The Tweet That Never Ends

After whining a couple weeks ago about the hot topic of live-tweeting during theatre performances, there was a fairly vocal response in the comment section.  I’d say about 50% were squarely in my corner and the other 50% were wrong.  Just kidding.  The response was about 50/50.  There were some great points made on both sides.  Some people were a little more personal and reductive in their arguments, but for the most part the responses were reasoned and respectful.  After I posted this, Kendra (@klchell on the Twitter), invited me to come out to Antaeus to sit in on a performance while it was being live-tweeted so I could experience first hand what it’s like to be part of the audience.  So I attended their workshop performance of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker last night.  Here are my thoughts (and some statistics for good measure)… 

Let me start off by clarifying a couple things.  First, I’m 100% pro-twitter.  And I have been since November of 2008 when I started the account for Boston Court.  This is not an argument for or against using Twitter as a means to connect to the audience.  This is purely an argument for using this social networking tool the best and most appropriate way.  Secondly, I am all for experimentation.  But I’m also a firm believer that an idea isn’t a good idea just because it’s new.

I did a little homework on Twitter usage statistics (with the help of my former Summer Intern, Emily.)  I learned a couple things that backed up some of my initial assumptions.  My first assumption was that Twitter isn’t the “reach-out-to-the-younger-audience” tool that many assume it is.  I found a lot of statistics on Twitter usage based on age (and found some contradictory stats) but the most consistently reported stats on age demographic is in the ballpark of 13% of Twitter users aged 18 to 25 with 30% aged 26 to 34 and 27% aged 35 to 44.  (This report says 45% of users are between 18 and 34, but this one breaks that age group in half to show the older half skews much higher – also note that there are 2x as many younger users of Facebook). Some of this depends on what one characterizes as a “younger” audience.  Younger than… ?  I’ll stick with classifying the 18 to 25 crowd as “younger” because that is generally the youngest appropriate demographic for the work we do here at Boston Court.

My next assumption was that 8pm was not a prime time to be sending out the most effective tweets.  I found many charts on this topic, but most of them were from 2 years ago like this one, which shows a usage spike in the afternoon and a drop during the 8pm and 9pm hours and another spike from 10pm to 11pm.  But this chart shows something interesting.  There’s an immediate drop off in re-tweeting beginning at 8pm while there is a rise in “random” tweets starting at the same time period.  I love playing armchair psychologist, so I will make the grand assumption that people become less connected to the people they follow on Twitter at the end of the day and just complain about their days.  That’s a fair assumption, right? (For those of you not-in-the-know, a re-tweet is like a measurement of how successful your tweet was. If you get several people to re-tweet something you said, it essentially means it resonated.)

My point with this time-of-day thing is that the most effective time to connect to an audience via Twitter is the afternoon while we are all toiling away at our menial jobs.

I fully recognize there are statistics out there to prove any point and I’m making plenty of assumptions based on my own interpretations.  But I’m doing so with the goal of identifying the best ways to utilize the concept of live-tweeting that will most benefit a theatre relying on it as a marketing tool.  What I’ve learned so far is that, although Twitter is a technology and younger people love technology, it isn’t a path to their front door.  I also learned that if you want to use this channel to connect with your audience, young or otherwise, you should be doing it during the afternoon or later at night.  Which brings me to a couple practical recommendations:

1) Hold a post-show live-tweeting symposium/discussion.  If Twitter usage peaks at 10 and 11pm, and most theatre performances end around that time, why not do your live-tweeting at that time?  This mitigates a few issues I have with the concept (and have repeated many times):

a) Theatre is not designed to be a fractured experience. When you break from the action for a moment, you fracture the experience in order to tweet.  For example: I just watched a comedy last night.  There were jokes I loved that were tweet-worthy. If I broke from the action to tweet one, I could have missed the next joke.  The play was fast-paced.  There were only a couple moments during the entire evening when I would have had enough time to break away from the action and tweet without missing anything. This is really the bottom-line issue for me.

b) Theatre is not meant to be shared moment by moment.  It is meant to be consumed as a whole and then responded to.  The play is often greater than the sum of its parts.  You could tweet something that doesn’t make sense to you, or something you didn’t like, only to have it make sense or be enjoyed later on.

c) Tweeting is disruptive to the audience.  In fairness, I was in no way disrupted by the tweeting going on directly behind me last night at Antaeus.  But allowing this to happen during a performance certainly creates a slippery slope.  We were told during the pre-show announcement to turn off our phones.  What are the rules for the audience if some are allowed to live-tweet? Does that mean I can check my Facebook or my email? If I’m bored can I text my wife to tell her how bored I am? What are acceptable uses of your phone when you allow people to live-tweet? Are there, then, no rules? Can anybody can do anything with their phones whenever they want?

2) Hold daytime tweet-fests.  If you have a daytime rehearsal, photoshoot, designer run-through etc, have the marketing team connect with the production team to figure out a good time to have people tweet during rehearsals.  You may find a significantly higher impact if you can do it when more of your followers are online.  (By the way, I love to measure success. If anybody reading this has any thoughts on success metrics, please share them in the comments below.)

Create thoughtful tweets.  Take it outside the performance itself and directly engage with your tweet-loving audience while giving them enough time to put adequate thought into their tweets.  It keeps your audience happy and it gives the resulting tweets more validity because they weren’t made as quickly as possible in the darkness of a theater.  I know I would be more apt to not only participate in a post-show or daytime tweetfest, but I would be more likely to read the Twitter feed of people participating in it.

**

I have plenty of questions about who is actually being reached and what the return has been during the recent live-tweeting splurge.  I so far have only heard how much people enjoyed doing it.  That begs the question: Is the actual benefit in engaging with the tweeters themselves?  The tweeters love doing it. I’m anxious to learn more about what effects they’ve had with their tweeting.

I don’t like how this discussion became so reductive and sarcastic.  I may be partly to blame for that because of the tone in my original statement on the subject. Ultimately, I’m not in the business of poo-pooing anybody’s idea, I’m in the business of borrowing every good idea I can find.  When it comes to live-tweeting, I want to find ways for it to be something I can stand behind, participate in and allow to happen in the theater where I work.  As I see it now, it doesn’t work for me.  Other people (tweeters, theaters, etc) may love and find great value in it. That’s fine. What works for you is all that matters.  I just hope some of what I stirred up here can be put to good use.

Brian Polak is the Marketing & Communications Manager for Boston Court Performing Arts Center.

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5 responses to “The Tweet That Never Ends

  1. I’m entirely with you. Unless the play itself cries out to be tweeted (FACEBOOK: THE MUSICAL!), I don’t want to see anyone’s phone during the course of it.

    If theaters are hot on the idea, perhaps there could be a special “tweeted” performance built into their run, much like many theaters build in a few performances that are signed for the hearing impaired. If an audience member is dying to tell everybody about every minute of their play experience, it will give them an opportunity. The rest of us will know to pick another night to attend.

    ~Ellen

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  2. I’ve said before, and I’ll say briefly again, having followed a lot of live-tweeted performances, I haven’t seen a single tweet that couldn’t have waited till after. Tweeting that “I love British accents!” adds nothing to the experience of a show, yet that’s typical of most live-tweeted plays.

    Of the Antaeus shows in particular, if the argument is that the live-tweeting will interest those of us on the outside and make us want to see the shows, I’d have to say the only live-tweeted show during #cf11 that interested me was “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” and that for one reason. There was a large gap in the second half of the show of about twenty minutes where nobody tweeted a single thing, then several “sorry, I was paying attention” tweets after the scene in question. I want to see that scene.

    I’m sure the rest of the productions during #cf11 were very good. But the outward appearance from all the tweeting left the impression that there was plenty of time to tweet.

    I love the idea of the post-show talkback/tweetback. That makes much more sense, and utilizes twitter more efficiently, sparking conversation when the conversation is the central focus.

    (And obviously, I’m also pro-twitter, as I’m nearing 70k tweets since June 2008.)

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  3. Hello Brian, thank you for your comments and thoughts! I think some intention is being lost in the translation. In my experience, tweet seats are not an outreach tool at all — the tweets have no context to people not viewing the show at the time of the tweets. When I attended a tweet seats show at a theater out here, ten Twitter users got together before the show, met each other, shared some wine, and got to know each others’ usernames. Then we went into the theater and sat in the back row, and commented on the show as it happened. There was a moderator provided by the theatre company who was asking questions and giving comments. There were people in the group that were super knowledgeable about the playwright, and who were making connections for me in the work that I would have never known — connecting characters to characters in other plays, etc. This is “meta viewing” for sure, and not unlike listening to the directors commentary on a DVD as you watch the movie. I found the process quite enjoyable, and it was a mental workout. I mean, my brain was tired when I left the theater. But it was a good tired — I had experienced theatre in a new way, and was pondering a different plane of subtext etc. that I would not have had just by watching the play. It was also an intensely social experience with new friends, and there was a positive feeling of camaraderie that we all felt leaving the show. So I submit that tweet seats, done right, are not an outreach method. They are a social, “meta” viewing experience with like-minded people in the venue, for those that want to have that experience. They are not designed to replace the traditional theatre experience — they are just a way to experience theatre in a new way. As long as these people do not bother others (sitting in the back, screens dim, etc. — all things the theater should assist with), I do not see how anyone is harmed. And for those that like this type of experience, who leave the theater feeling great about how they just spent their time, how is that not a positive thing for theatrical attendance? I feel that theatre companies should be helping people to experience the work in different ways — not to “reach a younger audience,” but instead to increase engagement, promote understanding, and to adjust to people exploring their own tastes. I think this can all be done while still respecting the “traditional” theatre attenders’ experience.

    Thank you for exploring the topic in such detail, and I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts with you.

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    • This sounds like a pretty excellent experience. It doesn’t mitigate all of the inherent issues I find with live-tweeting, but it sounds like it was a great way for you to engage with the work.

      What still keeps me from entirely embracing the concept is the fact that in order to tweet a show you need to (at least momentarily) disengage from it in order to type on your phone. Most plays are not created with built-in moments when an audience member can disengage in order to type a thought into the phone. So, while you may be have a great experience, you don’t know what may or may not be happening in these moments. If you were live-tweeting on your second viewing of the show, that is an entirely different matter. And that is probably preferable to me.

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