The more I hear about engagement, the more it sounds like a well executed sales strategy. And the more I think about sales, the more inclined I am to believe that folks who advocate on behalf of engagement – at least in the realm of audience development – could benefit from a deeper understanding of how sales functions in more businesslike contexts.
This may seem counterintuitive – especially in the arts where the icky business of sales is relegated to low-level boiler room functions like telemarketing and group sales – but in the commercial sector where sales is a natural counterpart to marketing, it’s a perfectly sensible perspective.
Back in the 90s I worked for Cameron Mackintosh as a sales executive. My job was to sell The Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, Miss Saigon and other Broadway shows to business-to-business (B-to-B) buyers, most of which were part of the travel & tourism industry. Sales was an accepted practice in London’s West End back then but it was new to Broadway and introducing it there was a fascinating process of creating connections between two industries that had mutual interests but hadn’t been properly introduced.
Here’s what we did: We watched, listened and learned. We sought external expertise from local agencies like New York’s Convention & Visitors bureau and other sales professionals in our market who’d been working with the travel industry longer than we had. We joined trade associations for tour operators, meeting planners, travel agents and other related professions and we traveled around the world attending conventions and conferences where these businesspeople conducted their business. Eventually, we began taking Broadway and London actors with us and mounting performances in the convention centers and hotel ballrooms where these gatherings took place (a practice that’s now common in Broadway sales & marketing).
But it went even beyond that. We stepped way outside of the comfortable confines of our small, insular industry and endeavored to learn how our new partner industries worked so we could better describe how our products and services met their needs. We developed personal relationships with our clients and their colleagues so we could better understand who they were and what they expected from our products and services. We invited them to see our shows as guests (unheard of on Broadway at the time) and solicited their feedback to learn how we could make our products more accessible to their clientele. And we changed the way we did business, where possible, to accommodate their needs.
In short, we engaged with them proactively in their worlds so we could better facilitate their engagement with us in ours.
I realize, of course, that there are those in the arts who pursue engagement for purposes that have nothing to do with ticket sales, but I think this story contains at least two worthy takeaways for those who expect engagement to have a positive influence on audience development.
1. Engagement is a two-way street. We can’t just sit in our offices and conference rooms trying to dream up ways for audiences to engage with us. If we want to engage new audiences, we have to figure out who they are, find out where they live and then go out to engage with them on their terms and on their turf. And that doesn’t mean just tweeting or being on Facebook or sending interns out with flyers; it means real, person-to-person external engagement – and that means executive level staffers and artists out in the marketplace making meaningful human connections with the people they most want to see in their venues.
2. Engagement requires adaptation. We can’t say we want people to engage with us and then hand them a set of rules for how it works. That was how Broadway approached B-to-B buyers before we started our outbound sales process and it was why those buyers bought so few tickets. (And it’s how a lot of highbrow arts institutions still treat uninitiated audiences.) If we want to engage with new audiences, we have to let them tell us what they want and then, if it’s possible and appropriate, change the way we operate to accommodate their wishes and expectations.
Sales, in its ideal sense, is about creating relationships that transcend transactions. It’s about facilitating an optimal, long-term, mutually beneficial connection between content and customer. I know that most folks in the arts would happily place sales and engagement at opposite ends of a continuum where one end represents crass, cynical, manipulation and the other a platonic ideal of rapturous artistic togetherness, but it seems to me that the only thing separating thoughtful, well-executed, relationship-driven sales from engagement is the expectation of a measurable outcome.