The Art of Engagement

by Jessica Ramesh

From Tweeting about the weather to telling the story behind Tracey Emin’s bed, Tate have made digital channels central to the way audiences experience the gallery. Digital Communications Officer Maria Pavlou talks to Figaro Digital about authenticity, authority and content

You’d be forgiven for assuming that museums and galleries have a head start when it comes to content marketing. Curation and community are key components in any brand’s digital strategy. But in the case of galleries, they’re the raison d’etre. Yet when it comes to reaching new audiences and generating awareness, arts organisations face the same challenges as everyone else. Content needs to be targeted, personalised, measured and made relevant to a digital audience. These have been some of the factors Tate has overcome, picking up over two million social media subscribers in three years and expanding its digital reach so that the virtual version of the gallery is just as important as the actual galleries in London, Liverpool and St Ives.

Authenticity & authority

“Our strategy has many different angles and objectives depending on who we’re talking to,” acknowledges Maria Pavlou, Digital Communications Officer at Tate. “Our overarching ambition is to engage audiences in a way that’s personalised and relevant. We want to be delivering up-to-date, effective digital communication, adapting to trends, technology and meeting the changing expectations of our audience. We don’t just want to be seen as an authority on Tate. We want to be an authority on art, with all that entails. What I want for Tate is that it should be the place you go online when you’re thinking about art and artists.”

The gallery has an established audience who receive personalised and targeted email content. “Often though,” says Pavlou, “we’re looking to reach new audiences who may never have come to the gallery but are interested in music, fashion or whatever other discipline an exhibition lends itself to. Whenever we look at the content we’re going to present to an audience, the first priority is that it should be authentic. We look to partner with people who are genuinely interested and passionate about an artist. We’re not just looking to recruit a celebrity name.”

As an example of that strategy in action, Pavlou points to Tate’s Matisse exhibition in 2014. “There we worked with the iconic 92-year-old stylist Iris Apfel who was hugely inspired by Matisse’s work. Much of her wardrobe is inspired by art. She owns a gorgeous orange couture robe inspired by Matisse’s 1953 painting The Snail. We created a short, five minute film featuring Iris and her Matisse-inspired fashion collection which turned out to be massively popular – one of our best performing films. We seeded that out to fashion magazines, blogs and retailers including Topshop and Harvey Nicholls. It worked because Iris is so respected in the fashion world; it was authentic and it brought real kudos to the exhibition. The point with partnerships like that is there has to be a genuine fit.”

Adapting to the digital climate

An important part of Tate’s digital strategy involves enticing users to explore content more deeply. Given the huge amount of material at the gallery’s disposal, how does Tate map out the journeys they want users to take?

“For a lot of people digital activity can almost be an afterthought,” says Pavlou. “It’s often siloed away from the main campaign. For us, it’s fundamental. Our audience is global. Of our online audience, a lot of people are never going to come to London or Liverpool or St Ives. If they can’t engage with us physically, we want them to be able to do that online. Our website isn’t just about gallery information and opening hours. It’s much bigger than that. A lot of our archive is online. Fifty per cent of users are coming to us for research purposes. We want to create that offline experience online, which a lot of retailers are starting to do now. An online visit is just as valuable to us as a physical visit to the gallery. I would never see that as second best.”

Digital has also proved a fertile testing ground for new ideas. One of these has been #TateWeather: regular Tweets tied to the daily forecast accompanied by an appropriately atmospheric—in every sense—picture from the collection. The idea, explains Pavlou, was dreamt up one Friday afternoon with no real sense of how it might evolve.

“It was just a fun, slightly whimsical idea which we thought we’d have a go at, but it generated such a good reaction. There were so many retweets and comments that we’ve made it part of our outdoor campaign. Every Thursday and Saturday we take over the digital screens on the Tube with the forecast. It’s been great because it engages the audience, people follow us on social media and it warms people to the Tate brand in way that’s not a hard marketing push. It’s a fun bit of content but it gets seen by millions of people on the Underground. The point is that starting that on social media involved very little risk for us. We didn’t have to put any money behind it but it’s developed into something people really associate with Tate.”

Every installation tells a story

In March this year Tate hosted Tracey Emin’s iconic 1998 installation My Bed. This, you’ll recall, was a portrait of the artist in objects: dirty sheets, discarded clothes and empty bottles arranged around an unmade bed. It was a confrontational piece of work, but the real significance was in the backstory, which involved the breakdown of a relationship.

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“This was one of the first displays where what we did was really a hundred per cent digital,” says Pavlou. “It’s a very emotional and moving piece. We thought we can’t possibly translate all that into a static image. Video was both the natural and the most accessible medium to use. We were very lucky in that we had access to Tracey as well. We filmed her installing the bed and talking through her feelings about it. We told the whole story.”

Three films of different lengths were created for different platforms and contexts. These ranged from a 30-second slot for Facebook to a six minute version. “It worked really well. Partly because we had an iconic artist and an iconic work. But I don’t think that campaign would have received the traction it did if we’d just gone with a digital MPU ad. We made sure everything was tied into Tracey herself.”

For Tate’s 2015 installation, Emin added two oil paintings by Francis Bacon. “We met Tracey and discussed the bed and the fact that she’d hung the room with Francis Bacon works. That became the hook for a Twitter tour: Tracey Tweeted her way round the room and talked about the pictures and her own work. It was very personal; to get that sense of a live, one-on-one with an artist is very rare. She herself was fundamental to the campaign. It was what she said that made the films so great.”

Tate, of course, are in the fortunate position of hosting a world class collection of artwork, which is helpful when it comes to creating and curating content. But the strategic principles are applicable to brands in any sector. Content is grounded in stories, community, interactivity and giving audiences a reason to explore further. Gallery and strategy are inseparably entwined, which means every digital element plays a part in the bigger picture.

Feature by Jon Fortgang / Tracey Emin photograph by Ana Escobar