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Building Audiences One Encounter at a Time

Building audiences for a performing arts organization is a multi-faceted endeavor. But there’s one common thread that, to me, is indispensable for helping the performing arts organization create and maintain connections with its audience, its staff and volunteers, and the general community within which it operates.

That common factor may be described as personalizing the performing arts group, whether theatre company, dance company, jazz trio, cabaret troupe, or chamber music ensemble. Personalizing involves putting a face on the company; it is being mindful of the vital role of communications in everything from your box office staff’s interface with ticket buying public to keeping your audiences informed of news about your organization and having your staff members participate in other cultural and service associations in the community.

Just how does this work? A few specific instances:

Lobby Duty and the Curtain Speech

You are producing artistic director of a theatre company. You provide 8 performances weekly in a seven-show season, in a 400-seat theatre, over a period of 30 weeks. This gives you a potential maximum audience reach of 96,000 patrons in a year. When these audience members are at your theatre, they are absorbing much more than simply an engaging play or musical on stage. They are taking in an entire afternoon’s or evening’s experience, all of it registering. You make a point of having at least one senior staff person in the lobby at every performance, prior to the show, during intermission, and at the end of the show. And this individual goes on stage just prior to the curtain rising, to give his/her name and position with the theatre and present a concise 3-4 minute curtain speech. There’s a ‘captive audience’ in those seats. You have information that you want to pass along to them—a thank you to corporate sponsors, a welcome to specific groups attending that day, notice about your next production, announcement about your subscription campaign, a special raffle taking place or benefit event coming up—this is just a sampling of announcement items. It is do-able in a brief time and you’ve immediately accomplished two goals at once. You’ve passed along information that may generate a next action step from your audience and you’ve given them a face to recognize, belonging to your organization.

That senior staff person is now standing in the lobby at intermission, and because his or her face is now recognizable, a woman who runs a college alumni association comes up to that staffer and asks if your theatre offers special group rates and if her alumni association can use a theatre evening as a fund raiser; a teacher comes up to that staff person and asks if there are plays coming up during the season that would be suitable for his 10th grade English class; a business owner approaches and asks about the program advertising rates. In just one intermission, you’ve generated potential group sales, a student matinee performance, and advertising sales, provided appropriate follow-up is initiated in a timely fashion. And each of these inquiries, being somewhat impulsive in nature, may simply not have happened had the three individuals needed to remember to phone or e-mail the theatre on a subsequent day.

Of course, having that recognizable face in the lobby also means greater ease in trouble-shooting before a minor problem becomes major. Audiences will feel more comfortable going up to someone they recognize in order to voice a need or a complaint. “It’s so hot in the hall. Any chance of adjusting the air conditioning?” “There’s no more toilet paper in the third stall in the ladies’ room.” “I spilled some coffee on my shirt. Do you have any club soda I can use to prevent staining the shirt fabric?” These are not major emergencies, but they are inconveniences that, if quickly dealt with, become a way to further enhance your reputation for great customer service.

Now, your performance has ended and the audience is leaving. That same senior staff person is standing near an exit so that as audience members are leaving, they have the opportunity to give feedback to the staffer. If they choose not to say anything, that’s fine. If they make a special point of coming over to say something, you can be pretty confident that they’re giving you truthful feedback, for good or for bad. For heaven’s sake, avoid directly asking them, “How did you like the show?” Having cornered them verbally, you’ve tossed out any validity to the response they give you.

Utilizing One Cultural Event for Multiple Purposes

If it’s presumed that the quality of performance that your theatre, dance, or music organization produces is first rate, that’s your baseline. From there, you can provide more, to give audiences a feeling of commitment to your organization. If you have available wall space in your lobby, consider using your lobby as a gallery for works by local artists. It will provide hard-to-find exhibit space for artists and will give your audiences an added cultural experience during their afternoon or evening out. On designated nights, expand the theatre- or concert-going experience by providing an opportunity to stay on after the performance for a Q & A with the performers, composers, playwrights, and director, or set up an informal get-together of artists and audience in the lobby. Don’t forget food—everyone enjoys combining refreshments with conversation. And since your audience is still there, your box office should be open as well. You’ve already announced upcoming shows, special events, gift certificate availabilities. You want to utilize audience members’ immediate positive reactions and make it possible for them to purchase tickets or certificates that evening.

Your Public Voice

There’s remarkable technology available today, allowing people to do everything from ordering plane tickets or a rental car to requesting a replacement credit card, without ever having to speak with a human being. It’s remarkable; but it’s not necessarily desirable for your organization. Have a live person with a good understanding of public relations and of your own organization answer your phones at all hours that you are open. People will be tremendously grateful to hear a human being on the other end of the phone. That person can either answer the caller’s question himself, or can transfer the caller to the appropriate extension. At that point, technology can come into play and voice mail may take over if the person being paged is not at his or her desk. Once someone leaves a message, the organization’s policy should include the mandate to return every call or email as promptly as possible. Your box office staff, and any others designated to answer the phone or email, are the public’s first contact with your organization. First impressions remain. This makes training in audience relations especially critical for these staffers.

Saying ‘Thank You’ and Other Messages of Value

Getting audience and community members to feel a commitment to your group includes knowing when to say ‘thank you.’ Whenever someone makes a gift to your organization, whether a cash donation or a donation of goods or services, acknowledge that gift right away. Send a letter or e-mail note, and when appropriate (e.g., with a major donor or long-term subscriber), also make a phone call. If you have a standard form letter you use, personalize the salutation; but also, it will leave a great impression if you include something in that thank-you letter that applies specifically to that donor. They’ll immediately recognize that you’ve given some thought to the recipient of this letter—perhaps this is the third gift they’ve made in a year; or the person signing the letter recently ran into this donor at some other community event; or you may want them to know to which specific project you’ll apply their gift. It makes a donor feel even more valued. That added patron-specific comment may be printed as part of the letter, or even better, handwritten at the bottom of the letter.

If a business provides sponsorship of one of your programs or shows, provide as many forms of acknowledgement as you can—a thank you letter, of course; a thank-you announcement as part of the curtain speech; and acknowledgement in your programs and in your periodic newsletter. Be sure the business’s executive and the person who authorized the sponsorship has some number of complimentary tickets for your event so they can see your work themselves and provide entertainment for colleagues or employees.

The Artistic Environment and the Audience

If you’ve managed to create an audience-friendly persona for your organization, you’ve created an environment in which newcomers feel welcome at your performances. Equally important, your regular audience members feel a commitment to introduce others to your works and your organization; you’ll find they take pleasure in becoming, in essence, a part of your sales force. You’ll have generated a dialogue between an institution and its constituency. This in turn gives you a certain increased artistic freedom and makes your audiences understand that their support is valued.

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