Engage with New Audiences? Somebody Get Me an Intern!

I was speaking to a group of arts pros recently about the importance of knowing what motivates marginal audiences (a.k.a. new audiences) and someone asked me how we might go about learning that. It was a good question, but the fact that it had to be asked speaks volumes about how arts administrators relate – or fail to relate – to the people who keep them in business.

The answer, of course, is to talk to them. If we want to know what motivates people to come to our events, the easiest thing to do is to stand in the lobby, introduce ourselves to arriving guests – especially the ones who look least at home – and ask them what motivated them to come.

The people we most need to know – those who occupy the outer fringes of our audiences – come in and out of our venues every day. Getting to know them and learning why they come is a simple matter of saying hi and striking up a conversation. And the more we know about them, of course, the more we’ll know about what it takes to get others like them to come too.

The sad thing about this is what’s likely to happen if an arts organization tries it. The idea will be proposed by the marketing staff, the program will be approved by senior management, forms will be drafted and a team of clipboard wielding interns will be dispatched to the lobby to accost guests and check off little boxes. In typical arts management style, the people who most need to engage directly, sincerely and humbly with new audiences – the senior decision makers – will assign their lowliest staffers to mix with the common rabble who pass through the venue doors.

If you’ve ever wondered why arts marketing materials are such repetitive, ineffective, self-congratulatory crap, the answer lies in the fact that we don’t know the people we’re talking to when we create them. It’s impossible to develop strategic messages when we haven’t bothered to learn what motivates the individuals we’re trying to persuade. The essence of persuasion is describing how our products satisfy the needs, wants and desires of our target audiences, but if we don’t have a direct, intimate, personal understanding of those yearnings, we’ll never be able to appeal to them.

I once oversaw marketing for a multi-year run of The Lion King in Los Angeles. About a year into the run demand started to wane so I started hanging around the lobby introducing myself to newcomers and asking what prompted them to buy tickets. Over time I met hundreds of people who handed me a wealth of information about the motives of fence-sitting audiences – information that directly influenced the creation of effective new marketing messages. It was astonishingly easy to do and it didn’t cost a cent.

So when people ask me how to learn what motivates new audiences, here’s what I recommend: Make certain that everyone who has input into the marketing process spends time getting to know new audiences. Insist that executive leadership, artistic leadership and the marketing staff all sign up for regular shifts in the lobby where they’ll converse with real, live first-time ticket buyers.

Make it about establishing rapport and developing sincere personal connections, but make it also about learning what motivated each person to act: “Jennifer, I’m curious to know what made you and your friends come down to the arts center tonight. Was there something in particular that prompted you to place the order?” After the conversations, and well out of sight of the patrons, record what you learned and begin aggregating the data.

For an industry that talks so much about engagement, we have a surprising reluctance to initiate meaningful contact where it matters most – between arts leaders and the new audiences that will decide how long they can keep their jobs. The fatal flaw in arts marketing is the chasm we’ve allowed to develop between the people who decide what to say and the people who should be telling us what needs to be said.

Since survival may depend on closing that gap, why not grab your ED and wander down to the lobby tonight to say hello to tomorrow’s audience?

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