Dark Side of Word of Mouth

I participated in a work session for the development of a cultural masterplan for the county today. My table was focused on ideas to attract creative professionals to the community. There was a pretty good cross-section of arts disciplines plus a couple people from the general community involved in the discussion so the quality of the conversation was surprising informative.

Some of the conversation revolved around the lack of infrastructure to ensure a consistent transition for creatives through all stages of their development. People could gain education up to a certain point, then had to leave to continue their education, but could return because there were some opportunities suited to that education. There was discussion about how to fill in that gap with things like mentoring or apprenticeships.

There was a similar conversation related to the frequency of film productions in town who had to leave to do editing and scoring elsewhere because there were no facilities for that locally. Yet there are a number of highly skills musicians capable of contributing to film/tv/video game scores. There are two product that might be of mutual benefit to each other, but nothing to bind them together.

As much as discussions like that raised my awareness about resources, there were some parts of the conversation with which I was all too familiar. A big impediment to attracting new creatives to the community was the lack of value placed on the artistic product.

People want musicians to play for free. People want to pass very little for lessons, apparently unaware of the rent and material costs associated with teaching visual arts disciplines.  Local people view the work on display at the major ceramics show as overpriced while people from out of town swoon at getting great work so cheaply.

Something that did catch my attention was mention that it is apparently difficult for new arts schools to make people aware of their existence due to the decline of traditional media channels and the way social media like Facebook has prioritized information from friends over ad content and news.

Basically, in a place where there is good word of mouth advising people where to send their kids for lessons, it is difficult for new players to break in.  From what I was told, the person trying to open a new school found that those yard signs people put up during elections were pretty effective. Unfortunately, zoning laws prevented where they could be placed and for how long. There are 3-4 existing schools in the same category and they apparently all said they don’t advertise and depend solely on word of mouth to get business.

Now theoretically, some good search engine optimization should provide the new kid in town with some exposure for anyone randomly searching for lessons. But sometimes even new residents try to tap into the local reputation network as they get themselves set up rather than doing general searches. One woman mentioned she was a long time resident of the community, but a friend just moving into the area told her where she should be looking for schools and services for her family. The newcomer had been investing a lot of effort soliciting word of mouth recommendations.

Learning this was a small peek into the dark side of word of mouth. I haven’t thought about it and paid attention to behavior enough to make any pronouncements about implications for arts and culture in general. If this is a reflection of what is happening in many communities, then a dependence on word of both in the context of a national fracturing along socio-political lines could be quite concerning. But if this is a dominant factor in my community and only associated with extra-curricular activities, then it probably isn’t a big deal.

It still may be worth paying attention to how reputation networks are operating in your communities.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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