Community Engagement is a Lousy Way to Sell Tickets

Community engagement is NOT audience development. Any arts administrator whose livelihood depends on ticket sales and who doesn’t understand this is operating under a dangerous misapprehension.

Audience development (more accurately referred to as marketing) is about selling tickets. Community engagement is about engaging with the community. The two are related only in that they involve communicating with people outside the organization. Beyond that, they are utterly different things that don’t belong in the same administrative category. Executive arts leaders who put them in the same category risk doing considerable damage to their organizations.

Marketing is driven by dollar goals. Its value is determined by the extent to which it delivers a reasonable return on investment. Marketing may cost a lot of money to do, but it generates measurable results – far in excess of what’s spent – and those results typically demonstrate that the expenditure is worthwhile. There simply is no more efficient way to earn revenue than through smart, sensible, strategic marketing.

Community engagement, meanwhile, has no dollar goals. Its success is measured by the quality of the community relationships. Community engagement costs money to do, but since it doesn’t generate revenue, it doesn’t cover its costs and must be paid for by the organization or its funders. Engagement proponents claim that new arts audiences will one day arise from engaged communities, but in the absence of clearly delineated goals, strategies and metrics, this is just wishful thinking that has no real impact on near-term bottom lines.

When arts organizations devote marketing resources to engagement efforts, they may be supporting noble causes, but they are steering valuable resources away from revenue-generating endeavors that are crucial to their organizations’ sustainability. Marketing directors could easily give chunks of their marketing budgets to homeless shelter painting classes, free concerts in the parks or elementary arts education, but that would be fiscally irresponsible. The marketing department isn’t a charitable arm of the organization; it’s there to sell tickets and earn revenue. If community engagement means that arts organizations are supposed to serve as pass-through community charities, that may be fine, but funneling the money through the marketing department is foolish and potentially suicidal.

But what about the mission? Shouldn’t the marketing department support the organization’s mission to become more fully engaged with the community? Yes! The marketing department should support the mission by generating the maximum amount of revenue it can, given the resources it has. The marketing department’s ultimate priority is to generate the sustaining revenue the organization needs to fulfill its mission. If that mission includes engaging with communities for the sake of engaging with communities, that’s all well and good, but the engagement activity should emerge out of a department that has been created and funded expressly for that purpose. Otherwise, it threatens to bleed resources away from, and therefore undermine, indispensable core functions.

EngagementAnd what about engaging with the community to sell tickets? Can’t we attach dollar goals to our engagement efforts so they’re more productive? Yes. Absolutely. But that’s not community engagement, that’s sales. If you are doing sales, you should call it sales so there’s no confusion over how and why you’re doing it, or what the relationship is between the investment and its projected return. Say, for example, your sales department has decided to target law firms (sales) but your executive director says you need to focus on community center bingo games (engagement). Because you’ve elected to do sales, you’ll have financial projections on hand to explain why the law firms offer a dependable return and why the bingo games, by comparison, no matter how warm and fuzzy they may look on the grant applications, are not a fiscally responsible use of your departmental time and resources. (If your ED insists on the bingo games and says it’s a mission-oriented priority, make sure she agrees to cover the sales shortfall from someone else’s budget.)

I wrote last week about a job advertisement I saw for a “Chief Marketing and Community Engagement Officer,” which was a perfect illustration of the damage that can be done when arts organizations conflate marketing and community engagement. Engagement should have only the most tenuous relationship with marketing, but here they were combined into one person’s job title, which means this job is a train wreck in the making. Who knows where else this is happening or how deeply this engagement-as-audience-development misconception has penetrated the industry?

I sense Doug Borwick‘s hackles rising right about now so let me say this: Community engagement is an absolutely essential idea that is destined to become a saving grace for struggling arts organizations. Traditional arts institutions have allowed themselves to become disconnected from the communities they serve and reconnecting through meaningful engagement is likely to be their best chance for survival. And, yes, community engagement will one day eclipse marketing as the ultimate way to make arts organizations optimally responsible to, and thus more relevant, useful and valuable to, their communities.

But engagement is a large, resource-intensive undertaking that can’t be handed off to the marketing department just because they’re the ones who talk to people outside the organization. And it can’t be a buzzword that’s cavalierly slapped onto someone’s job title to make the foundations believe their mandates are being followed. And it can’t be just the next fad that academics and policy wonks talk about at industry conferences but that organizational leaders shove in a corner and ignore. Community engagement is a gravely important responsibility that traditional arts organizations will have to take seriously – and make room for – if they’re going to survive. And it’s something the funding community will have to be prepared to pay for for a long time because right now, and for the foreseeable future, it does not pay for itself.

There are a lot of things that smart arts marketing professionals can do to attract new audiences, but until community engagement proves itself capable of delivering reasonable monetary returns, it doesn’t belong on the list.


6 thoughts on “Community Engagement is a Lousy Way to Sell Tickets

  1. Trevor,
    We’ve had sidebar conversations on the topic and we absolutely agree on almost all of this. I’m particularly struck by your comment “community engagement will one day eclipse marketing as the ultimate way to make arts organizations optimally responsible to, and thus more relevant, useful and valuable to, their communities.” Wow. I could hardly argue with that!

    And while my hackles may have raised a bit reading some of this, they did not do so for the reasons you might think. The assumption that community engagement is about “homeless shelter painting classes, free concerts in the parks or elementary arts education” and that it implies arts organizations must become community charities is flat out wrong. That might be true if the only communities we needed to address were the homeless or those subsisting on incomes below the poverty line, but there are plenty of other non-participating communities with which we need to build relationships.

    The other issue is the assumption that “Community engagement costs a lot of money to do.” Some choices might, but engagement is fundamentally 1) rooted in a community-aware mindset out of which programming arises (programming for which budgets already exist) and 2) expressed in relationship building. Changing habits of thought may be incredibly difficult but it is not necessarily expensive. (You’re trying to do that with respect to marketing.) Nurturing relationships cannot be, like fundraising should not be, placed solely in the lap of staff. There are interesting things that can be done with board and other volunteers working with communities to build trust, awareness, and understanding.

    Few things in life have *no* cost, but a good part of my current work is helping organizations see how some of the things they already do (and for which budgets exist) can be re-purposed with a greater emphasis on communities and relationship building without radically overthrowing the enterprise.

    This is such an important issue, it looks to me like I’ll need to expand on it on my own blog.

    Thanks for a great post.

    • Whew.

      I worried that you’d think this one stepped over the line. (You do know I do this to be deliberately provocative.)

      I’ll grant you the charity stuff to a point, but I’ll bet if you surveyed most arts professionals in big theatre, dance and classical music institutions about what sorts of people should be the recipients of community engagement, the results would be easy to sum up as “the lesser people.” I consider those lawyers in my sales example to be every bit as worthy of community engagement as the gals at the bingo hall – more maybe because they’re more likely to become ticket buyers and donors – but you’d be hard pressed to find arts pros who would think of community engagement as being for sophisticated, successful, affluent members of their communities. (And the executive director in that example is just an amalgam of all the nonprofit ED’s I’ve ever worked for.)

      And I’ll be happy to agree that engagement doesn’t have to be expensive as soon as arts leaders stop assuming it can be chucked into the marketing department’s budget.

      Can’t wait for your next blog post!


      • Even current donors and subscribers are a community. It’s just that engaging with them is more accurately audience engagement. The knee-jerk assumption that community engagement is only about the “poor, tired, huddled masses” is a tragic habit of mind.

        For practical reasons (laying the groundwork to expand reach) I like to focus on unusual suspects. Your lawyers are not that, generally, because as a group they have a tendency to be similar to the current audience demographic. But you’re right, they are a community with which it would be profitable (literally) to engage. I would hasten to add, though, that if “all” we are doing is selling them tickets (a highly laudable–and as you point out, attainable–goal) it’s probably audience development. If we enter into dialogue to learn more about them so we can respond to their needs and interests, then it’s more like community engagement.

        A good example of an atypical demographic for arts organizations is Millennials. Rather than wringing our hands about how to grab them, perhaps we could talk to them. They’d be a great community with which to engage. But we’d have to be willing to respond to what we learn from them.

  2. As a marketing director for a community music school, I would argue that engaging the community is not so much of a separate line item in the budget as it is (hopefully) a by-product and common thread through all of your marketing efforts. Engaging your current audiences, donors, supporters, faculty (in our case), and even staff by going above and beyond to provide helpful information, developing solid personal relationships and trust with both members and non-members, and starting conversations about what it is you do and why it is beneficial to them should be engrained in every marketing project, channel, and strategy. Engagement is what makes your organization a great place to be, and once people experience that, they’ll more than likely recommend you over the organization down the road, translating to sales.

    One example from our small neck of the woods – when we offer an open house we make sure the instructors of our music classes are speaking to the parents and kids who attend, answering their questions and concerns, and developing good relationships. If one of those parents signed up their child for music classes, I would list the open house as the referral source, not “community engagement,” while recognizing that the engagement part of the event was probably what sealed the deal.

    I’m relatively new to arts marketing and administration, but I would be curious to know how many organizations specifically separate “engagement” from “marketing” in a yearly budget?
    Thanks for your thoughts,

    • Thank you for chiming in, Kelly. I agree with everything you say. But I would add two comments.

      If there are near-term dollar goals attached to the engagement process, it is sales. Read the engagement proponents’ rhetoric carefully and you’ll realize that there are not supposed to be dollar goals attached. Engagement is for the betterment of the community and the betterment of the relationship between the arts organization and its constituents. When engagement proponents talk about new audiences, they’re talking about people who will voluntarily seek out a paid participation relationship with the organization as an organic outgrowth of the high quality relationships that engagement has engendered (a process that could take many years to deliver measurable results).

      There’s nothing wrong with sales. In fact, when sales is done well it looks exactly like engagement except for the addition of bottom line goals. You have described what appears to be an effective sales process in your organization. If you are finding that it is generating measurable results, you have every reason to be proud of your work and to call it sales unapologetically. Or call it goal-oriented engagement if you like.

      The problem in the ticket-sales-dependent arts is two-fold: Organizations are buying into the “engagement as audience development” concept without looking carefully at the return-on-investment analysis. There is no reasonable expectation of a healthy ROI for the engagement that’s being promoted by engagement apologists, and marketing resources are being squandered in the process.

      The other problem is that engagement is being relegated to the marketing department when it belongs at the senior-most levels of executive leadership and must be infused throughout the organization in every department and at every level in order for it to work. Engagement proponents know this but they don’t spend much time warning organizations about the dangers of misapplying the theory. The result is that engagement will probably end up being just another unworkable fad in a long line of unworkable fads that the arts community has embraced over the years.

      And as for the marketing/engagement budget splits, I doubt you’ll find any – which is why this problem poses such a grave threat to troubled arts organizations.

      If your organization is healthy and you find that sales are strong due to the development of healthy sales relationships with your constituents, I wouldn’t worry much about these academic, semantic differences. But if your organization is hovering on the brink of collapse – as so many are – the distinctions can make the difference between success and failure.

  3. It sounds as though you have experienced many organizations treating engagement as a series of activities or events that require funding. I like to believe that engagement is not so much an outbound project or planned effort as it is an ongoing, two-sided conversation with the community, whatever “community” implies. Engagement to me means simply somebody showing by their actions or words a vested interest in what you’re doing or saying. In other words, it doesn’t need to cost anything to have, and you shouldn’t necessarily expect anything from, a conversation with someone you know, like, and trust, it’s just a good thing to do that may or may not (but hopefully does!) lead to or be related to sales.

    I would definitely agree on your point that engagement is something that extends way beyond the marketing department and into every ED’s and staff person’s role, and I can see where this gets organizations in trouble by attaching a dollar figure return to it and then getting frustrated when they think marketing isn’t doing its job. I don’t think you would say that your time or money is being squandered if you had a great conversation with a friend or family member about why you like your job and the organization you work for – but if you allocated and paid money to have that conversation with a clear goal to get them to buy a ticket, and then they don’t end up buying anything, then I could see where that’s a misdirected use of time and money.
    Maybe that was your point to begin with?

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