Are You Selling What New Audiences are Buying?

My Twitter friend @jamesdoeser mentioned a few weeks ago that research often tells us that the product we think we’re selling isn’t the one our customers are buying. And he offers up this example:

“You think you’re offering X artist; what your customer is buying is a dignified way to spend a wedding anniversary.”

I love the anniversary example for two reasons: One is that the arts industry squanders a astonishing amount of precious resources promoting organizational anniversaries that have essentially no persuasive influence on audiences. The other is that customers are more likely to buy tickets to celebrate their own anniversaries than they are to celebrate ours. It’s a poignant illustration of the egocentrism that underlies cultural sector communications and the simple fact that what we’re trying to sell and what they’re interested in buying are often very different things.

I mentioned in passing once that one of my favorite ways to pre-test a marketing message is to imagine someone in a focus group expressing it in the form of a personal yearning. If you’re considering basing an upcoming promotional campaign on a benchmark anniversary, for example, picture yourself sitting behind a two-way mirror listening to a group of people who look just like the younger, more culturally diverse audiences you’d like to see in your venue and imagine one of them saying:

“When I’m looking for a way to spend a night out with friends listening to live music, I always look for an arts organization that’s celebrating an anniversary because an organization’s anniversary is so much a part of the experience my friends and I expect when we go out.”

If it sounds silly and you can’t imagine a real person saying it – or stopping for a second to even think about it – it’s probably not a very persuasive message to publish in your ticket sales materials.

If you can’t afford focus groups, this little thought experiment is an easy way to avoid self-centered messaging that has no persuasive resonance with new audiences. Try it on just about any promotional idea and you’ll find that it’s a useful tool.

But there’s a catch. It’s one thing to imagine briefly what focus group participants would never say and another thing entirely to imagine what they would say. One of the most counterproductive traditions in arts management is our tendency to sit in conference rooms dreaming up what outsider audiences might want using our elite insider’s perspectives as a filter. The only way to know what new audiences want is to find actual human beings who represent our new target audiences and ask them.

In all likelihood what they’ll talk about are things that are important to them – things that relate to their personal experiences or that satisfy their individual needs, wants and desires.

“When my husband and I look for ways to celebrate our anniversary, we usually choose something special like a concert or play. You know, something out of the ordinary and maybe a little fancier than what we normally do.”

Research results will vary from market to market and from one institution to another, but if there’s one constant that runs through all research results, it’s that when it comes to what motivates people to buy our products – especially new audiences – it’s all about them.

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