Social Media, Crowdsourced Reviews and the Edinburgh Festival

As usual, I spent the last few weeks of August at the Edinburgh Festival.  For those who have never been to the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s billed as the world’s largest arts event.  This year there were over 40,000 performances from 2,453 companies throughout the course of the month, selling over 2 million tickets.  However, I think that’s only around 40% of the potential tickets that could be sold.  As a result, throughout August, Edinburgh is consumed by a mad scramble of promotion, with companies handing out flyers, sticking posters all over the City and engaging in all manner of publicity stunts.  This year I expected to see companies starting to use social media and mobile phone apps to help promote themselves. Sadly, few appeared to use these at even the most basic level.

2010 was the year when the Internet finally overtook the local press.  For many years the main guide to what’s worth seeing has been the star ratings given by professional reviewers, notably from the Scotsman’s daily review section.  Over the past few years a growing number of web based review sites have emerged, with reviews contributed by audience members (and quite often by cast members).  As a result, anyone can post their own four or five star review, irrespective of the quality of the show, or their competence as a reviewer.  So every company capable of performing a Google search has been able to plaster their posters and handbills with a five star review, even though they may have submitted it themselves.  Seemingly unaware of the existence of the Internet, this triggered the Scotsman to pen a splenetic tirade about how people voicing their own opinion is devaluing the review process. 

As someone who is working with emerging location based social networking, it was disappointing to see how little has emerged at the Festival.  I came across no references to Foursquare, Gowalla or Loopt, surprisingly limited use of Facebook and Twitter and no Bluetooth marketing.  However, the growth of public reviews and the start of social media promotion by a few companies suggest that 2011 might be the year when things change and the position of the professional reviewer is finally undermined.  So what happened this year, and what do companies need to do in the future?

The Edinburgh Fringe is a curious beast.  It’s managed by the Fringe Society, who provide a box office to sell tickets for almost all of the companies performing on the Fringe.  They also publish the Fringe programme, which contains details of all of the shows and a website where audience members can submit their reviews.  A number of large venues, which house the shows, also run their own box offices and may actively promote the bigger productions.  In general the venue operators have an arrogance of approach to their potential audience which makes Ryanair appear customer friendly.  They see no problem with expecting them to queue for both tickets and shows in the pouring rain.  Whilst they may spend money on promoting big name comedians, for most of the 2,453 companies appearing at the Fringe, the only way to get an audience is to go out onto the streets and promote themselves.

In that competitive environment, you’d expect that most of them would start off with a Facebook or Twitter account to tell their friends and anyone on their mailing lists what they’re doing.  And that at the end of each show they’d encourage their audience to post comments if they’d enjoyed it.  This year I saw around eighty different productions and only three bothered to do that.  About half a dozen more had a reference in their program or on a poster to a Facebook or web page, but that was about the extent of the use of social media or the internet.  Most social networking was by the traditional techniques of thrusting flyers at passers-by, or chatting to other performers in the pub.

The other route to an audience is from a good review.  The advent of audience review websites has thrown a spanner into the works for reviews.  Last year some companies discovered the power of posting good reviews about themselves, and in some cases bad reviews about rival companies.  This year, a proliferating number of sites meant that a “five star review” became increasingly meaningless, as however bad your show, you could post and then publicise your own review.

That had the Scotsman – the paper which considers itself to be the gold standard for reviews, up in arms.  They’ve been rather slow in understanding the effect of public reviews and this year they were strident in their demands to play the Luddite card and turn the clock back.  Rather than trying to ascertain how they could regain an acknowledgement of being the gold standard, they’ve been railing about public reviews and suggesting that companies should not be allowed to use them.  They’ve not aided their case by their own performance this year.  Their review of burlesque shows by a reviewer who appeared to be severely repressed resulted in a protest march on the Scotsman’s headquarters by many of the burlesque performers.  Several of their more senior reviewers gave enthusiastic reviews to new writing at major venues which bore little comparison to what other audience members thought, and started to make their critical analysis look distinctly provincial. 

There’s an interesting project for someone to do to analyse the star ratings that each Scotsman reviewer awarded.  Overall I’d expect to see a classic bell curve, as there’s bad and mediocre stuff as well as good on display.  My suspicion from reading the Scotsman is that some of their reviewers would deviate significantly from that distribution, suggesting that they are every bit as biased or unreliable as the internet sites they despise.  If they want to be relevant in the future, they need to work out how to establish themselves as a reliable voice of authority and not just complain about the advent of audience empowerment.

Although few companies had embraced mobile technology for promotion, it was noticeable that there were a lot of iPhones around.  The demographic attending Edinburgh is very obviously not very representative of the UK population as a whole, where only 3.5% currently own them.  However, the self-serving publicity of the iPhone lovers had ensured that they were well served.  The Fringe Society produced a rather good iPhone app for finding and booking shows (although bizarrely only recommended for over seventeens) and at least one comedian had allegedly produced his own iPhone app for download.  Several performers based segments of their shows on an audience member being able to video part of it on their phone, confident that at least one iPhone user would be present.  In contrast Android, Symbian and Blackberry users were largely ignored as being irrelevant.  When questioned as to why the Fringe application wasn’t available for these at the Fringe AGM, one board member was naïve enough to query whether anyone used them?

In the absence of everything else, Twitter should have reigned supreme, but even its use seemed to be muted.  That’s a shame, as it provided the basis for an enterprising approach to crowdsourced reviews from EdTwinge.

EdTwinge was introduced last year and I’m impressed by what it’s doing, although it still has some teething problems.  It uses Twitter’s programming interface to search for any mention of the 2,500 shows in any twitter message that is sent.  It then looks for keywords within each message which indicate what the person thought of the show.  These are categorised to give a relative score (or “karma“) and aggregated to provide a public ranking.  The algorithm behind it only allows one tweet per show from each person, so it should be relatively immune from spamming.  The beauty of the system is that it’s essentially taking public data, so it should be fairly representative of what people think. 

One of the reasons I like EdTwinge is that the nature of Twitter use is spontaneous.   Whether users have something good or bad to say about a show, it’s easy enough to say it on Twitter that they’ll do it.  Very few people go to Edinburgh to be reviewers; they go to see the shows.  Even where they do feel the urge to comment and post a review to a website, it’s probably because they’ve seen something that’s either brilliant or appalling.  It means that most audience reviews are likely to ignore the bulk of productions that fall between these two camps.  So once again the bell curve is distorted.  That’s one of the advantages of EdTwinge – it should give a far more accurate indication of what people feel about the shows they’ve just seen, as the barrier to using it is so much lower. 

It has some shortcomings; if the show has a long title, people are likely to shorten it, so it won’t be picked up.  Similarly if it’s difficult to spell or misspell it may be lost.  So it had no coverage for Belt Up’s Lorca is Dead, which was the best thing I saw this year.  Equally, if the show has a single word name that is common it becomes almost impossible to differentiate it.  So Penelope – an excellent new play by Enda Wash which was probably seen by over 4,000 people was only picked up by EdTwinge on two tweets.  That’s almost certainly due to the difficulty of distinguishing tweets about it from the thousands of tweets to or from people called Penelope.  They tried to get around this by looking for actor’s or writer’s names; that works for one person shows or comedians, but has limited success for plays.  I think they err on the side of caution, as overall, EdTwinge appeared to capture fewer tweets than I’d have expected to see.

So how did it compare to the Scotsman?  Each year the Scotsman awards Fringe First Awards to what it considers to be the best new productions (excluding comedy).  This year they awarded these to eighteen companies.  With the Fringe over I though I’d compare these with EdTwinge’s performance.  Five of the eighteen were in EdTwinge’s top ten for theatre, which is pretty good going.  The ones that were missing were the ones with names that would be difficult to distinguish within a 140 character message – Bare, White, Penelope, Bound and Speechless, or with names longer than anyone would type, like the excellent Flesh and Blood and Fish and Fowl.  (I couldn’t find an easy way to see beyond the top ten on EdTwinge, so they probably did even better than this simple analysis suggests.)

That should be worrying the Scotsman.  EdTwinge isn’t perfect yet, nor does it give any depth of review, but is shows that it can pick the winners from crowdsourcing.  And that’s all most Fringe-goers want.  I still think it’s one of the best ideas to emerge for the Fringe and I look forward to seeing how they evolve next year.

So what should a company taking a show to the Fringe do next year?  Far more of them need to be aware of the power of social media, starting with Facebook and Twitter and use these to sell tickets before their run starts.  They need to make sure the audience is aware they exist on social media sites and ask them to come and promote the show to friends.  Social media by itself won’t sell a show out – word of mouth and reviews matter as well.  But the more people you can get to see your show in the first week, and the more of those that can be persuaded to promote it using social media, the better the chances of success.  It’s all about building awareness and momentum.  If they want to get onto EdTwinge, they might want to consider choosing a name for the show that is a memorable, but relatively uncommon single word. 

There’s a wider conclusion from this year’s Fringe visit, which is that many performers, directors and producers need to catch up with social media.  As arts funding gets more limited, companies have a responsibility to make sure they get the largest possible audience – something that a lot of professional companies didn’t seem to acknowledge this year.  Social Media extends that responsibility to all members of a production – actors, director, backstage and producers – promotion is no longer something that should be left to a marketing person.   For some reason, Scots based companies seemed to be less adept at this than any others, based on my experience with the bulk of the “Made in Scotland” shows.  I don’t know whether that’s because they assume that as they are based in Scotland they expect an audience to come to them?   There are some important lessons to be learnt, both by arts companies and also by the traditional media.  It will be interesting to see what much changes over the next twelve months.