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Excuse Me, Who Do You Think You’re Talking To?

Artist mannequin held in handThe majority of arts organizations don’t have a problem bringing in new audiences; we have a terrible time retaining them. I find over and over that arts presenters have two sets of audience members; the deeply engaged (read subscriber) group who come again and again, and a very large group (in aggregate) who come once or twice and never or rarely return.  Those patrons’ lack of return isn’t primarily related to lack of engagement. So what’s the trouble?
Programming is the #1 driver of decision-making (I know, I've surveyed and focus grouped the question many times). But we need to make sure we are not only offering compelling programs but communicating clearly about them and their appeal—to those occasional patrons.

View of empty theaterCurrently we market mostly to those who love us, and talk about the arts in coded language that only our regular patrons “get.” We have so refined our communications messages and channels that we essentially treat our core audiences as our only audience. We send them expensive season brochures, regular email messages, and offers of upgrades, and we swell with pride when they reward us with an expensive subscription or multi-show order. But we remain largely invisible to the rest of the world. Then we wonder why our premium seats are filled and the rest of the house fails to sell more than half (or a third, or less).

Frankly, how new patrons find us in the first place is sometimes a mystery to me. We take modest weekly ads in the newspaper, using the name of the current production in the original foreign language as its largest element.  Or we rely on the names “Mahler” or “Mamet” to tell our story for us. Or we overload ads with long listings in hopes that one will spark a reader’s interest.

Red phone booth in fileldThe good news is that the world still brims with folks who value the arts, want to make live performance a part of their lives, and fight to find us no matter how hard we make it. But with the exception of the truly committed, your potential patrons aren’t always paying attention to you. The more you make them come looking for you, the fewer will. Again and again, I sit in focus groups and hear infrequent attendees say, “I never hear about what they’re doing.” We have to take responsibility for the large number of people who honestly say “I never heard about it.”

Bringing in new patrons shouldn’t depend on hoping they come looking for you. And turning new patrons into returning patrons isn’t a question of offering “offers” like “see your 2nd show ½  price.” It is a question of being heard. Of taking your marketing dollars and making a bang in the world. Of cutting all the busy work with little ROI but lots of “we’ve always done it that way.”

There are organizations winning at this. They have traits in common—acceptance of limited risk for possible reward, tenacious pursuit of the truth about what’s not working, experimentation in communications channels and messages, and commitment to data and measurement. They think deeply about who they want to talk to, and figure out creative ways to do it. They channel Seth Godin, who recently said, “you can no longer run an ad that reaches everyone. What a blessing. Now, instead of yelling at the masses, the marketer has no choice but to choose her audience.” So, who do you think you’re talking to?

Lest you think that this applies only to small, overworked arts organizations, Greg Sandow wrote a blog last week titled Make Some Noise. In it, he called to account every resident arts organization at Lincoln Center in New York:

“Major fail.” The Metropolitan Opera? “ugly banners.... And mismatched. And hard to understand.” Avery Fisher Hall? “one drab banner ... [with] Alan Gilbert’s name” and “much more plainly visible, is something the Philharmonic might care about, but the public doesn’t, and that certainly isn’t anything that makes you want to go to concerts: the name of the orchestra’s big corporate sponsor, Credit Suisse.” Surely New York City Ballet, just starting the season, would do better. No? Their “posters.... show each ballet the company will dance, in 65 smallish tiles, with the dates of the performances for each one shown underneath. Only — this is the literal truth — by scanning almost all the tiles did I discover that the season was about to start.”

Don’t be those companies. Don’t assume everyone who’s interested knows what you’re doing. Start making some noise, and make sure you’re really being heard.

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