Filling the Empty Seats First – Part III

In Part I we talked about the empty seat next to the last seat sold and how important it is to understand who isn’t sitting there.

In Part II we talked about the difference between super avid core audiences, less avid/quasi-regular patrons, and the uncommitted outer fringes of our communities of customers. Then we talked about the even less avid new audiences that lie just beyond that churning outer ring.

Today we’re going to talk about bridges that help us straddle the divide that separates our new audiences from current audiences.

But first a story.

I once was hired by an arts organization that, together with a major funder, came up with a plan to increase weekday participation among seniors by 25%. It was an easy objective to achieve, but the planners had laid out a tactical approach that made it impossible. “We want you to go out and talk to senior centers, retirement homes and senior living communities,” they said, as if these targets were juicy orbs of low-hanging fruit that no one had thought to pick.

I’d been down this road before so I knew there were many, more sophisticated sellers of weekday leisure activity (such as package tour operators) who had long ago claimed that territory, and that even the most talented, well-compensated, full-time salesperson would find it maddeningly complex, time-consuming and ultimately counterproductive. (Believe it or not, seniors aren’t sitting around waiting for some earnest young arts promoter to hand them something interesting to do.)

Meanwhile, I watched as commercial tour coaches rolled up to the venue every week depositing hundreds of seniors onto the organization’s doorstep. When I inquired about the relationships the organization maintained with these companies, I discovered that the gal who listened to the messages on the group sales line kept her contacts in an index card file* that wasn’t part of the organization’s patron database. All the tour business that came to this venue, as it turned out, was passive, and the untapped opportunities for growth in the package travel market were like juicy orbs of low-hanging fruit that nobody had thought to pick.

This story illustrates perfectly how the arts tend to dream about undiscovered imaginary audiences while blithely ignoring some of the more mundane but nonetheless real audiences that lie just beyond their comfort zones. The tour operators in this case were bridges that spanned the divide between the organization’s least important actual customers (those relegated to the index card file) and the even remoter audiences who booked their tours.

Here are a few similar bridges that we tend to ignore out of deference to our nearest and dearest – albeit diminishing – core audiences:

First Timers – Any customer who walks through the door for the first time represents an extraordinary opportunity to learn what motivated them to cross the old audience/new audience threshold. The more an organization can learn about what moves someone to cross that line, the easier it will be to motivate others to cross it as well, which in my mind places these venturesome pioneers at the center of our organizational priorities.

Resellers – There’s a whole world of businesses that will happily sell our tickets to their remote or proprietary audiences for a financial incentive. Commercial attractions like theme parks employ vast networks of third-party resellers while nonprofit arts organizations tend to eschew dealing with third parties who expect a cut of the take. At some point, though, we may need to reconsider the relative merits of netting 80% on a ticket sold to a new audience member by someone else vs. 0% on an empty seat.

Partners – I once partnered with a local theme restaurant that had a huge share of the student travel market. They wanted to offer dinner packages that included the Broadway show I was working on and I wanted to reach the student travel market. Together we moved about 8,000 packages. The scale in this case was large, but the model works on any level where two compatible entities share an interest in bringing people to the same destination.

Volume Buyers – If you’re still running one of those pathetic, low-level, one-size-fits-all “group” sales operations, it’s time to wake up and smell the 21st century. Individuals who buy in bulk on behalf of others are among the most important bridges any arts organization can have to new audiences. They include B-to-B buyers such as meeting and event planners, tour operators, charities, corporations, businesses, affinity group managers, resellers and destination partners, plus a broad range of diverse B-to-C buyers who purchase in bulk for a multitude of personal, avocational and professional reasons. If you’re keeping these folks in an index card box or some organizational equivalent, it’s time for a massive reorganization of priorities.

Sales Staff – Smart arts organizations are starting to hire executive sales staffers who oversee a broad range of inside and outside sales activities and who forge valuable, productive, bottom-line oriented community relationships. Sales has numerous benefits, but the principal idea here is that sales people, because they engage with the outside world, bring valuable insights back into organizations that have become too self-centered and insular.

Online Discounters – Daily deal and deep discount liquidators seem like a great ways to fill up the spaces that can’t be sold to real customers, but the attitude that allows us to think in terms of real customers and cheap infill is completely counterproductive. In reality, these companies are indispensable generators of the churn we need to solidify relationships with the future audiences – that is if we’re smart enough to manage the churn.

There are more, but I may have to save those for a follow-up post. The important thing is that these bridges all exist in the remote outer fringes of our artsy universe and they provide extremely useful opportunities to pull new audiences into the fold. If we’re serious about growing audiences, it’s time to respect the bridges we have, repair the bridges that we’ve been neglecting and build new bridges where new audiences tell us they’re looking for ways to cross the divide.

*Index card files were little boxes with 3″ x 5″ lined cards and tabbed dividers that people used in the olden days to store and organize data.

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