Ron Evans

There is a lot of content on the web on “how to create stronger social media connections.” A simple Google or Bing search will show a ton of articles (when I checked for that search term, Google actually had 129 million results it thought relevant — even if it is only 1% correct, that’s a lot of articles!). I know that a lot of arts organizations struggle with best practices for social media. In preparation for my upcoming webinar with the National Arts marketing Project on July 10 on the psychology of social media, I thought it might be useful to get away from all of the technical aspects of using social media, and talk about the human side. The interaction side. The “what happens in the brain” side.

Why do people “like” you on Facebook or follow you on Twitter?

Do you know the answer? They like you or follow you for a variety of very human reasons:

  • They support the good work you are doing
  • You say interesting or helpful things
  • You are entertaining
  • They have a financial interest in you in some way
  • They want their friends to know they are connected to you

This is the same behavior we see with real friendships. Are you good friends with people who don’t have at least one of the qualities above? Likely not. So in this personal, social space, which isn’t like any other form of “marketing,” by now we know it’s bad to just “sell sell sell.” To explain, I like to make the connection that you should talk on social media like you talk to someone in an elevator. Let’s picture this scenario:

You’re in the elevator as I step in. We look at each other and smile and then look at the buttons or the floor level or the little sticker that says how many people can legally get in the elevator. Then I turn to you in one quick motion and yell “BUY TICKETS NOW!”

What would you do? If you haven’t already stabbed me in the neck with a pen, you’re turning into Bruce Willis in Die Hard and climbing out of the top of the elevator.

But, if I’d stepped into the elevator, commented that we were both going to the same floor, or asked about the weather to break the ice, I imagine a much different interaction. One where I might be able to tell you about my play I was going to rehearsal for. One where you would see me as a real person with feelings and interests. One that would save me from certain death by you and your writing utensil.

Now apply this to the social space and your Facebook or Twitter account for your arts group.

First of all, arts groups don’t get into elevators with people. People who work at arts groups get into elevators. Those people have passions that are interesting and are influential on patrons. Those are the people I want to follow. People don’t have relationships with organizations on social media, they have relationships with people. So I tell my social media clients to sign their posts by whoever is posting. To use first-person narrative. To be honest and transparent with who they are, and avoid speaking with an “institutional voice.”

As a practical example, here is an actual Facebook post I recently saw for the XYZ Ballet Company (names changed).

Come to our opening night performance of Romeo and Juliet this Saturday. Tickets are on sale now: 800-555-1212.

Who is speaking? The ballet company? Remember, ballet companies don’t talk, in elevators or on social media. People who work at ballet companies should be doing the talking. Sharing their real experiences. Their anticipation for a performance. With this in mind, how about this rewrite:

I can’t believe opening night is three days away. Everyone here is so excited; there is this feeling in the air. We’ve never done Romeo and Juliet before, and I’ve avoided the rehearsal so I can be surprised on opening night! If you still need a ticket, call me at 800-555-1212 and I’ll see what I can do to help you. Can’t wait! -Ron

It’s a story. It’s excitement. It’s transparent and real. It offers personalized help. It shows a real person, with a real name and signature. It implies that many tickets have been sold already but there still may be a chance for you to experience this one-time event of the first-time performance.

And it is much more effective.

I’m getting reports from clients that they are seeing double and even triple the numbers of likes, comments, shares, and retweets since implementing a personal voice instead of the institutional voice. For a live example of this style at work, see Opera Australia’s Facebook page at which is run by the incredible Anna Mcdougall. Anna is Opera Australia’s representative for the social media experience. She signs all posts. She signs all comments. And she gets personalized responses and a huge number of interactions. Major kudos to her online leadership and to Opera Australia’s stance to allow this rich interaction between patrons and staff member.

It is especially remarkable because I find that ballet, symphony, and opera companies have the hardest time making this marketing switch to having a personal voice — they are usually very entrenched in traditional-style marketing voice, and consider it unprofessional to have this level of openness. But why? The evidence seems to show that personal social media voice gets more interactions.

When you treat people like individuals instead of the “unknown public,” when you present a real person who is passionate about the art form who helps other people to become passionate too, wonderful things can happen. The psychology lesson is that people feel more comfortable interacting with real people vs. institutions in general, and they show you that by their likes, comments, shares, retweets, follows, etc.

In the upcoming webinar, we will explore these and other psychological techniques in more detail via additional case studies for different genres. I will discuss why my research suggests that organizational social media should be highly connected to someone in the development department. And you’ll receive specific guidance on how to implement these ideas for your organization. I’m looking forward to working with you.

Register for Ron’s webinar on July 10th, The Psychology of Social Media: Using Human Behavior to Drive Online Interactions. Ron will be continuing this conversation about consumer behavior at the 2012 NAMP Conference by leading the session, Consumer Psychology: New Experiments that Use Science to Grow Your Audience.

*Reprinted with permission from
Group of Minds Arts Marketing Articles


Thanks Ron for this post. There are so few resources for arts organizations in this realm and it is great to see such a thoughtful analysis of what is happening. I will have to respectfully present another perspective.

We are an arts-centric firm that's been offering PR and social media for 6 years to dozens of orgs and artists. We work with nonprofits, for profit creative ventures, civic endeavors, and corporations wanting to use social media to drive other goals. In our experience, it IS all about engagement rather than likes or follows. The engaged follower is a loyal follower and can help grow your following via their networks and enthusiasm.

The problem we've encountered time and again with this idea of personal voice on social media, is three-fold: 1) arts workers are often not trained or working with any guidelines for tone or content, 2) social media is neither a priority of their workload or part of their training which can lead to poorly composed or timed posts that go unmonitored, and 3) employees leave which can create disruptions on social media. Unfortunately, there are not enough Anna Mcdougalls to go around.

Furthermore, I would assert that while engaging with the sorts of stakeholders that know and would want to know staff members by name is important in some digital forms, Facebook and Twitter is not the ideal place for institutions to be showcasing their staff post by post. Blogs and Instagram and Pinterest, perhaps - but with Facebook and Twitter it might be a distraction to the mission, the programming, and what the audience wants. Maybe.

I submit that what might merit consideration is not dropping the institutional voice, but rather creating an appropriately responsive, smart, and less starchy voice for social media. We've got lots of examples of audiences engaging with brands on social media vs. staff people. I believe that the average person does not want to strike up a conversation with the marketing person in the elevator. The artistic director? That's a different story..

P.S. Make sure you have a clear agreement with employees on who owns the tweets and accounts:

Alternatively, give your institution a personality. We're one of the smallest agencies in California state government, but 18,000 people follow us on Facebook - and the number grows daily. Governmentspeak can be the deadliest of all institutional voices, so we chucked it. But (as you can see) we've kept the editorial "we" rather than sign our posts with someone's name. We want our constituents to know that it's the California Arts Council serving them, not Joe or Mary.

So basically we're agreeing with you. We're just pointing out an alternative route to the same destination. :)

Thank you David for your insightful comments. You bring up a good point that the capacity of the arts organization is a factor to consider in my recommended type of engagement. If they don't have that capacity or a person who will be in the position for awhile, this may not be the best fit for them. But for those that have that capacity to get someone like Anna, early results look awesome. Or why not have the artistic director tweet? I'm all for it -- whatever is real. Thank you also for posting about content ownership -- it is an important consideration. Great article!

And thank you for posting, er, "California Arts Council" -- see, I want to say "Thank you for posting Mary, or Sid, or Tony FROM the California Arts Council"-- to treat you as an individual and thank you for your thoughtful comments directly. It feels to me like I'm not giving you proper credit! In the end, each organization has a different set of rules that govern it -- some rules are capacity based, some are political. Each organization needs to weigh these variables to decide how they want to approach these ideas. So I applaud you for ditching the "governmentspeak" and I'm sure my fellow California citizens do as well! I think we can all agree that if every arts organizations could stop for a minute, ask themselves how they feel about their voice -- just to consider what it is now, and what is possible -- that mindfulness would likely lead to improvement and increased social media benefits.


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