What’s Actually Keeping Your Audience Away?

Posted by Mrs. Sara R. Leonard, Oct 05, 2012 9 comments

Sara R. Leonard

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.

9 responses for What’s Actually Keeping Your Audience Away?


October 05, 2012 at 11:48 am

Dear Sara --
I'm pleased to see you quoting that seminal RAND report about motivating potential audiences who don't even know you're alive which was commissioned when I was at The Wallace Foundation. As my favorite philosopher, Yogi Berra, said, "If people don't want to come out to the ballpark, how are you going to stop them?" A far more promising place to look for new audiences is by motivating your current subscribers and fans to bring along a friend (discounts, 2 for 1 deals, etc. can work) There is nothing more powerful than a personal nudge in your direction (the original Word of Mouth)to bring in new audiences!

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Mrs. Sara R. Leonard says
October 05, 2012 at 4:33 pm

Mary, thanks so much for stopping by and for commenting. I love the Yogi Berra quotation. As I'm sure you'll recall, the same RAND report also describes 3 areas of audience development: broadening (in which we bring in more people like the ones we already have), deepening (in which we deepen the relationships with the people already attending), and diversifying (in which we bring in audiences that are different from the ones we already have). Word of mouth marketing is critical for all three, but particularly powerful for broadening and deepening. I think we can add to it, though! I suspect you're also familiar with the 2004 study that Wallace and the Urban Institute did together in which they explored motivations for attending the arts. For all of the performing arts, socializing was the most often cited as the (or a) "major" reason for attendance. People attend the arts to be *with* people! Encouraging folks, whether they're currently attending or not, to come as a group is likely to be more successful that asking them to come alone. One of my favorite questions to consider, then, is how arts organizations can really and truly embrace our patrons' desires to be social. Would love to know your thoughts.

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Jerry Yoshitomi says
October 08, 2012 at 6:27 pm

My thanks to both Sara and Mary for commenting on the RAND Report commissioned by the Wallace Foundation. It is a seminal report. I continued to be surprised by how few people understand its value to the field.

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Mrs. Sara R. Leonard says
October 09, 2012 at 11:16 am

Absolutely true, Jerry. The RAND report is a seminal work in our field to be sure. It's valuable for many things -- its model, its presentation and analysis of existing approaches, its data... I try to focus on how we can build from there, especially given that the report is now 11 years old! We need to take what's great and keep moving to provide our young field and its devoted practitioners with the comprehensive body of literature they require!

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October 05, 2012 at 12:04 pm

I especially appreciate Sara's third point which is that "It's OK not to be all things to all people." I think we all tend to want to be all things so that we won't miss an opportunity or a person. We want the universe to be our potential audience pool but when we do that we usually just confuse everyone about who we really are. Thanks for your ideas.

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Mrs. Sara R. Leonard says
October 05, 2012 at 4:41 pm

Thanks so much for reading and posting, Ramona! I think you're right that we often do want the universe to be our potential audience -- after all, don't we tend to think that our art has the potential to reach anyone and/or everyone open to it? While that art may absolutely have that power, it still doesn't mean that everyone is a part of our organization's audience. A consistent and clearly expressed identity allows us to begin to communicate more effectively with those who I suspect are likely to be our best audience -- and I imagine they are also likely to be our most loyal and sustaining.

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October 05, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Great point about "It's OK not to be all things to all people." It is a matter of becoming more of who we are instead so we can attract the right audiences in the first place.

I also like the fact you state that people with a personality are easier to connect with. Identifying who you are and who your audiences are is important. I would also add that connecting to people is just as important. Once we have our personality established, we need to start conversing with our audiences and getting to know them better. I feel that we need to start having more human time again instead of the mass marketing, hope we target, promotions. The power of people is incredible - talking with people, connecting again, is the best way to start discovering how powerful it can be.

Thank you for your post, Sara. It definitely made me think. Have a great weekend!

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Mrs. Sara R. Leonard says
October 05, 2012 at 4:56 pm

Shoshana - I'm so thrilled that you came by and commented. Thanks for that. I think you're right that it's important to converse with our audiences to get to know them better - but I'd suggest that happens at multiple stages. Certainly, we want to converse with our existing audiences as we're developing that organizational identity or personality, but I think it's also important to engage prospective audiences in conversation as the identity is being developed. Understanding what both current and prospective audiences value generally, value about the arts, and what they would and do value about your arts organization can help bring shared values to the surface. Those shared values offer a valuable starting point for ongoing human-to-human conversations, which allow us to deepen our relationships over time. I think you're absolutely right that people time is critical.

I'm honored that you found the post thought-provoking! I'd love to continue the discussion.

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November 10, 2012 at 9:50 pm

I would add to point 1 about knowing who your audience is. We also need to know who our future audience will be. I worked with a theatre whose audience was literally dying off. they needed to attract a younger audience and had to define who that would be and how they would get them.

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