Cheap, Easy Research Tip 1: Why Not Just Talk To People?

This is the first installment in a six-part series about research. Many arts organizations avoid research because they think it’s expensive or complicated, but that’s not a good excuse for staying ignorant. There are plenty of ways to gain useful insight into new audience motives without having to spend a lot of money.

The easiest is to talk to people.

I was speaking to a group of arts administrators at the League of American Orchestras conference recently where I asked, “How many of you stand in the lobby as audiences arrive looking for first-timers, greeting them, thanking them for coming and chatting with them about what made them decide to buy tickets?”

I actually knew the answer before I asked so I wasn’t surprised when nobody raised a hand. As an industry we don’t do this; it’s not in our culture. Having friendly conversations with arriving guests goes against established industry norms. In the same way that performers maintain a fourth wall between art and audiences, we administrators tend to keep our distance from ordinary patrons, preferring to remain behind the scenes with our databases and sales reports – which goes a long way toward explaining why our marketing is so artificial and impersonal.

I mentioned once here that I decided to break this convention while overseeing marketing for a long-running Broadway show in L.A. We were in our second year and having a hard time figuring out how to keep the sales momentum going so I did the unthinkable. I stood in the lobby as folks arrived and asked them what made them decide to come. For several weeks I just hung out in the midst of the arriving throng, introduced myself to people who looked least at home, and chatted with them about the show and what made the difference between them wanting to come and actually taking action.

Back in the conference room where my colleagues and I normally exchanged opinions about why people bought tickets, I was able to say, “I’ve spoken to several dozen ticket buyers in recent weeks and there appears to be a powerful trend in their decision making. Most people told me that they had a long-standing desire to see the show, but needed a trigger such as a special occasion, hot date or out of town visitor to get them to make the purchase.” From that day forward our mantra was “reasons to buy” and every marketing message we developed contained one of the triggers that our audience told us they were waiting for. It was astonishingly successful.

I can honestly say that over thirty years of conducting various types of research, the most useful information I’ve gained has come from simply talking to customers. It was easy because they were coming into the venue, it was cheap because all I had to do was arrange my day so I could be there, and it was extremely useful because there was no filter between source and decision maker. I learned what people wanted and made sure my marketing promised them what they were looking for.

Whether you stand in the lobby chatting with arriving guests or select a handful of names to call and thank the next morning, learning what makes new audiences tick could become your most productive work habit.

Suggested Guidelines:

As with all research, there are a few guidelines to follow to make sure the information you gather is accurate and useful:

1. Ask about motives, not newspapers and radio stations. Knowing where to advertise is great, but if you don’t know what to say, your ad money will be wasted.

2. Listen and hear. Don’t impose your own attitudes on the information or filter what they say to make it fit what you already think.

3. Focus on establishing rapport. Make the greeting the primary emphasis. Ask about motives as part of a friendly conversation and record what you learn later behind the scenes.

4. Get as much raw data as possible and look for trends. One customer’s experience is an anecdote, but if a majority of respondents start telling the same story, your data will begin telling you exactly what to do.

5. Absolutely no interns with clipboards. The people who most need to interact directly with new audiences are the senior decision makers who, in the arts, tend to be the most out of touch. If your organization is dependent on new audiences, there’s not a single person on staff who’s above getting to know them.

Take your boss and the rest of your marketing team down to the lobby for your next event and start listening to new audiences. Then go back to your conference room the next day and start talking to them.

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