The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
I was in Seattle last week for meetings with a few of our arts clients and attended a terrific brainstorming session about developing teen and young-adult audiences. I came in — and left — with a big question about the limits of marketing to meet the challenge.
The session was set up for us to generate ideas about how to attract more young people to the organization’s performances. At the outset, those performances were treated as a given; the question was how to enhance the desire to have those arts experiences among the target age groups.
But, tellingly, the ideas that began zinging around the room were about changing the nature of those experiences — about new approaches to programming and the artistic “product” onstage, but also about venue, format, before-and-after events, audience behavior, overall vibe, and many other aspects outside the control of the organization’s marketing department.
A few people in the room made the point explicit: No matter how clever your marketing communications are, no matter how technologically and socially networked your message is, if the experience you’re offering isn’t perceived as enjoyable by young people, they won’t come...or won’t come back. Marketing alone can’t do the trick. It’s the programming, stupid.
To quote my newfound Seattle colleague Holly Arsenault, who runs Seattle Center Teen Tix and wrote me an email after the brainstorming session:
If you were to look at our show-by-show numbers, you’d see that there’s no amount of packaging I can do that’s as impactful on our ticket sales as a show simply being compelling to teenagers. Of course, I see a difference in our numbers when I’ve done a good job of illuminating for our [teen] members why a particular show is relevant to them in a way that might not have been apparent . . . but I can’t make something that’s clearly irrelevant seem like it is — nor would I want to. ...
Of course, there’s a big problem here, which others soon voiced. If you present the kind of programming that is engaging to 20-year-olds, or institute the kinds of changes that make attending more comfortable and social for them, you are likely to make it less engaging and comfortable for 60 year olds. To take an obvious example, texting or snapping cell-phone pics during a performance may lower those barriers of formality and reverence that keep some teens and young adults away from traditional arts venues, but would distract and dismay the older “core” audience. ...
This tension raises some serious strategy questions for arts organizations, questions about how much tailoring of offerings to particular audiences is necessary in order to truly — and sustainably — engage those audiences.
As recently as a few years ago, most arts organizations were working in what I think of as a “pipeline” model. When they set their sights on increasing ticket purchase by teens or young adults, they created special events and programs with a social emphasis and a high-energy, fun feel (and of course promoted them with hip, irreverent messages via interactive media). The idea was to attract younger audiences to programs geared specifically to them, thereby gradually shifting their perceptions of the organization and drawing a subset of them back to attend “standard” programs (i.e., mainstage performances, subscription concerts, etc.).
Ditto for any other underserved audience the organization wanted to bring in. Targeted events and outreach were developed in the hope of creating a pipeline of new customers who would flow into the organization’s regular audience. (Those targeted programs are also referred to as “gateway” events, a similar metaphor.)
But does it work? What percentage actually make it through that pipeline and become part of the audience for everyday programming? Our research (for a by-no-means representative sample of arts organizations) suggests that the proportion is low, and that if success is judged by that kind of “conversion rate,” then most such programs would have to be counted as failures.
Which only makes sense. If someone enjoys Arts Event A because it’s social, informal, energetic, fun, and hip, why should we expect her to also enjoy Arts Event B if B is individual, formal, quiet, serious, and traditional (at least in its presentation, if not artistically)? Yet that’s essentially the expectation we’ve built into the pipeline model.
That realization has led some of our clients to think a little differently about their goals. What if enjoying the pipeline or gateway programming is viewed as an end in itself, not just a means? What if we judged the initiative’s success not by how well it grows audiences for the organization’s traditional offerings, but by how well it attracts new patrons to the organization and engages them on its own quite different terms?
In other words, what if those social, informal experiences are just another way to engage with the arts, no more or less legitimate than the traditional ways?
This, of course, is the “parallel” model, because it means that the organization offers an ongoing strand of programming and messaging for a slice of arts consumers who differ in basic ways (demographics, expectations, etc.) from the core audience.
Such parallel programs abound — think of art museums’ Friday-night social happenings like SAM Remix, or orchestral series like the Chicago Symphony’s Classic Encounter, and of course all those teen councils at museums. (Yet if you asked the arts managers who run those programs what they hope to achieve, you’d hear some “gateway” talk about cultivating new patrons and making people feel more comfortable with the institution...en route to regular attendance. Old models die hard.)
But what does this do to the institution’s brand? The new strand of programming and messaging is often fundamentally different in spirit from the organization’s mainstream offerings. Often it has its own name and logo. To the extent that it’s successful in the minds of its target audience, it comes to constitute a separate brand, one that makes different promises to different people.
That, in turn, raises questions about focus, clarity, resources, and of course institutional mission. And I predict those questions will become more urgent in the coming decade or so, as demographic and cultural shifts fuel the growth of those youth-oriented (and other kinds of) sub-brands to the point where they compete with the original master brands for the power to define those arts institutions.
In the shorter term, I think, the realization that marketing, social technologies, and ancillary services can only do so much to attract new audiences — that we have to think about programming and involve the artistic and scholarly sides of our organizations — will continue to push us from pipeline thinking to parallel thinking. It’s a shift I welcome, but as a consultant that’s easy for me to say: I don’t have to make it happen. Where do you come down? What’s the right choice for your organization. Or, if you’re a consultant, what do you recommend to your clients?
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