Now that you’ve taken the first step, you need to find north, orient towards a bearing point and get moving. With digital engagement, your bearing point is your audience, and north is what they need and want from you. An “audiences first” orientation ensures that the journey you take together will matter. When you orient toward audiences first, you’ll discover your blind spots, places and ways your organization finds value that your audience does not. Listening to your audiences may require some adjustments, but you’ll find it’s made easier because people will tell you what they need and want, if you listen and sincerely want to know.
You’ll quickly realize that digital media gives each individual person—each audience member or user—the power to skim or linger over what they choose, how they choose it, and when they choose it.
The content and programs that we are used to bundling in linear, time- and location-based, and curated programs, are constantly unbundled by audiences online. They’re made nonlinear and disaggregated, and they’re as often discovered by search as through your organization. Think about an album vs. creating your own playlist, or TV and radio shows broadcast once a week vs. on-demand. These examples show the ways that audiences are in control when it comes to when, who, and what they interact with online.
How we communicate with audiences and our effectiveness in doing so are both informed by how we frame these interactions. Are our audiences customers? content consumers? users? participants? visitors? followers? or teachers? What avenues are we offering them to engage with us? What opportunities for connection might we be missing? Who might we miss because of how or where we present ourselves?
To connect with people, you must learn what’s relevant to them. You can do this by asking yourself questions like:
- How do people value our mission offline?
- What can they teach me?
- With whom can I connect?
- Who can I celebrate?
- Who can I empower?
In this section, we’ll introduce you to organizations that have found their north and made the switch to the “audiences first” mindset. Through interviews, they share how they’ve built and benefited from deeper connections. We’ll offer an exercise to help you reflect on your audiences today and what they need and expect from you, and we’ll map potential future connections. And we’ll help you consider ways to lower barriers that keep you from connecting authentically with new people and communities.
As you practice connecting, there will be missteps along the way, paths that lead nowhere, and places you’d only ever find by wandering. Finding north, and thinking deeply about who you want to reach, instead of what you want to share, is a solid direction to go at first (and also at any point when you feel lost in the future). It reminds you who your work is for.
The people you can reach online aren’t as infinite as the stars in the sky, but they can seem to be. With this section, you’ll find the star that matters the most right now, the north star — your audience — and it will orient the rest of your journey.
|15 minutes to skim
1 hour exercise
2 hours cultural plunge (min)
30 minutes to explore links
15 minutes to read again
4 hours total over several days
Interviews Practitioners on Needs First
We learn what our audiences need and want by asking them.
We reached out to Museum Hue Co-Founder & Strategic Director Monica O. Montgomery to learn about how they approach their work and audiences with intention and commitment, using digital platforms to foster community and change both online and in the museum sector.
We cull our content directly from the community versus curating content that we decide is meaningful.
We reached out to Director and Co-Founder P. Carl and Cultural Strategist and Co-Founder Vijay Mathew to learn how HowlRound has cultivated an online commons for connecting with and empowering their audiences.
Exercise Create an Audience Roadmap
Take an opportunity to discover who you want to connect, empower, celebrate, or learn from.
This exercise will first ask you to think broadly, then very specifically, then broadly again. At the end of each part, you will be asked an important, but somewhat elusive question. Give yourself the space, time, and opportunity to think deeply with these questions as you write your answers stream of consciousness style.
Note: Stream of consciousness writing is writing whatever comes to mind without editing along the way. It is often best to decide not to share your writing before you write it to relieve yourself from any stress that might come from writing for others. For these exercises, it is best to write for the full time allotted. If you find yourself stuck when writing in this mode, write about the fact that you are stuck, or simply write or type out the alphabet until something comes to mind.
Step one: Brainstorm Broadly
Think broadly about who you are connected to. Consider participants, advocates, partners, and potential donors, staff, volunteers, paid audience, neighbors, vendors, and so on. Using post-it notes, write one constituent per post-it in large handwriting. On a large desk, wall, or window, position those you are closest to in the inner circle and those you have the least relationship on the outskirts. If you have a whiteboard, feel free to draw concentric circles to delineate (and even describe) the nature of the relationship.
Optional: Invite a co-worker or community member to see your work and revise if necessary.
Step two: Write for 7 Minutes
Set a timer for seven minutes and write reflectively, stream-of-conscious style on the question, “At this point, what am I seeing? What relationships are at the center of our circle?”
While you are writing, consider answering this question from an inclusive point of view, paying special attention to seeing cultural differences. You are looking for blinders and absences as much as you are looking for new opportunities.
Step three: Narrow Your Focus
Review your map and select 1-3 kinds of relationships to consider for social media experimentation. This could be one you know well (inner circle) or one you’d like to know better (outskirts). For the relationships you selected, write their name in the middle of a blank sheet of paper (one per page). Create spokes off the relationship, listing “what’s in it for them” to follow you with their online attention. Feel free to create sub-spokes in the style of a concept map if that’s helpful.
Optional: Review each sheet of paper and highlight or note any obvious overlaps or lines that can be drawn between relationships.
Step four: Write for 7 Minutes
Considering both the post-it map and your relationship sheets, set a timer for seven minutes and write reflectively, stream-of-conscious style on the question, “At this point, what am I not seeing?”
As in the previous exercise, while you are writing consider answering this question from an inclusive point of view, paying special attention to seeing cultural differences. You are looking for blinders as much as you are looking for new opportunities.
Step five: Discover New Relationships
Based on your prior reflections, create a post-it for any constituent you may not have thought of previously and add it to your post-it map. Who could you serve who you aren’t currently reaching? Be sure to use a post-it of a different color from your original map.
Step six: Write for 7 Minutes
Set a timer for seven minutes and write reflectively, stream-of-conscious style on the question, “What are the possibilities I see?”
As in the previous exercise, while you are writing consider answering this question from an inclusive point of view, paying special attention to seeing cultural differences. You are looking for blinders and absences as much as you are looking for new opportunities.
Reflection Go On a Digital Cultural Plunge
April Harris-Britt, Ph.D., is a Licensed Psychologist specializing in child, adolescent, and family issues. She received her doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has trained in a variety of clinical settings including UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, the Orange-Person-Chatham Mental Health Center, the Center for Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and several area school systems. Dr. Harris-Britt completed her internship in the Department of Psychiatry at the UNC School of Medicine, where her major rotations were in Pediatric Psychology, Child/Adolescent Inpatient Psychiatry, Child Maltreatment, and the TEACCH Center.
Step 1: Understand What a Cultural Plunge Is
Simply put, a cultural plunge is individual exposure to persons or groups markedly different in culture … from that of the “plunger.” — Jesús Nieto, 2006
This activity was originally meant to take place in the real world, on the turf of the community or culture one is plunging into. You can go on a cultural plunge by visiting organizations and establishments or attending services where the racial or ethnic make-up, language, social status, age, identity, orientation, or physical abilities of the people in that space are different from your own. Some good examples of this are attending a religious ceremony, participating in a unique cultural event, or interacting with homeless, gay, senior, or differently abled people. While you are welcome to try this out in person, we invite you to go on a digital cultural plunge as a part of this section.
Why plunge digitally?
A cultural plunge gives us exposure to people and beliefs we may not experience regularly. Through social media, we can discover things that we may not see in the real world. We can notice what is shared, how, and with whom. We can listen to conversations. This may help us understand what others value and feel is worthy of their attention and influence. It allows us to appreciate people representing themselves with their own voice. It can also reveal barriers to participation for particular audiences we may be trying to reach. In this sense, the cultural plunge is about learning and understanding what might be relevant to a particular audience, as well as perhaps coming to the realization that one’s organization – as it is – may not feel welcoming.
We hope this exercise will give you insight into and new appreciation of those you follow during your plunge, bearing in mind that sharing online is often filtered and no one person or set of people can speak or represent an entire culture or community.
We also want to give you the opportunity to become aware of any values, biases, or judgments you may hold about those you choose to follow. We invite you to approach this exercise with an open mind and heart and to pay attention to your own emotions and reactions.
Step 3: Go On A Plunge
Pick at least five social media accounts that meet the following criteria:
- The account identifies as a person, group, news source, hashtag, or cause that represents a markedly different community or culture from yours.
- The accounts represent a community or group you would like to serve or join.
- All five accounts identify as the same culture or group. If you would like to do this for more than one group, repeat this exercise in a future week for a different culture.
- You do not already follow them.
And follow these accounts for at least one week. Do not reply, favorite, like, or otherwise comment or reach out to these accounts while you are plunging. Just listen and observe.
If you get stuck finding people, ask people inside your network who they know and recommend. You can also ask organizations for their suggestions.
You can ask these questions publicly or privately, to everyone or just specific individuals, in person or online. Adjust your ask to your comfort level.
Another tactic is to follow relevant hashtags. You may already know of popular hashtags, but if you do not, [try this hashtag explorer] to explain ones that may resonate with distinct communities … or try asking your network to recommend hashtags.
You only need to find one or two people in order to find others. Look at the profiles that fit the culture or community you’d like to digitally plunge into and see who they follow, like, retweet, or promote. Some social networks will recommend other accounts and users that may make sense.
Step 4: Reflect on Your Experience
Consider the following questions after one week and answer whatever is most helpful to you. If you don’t have a lot of time to do this, we recommend focusing on the bold questions.
- What was your process and reasoning for selecting the accounts you followed?
- What stereotypes exist about the culture that you followed?
- What prior contact did you have with this group or community before the plunge?
- How did this experience reinforce or challenge popular stereotypes?
- Did you become aware of any biases you hold/held?
- Describe your emotional response to this experience.
- How has this cultural plunge changed you?
- What ideas do you have about what this community or group needs?
- What ideas do you have about how you could serve or respond to those needs?
Digital (and analog) cultural plunges are a great way to explore and reconnect with the needs of your audience. Feel free to make this a regular and repeated practice.
Go Further Five Links On Relevance with Nina Simon
Nina Simon has been described as a “museum visionary” by Smithsonian Magazine for her audience-centered approach to design. She is the Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, where she led an institutional turnaround based on grassroots community participation. Nina is the best-selling author of The Participatory Museum (2010), The Art of Relevance (2016) and the popular Museum 2.0 blog. Previously, Nina worked as an independent consultant and exhibition designer with over one hundred museums and cultural centers around the world. Nina began her career at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. She lives off the grid in the Santa Cruz mountains with 14 people, 27 chickens, 5 dogs, and 1 zipline.
What does it look like when an organization listens to its community, creates audience profiles, and shifts programming accordingly? It looks like this short, inspiring report from Rotterdam Festivals (which coordinates public festivals in Rotterdam, NL).
# 2 — All the Lights On
A powerful and practical book by Michelle Hensley about Ten Thousand Things Theater–a company that presents old plays for nontraditional audiences in prisons, homeless shelters, and women’s crisis centers. This is not theater as social work; it is art in service of an important and often neglected audience. Here’s an excerpt… read the whole book if you can!
# 3 — What Gets Remembered
A 16-min NPR interview with Betty Reid Soskin, the oldest park ranger in the National Park Service, who fought for her African-American community to be represented in the planning of a new park in Richmond, CA.
An excellent article about libraries in Illinois and Colorado building relationships with Latinx communities in new ways to strengthen engagement.
# 5 — Visitors of Color
A tumblr site featuring the voices of people of color who feel unwelcome in museums.
+1 — The Art of Relevance
And of course, I strongly recommend my new book, which is widely available as of July 2016.
Think Deeper Know What You're Getting Into
What assumptions are you making about your audience?
Many nonprofit administrators are engaged in labors of love, building careers in organizations for which they care deeply. In this context, reaching out to new audiences may come with an added “of course”—I love this organization, of course new audiences will, too! But thinking like an anthropologist or sociologist studying relationships, how might you apply a critical lens to your own work? What assumptions might you be making about your audiences? Are there barriers to participation that might be preventing audiences from engaging with your organization? How might you find ways to make your organization more welcoming, inclusive, and accessible?
How can you create a relationship of reciprocity with your community?
Building meaningful relationships goes both ways, with mutual respect, learning, and benefit. Many organizations only reach out to audiences when they want something—to sell tickets, encourage event attendance, increase clicks, or find out key information. Rather than approaching audiences as objects of knowledge (whose insights can further organizational goals) or from a transactional perspective (as potential donors or buyers), how might you think of audiences as individuals with whom you want to build a long-term relationship? How might your organization serve audiences in a way that both furthers your mission and provides meaningful opportunities for audiences to connect, create, or grow? How might digital engagement help you work toward cultivating this relationship?