A Human-Centered Approach to Arts Marketing?

Last Sunday night, CBS’s 60 Minutes profiled a design consultant and Stanford University professor named David Kelley who founded a fascinating company called IDEO.

David Kelley - IDEO

David Kelley – IDEO

IDEO is a “global design firm that takes a human-centered, design-based approach to helping organizations in the public and private sectors innovate and grow.” The company’s philosophy is simple but it’s nothing less than revolutionary: create better products by watching people actually using them.

Here’s a brief exchange between Kelley and 60 Minutes’ Charlie Rose:

Charlie Rose: The main tenet is empathy for the consumer – figuring out what humans really want by watching them.

David Kelly: If you want to improve a piece of software, all you have to do is watch people using it and see when they grimace and then correlate that to where they are in the software and you can fix that, right? And so the thing is to really build empathy, try to understand people through observing them.

Charlie Rose: In other words, their experience will communicate what you need to focus on.

David Kelly: Yeah. Exactly.

According to Kelley, a group of like-minded insiders sitting in a room trying to design something for outsiders will inevitably miss the mark, while a diverse group of creative thinkers paying close attention to how people actually use a given product will be far more likely to succeed. It’s the empathy with the user and the understanding of how they interact with the product that holds the key to innovation. (If you’re using a mouse right now, or one of its descendants, you are in direct contact with one of Kelley’s innovations – something he and his team developed for a young tech entrepreneur named Steve Jobs.)

As an arts professional, I couldn’t help listening to Kelley’s “grimace” comment without thinking of people reading arts marketing materials. We know the grimaces happen­ – arts marketing materials are among the least innovative and most grimace-worthy design products imaginable – but if we take some time to understand when, where and why those grimaces occur, we may be able to make our messages more effective.

I think arts marketing is long overdue for a human-centered design overhaul. The only way to know how to design effective marketing materials is to develop a deeply empathic sensitivity to the way our potential customers interact with our messages. If the grimaces occur as soon as they see the product or brand there may be no hope, but if potential customers start grimacing when they see the vanity shot of the tuxedoed conductor, the tedious welcome letter from the board chair, the hokey production shot from last season, the arcane academic jargon, the artsy wordplay, the hackneyed blurb, the hoary old clichés, the imperious ballerina in the tutu, the sterile architectural shot, the fawning society pics, the thrilling anniversary celebration, the endless barrage of vainglorious hype or the conspicuous absence of anything having to do with them, there may be some room for improvement.

Can human-centered design work on marketing materials? Absolutely. Brand and communications strategies are right up IDEOs alley. It’s true that most arts organizations can’t afford companies like IDEO, but there’s no reason we can’t start paying attention to how our marketing messages work – not the response rates or click-through rates they generate, but how potential customers engage, or fail to engage, with our strategic message content.

Imagine for a minute that your organization could afford IDEO and you hired them to put together a task group of independent auditors to watch a test group of young, culturally diverse people reacting to your marketing materials. What would the auditors observe? Where would the grimaces occur? What would this task group recommend to you after having seen the way new audiences react to your marketing messages?

The business world is rapidly embracing the idea that its products should be designed not according to what companies think they should be selling, but rather how customers want to use the products they sell. In the arts, we don’t necessarily want to change our products to meet the comfort and convenience expectations of our customers, but there’s no reason we can’t empathize with our customers’ attitudes and dispositions in order to improve the way we persuade them to participate.


6 thoughts on “A Human-Centered Approach to Arts Marketing?

  1. Hi Trevor … how wonderful it is to see someone else from the arts picking up on the work of IDEO, Design Thinking and Human Centred Design. It’s something I’ve been incorporating in my new venture – The Experience Business – in the UK. At its heart is a new business model of Strategic Value Creation that takes an ‘audience-centric’ approach to creating value that can then leverage business value back into the arts organisation. It goes way beyond arts marketing, looking at why the arts exist in the first place … its core purpose. There is increasing interest in this model and its operational expression – Audience Experience Design. I’ve been working with two regional theatres on very different experience design projects, and there are more in the pipeline. These are the first of their kind in the UK, and possibly further afield. Anyone who is interested in what I do might want to have a quick peek at http://www.theexperiencebusiness.co.uk . Of course – there is the tricky issue of ‘artistic integrity’ v ‘audience centricity’. I don’t see it as an either/or, rather, a polarity to be managed. After all … the arts offers one of the best experiences of all, yet we run the risk of being blindsided by more appealling experience offers that are much more cynical and commercial in their design. Now is the time to make audience experience design strategic so we can compete and deliver. Anyone with us?

  2. Hey, Lisa, Thanks for the great input. I love the “polarity to be managed” idea. I think we spend so much time running away from the opposite pole that we lose sight of the audience altogether. I’m eager to hear how your efforts turn out.

  3. Trevor – and LIsa – thank you thank you thank you … for sharing. I have been advocating this but haven’t been able to articulate it so well – so I intend to share your insights. Yes I am a craftsman and an arts manager and a collector but I am consistantly frustrated with the ‘arts’ or should I say ‘artistic integrity’ building a social fortress between ‘those who know and understand’ and the those who ‘sell out’ to the masses. It isn’t about flogging how supperlative a product we have, made from the finest talent ingredients carefully crafted to perfection … I mean, that goes without saying – right? It is about the audience/visitor experience and what it means to them. For example, Coke didn’t become Coke because it is made by the finest craftsmen with the best ingredients but becuase Coke makes you smile – it effects you personally. Disney isnt Disney because it has the best artists but because it transports you to another place and makes you happy. As I lead a musuem into (its 25th anniversary and) a re-theming exercise I am crazy excited to ‘manage our polarity’. So Lisa, I am right onboard with you!

  4. Refreshing article. Yes arts marketers need to move on from in group thinking. If an organization can’t afford an expensive consultant a good place to start is by bringing the box office and house staffs into the creative process. They see/hear the grimace. They are where the rubber meets the road.

      • Front line are essential. I’m coming to the end of a project with The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester (UK) working with a team of Front Line Staff who were totally brilliant because of their hands-on knowledge and grounded perspective. The team comprised: the Craft Shop Manager, Box Office Staff, Ushers and Volunteers, Bar Staff and the Marketing Assistant. Yet even this ‘coal-face’ group, despite their excellent customer focus, were surprised at just how ‘un-focussed’ they were in relation to the needs of specific audience/visitor types. There is a vast difference between customer focus and human-centred experience design. Having trained the team in the fundamentals of audience empathy, detailed customer journey mapping, experience planning and design, and then prototyping with audience members, we ran some creative workshops to make the project have wings … and they flew. They were also amazed at how rewarding it was to work with a cross-functional team, on a creative project that had a beginning, a middle and an end, when usually they are confined to delivering a service. It delivered a genuine sense of satisfaction. Allowing them to be part of the experience shaping function, and giving them a budget to create experiential value was empowering. We are still in the process of evaluating the front end (impact on audiences) and back end (organisational impact). More on my blog in March … if anyone is interested.

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