It’s that time of year. Promotions are popping up left and right offering audiences the opportunity to “Subscribe Now!” at deeply discounted rates.
Our arts organizations are looking for audiences: new audiences, loyal audiences, committed audiences, and in some cases, any audiences. We believe in our art. We believe in our organizations. Surely all we need to do is tell people about the work we’re doing and they’ll see the value and come running, right?
As leaders and marketers in arts organizations, we often seem to operate on the assumption that people should and do want to attend the arts, and it is the practical matters of time, money, location, and the oft-lamented competing leisure-time options with which we must wage war in order to bring those people into our venues. But is it true? Well, on the one hand, yes!
Research from the RAND Corporation’s A New Framework for Building Participation in the Arts shows that, for people already inclined toward participation in the arts, practical barriers are indeed an issue. Strategic use of promotional and other tactics that address these barriers to participation is important as we make sure that those who are inclined to attend the arts do, in fact, buy tickets and attend. And, with any luck, your excellently designed efforts might just entice them to attend your organization rather than another.
But is that enough?
The flip side of the research tells us that practical barriers really only come into play once people decide they are interested in participating. Until people reach that point, addressing practical matters won’t have much of an effect on them. If that’s true, how are we supposed to diversify our audiences and bring new people into relationship with the arts, not to mention with our arts organizations? For that, we have to address the other barriers, the perceptual and the psychological.
Perceptual barriers have to do with the way people perceive the arts. Those perceptions are affected by past experiences and the influences of family, friends, and other valued social groups. Psychological barriers run even deeper, tapping into very basic human fears of risk, rejection, and the unknown.
So, how do our organizations begin to address the perceptual and psychological barriers that are keeping audiences away?
1. Find out who your audience is. Organizations need to figure out who their current audience is and who their prospective audience members are. Our organizations will be most successful if we build upon interests and values that we share with our audiences. To do that, we need to know what our communities value generally, what they value about the arts, and what interests them. That brings me to #2.
2. Have an organizational identity. Yes, of course you have a mission statement, but I mean something a little deeper. Think of it in terms of personal relationships. We are drawn into relationships with people because of who they are. We connect with people who have personalities we feel fit with our own and people who have values and interests we share. If I am constantly changing myself to try to be what I think you want me to be (remember high school?!), or am unable to tell you what I think, like, or care about, I’m not giving you much to relate to. The organization needs to have an identity: values, interests, a personality. And that identity should be present in the organization’s programming and marketing, not just its mission statement.
3. It’s okay to not be all things to all people. At first it sounds silly, but it’s actually a somewhat frightening proposition in challenging economic times. If we create strong organizational identities we run the risk that some folks will distinctly not connect with that identity. If our organizations are placed correctly, though, we should gain more than we lose.
When we create identities for our organizations that are expressed clearly and consistently, our audiences begin to understand what our organizations are about. They can evaluate them on the basis of interests and values.
Perceptions that extend beyond the art itself become relevant as audience members decide where to participate. And because the organization is behaving (through its programming and marketing) consistently, people know what they’re going to get. Risk is reduced, and the fears that feed psychological barriers begin to lose potency.
So, keep the promotions coming! We do need to break down practical barriers to participation, but we also need to remember to address the perceptual and psychological barriers if we truly want to develop audiences that will help carry our organizations forward.