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Deeper than Demographics

When we talk about who makes up the audience for the arts—demographics reign supreme. We roll our eyes a little, lower our voices a little, or get frustrated and indignant a lot talking about age, sex, income, and race. Within arts organizations, we often believe we can eyeball the demographics of our audience, know who is and is not attending, and set about to develop our audiences accordingly.

Here’s the problem with focusing our conversations about audience development on demographics, though. When we break audiences down along solely demographic lines we risk oversimplifying what makes people who they are. I’d probably be a bit taken aback if someone said to me, “Sara, you’re a woman. That tells me everything I need to know about you! Here’s what you’ll like and dislike. For example, I know you will automatically like anything that has to do with other women.” Replace “woman” in the above sentences with my race, age, marital status… you get the idea. Put this way it seems almost absurd, and yet all too often we see well-intentioned arts organizations implementing marketing tactics that seem to reflect this kind of thinking, however inadvertently.

People enter into relationships with other people and with organizations because they share interests and values. The principle applies within the arts, too. Our arts organizations need to have clear and consistent organizational identities that are expressed in our missions, programming, and marketing, and we need to know how the organization’s personality intersects with those of our audience members. In order to do that, we need to understand their interests, values, likes, and dislikes so that we can most effectively relate to them. To use the lingo, we’re talking here about psychographics.

Rather than encouraging audience segmentation solely or primarily along demographic lines, psychographics encourage arts marketers to develop a far more nuanced understanding of their current and prospective audiences: what they’re looking for, how they like to spend their time, and what’s important to them. It allows arts organizations to think strategically about how they can meet the needs of their audiences. But in my experience attraction to this idea too rarely translates into meaningful action, especially in lower-resource, small-to-midsize arts organizations that lack the ability to hire some of the excellent consultants who have helped larger organizations through the process.

So, how can arts organizations begin to go deeper than demographics?

Know the arts organization’s identity. Most of our organizations have a mission statement, and if we’re lucky, it’s specific, dynamic, and provides a big-picture roadmap for us as we make decisions. But identity goes deeper to include those interests and values that give the organization a personality distinct from others and that speaks to the interests and values of audience members. Here’s a starting point.

  • Make a list. Get a group of folks together if you have a group, and if not just find yourself some paper. Brainstorm what makes your organization what it is. What words and phrases describe it and its work? Be specific and realistic. Make sure not to confuse what the organization is with what you want it to be. (Put those ideas on a separate list; they may come in handy later.)
  • Hold that thought. Before you start reevaluating all of your marketing materials to see if they communicate that unique identity (you were going to do that, right?) proceed to…

Know the audience. I think this is where things tend to fall apart. How can a short-staffed organization get to know its audience without extra time, people, and money? Here are a few steps that are worth taking because, while they do require some investment up front, the payoff in attendance and more efficient and successfully targeted marketing efforts should be worthwhile.

  • Leave your desk. The idea that arts marketers only work 9-5 is enough to make most of us laugh, yet I’m always surprised to learn how few people are going to the organization’s productions or exhibitions and talking with patrons. Scratch that. I’m not surprised. I’ve been there myself. It’s hard to prioritize lobby combing, but it’s important. Find out what brought the audience there and what they’re excited about. Sometimes what excites us the most about the art we’re presenting or producing isn’t the same thing that brings our audience in. And talking with audience members when they aren’t in the moment may yield different responses.
  • Listen. This is probably most traditionally done through focus groups, but there’s no law saying that’s the only way or that it has to be formal. Invite some patrons to come by the office and join you for coffee and bagels and talk to them about their interest in the organization’s work, but also ask about what other things they do. Find out what they value in life generally and what they’re looking for from an arts experience. Look for the connection points between what makes your organization tick (remember that list you made?) and what makes the audience tick. You probably want to invite groups that you perceive have something in common to come together. The key? Ask questions and listen to the answers.
  • Be active in the community. I’m not saying everyone should join 15 volunteer committees and the school board, though making sure people from your organization are being good citizens in your community is a good idea. What’s important is finding out who is in the communities from which you draw audience that isn’t yet coming to your organization. What do they like and what are they like, what is important to them, what do they value, and where might opportunities arise to make new connections between the organization’s interests and values and theirs. This can help you begin to identify and tap into new audiences that might be different from those already attending.
  • Hash it out. Spend some time with all you’ve learned and take note of how your audience breaks down into different groups. Perhaps there is a multi-generational component of your audience that shares an interest in social issues that are at the core of your programming, or an early-career group looking for increased social opportunities with friends that your organization can provide; these groups could take a variety of different forms. Look for how the audience seems to break down and who seems to share common needs or interests.

Use it! Fully armed with lots of newly articulated insight into our organizations and our current and prospective audiences, it’s time to put that knowledge to work on our behalves. We need to find organization-wide ways to communicate to our audiences from those points of connection. Identity should be reflected in the programming, messaging, activities, language, and visual images the organization projects to its audiences. To the extent our budgets allow, we now have information that can allow us to target our messages more effectively to different audience segments, initiating meaningful and lasting relationships. By drilling deeper than demographics, we pave the way for developing the audiences that will help sustain our organizations and good work well into the future.