I used to market engagements of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre at the Music Center of Los Angeles. One year I discovered an event called the Black Business Expo that was happening a few weeks before our upcoming Ailey appearance. The BBE, as it was called, was a three-day trade show at the Convention Center where hundreds of local businesses that were owned by, or that catered to, the African-American community promoted themselves to some 75,000 local consumers.
I negotiated a sponsorship with BBE (we sponsored them) and set up a booth with highly visible graphics on a well-traveled aisle, then I spent three days at the show meeting and talking to potential customers. I was the senior marketing person for the Music Center’s dance series and could easily have sent some volunteers or interns, but I made a point of being there myself and it was the single most important marketing decision I could have made.
At the Expo I met hundreds of people who were excited about Ailey but who had mixed feelings about the Music Center. Some of them chastised me for the Center’s less than engaging history with their community, some wondered why we only came to them with Black events, many wanted to see Ailey but didn’t have a clue what the Music Center was, some were tickled to see a white guy from such an aloof institution in their midst, and nearly all wanted information about the best seats in the house. Because I was present and fully engaged, I learned things that challenged most of what my colleagues and I thought we knew about Black audiences, and that engagement had a profound influence on our future marketing choices.
There’s no substitute for direct, personal interaction with audiences. If you’re a senior marketing exec who wants to understand new audiences, the best thing to do is find out where they are and go hang out with them. They’ll be glad to tell you everything you need to know.
As with all research, there are a few guidelines to follow to make sure you gather the most accurate, useful information.
1. Get out of your office. Yes, you. The higher up you are, the more important it is for you to engage directly with those younger or more culturally diverse audiences you keep talking about. The reason most arts marketing is vapid, exclusive, self-important nonsense is that the leaders who sign off on it tend to be the most out of touch. The only way to make smart marketing choices is to have plenty of direct, personal experience with the people you’re marketing to.
2. Step out of your comfort zone. “Culturally diverse” audiences come from cultures that differ from ours. If we want to know them and learn how to market to them, we have to immerse ourselves in their cultures – even if those cultures are foreign and intimidating. The reason most arts marketing is repetitive insider shorthand is that we haven’t bothered to learn the languages our new audiences speak.
3. Listen. It wasn’t always easy standing in that booth listening to willing but skeptical audiences telling me how negligent we’d been or how grossly we’d misjudged their desires and dispositions, but it was information the Music Center needed to know.
4. Get the rest of your organization involved. I conspired with the folks at Ailey in New York to make sure that I wouldn’t be the senior-most person from the Music Center at the Black Business Expo and was thrilled when Ailey’s executive director, Sharon Luckman, showed up with my bosses in tow.
5. Record and disseminate what you learn. Develop a document that synthesizes your personal experience into credible objective observations that can be included in your accumulated research findings: “We learned that programs like Alvin Ailey are considered high-end social status events in the African American community and that seat location can trump price considerations.”
6. Engage on multiple levels. The other sponsors at the BBE were a veritable who’s who of movers and shakers in L.A.’s African-American business, neighborhood and religious communities. I spent as much time networking with potential marketing partners as I did with consumers – and wound up negotiating a 3,000-seat buyout for opening night!
7. Don’t do shotgun engagement. Doug Borwick will happily tell you that one weekend in your city’s African American community isn’t true engagement. Genuine engagement means establishing meaningful long-term relationships that offer benefits to both your arts organization and the communities it exists to serve. If you’re going to put your toe in the water, be ready to dive in and swim for a good long time.
Most arts professionals have deep, personal ties with communities of avid donors, members, subscribers and loyal patrons, and those ties shape the way we speak to the world around us. The key to reaching new audiences is to develop equally deep and personal ties with younger, more culturally diverse communities so we can speak a language that future audiences will understand.