Category Archives: audience

Building community together: Northern Exposure arts conference

The Wells Hotel

The Wells Hotel

I spent Thanksgiving in the Cariboo town of Wells, BC (population 259) at the Northern Exposure conference.

Here are my reflections on what we did, how we did it and what it enabled; in so doing I hope to draw the curtain back a little on effective design thinking-inspired meetings that help people move to the next level – whatever that is for them.

Putting the team together

Island Mountain Arts‘ ambitious conference attracted about 75 festival organizers, arts organization staff and volunteers and musicians from BC’s northern and southern interior, the Sunshine Coast, Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii, and the Yukon.

Island Mountain Arts (IMA – named after a local mountain, called Island) has been operating its renowned Summer School of Art since 1977 and over the years has expanded with a Public Art Gallery and Gift Shop, an International Harp School, the Toni Onley Artists’ Project and the award winning ArtsWells Festival of All Things Art.

Julie Fowler, Executive Director of IMA, invited me to facilitate this conference, based on my previous work with SPARC – Supporting Performing Arts in Rural Communities and the Yukon Arts Presenters Summit. And she recruited co-presenters and panelists from across B.C. to ensure a wide range of perspectives.

A common purpose: creating community

Speaking with Julie, we quickly established a common purpose: to build up a better networked rural festival and arts community.

My approach as facilitator and presenter was focused on creating spaces for participants to get to know each other, share knowledge and know-how, and encourage collaborative learning and action planning. Julie and her wonderful team took care of conference logistics, meals and showcases  – 16 in total – at the local Sunset Theatre and the Wells Hotel. She arranged two sessions tailored for musicians.

The conference also had its share of great food by chef Sharon and the kitchen crew and a fine assortment of beverages at showcase and reception venues. Being in a small place, the conference moved as a whole from breakfast at the Wells Hotel to the Wells Community Hall for conference sessions, back up the street for lunch and showcases and then back for more learning. We shared dinner and conversations and then went off to the Sunset Theatre for showcases. A late evening snack invariably appeared at the Pub to maintain the stamina of musicians and participants alike.

I feel that having participants move together in this way, sharing meals and conversations in ever changing configurations, made for closer connections and more meaningful, relevant learning.

Pre-conference professional development

Participants discuss marketing

Participants during the audience development session.

The pre-conference professional development day on audience development was attended by most of the conference participants. I delivered a well-honed workshop; modified as usual to suit the rural context. This session was highly interactive, with lots of conversation by all participants and practical learning. This was followed by a full slate of 15-minute 1-on-1 sessions with me. The nine participants brought a wide range of marketing and organizational questions to these intensive conversations.

At the same time, Emma Jarrett, a performance coach, conducted a fantastic hands-on workshop for musicians and anyone else interested in honing their presentation skills.

Creating an open learning environment

I borrowed a networking exercise from the Yukon Arts Presenters Summit (Let’s Get Connected) which in turn the Yukon organizers had modified from SPARC. The four topics were:
•    who you are and what you do
•    your hopes and dreams
•    what you’re seeking
•    what you have to offer


During the Let’s Get Connected process, participants had four 10-minute segments for reflection and conversation at tables of 6 each. A quick way to meet 20+ participants in an hour.

All participants had their picture taken at registration. They recorded the information on their print outs and then discussed it with their group. Every 10 minutes a room full of participants stood up and found a new table of six to move to the next topic. It’s an amazing free-flowing choreography.

With the sheets we created a Living Wall that served as a reminder of the breadth and depth of knowledge and experience each and every participant brought to this conference.

It was a powerful beginning that I feel set the tone for a true working conference: Participants heard their own voices from the start; felt valued as experienced organizers; and they became collaborators in co-creating our conference.

After a short coffee jaunt up to the hotel, I gave a well-received keynote on Co-creating a Culture of Place, in which I made the case, as I have at other conferences, for Vibrant communities fueled by the arts and its community-engaged partnerships. Much of the data in that keynote comes from The Value of Presenting study. This study continues to deepen the conversations about arts presenters and their role and impact in their communities.

After lunch, I had the pleasure of working with Janet Rogers – a Mohawk/Tuscarora writer and broadcaster from the Six Nations in southern Ontario, who was born in Vancouver and has been living on the traditional lands of the Coast Salish people (Victoria, BC) since 1994 –  to share information and lead a conversation on Cultural Tourism.  I provided context and laid out a cultural tourism landscape. Janet led a conversation on how to access indigenous artists for festivals and events, and encouraged making the necessary contacts early in the event planning process. She proposed that in so doing we could move from the acknowledgement of traditional lands into meaningful inclusion and full participation by indigenous and non-indigenous artists. After all, Aboriginal tourism is seen as a key aspect of expanding Canada’s and BC’s cultural tourism potential.

I felt this was an important and open conversation about an area many of us want to get right but also feel some insecurity about. These protocols are new to most event organizers. What excites me is that meaningful change can happen through our individual decisions and actions, by getting to know each other and speaking openly and respectfully to each other. We don’t have to wait until everything is figured out in the big picture.

Living Wall

A small selection of our Living Wall.

Concurrently, Music BC presented a session for musicians on all of the sources of revenue available to them for their work.

I moved the programmed afternoon networking round tables outside to a walking conversation – thankfully the rain held off and the winds had died down.

Sharing stories and action planning

On the last day of the conference we were in Barkerville.

The morning featured five inspiring stories presented by Julie Fowler, ArtsWells Festival/Island Mountain Arts; Carla Stephenson, Tiny Lights Festival; Karen Jeffery, Sunset Theatre; Deb Beaton Smith, Rifflandia; and Miriam Schilling, Xatśūll Heritage Village, Soda Creek.

The panelists – participants conversation drew the curtain back a little on how to build success, how to sustain arts in small communities and the kind of perseverance, experimentation and serendipity it takes. Everyone was eager to share their experiences and it felt like the perfect transition to move toward action planning.

But first I led a practical workshop on integrated online marketing with Fraser Hayes‘ able assistance. Fraser is the station manager of CFUR Radio in Prince George; a community radio station that has built a substantial integrated online footprint to complement its broadcasts. More insights and specific action items tumbled forth and then we were ready for lunch, a walk about this amazing restored gold rush town and the final two showcases.

The conference concluded with action planning.  First I asked everyone to write down key take-aways from the conference, their next action steps and desired short and long-term results. The process requires participants to write the information out twice: one copy to take home and the second copy to be shared with participants. In this way we hope to facilitate network building. (I borrowed this format in condensed form from the Yukon Arts Presenters Summit which was facilitated by Jerry Yoshitomi.) Writing this down twice gives more time to reflect and form greater commitment to taking actions. This exercise moved seamlessly into a robust conversation around participant-identified topics. We collapsed about 10 (!) suggested topics into three broad areas: programming, operations and youth. Participants quickly gravitated toward their topic and a number of specific ideas for collaborations and resource sharing were brought forward.

Finally, in closing, we ended as we began: with participants having the last word through sharing highlights from their own action plans.

It seemed everyone felt confident that this conference was not merely the culmination of a long-standing dream, but that it would be the catalyst to move forward with closer ties between participants and their organizations from all over rural BC.

While the conference concluded officially, conversations continued into the night as some participants stayed for Thanksgiving dinner and more pub time.

More than a week after leaving Wells, these days continue to reverberate in me. I am grateful for the new connections, the new friends I made and for being part of this special community of festival and arts organizers.

Leadership matters: Reflecting on the Yukon Arts Summit

My mind keeps returning to the Yukon Arts Presenters Summit. I had the rare benefit of debriefing with Michele Emslie, Summit organizer and Community Programming Director at the Yukon Arts Centre, over a few days and assisting in reviewing the personal and group action plans to which participants committed.

I am struck by the leadership capabilities that underpinned the success of the summit; qualities that go beyond being adaptable or seeking to be relevant to stakeholders.

Design thinking applied

Rather than define and solve a specific problem, the organizers held themselves to a different standard based on a broad goal: strengthening the Yukon arts presenting eco-system. Making such a broad goal central meant that much effort was spent on creating the conditions in which participants could discover and define the actions that were important to them. At heart of this design thinking approach lies understanding that a combination of empathy, creativity, analysis and synthesis as well as having explicit spaces for convergent and divergent thinking are essential. In short, by taking this approach, organizers succeeded in creating a space in which a diverse group of participants could learn, reflect, be inspired, meet and talk together and arrive in new places together.

Co-creating an intentional journey

There was no pre-defined destination, no agenda in terms of specific outcomes, no boxes to check off, no need for linear progression. Rather, there was an invitation to join together on a journey of discovering common ground and action priorities.

The organizers were focused on empowering participants from the start, knowing that the summit is its participants. They asked potential participants to co-create the content through soliciting feedback on hot topics and burning issues. 60 responses came in! Organizers listened carefully and found five key themes to address. An important  effect of this open, listening approach was that the tone of the summit, its ownership was already in the hands of participants well before they could even register for it.

Deep respect and trust in each person’s wisdom

The organizers showed a deep, easy respect for each person and their knowledge and experience. This was apparent in every facet, including activities like:

  • The Friday morning networking exercise using a photo, paper and markers to answer four questions: who are you/ what do you do, what is your hope for the future, what can you contribute to the summit, what do you need from it.
  • A gift exchange: each participant was asked to bring a gift that represents something about them, their work or their community (using their imagination rather than pocket book). These gifts were randomly distributed at lunch and then everyone read the brief note that was attached by the giver and talked about what significance this gift held to them. There were all kinds of wondrous giver-receiver match ups and the exchange made for a profound sense of connection and some fun. 100+ people managed to share in plenary over lunch while staying on schedule for the entire conference.
  • Each day’s opening reflections, ranging from an elder’s prayer to Haiku to Gramma Susie.

Wisdom comes from many places and, in particular, the spaces in between.


The summit schedule was action-packed, not because of featuring talking heads or experts, but because of its focus on facilitation, conversation, meeting and thinking together, and action planning. (As a speaker, I felt I was well briefed heading into the summit!) As a result this summit produced several big ideas and actions through collaboration, rather than consensus. Perhaps most important, it resulted in the ownership of these ideas residing within the community itself, owned by various champions and those who gathered around these big ideas. Conference organizers didn’t get a long task list back, but rather received a strong mandate to remain stewards of the process, facilitate the next steps and to continue leading by encouraging leadership from within the arts community.

Using Open Space methods, participants pitched these initiatives for discussion.

Using Open Space methods, participants pitched various initiatives for discussion and to see which ones were strong enough to warrant concerted action.

A network = An action community

I believe we are seeing a profoundly different kind of arts presenters network emerge in Yukon. Not one that becomes a membership-based service model over time and that might suffer the eventual difficulties that have become so well documented for many membership-based associations; but a living, breathing, creative community that gathers around common actions (which require a just large enough group to be interested in working together), that is highly responsive to emerging and changing needs, and that delegates authority to all participants while benefiting from unhurried and effective stewardship provided by the Community Programming Director at the Yukon Arts Centre (YAC). Finally, YAC is ideally positioned for this role as it is a territorially created arts centre whose mandate includes strengthening arts as an important cultural, social and economic force in the Yukon Territory as a whole.

This close-knit, open network grounded in shared leadership and personal commitments, will show us how big ideas can be realized through concerted actions – unfettered from needing to establish narrow service priorities or delegating authority to a few (like a board of directors) – and thus able to grow and shift as the situation warrants.

Power of the People: Yukon Arts Summit makes change

Over 100 performing and visual arts presenters from across Yukon gathered during four days in November to develop concrete action plans for a strong, unified arts sector. The summit was designed to create a space where all participants would shape the outcomes – at once encouraging collaboration and inviting each person’s leadership. It was remarkable to be a witness – and contributor – to this process.

The energy in the room was unlike anything I have ever experienced.  The work that got done, the plans that were committed to, will transform the way the Yukon arts and cultural communities work with each other, and present themselves to their stakeholders, the rest of Canada and beyond. People here not only dream big, they make big things happen. It seems they can’t help it; it is in their nature.

The summit outcomes will prove their transformative power over the next weeks, months and years.

Yukon Arts Presenters Summit

Breakout sessions brought people together to reflect and to pollinate new thinking.

Several key elements came together to create a summit like no other I have ever seen:

  • An attitude that set out to “Help the Best get Better” and that delivered. Indeed the best had gathered together at this summit: 100% of First Nations Cultural Centres attended, as well as 86% of the First Nations in the Yukon, and the same proportion of all the communities across the territory. All participants had a voice and used it, shared experiences, told stories and offered new thinking that could create significant change. Both performing and visual arts were actively included, and many artistic disciplines within these were well-represented. Presenters, producers, practicing artists, funders, board members and consultants all worked together throughout. Just imagine such a truly inclusive gathering of active, ready-to-work participants in BC, Ontario or the Maritimes!
  • Action-oriented summit design. There were only 5 presentations/ workshops during the summit: place-based cultural tourism, collaboration, network development, marketing and funding. Each was followed by three local responders, rather than the often used Q&A format, who reflected briefly on each presentation (what resonated, what didn’t and action items) , followed by professionally facilitated breakout sessions designed to connect, reflect and plan.
  • Deliberate creation of spaces for reflection, and spaces for action planning. This was ingenious. The summit organizers invited participants along this journey, always stretching themselves along the way, and by day 4, the work had been done to achieve agreement on several major community-led initiatives: to establish a collaborative network of presenters, create a touring network, establish a network for First Nations Cultural Centres; and to put the arts and cultural sector into the driver seat in terms of their contribution to Yukon tourism.

As an outside expert I was asked to participate in the whole conference. For me that meant there was a great deal of casual, hallway type conversation about anything that was on participants’ minds, mixed with formal opportunities to meet whether in a MatchUp program or over dinner. As a result I formed much deeper, richer connections with carefully thinking, smart people from all parts of Yukon, who were exploring how to use their understanding, new information and leadership for their communities’ benefit and the greater good. Listening and asking good questions can be much more powerful than speaking or telling.

My hope is that this new kind of close-knit, yet open network, grounded in shared leadership and personal commitments for specific actions, will become a beacon for established and new networks elsewhere.


Why simplicity is key to marketing success

As our world and technology have become increasingly complex, people gravitate toward simple, easily recognizable messages and calls-for-action.

Let’s agree: The time of complex visual messaging in marketing and advertising is over. Collages are dead.

A simple image that conveys a single core idea are favoured by marketers and brand managers because they work. In essence, today anything that is not necessary to get to “yes” merely gets in the way. 

It is the difference between the completely uncluttered Google search website with its legendary a single function, and Yahoo search where myriad content has come to obscure its (former) main function. 

The challenge is that arriving at simplicity is hard work. It requires a focused purpose and a great deal of clarity. It requires knowing who exactly your message needs to speak to and convince to pay attention and a deep understanding of what breakthrough communications are about, what they must over come. 

Our brains are designed to edit out information, to ignore clutter, to disregard anything that doesn’t look immediately pertinent. 

Great marketing gets past those hardwired gatekeepers. And great marketing has to be singular, direct and address an important target market motivation. 

Hallmarks of effective communications

  1. Purpose
  2. Specific target audience
  3. Relevance to audience
  4. Clarity
  5. Consistency
  6. Suitable medium
  7. Repetition
  8. Multi-channel
  9. Conversation
  10. Evaluate and Learn

Components of effective messaging

  • Message (what you want to say)
  • Redundancy (used to emphasize the message – can be image and text working together)
  • Decoration (Embellishing to increase attractiveness and get attention)

Noise are all the things that interfere with the intended message.  In the arts, as in other sectors, an important issue remains learning to reduce the noise in our marketing and to focus on the most important audience motivation to connect an experience with that audience. Because, ineffective marketing – the kind that has no clear message which means there is no redundancy or useful embellishment, and therefore there is no noise reduction – results simply in information overload which humans are designed to simply dismiss and more often leads to “No.” 

Embracing the challenge of simplicity means honing a more rigorous exploration process that has the power to connect your art / product / service / experience with your intended audience.

Marketing Trends: New Media as The Media

Marketing has changed irrevocably over the last 10 to 15 years. While the harbingers of consumer power were evident in the late 1990s, with the advent of the Internet and mobile and then smart phones, the changes have now solidified and they continue to accelerate.

The web is no longer a new media. The body of knowledge and practice of integrated marketing has grown up.

Integration of websites with social networks and mobile apps

Youtube was launched in 2005, Facebook and Twitter came into the public view in 2006. Barely approaching a decade old they have an unprecedented reach ranging from 500 million to 1+ billion users.

Recently, smart phones with touch screens, tablets and e-readers with web access have become ubiquitous.

Great websites have evolved from early “brochure-sites”, UseNet groups and List Serves to well functioning hubs of branded transactions with considerable social media integration and mobile connectivity.

Seemingly limitless access to information, easy consumption of entertainment, and creation and sharing of content and experiences have transformed how we behave, what we expect and what we want.

Contemporary marketing more than ever is about compelling stories, co-creating meaning, and making research and purchases easy and immediate. The increasing integration of services like Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and many more – with both desktops and mobile devices and within websites – creates new dynamics between organizations and their customers.

Today, website pages can be shared with a push of a button to a user’s social media universe. They can be used to amplify a use’s own brand and they can be used to ridicule or support an organization or a product. It can raise awareness, start conversations or elicit sales through these wider social networks. Similarly, organizations are cross-linking their web sites and social media presence to provide a seamless user experience, going where users are.


Websites used to be expensive custom installations, with the best requiring substantial user research and expert programmers.

Today, WordPress and similar services have become robust DIY web tools that work well, have extensive plug-in options for customization and keep costs low.

Many of these off-the-shelf options also have an embedded option to create a mobile-friendly version of a websites. This is important as more and more users visit websites using their mobile devices and their much smaller screens.

Mobile applications

The ‘appification’ of the online experience has advanced rapidly in the last five years to the point, where man of us retain little awareness that apps use online content, i.e. content that resides on a server elsewhere. The best apps are content and feature rich, while super simply to use.

Festivals have embraced them to deliver a variety of information and on-site experiences. Here again, there is a build it once and sell it many times philosophy, enabling affordable, ready-made solutions to almost any size event.

Today, apps live on non-standard operating systems, i.e. apps are developed for the various platforms of smart phones. That means, if resources require development for just one platform, considerable thought has to go into who the target market is and the dominant platforms in use.

The power of accessing rich content through tiny devices that one carries everywhere creates a brand new dynamic of relationship to and expectation of brands.

New marketing mind set in performing arts

Here are three vital elements to performing arts marketing and by extension a thriving arts scene:

1. Arts and cultural research has confirmed time and again that the performing arts sector is not a zero-sum field. Rather, Canadians become ever more likely to attend based on prior attendance at cultural events and performances. These behaviours are strong predictors of attendance while basic demographic factors are much weaker. That means, competition in the performing arts is not other performing arts organizations but rather all the other ways people spent their leisure and entertainment funds. Community-wide, true partnerships should become the rule not the exception in the performing arts.

2. I have a growing body of work that recognizes that performing arts are not only a show on a stage, but that all surrounding aspects contribute to the audience experience either positively or negatively. It is about full experience design.

This graphic represents key elements of the audience’s arts experience that can and should be fully designed. All have the power to make or break the audience experience, put up barriers to it or enhance it.

It means applying end-to-end design thinking including all the ways in which audience members can amplify the arts organization’s message and reach among their own networks.

Pricing and packaging are aspects that are often taken for granted due to a persistent belief that the arts do not suffer from sticker shock; that if someone really wants to see a show they make it happen. Well, price elasticity is real in the arts, too. The higher the price the fewer people will consider attending. Therefore, considerations should be given to how to price shows that are not expected to sell out at a given price point or that are not selling out despite seemingly well-founded expectations of that. Each of these aspects merits full consideration in your planning and in your evaluations afterwards.

3. Another important idea is that marketing materials are designed for specific purposes to address where a member of the target audience is at in the purchase decision process. Arts marketers need to use the full array of tools in research and evaluation to see how their marketing programs are creating the desired response or not.

An arts marketer’s job is not merely to sell the workhorses of the performing arts – anything by Beethoven and Mozart, Nutcracker and Swan Lake, Shakespeare –  but indeed to lead larger and larger audiences to contemporary, current live professional performing arts experiences that they don’t already know.

To do this requires the integrated use of contemporary marketing strategies and tactics. It is about compelling storytelling, co-creating meaning, and making research on events and purchase of tickets easy and immediate. The increasing integration of services like Youtube, Facebook, Twitter with both desktops and mobile devices and within websites creates new dynamics between organizations and their audiences. this is a good thing.

Today, website pages can be shared with a push of a single button to a user’s social media universe and it can raise awareness, start conversations or solicit sales through their social networks. Similarly, organizations are cross-linking their web sites and social media presence to provide a seamless user experience, going where users are.

This mind-set approach makes clear that an organization’s brand is more than a logo applied consistently. It is how it behaves and interacts with current and potential customers. Or perhaps it reaches even further: it is an entire eco-system’s way of being and interacting in the world – and how the sector (and the communities it inhabits) thrives will depend on this concerted action.