Tapping back into lost audiences
You know that question, “how do we build new audiences without losing current ones?” Here’s a thought exercise for you: what if you flipped it, reframed the question? What if you prioritized the audience you’ve already lost, rather than the audience you might lose?
That’s right: you’ve already lost audiences. Point of fact: there’s a giant pool of audience members that you’ve never had--never even knew you existed--that you’ve left out or even actively displaced because of choices you and your organization have made over time. And continue to make.
You see, last winter I was at breakfast with Martin Wollesen, the executive director at The Clarice, and we were talking about artistic programming, engagement, and audience development when Marty dropped this exact thought bomb on me. I was speechless. I was like Alice falling down the rabbit hole: this isn’t the way arts leaders think about audience diversification! The question is supposed to be framed in terms of status quo risk management: how do you diversify your audience without displacing your current constituency? But unlike Alice, instead of falling into Wonderland where nothing makes sense, Marty’s thought-bomb positioned me on some of the most solid ground I’ve ever stood.
What we’re missing when we focus on retaining existing audiences is that maintaining the status quo does not maximize inclusivity: it fortifies current exclusivity. It reinforces your organization’s culture of hospitality and communicates the same messages about who you are which turns away potential new members and is not alluring to outsiders, no matter how many times you might think you are mixing things up and trying new outlets. (Or worse--your messages aren’t really even reaching anyone.)
So I invite you to throw the switch today and begin enacting a not-so-radical plan to diversify our thinking, collaborators, and approach in order to tackle “the problem” of audience development from a different angle.
First and foremost: we need to flip our mindset. We need to rewrite the story we’ve been telling ourselves, from one of an arts organization with a healthy audience base that could make room for a few newbies if they were interested, to an arts organization that is running on a perpetual deficit and will never fulfill its purpose without continually intermixing new, different people with one another. We must initiate conversation solely from a value-added stance.
Second: we need to partner with current audiences. Audience development efforts always seem to be secluded, staff-led initiatives that aren’t ever talked about publicly. Reframe your veteran audience as ambassadors rather than fickle lovers. It’s amazing how enthusiastic about your organization your current audiences are, and how some of them will work quite hard to connect everyone from their best friends to complete strangers with you. Be transparent about your efforts. Be specific about what assistance you could use, and provide clear direction about steps current audience members can take to assist you with bringing in new people.
Third: make incremental and sweeping changes. Draw a picture of who you are now and a clear picture of who you want to be. Then start working your way toward that end-game goal, checking in at the end of each significant benchmark. Don’t expect the long-term change to occur overnight, but celebrate every move in the right direction. Affect change in smaller increments, one exhibit/performance/experience at a time, and contextualize everything you do as an opportunity to diversify. That means if you make YouTube videos, caption them. If you design multi-lingual ads, run them in mainstream and culturally-specific media outlets.
I am a big believer that everything is not for everyone. However: we have unconsciously been making decisions about who is “in” and who is “out” for too long while awkwardly trying to increase and diversify our “in club” membership. I challenge us all to stop thinking about how to maintain current audiences and instead consider how we stop losing new audience members before they even enter the front doors.
Rachel Grossman will be presenting with her colleague at dog & pony dc, Melanie Harker, in “Creating the next, new thing Now!” at the National Arts Marketing Project Conference.
The Arts Marketing Blog Salon is generously sponsored by Patron Technology.