Filling the Empty Seats First – Part 2

In my last post we talked about the last seat sold, the empty seat next to it, and how important it is to know what the person who didn’t show up and the one who did show up have in common. We in the arts talk a lot about new audiences, but we seldom take time to focus on exactly who these people are, what they’re looking for or why any of them might want to buy what we’re trying to sell.

And at the same time we complain bitterly about churn – the tendency among contemporary audiences to sample our wares without becoming regular or dependable customers. Having built our institutions on audiences of loyal, stable, committed patrons, we tend to view churn as a problem that needs to be overcome and we’re reluctant to accept the fact that churn and new audiences are essentially the same thing.

Audience TiersI used this diagram in my book to describe the place where churn and new audiences meet. The inner circle is the arts organization, of course, and everyone professionally associated with it. The first ring is the core support system of members, donors, subscribers and loyal patrons. The second ring is the somewhat less avid, but nonetheless vital population of regular patrons. And the third is the fickle, least avid, least committed audience of frustrating churners. So far, it’s a picture of the audience segments I described in my last post.

But the ring I’m most interested in is the outermost ring – the thin, light gray ring just beyond the third that identifies the relationship between old and new audiences. The folks who occupy this adjacent space are more likely than others to give us a try, but for one reason or another they haven’t yet stepped across the boundary to become part of the active third ring. Nothing, as far as I’m concerned, is more important than understanding how to motivate people to cross that line.

I chose to illustrate new audiences this way for four reasons:

1. It is imperative that we begin thinking about audiences in terms of relative avidity – the farther you move from the center, the less avid the audience’s interest in the product. New audiences who inhabit the fourth ring are even less avid than our third ring churners, but compared to the rest of humanity, they’re still more likely to participate. That places them in a very specific position relative to our existing communities of customers.

2. The closeness of new audiences tells us exactly where to look for them. A lot of arts professionals dream of ideal but as yet untapped new audiences that look and act just like our super-avid base – but who exist in some mysterious realm that we haven’t yet figured out how to contact. Realistic marketers, meanwhile, know that new audiences lie just beyond the ragged, chaotic fringes of our universe of tepid dabblers.

3. Everything we need to know about motivating the fourth ring, we can learn from the third ring. Those who occupy the churn zone have the most in common with those who lie just beyond its boundaries so the more we know about churners and the more actively we use that knowledge to persuade new audiences, the more newcomers we’re likely to pull into the fold.

4. Our job as arts professionals is to persuade everyone within our four-ring universe to move toward the center. If we direct our persuasive energies to the outermost ring, it will naturally influence the inner three rings and draw everyone within our sphere of influence closer. But if we apply our persuasive energies only to the first two rings, which is what we do now, the third and fourth rings will remain uncommitted and elusive.

The lesson in all of this is that we have to love the churn. We have to create as much of it as we can, we have to learn everything it can teach us, we have to use what we learn to forge stronger bonds with uncommitted churners, and we have to apply what we learn to unpersuaded outsiders so we can lure more of them into the zone.

Or to put it in community engagement terms, we have to know and love the folks in – and just beyond – the churn zone as well as we know and love the folks in the super-avid base. Then we have to relate to them in a manner that’s as personal, relevant and meaningful as the way we’ve been relating to avid arts lovers for the last fifty years.

I know it’s counterintuitive. No serious arts professional wants to believe that our future is dependent on investing in people who don’t currently care all that much about what we do, but it is. Our job now is to convince them we’re worth caring about – and then give them a damned good reason to continue caring once they’ve passed thorough our doors.

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2 thoughts on “Filling the Empty Seats First – Part 2

  1. Beautifully put Trevor… I love your blog!
    I love the churn… and love describing to potential new audiences the other side of the coin of dissing classical music. The trick is to go where they enjoy other music, like bars, clubs, restaurants, then play and talk about the music, answering some obvious and burning questions, such as, why is it called classical to begin with (inspired by ancient Greeks). Getting “real” with classical in noisy bars may not reinforce the refinement of the art form… but the point is to show how real people can connect to it. Exaggerating the folk elements which provide contrast to art music is one way. Mixing a little crossover is another. Just being excited is yet another. The fear of “dumbing down” has prevented us from “warming up” art music. And I felt I had to break with my orchestra to make a real difference… at a time when there’s more curiosity than ever for the symphony.

  2. Pingback: Developpez votre auditoire » Blog Archive » Préoccupez-vous davantage de vos nouveaux clients

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