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Getting to Market: Part 2 Community

hand prints on a fenceAs I write this year’s conference themes are front and center in my mind – Powered by Community – revolutionize the way communities engage with your organization—create a sense of community around your work.

For more than ten years my work has focused on bringing diverse stakeholders together in order to put arts and culture at the center of community and economic development. In doing that work, I am reminded every day of the guts and tenacity people in our sector display every day.  I’m reminded also of the energy and skill that arts marketers across our sector have displayed in bringing their programs, cultural projects and communities to market.  We take these risks, put in these extraordinary efforts, and dive into the guts of social media for one compelling reason - because we seek to create community.

As Fred Kent from the Project from Public Spaces said during a recent MIT panel discussion at the launch of Susan Silberberg’s “Places in the Making” the best way to quantify the impact of our work is “smiles.” At one level, his remark may sound sunny, glib and facile, but that is decidedly not so. Fred points us to a profound truth that must organize our cultural development and marketing efforts in a way that matters.  We see cultural community as valuable in its own right and as a means to economic development precisely because what happens in that community, if it happens well, produces experiences that are memorable, meaningful and fun. 

neon lips smilingWe all want to create and sustain growth, have more visitors, boost subscription rates, and encourage repeat business. Why? Because these things are good in of themselves? No, because they are the natural by-product of creating compelling experiences. Fred is right, if we want to revolutionize the ways our communities and organizations relate; if we want to create a sense of community around our work, then let us remember always to do the work of smiles. So where does this work of smiles begin? It begins with a conversation, it begins with distinct and decisive experience of place, and it begins with the experience of what happens in the room, in the gallery and on the stage.

We have been fortunate in recent years to have at hand a profusion of digital marketing platforms and methods and a vast array of techniques for exploiting these technologies. This has led to an explosion of data and tools to mine that data in ways that previously would have been both cost-prohibitive and pragmatically impossible. We are light years ahead in the way we can connect to our audiences– smart marketers are nimbly using every tool available to entice their audience, and inventing new ones. It’s shrewd business sense to offer deals, discounts, and various points of entry, and we are all well versed by now of the relational development from first time ticket buyer to donor. But a hard truth is that we know that of our first time buyers, 4 out of 5 don’t come back. (Source: TRG Arts

If we want to have real effect, we must not confuse marketing technique with marketing results. It is both possible and necessary to make enduring connections. One method that I’ve seen have some success is cluster marketing—a group of organizations willing to collaborate over time in collective marketing elements that serve both their common and individual interests. 

Effective cluster marketing begins with a grounded and accurate understanding of the nature of community.  When we throw around the term community in a vague and vaguely positive sort of way, it sounds nice, but we can’t really do anything useful with the idea.  To move ahead, we need concepts of community, with cutting power, with teeth. Community in an operational sense has two conventional meanings:1) Community among people often refers to a social unit of any size that shares common values 2) in biology, community more broadly understood  is a group of interacting living organisms sharing a populated environment. Take the first meaning one step further -- Community can refer to a social unit of any size that shares common values and interaction based on those values. Now add… that acts on shared knowledge… to the end of the biological definition.

Museum 10 mapDo you get my drift? Whatever the size or scale of your organization, shared knowledge and interaction based on values is vital. Shared knowledge coordinates and lends content to cluster marketing, and applied effectively yields demonstrable impact.  Consider a couple of examples:

Recognizing that thousands of tourists came to the region each year to tour area colleges and visit relatives and friends, area museums in the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts understood that they had a significant opportunity to unite their resources to boost visitation and extend the visibility of the museums. They launched Museums 10, created thematic exhibitions, and joined together their programmatic and marketing staffs. In a three year period the Museums 10 brand increased visitation by 15%.  While a 15% increase may not appear stunning at first glance consider the difference between a hotel barely breaking even at 65% capacity, and a highly profitable hotel operating at 80% capacity.  The difference between success and failure in visitor dependent institutions can often be 15% in sales or less.  Beyond increased attendance, Museums 10 built mutually beneficial relationships that made the larger institutions more accessible, the smaller house museums more visible, and the free street festival a means of boosting ticket sales. 

Arts Boston web bannerArtsBoston has been championing the local arts community in Greater Boston for 35 years.  When they developed, the aim, like that of Museums 10 was to increase the organizations a resident or visitor might know about and inclined to visit.  Unlike Museums 10, ArtsBoston did not need to brand Boston as a destination; they needed to extend the scope of engagement among people already there.  They have taken cluster marketing to a whole new level, and revolutionized the way the Boston convention and visitor’s bureau and the 175 front line hotel concierges promote arts and cultural activity. Since launched, 3,000 organizations have uploaded, for free, 37,000 activities; 8,000 in 2013 thus far. Through judicious experimentation and utilizing a range of technology platforms, they have built a 50,000 email list, 13,000 twitter followers, and 14,000 Facebook friends.  They have doggedly developed the heft to amplify the voice of organizations large and small, building an appetite for more. Now, they are seeking out the 4 who don’t come back. And what drives their work? To build a richer, deeper long lasting relationship between the arts and cultural community and the community at large - across cultures, traditions, age and economic circumstance.

We’re at a unique moment in time. We have the power to marry technology to the values that matter to us most, and in the process, transform lives for the better.  Perhaps then revolution is this -- we are rabble rousers, we bring passion, verve, daring and imagination to our work, because we are here to make people smile.   In this revolution, we will ask ourselves about the 4 out of 5 people who go missing; we will meet them; we will get to know them; we will create experiences that draw them to our communities; we will tell them about who we are and what we do, and we will create relationships that make them want to return. This is the essence of community, and our success depends on it, your community depends on it.

Many thanks to Susan Silberberg, MIT; Catherine Petersen and John Beck, ArtsBoston; Museums 10; and Marc Zegans.

This is the second article in a two part series about Getting to Market. Read Getting to Market-Part 1- Artists here.

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