Engagement: The Ultimate Market Research

Bravo to Doug Borwick for his great post on marketing/research today. Doug and I don’t always see eye to eye on the the details of the engagement-marketing interface, but on this one we agree 100%. If you want to know what your audiences want, engage with them, talk to them, get to know them, listen to them and you’ll learn everything you need to know.

Expensive market research can be useful but there’s no substitute for having personal relationships with ordinary customers. As a veteran marketer I’ve done a lot of interesting and expensive research, but the most valuable information I’ve ever gained has come from engaging personally with audiences and hearing what they have to say. It’s the simplest thing to do and it doesn’t cost a cent, but it’s surprisingly uncommon in traditional arts institutions, as I’ve written about here and especially here.

The purpose of research is to understand audience dispositions and behaviors so we can be more responsive to their needs and desires. We can sit in our cubicles and conference rooms and hire expensive research firms to help us find out what the people who pass through our doors every day are thinking, or we can adopt a culture of engagement where every staff member from ED to intern is expected to connect meaningfully, personally, productively and regularly with the community members that our organizations were designed to serve.

The funding community seems to have recognized the chasm that’s opened up between traditional, remote, elite, tent pole organizations and their diminishing audiences. Led by the James Irvine Foundation, they’re trying to stimulate more engagement-oriented practices by adjusting the focus of their grants. I’m skeptical about the effectiveness of the approach, but I have no doubt that encouraging arts leaders and administrators to engage more fully with the world outside their artsy bubbles is the best way to help them solve their audience problems.

If you’re an administrator of an arts organization that has guests visiting today, try this: Stand by the doors for a while, introduce yourself to someone who looks like a newcomer, thank her for coming, ask her what made her decide to come today, listen long and hard to what she tells you and then and give her your card so she can email you tomorrow and share what her experience was like. If every staff member of every organization did this one small thing every day, the arts would be successful beyond measure.

Doug Borwick says it all the time and I’m happy to echo his recommendation: Engage!


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