Is Engagement Sales or Outreach?

I used to do marketing for “Dance at the Music Center,” L.A.’s largest dance presenter. As a marketer I knew that the Music Center was a good venue for dance, but that it was a somewhat less than engaging destination for a full evening of leisure entertainment. So I put together a plan for a series of on-site dance events that would enable guests to do some dancing of their own on the Music Center plaza before and after their ticketed event.

The idea was simple. Partner with a local big band era radio station to set up a dance floor and secure a DJ, then have the on-site caterer provide food and drink stations. Guests could dine, drink, take a dance lesson or simply dance for a while before or after the show. It was an organic outgrowth of the “Dance at the Music Center” brand, a cost-effective way to generate media exposure and great way to have guests engage with the Center – even if they weren’t coming for the ticketed event.

In the midst of planning for this initiative, though, the Music Center hired a new program officer who was a proponent of the emerging “engagement” trend and who developed a new program that involved, ironically, dancing on the Music Center plaza. It was essentially the same plan but it didn’t have a promotional component and, surprisingly, didn’t happen on the same nights as the dance series events.

I mention this to illustrate how wide the gap can be between engagement that’s designed to develop paying audiences and engagement that’s designed to forge qualitative connections between arts institutions and their communities. Our sales-oriented dance program was all about attracting new paying audiences by giving them a more appealing, participative way to engage with the product. The mission-oriented dance program, meanwhile, was about enabling community members to engage more actively with the Center as a community arts institution – independent of the Center’s core programming and irrespective of its near-term earned revenue or audience development goals.

We in the arts talk a lot about engagement now, of course, but we often fail to distinguish between two very different types of engagement, one of which is a bottom line-driven marketing strategy, the other a mission-driven outreach endeavor. They’re similar in form but they’re not the same thing and failing to recognize the difference can have a detrimental impact on an organization’s ability to execute fiscally responsible audience development initiatives.

Marketers who are responsible for generating earned revenue would do well to define precisely what they mean by sales-oriented engagement, describe how it relates to mission-oriented engagement, erect a solid (though porous) border between the two and make certain that leadership understands the distinction. Failing to do this can cause well planned bottom line-driven initiatives to morph into qualitative programs that don’t deliver measurable returns.

And similarly, arts pros who pursue more altruistic forms of engagement should avoid using audience development language to justify their mission-oriented initiatives. For thirty years the phrase “audience development” has been used along with “marketing” and “sales” to refer to generating measurable paid participation. If an engagement program is described as having audience development goals, those goals should be clearly articulated, revenue should be confidently projected and metrics should be put in place for measuring ROI.

In its broadest sense, engagement is a worthy, though not necessarily new, endeavor. Engaging more fully with customers is a productive way to increase sales, and engaging more meaningfully with communities is an important way to forge stronger ties between arts organizations and the constituencies they were created to serve. But given how popular the engagement fad has become and how fuzzy the line can be between mission and marketing, it’s more important than ever to know exactly what we’re talking about when we plan to engage.

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