Arts Organizations and Community Management

Posted by Kevin Clark, Oct 05, 2012 0 comments

Kevin Clark

Last month I attended the first XOXO festival in Portland, OR. The event was intended to bring technologists and artists together to explore new ways of working that are possible on the internet. Most of the attendees work in the tech sector, but a few brave artists decided to attend. I, for one, am very glad that they did. Artists need to be a part of this discussion.

There is a lot that the arts and technology sectors can learn from each other, about developing an audience, about transformative experiences, and about how to communicate with large groups of people. There are lessons to be learned on both sides, and I look forward to future events that can bring these worlds closer together.

A New Role: Community Manager

The role of community manager is a great example of something that we in the arts can learn from the technology sector. The job title has sprung into existence in the last few years, primarily at consumer facing tech start-ups.

These companies need to develop and serve a base of users for their products, and the community manager’s job is to understand the needs of that community, to talk to them, and to connect their needs with the development of the core technology product.

Inside the company, the community manager’s role is to speak for the users. There’s a single person responsible for understanding and representing the needs of everyone who doesn’t work at the company. Because of that structure, there’s always someone in meetings who can talk about the experience of the people you serve. And if the community doesn’t have the answer you need ready, it’s their job to find it, and make sure it’s part of the company’s process.

These structures for tech companies on the social web have emerged organically along with the companies themselves.

Arts organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit, are using much older, inherited structures for relating to people outside the company. Normally, different people handle different kinds of interaction with an arts company. If you’re buying a ticket, becoming a member or subscriber, making an annual donation, recommending a production or exhibition, or thinking about joining a board or advisory body, you’re talking to completely different people.

Box office, fundraising, marketing, board liaison, etc., are all different jobs for different people. It’s easy to understand how we got here. The technologies involved in handling these communications were specialized to each role, and individuals were trained to each job. Having staff members specialize in mailing lists, or grants, or phone calls made sense—it created efficiency.

My view of XOXO founders Andy Baio and Andy McMillan. (Photo by Kevin Clark)

But doing it that way means that each staff member knows about a certain kind of interaction, instead of a certain kind of community member. The staffing structures we’re using focus our staff on the technologies that let them do their job—Constant Contact, mail merges, Raiser’s Edge—instead of on the people who support our organizations.

That structure makes us good at doing the same thing we did last year. But it makes us bad at adapting to changes in our communities. This way of doing things keeps us from understanding our communities.

There isn’t anyone whose job it is to focus on the people themselves, and what they need from us. All of our job descriptions are focused on selling tickets, or mailing list circulation, instead of successfully serving the community, or advancing the mission of the organization.

Bringing it Together

So, what do we do about that? We can learn from the tech start-ups that are building committed and active communities under a single staff structure. Often these companies are using the same tools that are familiar to arts organizations: CRM systems, ticket sales, ecommerce, subscription fees, social media, and even direct mail.

But they have two things we don’t have. The first is a better grasp of the technology itself (which is something we can learn about and do better), and the second is a community manager.

With the technology currently available, it’s a simple matter to have all of these functions integrated in one department. It’s easy to put all of your information about your community in the hands of one person, and make that person your community manager.

Of course, we in the arts world are going to need to adapt the idea of community management from its current form to suit our own organizations. It will take us a little while to figure out how to do that, and we’ll have to learn by doing.

But the fact remains that we don’t have strong enough structures for understanding who the people in our communities are, and how to serve them with our programming. Thirty years ago, that was the state of the art, and we could do any better. With the tools we have available today, there’s no excuse for not doing better.

By improving our understanding of existing technology, and slightly reorganizing our staffing structures, we can take a huge step into the 21st century as nimble, responsive organizations that are deeply embedded in our communities.

Continuing the Conversation

Community managers represent just one lesson that we can learn from the technology sector. There’s much more that they can teach us, and that we can teach them. The XOXO festival was a good start, and now it’s on all of us in technology and the arts to make sure that this conversation continues.

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