Arts leaders who believe that art is important spend a lot of time telling the world how important their art is. These executive decision makers tend to believe that telling people how important something is is a useful way to get them to participate.
Tragically, it is not.
Your importance, dear arts leader, is a motivating factor only to those who possess a desire to participate in what you think is important. Traditional audiences may share your belief in the importance of your art form, and may thus be compelled to participate, but future audiences, the ones you need for survival, are an entirely different animal.
New audiences are well aware that your organization could disappear overnight and their lives would remain unchanged. You may have strong convictions about the value of your organization, but your belief, and the self-important communication it engenders, doesn’t influence behavior.
New audiences are motivated by what’s important to them.
If you want to influence behavior, you have to find places where what you think is important and what new audiences think is important overlap. For example, if you’re a performing arts organization and your research reveals that younger audiences are looking for ways to enjoy social experiences that include quality entertainment, the most important thing you can do is market social experiences that include quality entertainment – and that means making the content of your marketing about their social experiences.
Sounds simple, but wait ’til you see the look on your artistic director’s face when half the photos in next season’s brochure are of young, culturally diverse people enjoying one another’s company in the lobby bar. If the arts suddenly decided to make marketing content about the customers (a practice that professional marketers take for granted) heads would explode throughout the industry.
Arts leaders want to see what they think is important in the brochure: art, artists, themselves, venues, donors, Asian children at education events, etc. Customers simply don’t rank high enough to make the cut. (No, those photos of audiences clapping at your stage don’t count.)
Customers want to see themselves in your marketing materials – especially new customers who don’t yet understand, and can’t quite envision, how your products will make them happy.
If new audiences can’t see themselves in your marketing materials, they’ll know just how important they are to you – and that will help them decide how important you are to them.