The era of big data is upon us. If you’re an arts administrator who doesn’t know what that means, you might want to find out because big data has the potential to be one of the most productive – and disruptive – forces to hit the arts in decades.
Essentially, big data enables us to mix our patron data into a broader pool of consumer data and extract correlations that help us know with unprecedented specificity who’s most likely to respond to our appeals. The great thing about data is that it replaces guesswork with facts and gives us reliable answers, clear directions and predictable results. The not-so-great thing is that it replaces personal expertise and human intuition with cold hard math – a process that arts administrators who’ve built their careers on creative management practices might have trouble getting used to.
Normally I focus on communication theory in this blog and urge arts pros to guard against unsupportable opinions, but today I’m going to take a flight of fancy and make a few predictions based on personal observations from over three decades in the arts. Here are six idly speculative and largely meaningless but nonetheless cautionary guesses as to what’s going to happen as we work our way through this data revolution.
1. Many organizations will seize on big data opportunities and use them to improve efficiency and build vibrant communities of engaged participant/supporters. These organizations will generate more earned revenue, more individual contributions and larger, more avid support systems, thus giving themselves a better chance of surviving as audiences for traditional art forms continue to diversify.
2. Many organizations that embrace big data, however, will use it to send traditional marketing messages to wider audiences and thus fail to fully maximize their opportunities. Mining data to find more people who are willing to respond to half-century-old messages is a zero sum game, but the arts industry has a well-established history of neglecting to update its strategic message content.
3. History also suggests that some organizations will consider data an end rather than a means. The goal of data is to identify individuals with whom organizations can forge deeper, more meaningful human relationships, but many arts organizations will be satisfied with initial transactions and treat new customers as data clusters rather than as individuals. We do this now with small data. Big data will simply compound the efficiency with which we separate the humans who work in arts organizations from the humans who consume our artistic products.
4. Data will frustrate the hell out of seasoned arts pros who’ve succeeded thus far on wisdom, experience, intuition and the authority that comes from being top dog. Many arts leaders will find their noses fully out of joint when they discover that their personal opinions, anecdotal observations, favorite colors and even final executive decisions are not necessarily relevant contributions to the marketing process.
5. Data and engagement will butt heads. Community engagement is as hot a trend in funding circles as big data is in marketing circles, but they may be pointing in opposite directions. Data asks organizations to focus on professional, quantitative bottom line-driven communications strategies while engagement asks them to focus on qualitative community relationship building. Since “audience development” departments will be asked to do both, and only data can drive sustaining revenue, engagement is likely get the short end of the stick.
6. Ultimately, data will end up being a temporary fix. Like fracking, a mining process that extracts leftover gas and oil from spent wells, data can only help us squeeze more productivity out of a finite resource. Audiences for traditional art forms are likely to continue their decline and no amount of analytics will enable us to manufacture new demand.
I’m proud to call myself a data geek and I firmly believe that prudent use of big data is the best chance we have for stopping, and maybe even reversing, current audience attrition. But I also believe that audiences are diminishing largely because we’ve failed to make direct, meaningful, personal, human connections with the younger, more culturally diverse people on whom our futures depend.
We may be able to use data to make more efficient contact with those audiences, but if we fail to immerse ourselves in their cultures and let ourselves be influenced by them, we risk having used our investment in big data for the smallest of returns.