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Engagement. Photo by Palo on Flickr.

by • 9 Apr, 2012 • Thoughts about museumsComments (9)2757

Engagement and outreach

Whenever I feel like there is an occasion for a party, I always quickly reject the idea. I’m terrible at throwing parties. It’s not that I’m not a good cook, don’t know about wine or have trouble keeping a conversation going. It’s not even that I know my musical taste is a bit unusual or have too few friends. My problem with throwing parties is that I know I will never quite invite anybody, or ever publicly announce the event.

This, unfortunately, is a problem lots of people are having when it comes to their digital strategy. We’re great (or at least getting better) at designing engaging online content, yet terrible at reaching people with it.

Earlier this year a theatre company in the Netherlands made a production about making news. For months they researched how to manipulate the news and how to get topics trending. The accompanying website was nicely made, with bonus materials and even an interactive YouTube video. The only problem: nobody knew about the production. They had studied making news, but forgotten to be news themselves, as the people involved had to admit reluctantly in an interview.

There’s a subtle but important different between providing good engaging online content and actually reaching people with it. I call this difference the difference between engagement and outreach and it’s a tough difference if I consider many of the projects I’ve been advising about in the past months.

Engagement is about designing projects (expositions, websites, events) that turn occasional passers-by into enthusiasts willing to go that extra mile for you. Crowdfunding and other C-words are all about engagement. Engagement upgrades your existing audience and if you’re very good at it, might even increase your reach via the enthusiasts. Engagement is done, usually, within the safety of your institution’s building, website or social media presence.

Outreach is in many ways the opposite of engagement. Outreach* is about designing strategies that reach people wholly unknown to you and connect them with your institution. Advertising is all about outreach, as is the community manager proactively responding to Google Alerts and mingling in discussions on external blogs. Outreach increases the number of people you can later engage. Outreach is done, usually, outside of the comfort zone of your institution’s building, website or social media presence.

Every successful digital strategy combines engagement and outreach activities. Outreach connects with people and invites them to come by, and engagement turns them into enthusiasts. Both require different methodologies, different tools and especially a different mindset, though.

If you, like me when I’m throwing a party, feel like you’re pretty good at engagement but still don’t reach a whole lot of people, it will pay off to focus more on outreach activities in your digital strategy. Spend more time inviting people, connecting with new target groups, leaving the safety and comfort of your own online environment to build a presence in others. Even on the social web, outreach is just as important as engagement.

* The word “outreach” can have different connotations to different people. I use it simply because it implies “reaches out” to people, not because of any hidden meanings of social inclusion, etc.

Header photo by Palo on Flickr.

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