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3 Essential Questions for Building Your Best Audience

This post is part of the “Imagining the Future of Inclusive Arts Marketing” blog salon.

Gaps in perception. Limitations of perspective. Failings of imagination. We can call them many things, but we all have them. And when it comes to building audiences for our arts organizations, they can really cause us trouble.

I recently learned the term for something I’ve observed for a long time: “false-consensus effect.” According to the American Psychological Association, false-consensus effect is “the tendency to assume that one’s own opinions, beliefs, attributes, or behaviors are more widely shared than is actually the case.” In other words, we often assume that other people will or should think or act the way we think or act. And you and I both know what happens when we make assumptions, right?

And yet, I see the direct effects and aftershocks of false-consensus effect plague skilled and well-intentioned arts marketers all the time. It makes sense; it’s such a logical starting point! We go to market an event and think to ourselves, “What do I think is cool about this?” or “Why would I want to go?” Or maybe we’re repeating what the artist themselves thinks is the key source of attraction to a given event, believing that the artist must know what’s good about their own work. But here’s the problem: we—you, me, artists—are NOT our average audience members. We who have committed our careers to bringing art and arts organizations and audiences into relationship are not likely to accurately represent or wholly share the opinions, priorities, and behaviors of our audiences—and particularly the audiences we have not yet reached. Our job, as arts marketers, is to serve our current and prospective audiences a picture that connects with their interests and values in a package that evokes an experience they want to have. And to do that, we need to cast our imaginations beyond the limitations of our own perspectives and experiences, get to know what makes our people tick, and to imagine the other complexly and with respect.

Great. Sounds like a plan. But… um… how exactly are we supposed to do that amidst the feverish pace of our seasons, competing marketing priorities, never-ending task lists, and more? That is where the 3 questions I promised you back in the title for this blog post come into play. Here they are: Who? Where? Why do they care?

Okay, I lied. Really there are 6 questions, because first we need to break our audience for any given event into two categories: those we already know and those we do not yet know. And now, I invite you to join me as we dive into the weeds.

Let’s start with those we already know and break it down.

Who? We need to segment our audience into manageable and specific “who” groups. In this category, these are all going to be people with whom our organization already has a relationship. Maybe they’ve attended past events, their kids have participated in summer camps, they are or used to be on the board, or they’re current or lapsed subscribers. Maybe they attended last year’s Mozart concert and we have another one coming up. Look at past behavior to the extent you are able.

Where? Where can you find these folks? For the category that includes folks you already know, hopefully this will be straightforward because you have them on an email list or in a database. If not, is there a board member, staff member, or volunteer who knows how to find them?

Why do they care? Here comes the payoff for all that talk about false-consensus effect earlier in this post. For every specific audience group you segment out, you need to know why you believe they will care about the event or program you are selling. Is it because their past behavior tells you they may connect to the performer or artist? Did they come last time you performed this playwright or composer? Are they the people who always come for musicals, but maybe not straight plays? Do they always come when a particular social issue is involved? Do they seem attracted to certain event experiences? Find the point of connection to this group, then serve it to them uncluttered by other possible points of connection. Don’t misunderstand: I want you to tell EVERYONE on your list and all of your social followers about your upcoming events, but I want you to also talk to people about the things they have indicated through their behavior that they want to be talked to about. This is targeting. Target your messages to the specific interests of the sub-groups you are going to talk to. (Pro-tip: Don’t have the capacity to segment your list? No problem: fake it. Segment the groups anyway and target each message to one of those segments even if you are sending it to everyone.)

Now, how about those we do not yet know? Easy! All we have to do is find a bunch of people we’ve never met and tell them a bunch of things we don’t know they want to hear! Heh. For this group, I sometimes go in the same order as I indicate above; but sometimes it’s easier to start with question 3, then do 1 and 2. See what works best for you.

Why do they already care? What are all the possible points of connection you can imagine related to this program or event? Are there issues that this work grapples with or addresses? What content-related connections might there be? What artform or artist-related hooks might there be? What about relevance to a specific cultural tradition or heritage? What about the type of experience you are creating related to this event? After you come up with all the possible reasons someone might want to come to this event, go ask someone else. Sure, you can ask a colleague, but how about your mom, your kid, the custodians and technical staff in your building, your friend who pretty much never goes to anything arts-related, or your acquaintance who only goes to other arts events. There are very rarely “wrong” reasons to want to engage with an arts event, and it’s on us to help those who are interested see the connections and expend the effort to get there. (Pro-tip: See how I slipped the word “already” into the question? We can get into changing the hearts and minds of the masses later; first, let’s get the people who we have reason to believe already care about some part of what we’re offering. Deal? Deal.)

Once we have those connection points figured out, it’s time to ask, Who? Who in your community would connect to those elements you articulated? Who would be interested in those issues? Who would come to something connected to a specific tradition? Who wants to have that kind of experience? The more specific, the better.

Then, Where? Where can you find them? Are the “social activists in the community” that you want to reach connected with another community organization with which you could create a strategic partnership? Are the “parents of pre-schoolers” you want to reach all attending events at the public library? Is there someone on your board who can help you start a meaningful conversation with the Hispanic cultural center in advance of an upcoming event related to the heritage they celebrate? Get creative. Use your board, staff, and friends as contacts. Pick up the phone. Join a community organization.

One more pro-tip before you run off to create your own template for the 3Ws of audience building: Your “who” groups should not be based solely on demographics. There is nothing about our demographic characteristics alone that explains WHY we spend our time and money the way we do, so let’s imagine and create connections based on shared interests and values first. Then, look around the room and see what demographic groups are missing. (Hint: That’s a “who” for next time…)

And now, let’s emerge from the weeds again. As you set off to market your next program or event, I hope these 3 questions will help you as much as they’ve helped me to create audience development plans that succeed doubly: They result in the transactions we need to meet income projections, but they also serve as building blocks to start or shore up relationships with audiences that sustain our organizations now and for the long haul.

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