Feature | I Heart Hashtags

Using social media in consultation and evaluation projects with young people...

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Here at The Audience Agency we’re nerds. That’s rich coming from someone who used to work in a museum, but now I have an extra layer of geek-chic!

Research, evaluation, consultation, data; these may not be everyone’s reason to get up in the morning but for us, collecting evidence which helps the arts and culture sector really understand audiences, takes centre stage. And truth be told, it’s not that nerdy at all, because we are always looking for creative and interesting ways to do this.

Much of the evaluation and consultation we do in the engagement team centres on specific audiences such as families, local communities, older people and, particularly in a participatory context, young people. Of course, young people overall are pretty switched on to digital and take up new technologies faster than most. If teens are using the latest new social media platform, then likely you or I will be an avid user in four year’s time. I’m sure my mother will be all over Snapchat soon. Even I have no clue how that works – but this museum certainly does. Because of this we’re continuously exploring how social media can complement existing consultation and evaluation methodologies and offer more insight into young people experiences.

We’ve been working with Royal Opera House Bridge to explore young people’s experiences of arts and culture. We’ve consulted young people about creative interests, motivations, rewards and barriers, as well as marketing and programming ideas. This research will culminate in a report and an event, but we started the process in early 2014 by recruiting thirty 14 – 19 year olds from the region to attend some training days.

In addition to equipping these young adults, who became our project Ambassadors, with the skills to go out and interview other young people at events, we also provided training on using digital tools to support this consultation process. We created a project hashtag as well as setting up project Instagram, Audioboo and Storify accounts. This meant that over summer, when we were out and about interviewing young people, we could capture the event in other ways. Our interviews with young people were always confidential, but we used Instagram to take photos and short films to capture the event atmosphere. We also used Audioboo to interview adults who were involved in the event. Some of the older young adults in the group also used the hashtag in their own Twitter and Instagram accounts. Social media can be a confusing area when it comes the safety of young people so it is useful to see guidance, such as that provided by The Safe Network. After each consultation event we curated this social media content into one place. This became a great communications and advocacy tool, not only for keeping our stakeholders up to date, but also for engaging our young participants who couldn’t physically be at events.

When it came to analysing and reporting the responses, our social media content has definitely been a tool that complemented the interview data. It has helped convey some of the themes and responses of the research in a richer way. We are developing an event for arts organisations in the ROHB region to showcase this research and it will help us to continue the debate and engagement. We have also created an event Scrumblr and will encourage attendees to post questions for young people prior to the event. One of the most valuable reasons for incorporating social media into evaluation is that it provides an opportunity for participants or project leaders to generate their own responses rather than evaluation ‘being done to them’. Hashtags in particular are a way for individuals to respond to a shared experience – a place, an event, an idea, and emotion for example #yolo or #widn.

A second project in which I found this to be effective is the Young Creators youth programme at Wellcome Collection. We were evaluating the participant experience, as well as exploring how successfully the project has help establish a model for a long-term youth advocacy programme. Again, social media was a way to complement the observations, audio interviews and participation sessions that formed the main methodologies. At the start of the project I introduced a hashtag to participants and project staff. It was key that this was optional, but I did encourage them to share any ideas, workshop images or experiences on social media using the hashtag. Around half of the participants and the Youth Programme Manager used the hashtag, and I also used it myself during those workshops in which I took part. I pulled in images, quotes and views from a range of platforms to enrich my reporting, presenting the experience visually from the perspective of young people. Some of these posts proved to be great evidence to demonstrate how learning outcomes had been achieved – from images of workshops which showed how participants had developed new artistic skills, to pride and a sense of ownership of Wellcome Collection expressed through tweets and Instagram posts of the exhibition launch.

There are no doubt endless ways that social media can inform visitor research; I’m only scratching the surface here. It is interesting to think about what the social media indicators of a good experience are, and how we keep up with ever-changing technologies and platforms. Overall though, social media is not only complementing more traditional evaluation and consultation methodologies, but helps build engagement, initiates more of a dialogue with participants, saves time, promotes peer-led documentation and works as an effective advocacy tool. We are really interested to hear how social media has supported your own evaluation of participatory work so do let us know. And if you’d like to work with us on a similar project please get in touch.