“Many arts institutions even allow their audience members to write their own critiques on the organizational website. This is a scary trend.” Michael Kaiser, President at Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts, blogging on HuffPost, a while back.
It’s not clear to me whether he thinks the ability of people to engage with each other is positive or negative for the performing arts, but he definitely says it’s scary. (He might have meant that with regard to the demise of news-media critics and the rise of patrons providing their opinions online.)
In any case, in 2011, year 16 of the commercial internet, this amazes me.
It is neither scary nor new that arts patrons share their thoughts, reactions and recommendations about performing arts events.
Yes, the speed of this sharing is near instant – and potentially widely distributed – in the age of mobile technologies. Smart companies would want to harness this user generated content (UCG) on their own platforms as much as possible and indeed, they’d participate.
Imagine a social web strategy for a performing arts organization predicated on authentic relationships between their organization, artists and audiences: They might thank audience members for feedback, positive reviews, questions and being interested. The artistic director might comment back when they see a reaction that they want to shift to a different place. They could have a conversation and share information and perspectives. They might answer those “what were they thinking!” questions that people post on Facebook, Twitter or on blogs. Marketing staff could retweet and amplify the positive reviews you get. The company could give the behind the scenes insight, tell the back stories and facilitate creators, actors, musicians, dancers to speak for themselves (many do). They would not abuse these relationship for quick ticket sales, but they might occasionally highlight upcoming shows in their venue and in others. They might rally everyone around the love of the arts and spread it.
Can you imagine the power of these interactions for your company – your brand – in the long run?
For years, user generated content has been coveted by consumer companies and entire strategies have been thought up to get it – using contesting, short codes, value added info, exclusive perks. I used it as part of a place branding project for a city in Eastern Ontario back in 2007 with great results. Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty put an interesting spin on the genre. Today user generated content (the social media) has become ubiquitous through social networks (that’s the platforms) and the real challenge is not the generation of it, but the harnessing of the conversation real people are having about you, your services, your products. (Real people is key, because there are all kinds of spam engines, and fake UCG where companies or their agents act as imposters – this is not social and it is not what I am talking about.)
The true irony might lie in what great art has the power to do:
It is supposed to be a conversation; an exchange between orchestra and audience through music; an exchange of ideas in theatre; a kinetic exploration through the body in dance; an entertaining experience (in the best sense of the word). It aspires to be: emotive, beautiful, thought-provoking, stimulating or even transforming. It examines the human condition. It can connect people both to each other and to a higher plane of being in whatever way they choose. It can foster greater understanding across cultures or socio-economic groups. And it does it by carrying on the conversations outside of the performance space.
I think, those arts organizations who have figured out to become part of the conversation are to be congratulated and celebrated. That’s why I celebrate the vision and smarts at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, or Shell Theatre in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta. (Please add others who do it well in the comments below.)
They may just have realized that the conversation goes on without them anyways. And they can build authentic relationships by inviting audiences not only inside their theatres but inside their web presence, too.
Finally, new audience engagement modes reflect a generational as much as a technological shift. Back in 2006 even Time magazine had figured out the signs of the times by declaring You, yes, YOU, its Person of the Year.
By the way, Twitter and Facebook were in their infancy in 2006. Notably, Time’s Person of the Year for 2010, was Mark Zuckerberg. The speed of business has increased tremendously and it demands nimbleness and adaptablility more than ever.
Creating a strategic framework to achieve value innovation means we need to ask basic questions as if they were brand new. For example, what does “taking artistic risks” mean from an audience perspective?
The answer is that “it depends”: Each audience member determines “risk” using a slew of criteria to figure out under what circumstances it might be worthwhile to not actually enjoy a performance that one paid for and made time to attend.
Personally, I attend several performing arts on subscription – the ultimate commitment much of the performing arts still relies on. I have different expectations from different art forms. In terms of classical music voluntary risk taking is limited to listenable music (I have little tolerance in the orchestral setting for dissonance). In contemporary dance, I look for the new and unexpected, as long as the dancers are top notch and indeed are dancing. In theatre, I like intellectual, thought-provoking work and I like a great deal of variety, too, including some great brassy entertainment that tells a great story. I also really like mash-ups that blur the boundaries of art forms by taking the best from each and creating something even greater. (Fela!, which I saw at Toronto’s Canon Theatre, is an extraordinary example of that.)
I have just established, in my singular experience at least, that it is possible within the same person to evaluate risks quite differently depending on the context.
The very idea of “artistic risk” is highly subjective. For instance, not all risky programming is innovative, and what’s perceived as a risk in one city may not be so risky in another. Risk is contextual not absolute.
Performing arts audiences are diverse in tastes, expectations, culture and background. Those who can afford tickets easily will evaluate risks differently from those who have to give up something else in their life in order to save up for tickets.
Effective branding is critical to success
I propose that developing and living a strong, singular brand is the best way for creators and presenters of artistic experiences to help their audiences decide to give all manner of experiences a try and to invest their time and money.
The brand becomes the touch point, the guarantee of a thoughtful and respectful arts experience, whether or not it’s “entertaining”, “provoking”, “escape” or “stimulating”.
Robert LePage when receiving the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award recognizing his body of work was quoted about not wanting to be merely “international” but “universal.” (Watch the short NFB film here.)That is a quintessential brand statement, captured in a single word. It is awesome! It is a strong brand statement within which he can explore all manner of ideas in myriad ways; it’s not limiting but rather gives a meaningful contour to his work and aspiration.
He talked about his visual language of theatre evolving beyond the spoken word and to borrow from other forms of storytelling that are familiar for contemporary audiences – most important being film. From a brand point of view, that means he’s breaking free of the “traditional” bounds of one art form in order to bring his vision to life and to stay relevant. It’s an act of reinvention, which is requisite to maintaining brand relevance in the long-term.
Societies, communities, people, technology have been changing rapidly – socially, politically, environmentally, economically, (multi-)culturally. Every industry, every sector in society must change in relation to these external challenges. Those that will succeed are those that will bring audiences, customers, consumers along on the journey.
I propose that to define and embrace a comprehensive brand (not a logo, but a way of being), one relevant to audiences and stakeholders in your community, is the most efficient and effective way to connect the arts, artists and audiences to create success.
Yes, as if it was brand new. Where would you start?
I would start with looking at my potential audiences and what they thrive on today. I would look at my community, its demographic make-up, its values, attitudes and beliefs and I would segment. I might identify those huge numbers of people who listen to music electronically, primarily using ear buds, irrespective of genre. I would examine deeply where they find their music, what they are listening to, how they listen to this music, when they listen to it, whether they share it with others and how, why they listen to their music, what music gives them, and what music gives them that nothing else in their lives does.
Then I would find out how they spend their days, how much time they spend being social and what they gain in their social interactions. I might see that there are grave pressures and stressors in people’s lives, and a wide range of worries and concerns that express themselves in various ways, including making people sick, feeling isolated and alone. I might think about how their current consumption of music via ear buds enhances these issues or alleviates them.
Then I might realize that the highest potential revenue is available in the 30 to 59 year age group – according to Statistics Canada data. I would use an existing geographic segmentation tool to understand demographics, values, attitudes and beliefs by postal codes, allowing me to see many dimensions of potential audiences.
I might determine that there are two different generations in this 30-year age span – Boomers and Gen Xers – who hold different generational values. I might decide that Gen Xers would be the sweet spot as they are less individualistic in orientation and I could foster and keep them as customers longer because they are younger. I would do this knowing that they tend to be more independent-minded even as they value communal spaces and social connections.
I would see that my target Gen Xers create, participate and engage in every dimension of life (socially, environmentally, politically, economically, artistically). I would see that they are sophisticated consumers who research, explore and sample online and by recommendation (both peer and paid recommenders). They are curious about new experiences and are excited to try out things they haven’t done before. I would see that they tend to look to be entertained in a friendly atmosphere rather than simply accepting others authority and doing as they are told without knowing why.
Then I would find out where this generation spends time and what their days, evenings and nights look like. Are they indoors in front of large screens or having family and social time, are they on the run using mobile devices as a primary interface while working hard, are they hanging out in coffee houses, bars and restaurants to get face-time, as they also chat and engage in social media to share with their wider community, are they in Yoga studios and fitness studios, spas and aesthetics shops where pampering is the order of the day and image is honed? Or do they work and worry about having enough money and resources to make ends meet? Different segments, micro-segments, would dominate in various activities and I might decide that I want to provide my solution – live orchestral classical music (ha!) – to all of them or some of them.
Then I might ask myself: how can I connect my brand new idea, never been seen before type of music making requiring perfect harmony among 40 to 100+ (!) musicians to these Gen Xers? How is my idea, that thrives on delicate sound (both in the highs and lows – qualities that are harder to appreciate and hear in compressed digital files), complex structure and intricate music making with a bewildering array of instruments, going to make these sophisticated, busy Gen Xers’ lives better, richer, more complete? What is the value Gen Xers would gain from such a formidable live experience? How is that value greater in comparison to other activities in their lives? How do I connect this live experience through online/mobile channels and make it irresistible? How will I secure true participation in the live music making?
Then I would decide what the business model is going to be, after all, getting that many musicians to play together will take considerable resources especially in the mid- to long-term. In essence, I would think about whether there can be economies of scale in my business model and what they are. For instance, I might realize that the live performance doesn’t scale well and I might search for ways to extend the live aspects to further monetize them. I might borrow from the playbook of other live events, whether its sports or pop and rock music.
I would look to other music experiences for inspiration, from the house concert to the stadium rock concerts. I would also look to the video game industry because it is highly participatory, the high-end spa experience because it does so well at pampering and getting me beyond my daily concerns, and the travel industry, both packaged and independent travel. And I’d think about styles of performance a lot.
This would eventually get me into the weeds of decision making: Would I put the musicians in a closed music making space, a concert hall, or would I put them outside or in community contexts? Would I have musicians be perfect technicians playing all the notes just so, or would I think about all that’s needed for an awesome performance experience for the audience? Would I ban the enthusiasm of my audience to the ends of long pieces, or would I encourage spontaneous outbursts of joy, delight, feedback? Would I dress musicians in black tails or would I allow their personalities to shine through with more than their hair styles? I would deeply consider the trade offs in each decision, talk to musicians and audiences and figure out how they would shape my brand.
Building such a bold idea from scratch would be awesomely exciting.
Finally, I would figure out how to build-in “creative destruction” mechanisms, so that the audience experience stays fresh and vibrant, rather than becoming narrowly defined by my initial magic formula. Everything tells me that there will be significant disruptive factors of all kinds, most of them outside my control, so that I might as well build in change and evolutionary leaps into the DNA.
Important to achieving value innovation is responding to and building on what captivates audiences and, sometimes more important, potential audiences.
Today I listened to a really interesting CBC radio call in show on “Why live theatre is dead to you.” It is well worth a listen to the wide range of views expressed by callers. Several pointed out that they simply don’t know what is available. And that they have had disappointing experiences. (Diagnostically: these are marketing and programming/production issues.) By the way, for most live theatre wasn’t actually dead, just not in reach for these and other reasons.
This week is rich with well considered coverage: like this article in the UK’s Guardian on What do audiences want I read yesterday. Not surprisingly, there are examples of arts organizations learning about being relevant in new ways.
At the National Arts Centre Orchestra, a new initiative called Casual Fridays, innovates on the classical concert experience expressly to reach and engage a new and younger audience. This includes a much more casual and friendly concert hall experience. NAC English Theatre (Youtube video) is using inventive marketing campaigns to generate buzz and bring the NAC to the streets of Ottawa to invite patrons to a night at the theatre.
Yet, by and large, the voices of those who continue to hold fast to conventions and traditions and a belief in the arts in and of themselves appear strong. And far removed from the younger generations interests, values and attitudes.
This is the “young audience” (Gen Xers are about 35 to 49 years old today) orchestras, for instance, need to attract in large numbers in order to replace not only aging highly committed patrons, but the revenue they represent. That means quite likely for many orchestras – and theatres and dance, too – not a 1 to 1 replacement strategy but a 3 or even 4 to 1 replacement imperative.
Research on participation and attendance
The Ontario Arts Council affirms in its Ontario Arts Engagement Study (lead by WolfBrown and released in October 2011), that not merely engagement but participation in the arts experience is where it is at from the audiences’ perspective.
Key findings from the study include: “Involvement in participatory activities is linked to attendance at audience-based activities – Overall, people who engage in participatory arts activities are more likely to attend audience or visitor-based activities – sometimes at a rate of two or three times higher than those who do not engage in participatory activities.”
And it leads the study’s authors to ask: “How can arts organizations build bridges between participatory forms of engagement and professional arts performances and exhibits?”
From an institutional perspective the goal has often been to “get bums in seats”, ie attendance. Personally, I detest this phrasing, because it reduces the audience in the most unhelpful ways.
Imagine yourself shift the institutional end-game to the audience perspective. In what ways, if any, would it change your understanding of how to connect meaningfully to audiences and potential audiences? How would this change what you do in your quest to foster specific attending behaviours in audiences, like subscription renewal perhaps or some other repeat purchase?
And, honestly, how effective is your organization at marketing its shows? In the simplest terms, marketing is the process by which services and products are brought to market. Marketing is about the relationships you build and about trust and mutual respect; in my view it is not about “bums in seats.”
Or in plain language: what are 4G speeds on LTE networks which started to come online in Canada in 2012 going to enable for theatre goers and dance attendees as well as presenters and producing companies?
During the first year of conducting Value of Presenting workshops there was little appetite to consider anything but the utility of social media in selling tickets. A breakthrough happened at the CAPACOA conference in January 2013 and now it feels like more and more presenters are beginning to see that web-based mobile technologies are going to create leaps in value for audiences and perhaps artists, producers and presenters. We presented at the Creative City Summit in Ottawa in May 2013 what we found out from Canadians and presenters about their use and attitudes to digital technologies and how Canadians’ views of what “live” means to them might be evolving.
At APAP|NYC we presented on this topic (PDF) this month as well and just last week the 2014 CAPAOCA conference featured a successful workshop with presenters on the opportunities, the values of both streamed and live experiences, facilitated by Frederic Julien from CAPACOA.
Watch this Youtube video by Alcatel-Lucent which was created in 2009 (!) to demonstrate their technology vision and emerging capabilities. The final minute shows a vision of a performing arts experience, begging for a presenting business model!
What will the successful strategic move look like?
Have you ever heard someone ask: “How can I sell tickets using Twitter?” or “I have a lot of Facebook fans but very few seem to buy tickets to my events. I don’t think Facebook works for me.”
I have puzzled over such statements; I couldn’t understand why anyone would measure these social media platforms by their capacity to achieve direct sales — whether of tickets or widgets or gadgets.
In my mind, social media were, well, social.
Social means relationships. Social means conversation – mostly consumer to consumer, but also consumer to brand. Social means mutual respect. Social might mean recommendation. Social can mean someone buys something based – at least in part – on a social network interaction. But it all starts with authentic relationships, it’s like being friends in the so-called real world.
Off I went looking for organizations using social media in exemplary ways, especially in the performing arts presenting field. This experiment is part of the Value of Presenting Study we have been working on.
The experiment: Interview by Twitter
The topic: The use of social media and online technology in your performing arts organization.
The interviewees: Two arts presenters (read the transcripts here: Shell Theatre and the National Arts Centre) who use social media in exemplary ways and an agent who does, too.
- Social media are about building relationships
- There are other ways to sell tickets
- Audiences engaged: mostly the 30 to 55 year-old crowd rather than “young people”, even though one interviewees said they find Facebook and txt works with a Students Rush tickets program;
- Hone your authentic voice
- Experiment to see what works for your organization
It’s fun to experiment with trying to help more people see what the strategic potential of social media in the performing arts presenting sector could be, by doing. In this case, it’s not in direct sales measured by revenue, but in building relationships measured by quality of relationships, engagement and championship of the brand. It is not an old-style transactional relationship, but one that is mutually enriching, extends beyond attendance, and requires new, timely interactions. And they are a lot more public.
The importance of voice is a fascinating topic in the concise world of social networks. (As these interviews show, short texts can be extremely good at making clear points and sharing salient information.) Voice is a key brand attribute that requires honing and calibration.
I think the adoption of social media shifts an organization’s brand into a new realm. As such, an evaluation of what an organization stands for and how it is and behaves in its world (in short an evaluation of market relevance), may well be an essential step toward embracing such contemporary marketing methods.