The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences

July 11, 2012

The Flame Challenge winners, and other attempts to get science communication out of its rut

I blogged recently about Alan Alda’s contest with the Center for Communicating Science: explain flame to an 11 year old. The entries, mostly from trained scientists, were judged by thousands of actual 11 year olds. But their picks, announced last month at the World Science Festival, suggest either a weak field or the kind of 11 year olds who spend too much time on Wikipedia. Compare the winners to a new NASA video that’s going around and a fizzling effort in Europe to get tween girls excited about science.

The Flame Challenge was won by Ben Ames, a 31 year old American doing graduate work in quantum optics. “I also have a passion for music, film, and the performing arts,” he writes. “So when I learned about this wonderful contest, I had finally found a project where I could put all of my interests to use.” To what effect? Channel your inner 11-year-old and take a look:

You can see the other finalists’ texts, graphics, and videos here. None of them, unfortunately, shows much clue about how the strategies and sensibilities of science communication have been changing lately.

Part of the problem lies that word ‘explain,’ which sets up someone who knows (an explainer) conveying what she knows to someone else. Right away we’re in the old knowledge-transmission model that science museums, for example, have been trying to move away from for the last decade or so (with mixed success).

And Alda probably didn’t help by emphasizing the ideal of ‘clarity’ when he talked about the contest. Making explanatory clarity the brass ring may have pushed the entrants toward the pedantic end of the spectrum. They seem to have been worried mostly about getting the facts right — and in some cases, cramming all the facts into the story.

But even within those guardrails, we could have hoped for something more than just a friendlier, animated version of a fifth-grade science textbook. What’s missing are the things that great teachers and professors do instinctively: Make us care about the question before we try to answer it. Helping us answer it instead of handing us the answer on a platter. Sharing his own personal enthusiasm for the answer in an infectious way. Making us feel like he’s talking to us, authentically, spontaneously, and without condescension. Ideally, telling us a story in which both he and (at least implicitly) we are present. ...

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Categories: Advocacy, Informal science education, Learning, Public media, Science museums, Social media, Subjectivity
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April 01, 2011

Guest blogger: Clayton Smith on the life of the (social media) party

Articles and blog posts about social media in the arts and higher ed are so ubiquitous that I wasn’t looking to add to the din. But I’ve been impressed with an arts marketer here in Chicago named Clayton Smith, and when I heard him muse about some of the things nonprofits often get wrong in the social web, I asked him to write a post.

Clayton Smith is audience development coordinator at the Goodman Theatre and an adjunct faculty member in the Arts, Entertainment & Media Management program at Columbia College Chicago. He can be reached at

Imagine that you’re at a cocktail party with 100 other people. It’s Friday night, the food is great, there’s an ice sculpture of Groucho Marx on the buffet table, most of your friends are there, and, martini in hand, you’re looking forward to having a good time.

And at first, you do have a good time. You chat with friends who wish you happy belated birthday and tell you funny stories about what they did last weekend. You see a few colleagues who vent a little bit about your boss. A buddy from your college days shows you pictures of his baby in a Van Halen onesie. But every ten minutes, a man you think you know but can’t quite place comes over and tries to sell you a blow dryer.

The first time, you shrug it off. You think, “Well this is a strange place for a salesman to make a pitch,” but he’s nice and he seems harmless, so you politely say, “No, thank you,” and get back to your friends.

Ten minutes later, he’s back. He tells you he has world-class blow dryers and boy, would you be crazy to pass them up! This time you tell him, a little more curtly, “No, thanks,” and go back to your drink.

Ten minutes later, he offers you a two-for one discount. You tell him you’re not interested, please stop asking.

Another ten minutes, and he interrupts to tell you that it’s a special edition blow dryer, available only to people at this cocktail party. You tell him no once and for all and demand that he leave you alone.

But when you go to get another drink, there he is at the bar. With undiminished enthusiasm he says that if you tell three of your friends about his blow dryers, he’ll give you the blow dryer for free, and it takes all the will power you can muster to keep from knocking out his teeth.

By the tenth time he tries to sell you a blow dryer, you scream at him that you do not want to buy his blow dryer, you will never buy his blow dryer, you will tell your friends not to buy his blow dryer, and you finish by explaining to him, in no uncertain terms, precisely what he can do with his stupid blow dryer.

You are officially not having fun at this soiree. ...

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Categories: Arts marketing, Social media
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February 14, 2011

OK Cupid and the attraction curve

It’s Valentine’s Day, so it’s fitting that I finally visited the dating website that my favorite podcaster, Rob Long, had talked about in a recent episode. Turns out the clever nerds who run OK Cupid, a booming singles site, have stumbled on a surprising statistical truth about which members get the most attention...a truth that helps explain something I’ve noticed in our own surveys of cultural audiences for years.

Now, bear with me. It’s a big leap from dating-website data to how and why people connect to an orchestra or a natural history museum. But as Rob notes in his characteristically wry take on the data, the ins and outs of attraction are a pretty good metaphor for all kinds of human preference-related behaviors, especially in leisure-time, feel-good categories like music, art, and entertainment. “Everything, when you get down to it, is kinda like dating.”

And this post traffics in the objectification of women, a dubious first for me. The OK Cupid crew have analyzed stats from their site about which female members are considered hot and which get the most messages from other members. They promise to do the same for (to?) men soon. Meanwhile, if you’re particularly sensitive to “lookism,” skip down to the bottom and post a disgruntled comment.

So what’s the big reveal? That the women on the site who get the most attention (in the form of messages from other members) aren’t the ones with the highest average attractiveness ratings. They’re the ones with the most disparate ratings — the ones about whom opinion is divided. Lots of 1s and 5s in your ratings is better than lots of 4s. As OK Cupid co-founder Christian Rudder puts it in his post about the analysis, “Guys tend to ignore girls who are merely cute” (that is, fairly but not outrageously attractive), “and, in fact, having some men think she’s ugly actually works in a woman’s favor.”

The whole post is fascinating, and the statistical analysis looks strong, especially for that counterintuitive last bit about how the lowest attractiveness ratings actually contribute more to the attention the member receives than the second-highest ratings. (And for the record, we’re not talking about negative attention. We’re talking about the correlation between the distribution of attractiveness scores and the number of approaches that men make to female members, presumably with a relationship on their minds.) ...

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Categories: Culture sector, Engagement, General, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, Research findings, Social media
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June 11, 2010

Strategy for winning young audiences: pipeline vs. parallel?

I was in Seattle last week for meetings with a few of our arts clients and attended a terrific brainstorming session about developing teen and young-adult audiences. I came in — and left — with a big question about the limits of marketing to meet the challenge.

The session was set up for us to generate ideas about how to attract more young people to the organization’s performances. At the outset, those performances were treated as a given; the question was how to enhance the desire to have those arts experiences among the target age groups.

But, tellingly, the ideas that began zinging around the room were about changing the nature of those experiences — about new approaches to programming and the artistic “product” onstage, but also about venue, format, before-and-after events, audience behavior, overall vibe, and many other aspects outside the control of the organization’s marketing department.

A few people in the room made the point explicit: No matter how clever your marketing communications are, no matter how technologically and socially networked your message is, if the experience you’re offering isn’t perceived as enjoyable by young people, they won’t come...or won’t come back. Marketing alone can’t do the trick. It’s the programming, stupid.

To quote my newfound Seattle colleague Holly Arsenault, who runs Seattle Center Teen Tix and wrote me an email after the brainstorming session:

If you were to look at our show-by-show numbers, you’d see that there’s no amount of packaging I can do that’s as impactful on our ticket sales as a show simply being compelling to teenagers. Of course, I see a difference in our numbers when I’ve done a good job of illuminating for our [teen] members why a particular show is relevant to them in a way that might not have been apparent . . . but I can’t make something that’s clearly irrelevant seem like it is — nor would I want to. ...

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Categories: Arts marketing, Arts participation, Institutional personality, Museums, Performing arts, Social media, Strategy and strategic planning, Visual art, Young audiences
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February 12, 2010

Letting their hair down, awkwardly

Yale’s already-infamous musical admissions video shows how easy it is for institutions to come across as old fashioned even when they’re using new media.

Billed as an “independent an independent collaboration between Yale undergraduates and recent alumni working in the admissions office,” the 17 minute video is a slickly-produced, peppy campus musical number in which students sing and dance answers to the question that all college recruitment videos (and viewbooks and brochures) are meant to answer: it’s titled “That’s Why I Chose Yale.”

The Gawker took its swings shortly after the video was released in mid January, and a post at IvyGate was titled “That’s Why I Chose to Ram a Soldering Iron Into My Ears.” At some point the university felt it prudent to disable the ratings and comment features on YouTube.

This week even the New Yorker couldn’t restrain itself from jumping on the pileup, running a “Talk of the Town” piece about the embarrassed giggles and cringing bewilderment of Yale alumni who have seen the video...although some of them couldn’t bear to watch the whole thing.

Wait a minute. Isn’t this the very prescription for success in the YouTube era? The video was a participatory creative act rather than a top-down fiat. It let the students speak — okay, sing — for themselves about the university, not unlike MIT’s pioneering student blogs on its admissions page (which my colleague Bill wrote about in a recent post). It uses contemporary media to meet its audiences on their own turf. It delivers its message with energy and enthusiasm, avoiding the rationalist trap into which so many educational and cultural marketing efforts fall. And it’s an innovation, a risk: just what the doctors have been ordering.

So what’s wrong with this (motion) picture?

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Categories: Culture sector, Engagement, Higher ed, Institutional personality, Museums, Performing arts, Social media, Student research
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Based in Chicago with an office in Boston, we help museums, performing arts organizations, and informal science institutions take a fresh look at their audiences and discover new ways to deepen the connection and broaden participation. More »

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Asking Audiences explores the fast-changing landscape in which arts and cultural organizations meet their public. What does relevance look like today? More »

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