I’ve been thinking a lot about community engagement lately and have decided that, for large ticket-sales-dependent organizations, it is a colossal waste of time and resources. All the energy and money that community engagement might require of these organizations would be better invested in developing new outside sales initiatives.
What most struggling arts organizations need is to sell more tickets. Sales does that. Community engagement does not.
Engagement is a great idea for small, low-budget, well-funded grass roots organizations that cater to localized community interests and don’t need to earn a lot of revenue, but it’s not going to do much for the big guys – certainly not in the area of audience development. Sadly, it’s being sold to all arts organizations as a solution to their audience development problems when, for the larger institutions, it is no such thing. In many cases, community engagement is a false promise that desperate, highly suggestible arts leaders are buying into because they don’t know how to sell tickets and they don’t know where else to turn. And, tragically, while they’re chasing this elusive dream, they’re neglecting more fiscally responsible alternatives.
The easiest way to develop audiences is to identify people who are likely to want to buy tickets and then go out and sell them tickets. It’s the simplest thing in the world. Unfortunately, arts organizations tend to suck at doing it.
Most arts organizations emerged in a world where there were a lot of people who wanted to buy tickets, so all they had to do was promote their events and wait for the phones to ring. That world doesn’t exist anymore, of course, but arts organizations haven’t figured out how to make the transition. When promotion no longer works, you have to sell, which means you have to reconnect with your community and convince people that it’s in their interest to participate in the art you want them to buy.
Ironically, sales and community engagement are identical processes, with one important exception: Sales has quantifiable goals. Both require personal interaction with the community, nurturing of trust and good will, development of mutually beneficial long-term relationships, honest give-and-take that enables collaborative evolution and a meaningful, institution-wide commitment to the process. But in community engagement, the relationship is the goal, whereas in sales the relationship is expected to deliver useful results. Both are noble pursuits, but only one puts butts in seats and cash in the coffers.
So, if you have the staff and resources to do community engagement, and your survival depends on selling tickets, the smart thing to do is devote those resources to sales because sales will deliver larger audiences and more revenue. Community engagement might be a nice idea, but for ailing arts organizations, doing nice things without doing smart things is irresponsible and counterproductive. Good community relationships can’t save arts organizations that neglect to sell enough tickets to keep the doors open.
If you work for or run a large, ticket-sales-dependent organization, the next time someone tries to convince you that community engagement is the answer to your audience development problems, listen patiently to their lofty advice, attach dollar goals the minute they’re gone, focus on people who are most likely to buy tickets and get used to calling it sales. You can call it engagement on the grant applications if that’ll make the foundations happy (they don’t know anything about selling tickets), but on the ground where it matters, say sales, do sales, and stay focused on selling.
If you do it the right way, all of your community engagement and sales goals will be met.