juice, and films whose websites forget to link to their social media sites.
  • Distributors with a strong social presence have the benefit of time to build a captive audience, but it’s unclear to me how well audiences travel between films (for example I’d be fascinated to see on the Fox Searchlight Facebook page if the folks who interacted with Black Swam content also interacted with Cedar Rapids content).

Big Picture

More films have a Facebook page than a website. About half the films that are using social media, don’t link to their social profiles from their website. This proportional relationship among social media site popularity with the films roughly matches how large a fan base the film festival itself has on each of the social media sites:

On the Sundance Film Festival Website

In thinking about the FestivalGenius data, I got interested in the idea of a conversion funnel: essentially that a person wouldn’t likely review a film unless they had also added that film to their online schedule, and so on, like this:

And indeed the graphs bear some of this out. Before the festival began, about 16% of folks who viewed a film added it to their online schedule, and this relationship explains about 83% of the variance among films. By the time the festival ended, only 9% of folks viewing a film had added it to their online schedule, and the explanatory power of this relationship drops to 68%. A couple of possible explanations: more non-attendees are looking at the FestivalGenius site during the festival; or attendees are incorporating more information into their decision to add a film to their schedule (like maybe some of that social media buzz?).

The conversion funnel didn’t work as well for the Views > Facebook, Twitter shares; or Adds > Facebook, Twitter shares. I won’t bore you with the graphs, but suffice it to say, there were external factors impacting why someone who viewed or added a film would choose to Like or Tweet about it. We’ll get to those in a moment.

But the bottom end of the funnel works a little better. On average, about 3% of folks who add a film to their schedule end up rating it, and in theory (remember these are correlations, not causation graphs), for any given film, there were about 1/3 as many reviews as star ratings.

Note: I had to take My Idiot Brother and Red State out of all these graphs because they were the extreme outliers.

Now what’s most interesting to me about these graphs isn’t the trend line itself, but which of those films are falling so far *away* from the trend line. In fact, about half way through the festival, I noticed that Senna and Buck had the most number of reviews and ratings, even though both are relatively obscure films. I hope to get into that more in a future post on predictive metrics.


During the 11 day Festival, Sundance films posted over 1,100 status updates to their Facebook pages. Fans of these pages in turn responded back with almost 11,000 likes; 1,900 comments; and 1,400 of their own status updates. Only 22 films *don’t* have a Facebook presence, and by far those that do are dominated by films with pages.

Median page size sits at just about 500 fans, but a significant portion break into the 4-figure realm. Top 5 pages include Red State (represented by Kevin Smith’s personal page), Fox Searchlight (representing Cedar Rapids & Win Win), The Future (represented by Miranda July’s personal page), Submarine, and Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.

Somewhat predictable that Premiere and Spotlight films have significantly more Facebook fans than any other film category, but interesting to note that Park City at Midnight, NEXT, and US Docs are all making big strides on Facebook.

Because there were so few Filmmaker or Distributor based pages, and so few Profiles or Groups, the only types of pages I could find meaningful differences in were between pages with custom URLs (facebook.com/movie) and those without custom URLs (facebook.com/pages/movie/123456). You can see films with custom URL pages tend to be about twice as large as those without–based on some of my previous research this is typically because folks who know about the custom URL option tend to be a little more social media-savvy.

How often a Facebook page was posting status updates during the festival made a significant difference in the number of fan responses Jan 20-30. On average, pages were posting daily, and received 116 likes, 20 comments, and 15 fan posts.  The 5 most active Facebook pages were Kinyarwanda, The Music Never Stopped, Buck, Pariah, and Hobo with a Shotgun.

The number of Facebook fans a page had was only somewhat correlated with how many Facebook Likes the film got on the Sundance FestivalGenius site.

Some pages stuck out for how passionately engaged their fans seem to be. There’s no easy way to track this, but if we assumed (as an upward bound) every like, comment, and post was made by a unique fan, then 6 pages saw more than 50% of their fans take action on their page during Sundance (All Your Dead, Buck, Pariah, Lord Byron, Bellflower, and These Amazing Shadows–especially impressive for Buck & Pariah considering they have more than 1,000 fans each.)

A few Facebook pages had interesting features:

  • Rebirth also has a Causes page that raised close to $3,000 from over 1,300 members.
  • You have to Like Submarine‘s page before you get to see their trailer
  • Kaboom and The Music Never Stopped both have kind of fancy embedded apps
  • Pariah‘s page had a Livestream component during the festival
  • 7 pages land on a tab other than their wall
  • 9 pages were created during or after the festival
  • 4 pages have protected profiles (can’t see the wall unless you become their friend)


Here’s a little preview of what’s to come. An awesome graph from Research.ly showing the huge growth of Twitter during Sundance in the last 3 years.

Finally, some definitions and background:

  • I started on the Sundance FestivalGenius looking at the number of views, adds, reviews, ratings, showings, Facebook shares, and Twitter shares; as well as which films were linking out to which social media sites. I collected data at 3 different points before, during, and after the festival. I decided to focus only on full-length features playing in traditional theatres (ie no shorts, installations, or panels).
  • I searched for the “official website” of all 117 films, and noted which social media sites they linked out to.
  • If the FestivalGenius or official film site linked to a social media site for a distributor, producer, or filmmaker promoting the film, I included that in the data; otherwise only Facebook pages, Twitter profiles, and YouTube channels specific to the film were used (ie Kevin Smith was promoting Red State via his personal twitter handle)
  • I searched Facebook for all film titles as of Feb 14, and (manually!) recorded all status updates, comments, and likes that took place Jan 20-30, 2010 on films’ pages.
  • I searched Twitter for all film titles as of Feb 14, and used (soon to be defunct) TwapperKeeper to find all tweets that took place Jan 20-30, 2010 using the #Sundance hashtag.I realize you’re now incredibly impressed with my valentines day plans.
  • I searched YouTube & Vimeo for all film titles as of Feb 27, but unfortunately there’s no good way to find how many views occurred during the festival.
  • Kickstarter, MySpace, Flickr, and blogging were mentioned on fewer than 5 of the films’ official websites, so I didn’t do extensive research on these other platforms, but I do have a few tidbits to share. I didn’t get the timing right for Foursquare venue check-ins, but I have a few anecdotal observations.

Tune in later this week for more…Until then, I’m swimming in data–500,000 pageviews, almost a million Facebook fans, 40,000 tweets. What do you want to know?

#SupplyDemand: It’s all a matter of perspective

Ok, I can’t resist. I know you haven’t heard from me in months and months (I survived an 80 day trip around the world btw! More on that coming soon), but I wanted to submit a few thoughts on the #supplydemand discussion inspired by this talk by NEA Chair Rocco Landesman (note that this particular discussion begins around 42 minutes in, and is mentioned several times again later).

A Few Graphs (don’t be scared!)

Not to get too technical with the supply & demand discussion, but the only thing we find where supply meets demand is a relationship between price & quantity, and even that axiom has a significant number of qualifiers. We’ve (hopefully) all seen a supply and demand graph—where quantity is along the horizontal axis, and price along the vertical axis, a supply curve (generally) slopes upward, and a demand curve (generally) slopes downward. Where the two meet (in theory) determines how much of anything is produced & consumed, and at what price.

When supply in the market increases, competition forces price to drop and more people are willing to purchase the product at this lower price. When demand in the market decreases, suppliers are forced to lower the price but still attract ever fewer buyers. Put these two shifts together, and (assuming the slope of your lines are inversely proportional, and the relative shifts in supply & demand and equivalent), you get the same amount of product produced & consumed as before, but at a lower price. Which most consumers, for most products, agree is a good thing. That price will continue to fall until it reaches the marginal cost of production, the lowest price at which a supplier can afford to offer its products and stay in business.

Where things get wonky is when those slopes aren’t inversely proportional, and the shifts aren’t equivalent. Which, I believe, is precisely what we’re talking about. When we talk about artists being willing to “supply” theatre, regardless of what it costs them to produce, in economic terms that means the supply curve is more inelastic (or more vertical). I think we can also agree that supply has increased faster than demand over the past few decades, meaning the shift of the supply curve is larger than the shift for the demand curve. And for sake of argument, let’s assume that while the total quantity of theatre demanded has decreased, the average consumer who demanded theatre previously, demands it just as much now; and let’s assume that while the total quantity of theatre supplied has increased, the propensity for a theatre company to supply art regardless of how much it costs them hasn’t changed. Then our graph looks more like this:

So now there is *more* theatre being consumed, but at a much much lower price point than before (a point I’ll dispute in a moment). An objective bystander watching this changing market might be concerned that the quality or the nature of the product will change because of the decrease in price.

In a market economy, this change could have several impacts, the most likely being that the change in price drives out some of the suppliers who can’t produce at that price, which shifts the supply curve backwards, which pushes the price back up, and stabilizes the market. From the perspective of a SUPPLIER in the market, the problem for the arts economy is that they are “having to” produce more theatre at a lower price point, thereby requiring more support income (a problem for a DONOR like the NEA). But from the perspective of a BUYER in the market, more quantity at a lower price is a good thing.

And therein lies the rub. When the only people in the market crying for more product are the suppliers, you’ve got a problem.

A Historical Arts Perspective

My problem comes from the fact that ticket prices haven’t been falling. According to the TCG Fiscal Survey Trend Theatres from 1997 – 2009 and the inflation calculator, average ticket prices have actually far outpaced inflation. This doesn’t even take into account that it’s highly likely that TCG has obtained data from ever smaller trend theatre companies over the past 12 years (and so the average ticket price increase at a single theatre is likely significantly larger than this graph implies).

In other words, the players in our market aren’t behaving rationally. They’re charging more and more even as fewer and fewer people are attending their shows. But of course they are–because ticket price is only one side of the equation. The other side is donations. If a theatre can subsidize its price in the market with donated income, then they can, if they so choose, offer a price below their marginal cost of production.

It seems to me that we have a price/cost problem. Over time, the price of some types of products tend to fall, mostly due to advances in producing them more efficiently: think of the cost of a computer ten years ago versus today. The price of other products tend to rise over time, mostly due to either their perceived worth (oil), or their cost of production increases (healthcare services). By and large producing art looks more like healthcare services than oil or computers. In fact, among TCG trend theatres in the Fiscal Survey reports, we’ve nearly doubled how much we spend per evening’s performance in the past 12 years.

So are costs rising because wages are increasing? Well, the wages for some at least: note how that red line outpaces the blue line in 2004.

It gets worse. The average attendance per performance has also significantly decreased (with a caveat mentioned previously, that trend theatres are likely smaller now than they were 12 years ago).

Bottom line: we’re spending more money each night for fewer people to attend the theatre. So of course our theatres have increased their prices–they can’t afford not to. Unless some of these variables start to change.

Some Tough Choices

In the end, I’m in agreement with Rocco.

If there were less supply, each theatre would have a larger audience, (not to mention that the NEA would have an easier time doling out money), thereby providing more opportunities to be financially stable. So who’s going to decide which theatres have to go? Two choices: donors (be they individual or institutional) who refuse to be a stop-gap for failing companies, or the companies themselves, who realize they help the arts economy more by shutting down than by limping along.

If there were more demand, theatres could take more financial and artistic risks. If there were fewer arts administrators (and/or if fewer people chose to become artists), we could afford to/be forced to pay artists living wages. So how do we increase demand? There are 3 options, increase the:

  • Desire to purchase the product (so we have to make “better” theatre, or convince people the arts are worthwhile for reasons other than pure entertainment)
  • Ability to purchase the product (if we assume the reason more people haven’t purchased is because they can’t afford to)
  • Willingness to pay for the product at the price offered (IOW, “market” our way out of this hole)

As Rocco mentioned in his follow-up, arts education seems to be helpful in increasing the desire to purchase. I would be inclined to lower ticket prices (thereby increasing the ability to purchase), if only we could find evidence that this would indeed increase attendance. I’m highly doubtful that raising ticket prices will solve the equilibrium price/quantity problem.

A Possible Future

Let’s imagine an incredibly simplified version of some mythical future arts economy. What if:

  • Every theatre company performed one show every night of the year
  • Every theatre space had 200 seats and was filled to capacity every night
  • There existed 300 million people of theatre going age (a number loosely based on this graph, adjusted for population growth)
  • Every person went to the theatre on average 3 times per year (which is about half as often as they go to the movies currently)

There would need to be 1 theatre for approximately every 25,000 people. So New York City would have about 350 theatres. Chicago would have about 120 theatres. Austin would have 30 theatres. And yes, even Peoria would have 5 theatres. That doesn’t sound so bad does it?

Of course, this simplification doesn’t say anything about price or cost–just quantity. It could be the case that producing in a 200 seat theatre would be less cost effective than producing in a 400 seat theatre.  Is it realistic to believe theatre-going could be half as popular as film-going? Is it realistic to believe we can significantly decrease average theatre size? Is it realistic to believe we could ever equally disperse theatre activity? And oh by the way, that would also likely increase the average cost of production. Newspapers are dying while journalism and consumption of news thrives because it turns out there are legitimately good alternatives to the news in physical form. Are there good alternatives to the theatre?

I don’t know.

But decreasing supply doesn’t necessarily mean decreasing the number of theatre organizations.

And “solving” the supply/demand equilibrium could depend as much on price (what I’m willing to pay) or cost (what you are able to produce at) as it does on quantity.

I want every American to have access to high quality theatre. I want there to be a diverse theatre ecology, one in which competition forces creative exploration rather than economic instability. I don’t think I want anything else, but maybe you can change my mind.

PS: Don’t have ANY IDEA what I’m talking about? Check out:

UPDATE (Feb 7):

Worth your while to check the comments & responses on this post.

Aaron Anderson’s post inspired me to dig up some new numbers & graphs:

Performing arts nonprofit organizations operate in at least three markets: markets for what people will pay to see them perform, the financial markets for debt, investments and endowments (do not apply to all organizations, and are not further discussed here), and the markets for private philanthropy and status. Markets for philanthropy and status are almost entirely missing from the demand side of Rocco’s equation (and the demand side of [the] traditional economic analysis by Devon Smith).

Ah, but the value of the philanthropic market should already be priced into the model of the ‘ticket’ market. After all, “ceteris never stays paribus” so as donors increase or decrease their funding levels, so too should the price of tickets change and/or the quantity/quality of product. Let’s take a look at the numbers, again, from TCG Trend Theatres Theatre Facts:

Both expenses and contributed income are outpacing inflation, although it looks like expenses are a bit more volatile, and have risen a tad bit more than contributed income. In any case, we might want to ask ourselves: How does the supply of contributed income match up with the demand for that income by institutions?

Now there’s a graph I’ve never seen before. In theory, based on TCG trend theatre averages (which, by all means I know, averages hide a huge range of variability in the data and are kind of terrible to use in big industry overviews like this), nonprofit theatres seem to be running at about a 10% profit margin. In other words, over the past 13 years, theatres should have managed to cover annual expenses, and re-invest that 10% in bettering the organization.

But back to your point Aaron, we do in fact see the market for contributed income rising and falling in response to changes in ticket sales. But if demand for the arts is demonstrated through contributed income, I hardly think we’re seeing an abundance of the demand.

What no one (or at least few) is disputing:

  • There is more institutionally-created art than there used to be
  • Few, if any, theatres have either ticket-buyers or donors knocking down their doors, desperate to get in
  • All combined sources of funding aren’t currently able to sustain the current cost of all that product at the current level of demand
  • The result of these three  mean that unless something changes, institutions are bound to fail sooner rather than later

The question remains what do we do about it.

Rocco offered a supply-side solution: decrease the number of institutions. He seems to imply that we could do this be allowing more institutions to fail. Because if artists will always have an incentive to make more art, and administrators will always have an incentive to create bigger budgets, and ticket-buyers have already made their opinion known through this demonstrable decline in ticket sales, the only players left in the market are the donors.

So one last quote & response

Further, the root of oversupply, if it exists, is in artists insisting on supplying more of their generative work to their communities.

The root of the supply/demand issue, if it exists, is in the art-making community insisting that donors (in this case specifically the NEA) continue to subsidize an ever-greater portion of a market bubble.

Advertising ROI: a case for Facebook Ads

In a previous post, I shared the NYTN advertising budget breakdown. Today on Twitter I let a few interesting tidbits drop about how successful/not we were finding each of the methods of marketing, advertising and public relations, and enough interest was stirred that a follow up post seemed appropriate.

This is a 6 week campaign, in which we’ve purchased:

  • 1-2 small print ads in each of 3 NYC publications
  • Anywhere from 100,000 – 300,000 impressions in each of 7 online publications (including the online versions of the 3 print publications)
  • Facebook ads (social advertising)
  • Google AdWords (search advertising)
  • Public Relations (including the cost of their retainer and issuing a press release)
  • Print materials (business cards and post cards)

After the first week of the campaign, we’ve begun to see clear returns on investment. Below is the breakdown of number of visits to the NYTN site in the following categories for the 7 days ending October 3, 2010:

There are a few clarifications of terminology that may be helpful here:

  • We’ve tested 6 different Facebook ads (using different copy and targeted demographics), and continue to optimize for the lowest CPC
  • We’ve tested 3 different Google ads (using different copy and 109 keywords), and continue to optimize for the lowest CPC
  • Direct traffic includes anyone typing into their browser our URL, as well as anyone who searched Google for any variation of our name. I’ve been generous and assumed that everyone who falls into this category was swayed in some way by our print advertising
  • Public relations category includes links from our online press release and any links from articles on line about NYTN. Again, I’m being a bit generous in assuming those bloggers would not have written about us if they hadn’t learned of NYTN through our public relations team.
  • Digital advertising should be self explanatory. These are links from those 7 online publications
  • Social links includes (unpaid) visits from Facebook or Twitter
  • Other referred links is every other type of referral–from organic searches to random links

But the real story comes in with Return on Investment.

I’ve made a few assumptions that you may want to dispute in my calculation of Cost per Click:

  • Other referred links don’t cost anything. It may be the case that these links were influenced by print ads or public relations.
  • Social links don’t cost anything. True–there is the cost of my time to tweeting/posting on Facebook. But I decided not to account for my time in managing any of the marketing/advertising process, nor the cost of our graphic designer’s time.
  • Print advertising: as I mentioned earlier, I’m generously assuming that all direct traffic is coming from our print ads. That’s clearly not the case, as you can see in the next graph.
  • Digital advertising: In fairness, our ads have only been running 3 days (so I split our entire ad buy into an equivalent 3 day chunk of money). Perhaps repeat viewing will increase our CTR, and therefore decrease the CPC.
  • Public relations: In fairness, it’s difficult to break up public relations into a week-by-week accounting. It takes several weeks of follow up with any particular reporter/site, so this probably isn’t a reliable metric until the end of the campaign, looking at it instead over the entire 6 weeks.
  • In general, I’ve assumed that one category has zero influence on all of the others. For example, maybe someone saw our ad in a print magazine, then noticed it on Facebook, and finally clicked on it when they were searching Google. But that effect should be relatively evenly distributed across all categories, and therefore negligible in the comparison.

Ok you say. But what about impressions. There must be value in raising brand awareness, beyond just a click through rate.

I should mention print circulation is notoriously difficult to measure (and is thus most often over reported), so I’m a little skeptical of that category in particular. I’m also assuming that our digital ads are being evenly distributed over the run of our 6 week campaign, which they may in fact not be. So a timeline of when categories went live may be useful:

Finally, Facebook ads are the only ones able to give you demographic feedback about your clicks. Ours was incredibly enlightening.

Women accounted for 2/3 of our clicks. And while the median age of people clicking through to our site was in their late 20s/early 30s, nearly 1/4 of them were over the age of 45.

The tricky thing about all of these numbers is we’re not looking at on-site conversions. Because in fact it wouldn’t matter if (for example) digital advertising cost more per click if the people who arrived at NYTN via digital advertising were spending more money on the site than those who arrived there through other means. Unfortunately, NYTN doesn’t generate revenues. We’ve got a few measures that we could substitute like “average time on site” or “exit page=buy tickets.” But that will have to be saved for another post because it requires more digging than I’m willing to do at the moment. And of course, more generally speaking, different advertising methods reach different demographic segments, each at different stages of the purchasing decision path. If you were to advertise using just one of these sources, you would likely miss out on various demographic segments and/or people in a certain frame of mind.

But for my money, Facebook offers me:

  • More impressions than anyone else (at the lowest CPM)
  • More clicks than anyone else (at the lowest CPC)
  • Demonstrated a spike in traffic when it went live
  • An opportunity to target my ads by demographics/interests
  • An opportunity to continually change my ads, at a moment’s notice
  • Clear statistics on who is clicking on my ads

And I definitely spent the least amount of time creating our Facebook ads. Upload a logo, think up a 20-character title and 135-character copy, wait about 30 minutes for approval, and we’re off to the races. That my friends, is real ROI.

The Science of Social Media

Just wrapped up a weekend in DC with the Cultural Development Corporation of DC, teaching two workshops, and fourteen 1-on-1 strategy sessions with individual artists and DC arts organizations. I first met Executive Director Anne Corbett at the Americans for the Arts conference this past summer, and have since learned about what a nifty organization CuDC is–providing artists’ housing & office space, rehearsal studios, performance spaces, and an art gallery, advising real estate developers on mixed use spaces, offering professional development opportunities for artists, even producing an annual festival of new works.

I had the chance to meet with a ton of cool artists too–a print making studio with their own press, several Irish dance orgs, a college arts program, a theatre critic, among many many others. It’s a fun life to get to brainstorm ideas with entrepreneurial artists.

In the two workshops, the plan was to teach artists and arts administrators to use social media to build more meaningful relationships with their audience, donors, colleagues, and other important constituents. We talked about how (and when) to build a social media strategy plan, how to prioritize your efforts on social media, and how (and why) to measure your success. The two presentations have some overlap–although the Building Organizational Capacity workshop focused more on the kinds of opportunities & challenges that come with having multiple people on staff all working on social media projects, and the Personal Branding for Artists workshop focused more on maximizing the small amount of time individual artists have to dedicate to social media.

Bonus: I also just finished some more Foursquare trending research that I was able to include.

See for yourself…

New York Theatre Network: it’s launch day!

Six months ago I got a call from one of my former classmates, Frances Black, asking me to be the project manager for “a social networking site for off Broadway theatre companies in collaboration with A.R.T./New York and TheaterMania.” That sounded pretty interesting, but I was in the middle of this, so I reluctantly turned the opportunity down. Two months later she called back, “Pretty please?” Ok, ok, who am I to turn a chance like that to actually practice what I preach–social media for the theatre.

And thus began my contract with the New York Theatre Network:

The New York Theatre Network is your hub for what’s happening on New York City stages. From the hot new company you’ve never heard of, to the theatre you’ve been subscribing to for years, NYTN is the place to find out what’s coming up, who’s tweeting ticket discounts, and which theatre company makes the best YouTube videos. Sign in with Facebook to see what recent shows your friends liked. Be in the know.

In the first few months, I had an awesome partner, Meghan Pressman–together we created a marketing strategy plan and an education strategy plan. She did 95% of the heavy lifting for these plans. Which, of course, as soon as the project began, we had to promptly throw out the window.


In the end, we chose 3 print publications, 7 websites, Facebook, and Google, to run an ad campaign over the course of 4 weeks. Each ad has its own tagline, and (we hope!) the graphics tie together the whole campaign. Look out for all the ads on your local newsstands, website browsings, and theatre-lobby-wanderings.

I’m pretty stoked that we have a few weeks to experiment with different Facebook & Google ads. I just wish it were that easy to tailor all those other digital ads. We’ve even tried to space out our print ads to get a better sense of CPA, because the CPM‘s are maddeningly different between publications. And you know what else is maddeningly different? How to submit the dang ads. Digital portals, generic email addresses, account rep’s, messenger service. Somebody should really consolidate that.

We also hired a great PR firm, AMP3 PR who have a background in launching new websites, and an awesome graphic designer, Maggie Elliot, who has a background in coming through FTW on tight deadlines, vague instruction, and no budget (she also does all the creative for Yale Rep). There’s been much debate about whether PRNewswire or PRWeb would be the best venue of choice for our press release. And I learned a valuable lesson in paying for backlinks: the day before our press release went live, the phrase “New York Theatre Network” yielded just 3 results on Google (ouch). The day after: over 15,000. Talk about SEO. And we’ve already begun to generate some great press:

And we continue to run a Twitter profile, though not a Facebook page. Both were quite difficult decisions to make; knowing that my time with A.R.T./New York is limited, and there simply aren’t spare minds & hands around the office to take on more work. Ginny Louloudes has been a trouper learning to tweet though! And if wishing made it so, we would have had a Foursquare badge. Theatre Nerd anyone? (maybe like the little guy with the glasses?)


Surveys are tricky–especially with a finite population and limited response rates. The first survey we did about A.R.T./New York member theatre’s experience with, and comfort with, social media implied they were rolling along their merry way, practically headed towards Foursquare nirvana. I got all freaked out, demanded impossible features from our tech team at TheaterMania for the nytn.org site, and began planning an ambitiously advanced social media curriculum. Then we did another survey about what in particular member theatres wanted to learn about social media, and heard things like, “How do I start a Facebook page?” and “Where can I list my show online?” Hmm…there seems to be a disconnect here. In the end, we tried to plan a mix of workshops & informal discussions to get the ball rolling. And we were lucky to get:

  1. Dave Charest to teach Demystifying Social Media
  2. Erica McLaughlin to teach Efficiently Using Social Media
  3. Sarah Lasley to teach Creating Videos for YouTube
  4. Reva Cooper to teach Listings that Work
  5. Dennis Baker to teach Increasing Traffic with SEO
  6. Me (less lucky, more like stuck with me) to teach Social Media Strategic Planning

And I facilitated weekly round table discussions Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Blogging. Including some nifty new research on them all, where I tried to answer:

  • Who’s using this platform?
  • What are best practices?
  • What works best, based on the research?
  • What else could we do, if we’re an advanced user?
  • Where can we go for further resources?

About 1/4 of all A.R.T./New York member theatres attended one of these education events, many of them attending multiple events with multiple staff members.We follow up each of the workshops with an online survey asking attendees about:

  • What they expected to learn
  • What they actually learned
  • What they thought of the instructor’s knowledge & engagement
  • If they expect to actually use what they learned at their theatre
  • Convenience with the logistics
  • If their overall expectations were met

We’re also totally grateful for the Flip Video Spotlight for Good program for sponsoring our purchase of technology to video tape the workshops, and lend out the flip cams to member theatres for their own use.


TheaterMania are the great folks behind the actual nytn.org site design & architecture. Big shout out to Dave Stanke, John Issendorf, and Ed Highfield for putting up with my endless requests for new features, submitting countless bug reports, and general needling about the 20 things that must be fixed right now. It was a huge learning experience for the A.R.T./New York team about the intricacies of launching a new website. We navigated through internal beta to private beta, to our launch of public beta today. I’ve been amazed at our frequent use of off-the-shelf products: the site itself is built on top of a wordpress platform, a Facebook open graph app powers our recommendation engine, a Google form serves as our bug report tracking, and we’ve got a Gmail support email.

We’ve written what feels like reams of website copy. Easy to forget that every single word on a website has to come from somebody’s mind/fingers, and get through the approval process of 2 organizations.

We’ve also been able to generate *tons* of support documentation: from screencasts to PDF’ed tutorials to FAQ’s. And we’ve brainstormed wishlists like:

  • What if every theatre could link to as many of their social media profiles as they wanted on their NYTN page?
  • What if the NYTN page promoted upcoming shows just like Hulu?
  • What if it was as easy to search for a theatre company as it is to scroll through Google Images?
  • What if we had faceted search like MenuPages?
  • What if we integrated with Talkbackr?
  • What if our Dashboard was the best of Postling and Flowtown?

And a whole list too long to enumerate here.

Every week, we track bugs submitted/fixed, member sign ups, and how many of each type of content members are updating. None of this is automated yet, so it’s a lot of me and Rebecca Phillips counting things by hand.

The last tricky thing we’ve yet to solve is WTF should go in our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use. We’ve tried compare/contrasting TheaterMania, HuffingtonPost, IMDB, BoingBoing, and TrustE, to no avail. I’m too stubborn to simply copy & paste someone else’s. I don’t like any of the templates out there. On the one hand, we don’t actually have control over much of the content posted on the NYTN site–it mostly belongs to the member theatres. And we want people to share/repurpose that content at will, and make it as easy/free of legal jargon as possible to allow them to do so. Le sigh.


Out of all of my NYTN responsibilities, this one really snuck up on me. There’s been a pretty steady onslaught of emails to write every:

  • Monday: Workshop & roundtable surveys (and then synthesizing the findings, and sending final reports on each to my boss)
  • Tuesday: Staff updates (more on these in a moment)
  • Wednesday: Promotion of upcoming workshop & roundtable
  • Thursday: A.R.T./New York member newsletter updates about NYTN
  • Friday: Reminder to A.R.T./New York member theatres who haven’t yet completed their NYTN profile

The staff updates, although admittedly a pain, provided a great opportunity to figure out: what are we measuring?? On Twitter, on our website, on our progress towards a whole set of goals & timelines. Check it out for yourself to see where we landed.

We also made a presentation to the board (and I learned keynote!).


So that’s it. We’re launched. I’m hanging around for another week or so to try to optimize the digital ad campaigns, get the budget in order, write up a final report, and teach that final workshop. For the past three months, I’ve learned how to be a Product Manager, Brand Manager, Copy Writer, Project Manager, Educator, and Social Media Strategist. I’ve got the financial resources of a nonprofit, the growth goals of a social network, and the manpower of a start up. It’s been a wild ride. And the reason postings have been a little light on 24 Usable Hours. As I pack up to leave for Bangkok, expect postings to return to their regular schedule.

So if you haven’t already, won’t you visit the site?