Five Steps to Actionable Audience Development

To better understand how to engage new audiences and deepen relationships with current patrons, consider wiping the slate clean and taking a fresh approach. Reexamine old assumptions. Redefine terms. Reacquaint yourself with your audience. Allow yourself to dream. 

When performing arts people bring up the subject of audience development, I’m usually reminded of Mark Twain’s famous comment about the weather: Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.

We frequently discuss the needs to “sell more tickets” and “grow audiences,” and recognize their fiscal imperative. But other than devote more of your already scarce resources to advertising, what else is your organization actually capable of doing?

Or to look at your situation from another perspective: How does your organization conduct its audience development efforts differently from its practices, say, five years ago? (I bet that not much has changed. Am I right?)

Don’t be discouraged! Whatever may have been attempted previously, there should be no doubt that your insights, creativity, and determination are precisely what your organization needs to advance its responsibility for audience development. Albert Einstein famously said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” and that means your fresh approach has the potential to make a world of difference.

To help, let’s break your challenge down into actionable pieces:

1.       Clarify your definition

The words “audience development” often speak to a variety of intentions. So, every time the subject is raised in your organization, it’s wise to confirm which aspect you’re specifically discussing:

The Five Facets of Audience Development

  • Attract—how to inform and motivate people to attend upcoming events?
  • Build—how to prompt people to return after their first visit?
  • Cultivate—how to connect with new audiences, over time?
  • Diversify—how to be inclusive in serving the breadth of your community?
  • Engage—how to leave audiences feeling deeply satisfied and desirous of more?

The clarity you’re seeking is more than just a choice of words. It’s about setting a cohesive priority of expectations, which means doing the hard work of deciding what efforts will yield measurable results toward what important purposes, and in what period of time. No single facet is your cure-all. Your audience development challenge deserves to be addressed, in full, over time. 

2.       Update your vocabulary

Here are three phrases that deserve to be eliminated from audience development discussions:

  • “Our audience”—If your organization were a car and you were its driver, then these words would be the equivalent of looking in the rear-view mirror. They describe what’s past but are entirely unhelpful to anticipate the dangers and opportunities ahead.   
  •  “Younger audiences”—That’s a lazy trope to describe what you want your audience development efforts to achieve. Challenge it every time it’s used and replace it with a more vivid description that’s based on being actually relevant to that population, rather than just marketing to them.
  • “Pick the low-hanging fruit”—This old marketing axiom prioritizes attracting customers that come cheap and easy—useful if your goal is nothing more than making a quick buck, but wholly inconsistent with the audience development responsibility to gather fruit from the entire tree. 

And here are three phrases that deserve to be added to your audience development discussions:

  • “What’s our ‘extraordinary’?”—By “extraordinary,” I mean that thing your organization can do that is so special people would be willing to line up around the block—in the rain or snow—to engage with you. Give your artistic leadership license (and direction) to dream about that.
  • “Inclusivity”—Substitute this for the word “diversity” and you’ll happily discover that your focus will turn to the entire process of involving diverse populations rather than merely the outcome of your efforts. 
  • “Mindful and purposeful”—Let this phrase describe how you evaluate your audience development plans. Identify measurable objectives and work specifically to reach them.

3.       Interview your audience 

Before you can understand how to attract new audiences, it’s essential that you learn what your recent audiences know and say about you. If you’re willing to approach this exercise with pure intentions (that means, you promise to attach no sales pitch to this and also that you promise to listen without getting defensive when you hear something with which you disagree), then there’s great insight to be gleaned from calling up a dozen (or more) real-live audience members and asking:

  • If I were a friend of yours who had never heard of our organization, what would you tell me about why I should attend?
  • As we consider our plans for the future, what, if anything, should definitely not change? What must we be careful to preserve and protect?

What is one piece of advice you’d offer about how about how we might increase the size of our audiences?

Before you can understand how to attract new audiences, it’s essential that you learn what your recent audiences know and say about you. If you’re willing to approach this exercise with pure intentions (that means, you promise to attach no sales pitch to this and also that you promise to listen without getting defensive when you hear something with which you disagree), then there’s great insight to be gleaned from calling up a dozen (or more) real-live audience members and asking:

  • If I were a friend of yours who had never heard of our organization, what would you tell me about why I should attend?
  • As we consider our plans for the future, what, if anything, should definitely not change? What must we be careful to preserve and protect?
  • What is one piece of advice you’d offer about how about how we might increase the size of our audiences?

4.       Know your four audiences

It is always a mistake to think of an audience as a single entity. True, they have an experience with your organization in common, but that doesn’t mean the people in your venue—or on your mailing list—share the same motivations, preferences, or priorities.

Try this framework of four audience types on a grid where vertical represents the CAPACITY to participate (i.e., time, money, physical ability, and opportunity) and horizontal represents their level of INTEREST:

Audiences Everywhere Quadrant
  • Devoted—These are the relatively small number of people with high interest and high capacity who already know that they love you, your art, and your organization. They can’t wait to be part of whatever you are doing next. It’s tempting to call them “our audience,” but that sets the unreasonable expectation that you own them when it’s the precise opposite that’s true; they own you, and their allegiance is only as strong as the quality of attention that you are willing to provide them. You want to attract and grow this audience? Then reward them with a depth of relationship worthy of their passion and loyalty. How? Try brainstorming ten or more answers to this question with your team in a maximum of three minutes: What can we do to delight our devoted audience members within the next 30 days (using only reasonable and available resources)? Is there one good answer among the answers you compiled? Good—do it. (And do this exercise again next month.)
  • Oriented—With high interest but lower capacity, this category of audience member subscribes to the local newspaper (or routinely checks an online arts calendar or subscribes to an email list) and knows that their fun lies somewhere inside those pages. Conventional arts marketing focuses on attracting these audiences the first time—believing that once they’ve had a taste, they’ll return. The numbers speak for themselves: Research by TRG Arts reveals that an astounding 76 percent of audiences who attend in any one year do not return in the very next year. So, if you want to attract and grow this audience, it’s essential to recognize that your organization—like every arts and cultural organization—is an incredibly leaky bucket. Before investing your time and resources in advertising for new audiences, decide whose job it is to plug those holes. (Hint: It’s everybody’s job, but you’ll need to come up with specific strategies and assignments.)
  • Asleep—A vast population possesses neither the capacity for nor interest in whatever your arts organization is offering. Let’s call them “asleep” with the understanding that the name is not intended as a pejorative. It refers solely to our opportunity and responsibility to awaken them. To be clear, whenever we practice the “pick the low-hanging fruit” metaphor, this is the population we abandon—and that’s unacceptable. While there’s nothing easy or immediate about the process of awakening this population, it is no longer rational for arts and cultural organizations to expect they can survive by picking the low-hanging fruit in the face of demographics, technology, and competition (and everything else). The first step to awaken the asleep is as easy as a phone call to a local senior center, social service organization, religious organization, or community group in which you ask, “How might we help you?” Remember, this is not a sales call. This is only about exploring ways for you and your organization to be relevant to a population on their own terms. Make a commitment to be a part of their community before you ask them to be a part of yours.
  • Uninspired—This is the quadrant of magic and wonder, a place of unlimited possibilities, as its population possesses ample time and money but fill their leisure time with other activities because (as we often write in audience development grant proposals) they were not raised in households that exposed them at an early age to the value of arts and cultural experiences. To be clear, these folks aren’t uninformed, so the solution must not be to shout more marketing messages in their direction. Rather, this quadrant reminds us to advance the mission of our organization in extraordinary ways. Here’s your first step: Pop open a bottle (or more) of wine with your leadership team and dare to answer the question, “What’s our ‘extraordinary’?”  Give yourselves permission to think boldly and passionately. Remember that survival is not the mission of any organization. You exist to entertain, educate, and inspire your audiences.  Though the challenges to survival are many, you must hold on to an even greater vision of your organization’s opportunities and intention. To engage the uninspired, we must actually inspire them—and that begins with working toward objectives that actually inspire ourselves.    

This audience development framework is grounded in the belief that arts organizations are equally responsible for advancing their art and for engaging their audience. Steve Jobs’ assertion that “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them” is a poor (but oft-used) rationalization by artistic leaders who prefer to focus solely on the art itself. Though a visionary, Steve Jobs didn’t innovate in a vacuum. His quote would be more accurate if he had said, “People don’t know what they want until you understand them so incredibly well that you can show it to them.” Arts organization leaders would be well served by this lesson: It compromises neither artistic mission nor commitment to technical excellence to assert that your organization should be intentional about the journey you are offering to your audience and your community, over time.  Use this framework to guide you in four practical directions. 

 5.       Get your head out of the sand

Hunkering down may at times be an essential skill for those who run nonprofit arts and cultural organizations. With good reason, we strive to avoid risk, preserve precious resources, and calm the provoked. Those almost instinctive reactions, however, pose a grave danger to our organizations’ viability amidst the profound demographic shifts, seismic political stresses, and dramatic technology advancements taking place all around us.

Without adjustment, do you really expect that your organization can sustain its artistic relevance, financial viability, or audience loyalty in the face of so much other change? 

I say this without cynicism: The nonprofit arts and cultural sector cannot survive if positioned merely as the beneficiary of a community’s generosity. Today’s imperative is for arts and cultural organizations of every size and genre to assert themselves as meaningful drivers of the economy, education, and inclusive spirit of their communities.

Audience development is not a marketing challenge. It’s a relevance challenge. 

This is the fork in the road: One path is straight and steady. The other is filled with gut-wrenching twists and turns and the possibility of countless dead ends and frustrations. The former is a slow march to oblivion. The latter is the path of innovation, vitality, and relevance.

The road you choose decides your path to audience development.


© Audience Avenue LLC, Used by Permission

The principal of Audience Avenue LLC, Matt Lehrman helps arts and cultural organizations energize their pursuit of artistic mission, financial viability, and audience engagement. Matt@audienceavenue.com

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