Tuesday, 26 March 2019 12:29

Selling Reality: Arts groups find new ways to engage audiences — both online and off

Written by  Michaela Stock
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Gone are the days of scanning TV Guide for something worth watching, or standing in silence in a line at the grocery store. 

Streaming services and smartphones have radically altered the way people access entertainment with constant contact to social media apps and on-demand streaming services like Spotify and Netflix. People can choose what they want to see, when they want to see it.

It’s no question the rise of digital entertainment influences the attendance of theater performances, gallery openings and other live events. However, its effect is not all negative, but results vary depending on how organizations choose to use new technology to their advantage. Digital media marketing provides art galleries, theaters, museums and symphonies with 24/7 access to their audience, and this access allows for historically unparalleled advertising and outreach opportunities for their organizations. 

Social media’s advertising algorithms come with a learning curve, however. Businesses such as theaters and museums have had to revolutionize the way they reach their target audiences and tend to each media platform’s rules, language and purpose. 

Several organizations in West Michigan, including The Barn Theater, Farmers Alley Theater, Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA) and the Grand Rapids Symphony have wrestled with how best to use social media and digital streaming services for gathering an audience for their live events in the age of instant entertainment. 

“It used to be you’d have a flyer, you’d send out press releases and hard copy through the mail, and you’d put an ad in papers. We had, at one time, put an ad in nine different newspapers,” said Penelope Alex Ragotzy, owner of Kalamazoo’s The Barn Theater.

Ragotzy has worked with The Barn Theater for nearly 33 years, and she’s been at the forefront of the changes and challenges presented by technological advancements within her business. 

“Social media has been a godsend for us,” she said. 

Ragotzy has taken advantage of social media platforms by creating digital content to advertise upcoming shows at The Barn by promoting performances with preview videos. She says she has found a surprising amount of success through sharing these videos on Facebook. 

“You have 10,000 people — or 10,000 views — on a video, and then all their friends start viewing it,” Ragotzy said. “We’re reaching 30,000 people at a crack. That just speaks volumes to how things have changed and how many people we can reach for free.”

Farmers Alley Theater’s executive director, Adam Weiner, agrees with Ragotzy on the benefits of sharing videos on social media. 

“A lot of theaters across the country know that, with the rise of social media, pictures don’t necessarily do their events justice,” Weiner said. “Whether it’s a 10-second video or a 30-second video, behind the scenes or any type of hook you can get with the public and why they should come see the show … those videos should try to accomplish that.”

Chris Koens, the UICA’s marketing and communications coordinator, also deals with social media daily. His mission is to publicize the UICA’s weekly events. 

“We do six days of films every week, for the most part,” Koens said. “We have two films playing in our theater that alternate, and then you have special events like gallery openings as well as fundraising events and things like that, since we are a nonprofit organization. 

“Our exhibitions open every couple of months, and we have a rotating schedule because we have basically four floors of galleries. And beyond that, we have community events, because we do rent out spaces within our facilities.”

With all the buzz and happenings at the UICA, Koens has a lot to keep up on when it comes to marketing. He sees online platforms as more than just a means to get people through the UICA’s doors, however. Koens says social media services are helpful for continuing conversations on real-world topics that were sparked by attendees inside the gallery spaces.

“Contemporary art is being made now, and that means it’s being made by people who are in the world, so it means the artists are dealing with the things that we’re all dealing with,” Koens said. “It makes it a little easier for the audience to connect with that, because a lot of the things that artists are dealing with, struggling with and wanting to talk about are the same things that the people — the general public that maybe aren’t the creators of the world — are talking about too.”

The Barn Theater. Courtesy Photo

But what about Netflix?

Despite the multiple benefits social media platforms have for businesses, these new online resources can sometimes cause headaches for organizations trying to draw people in for live events. Entertainment services like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube provide a wide array of entertainment options for people to enjoy at home, maybe even in their sweatpants.

Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s senior manager of communications and media relations, has dealt with the onset of social media marketing and its pros and cons.

“The challenge, of course, is people do have more choices, and there’s greater competition for time in entertainment,” Kaczmarczyk said. “And yes, people are spending a lot more time online doing things, and then there are still only so many hours in the day and so many dollars in your wallet.”

Koens agreed, saying, “Everybody is vying for the same audience. Everybody’s working with the same amount of audience time and resources.”

Whether it’s targeting music lovers at the symphony, art enthusiasts at the museum or playbill collectors at the theater, arts organizations have a constant battle in figuring out where and how to get the word out.

“We still struggle to get people in the door. We still have to worry about whether to use Facebook or Instagram or writers or print media in general, and how to research to target the audience we need to get to,” Koens said. 

Weiner from Farmers Alley sees the challenges as well. 

“It’s so hard to compete with home entertainment,” he said.

Nothing beats a shared experience

Although it might seem old fashioned to attend a play at a theater for entertainment when anyone can turn on a movie with the tap of your fingers anytime, anywhere, Ragotzy at The Barn believes live theater is still incredibly relevant to the younger generation and presents an experience to an audience that can’t be found off the stage, even if they’re unfamiliar with the title of the play being performed. 

“This isn’t your grandmother’s theater anymore,” Ragotzy said. “What I’m trying to get people to understand is the whole experience. Yes, you might not know that show, but it doesn’t matter because you’re going to have so much fun doing all these other things. Have some dinner and drinks and see the aftershow, and you’ll have a blast.”

The same goes for the symphony.

“That’s the difference between watching a sporting event on TV and going to the stadium and experiencing it live. It’s a different experience,” Kaczmarczyk said. “Certainly, people enjoy watching sports on TV, but most would tell you that it’s just more fun to be there. The same is true of any live entertainment, including classical music.”

Having fun is not the only benefit audiences experience, though.

“You’re turning the audience on to look outside of themselves, and to just be a better person on every level,” Ragotzy said. “That’s what theater does. You’re always looking into someone else’s life and learning from what they’re going through right there in front of you.”

Koens shares a similar sentiment with the niche independent and international films the UICA presents in its state-of-the-art theater, as well as the artists it showcases in its galleries. 

“I almost feel like there’s a big sense in society right now of wanting to become a part of something, whether that be politics or just a groupthink,” Koens said. “I think that there is something in that that makes people want to seek out a shared experience.”

The younger generations get the most backlash for using streaming services as home entertainment rather than attending performances or gallery openings. However, that perception is not entirely fair.

The UICA sees many young people walk through its doors on a regular basis, seeking conversation on real-world contemporary events. And Farmers Alley Theater offers subsidized shows for college students with a valid ID to make the theater more accessible for student budgets. 

“I think sometimes there's a disrespect toward the Millennial generation,” Koens said. “The younger generation is pigeonholed into this group of people who maybe doesn’t care or who maybe isn’t connected.”

In the end, whether you’re 20 years old or 80, and whether you attend an event because of a print ad or an Instagram post, what Koens, Weiner, Kaczmarczyk and Ragotzy want West Michiganders to know is that live performances and gallery openings aren’t going away anytime soon.

“There’s a shared excitement that only happens when you’re surrounded by other people who are enjoying the same music at the same time, in the same place. And that’s powerful,” Kaczmarczyk said.

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