“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.
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.”
In this Interim Report of Findings I consolidate the facts and figures on the value and benefits of performing arts presenting in Canada gathered over the last year through two national surveys (288 presenters and 1,031 Canadians), participation at conferences, leading dialogues and interviews with the presenting field and those found in the literature. Additionally, it presents a profile of the performing arts presenting ecology as a whole and highlights how several groups of presenters are distinct; for instance, those presenting works for aboriginal communities, francophone minority (those operating outside Quebec) and those in rural and remote communities.
The Interim Report of Findings:
French-language executive summary:
The supplementary report on francophone minorities and presenting in Canada, with additional data:
Writing is both solitary and communal. My thanks and appreciation go to the project manager at CAPACOA, Frédéric Julien, for reviewing everything and co-writing the French report. And my colleague, Pierre Lacroix, who has been leading the consulting work with the francophone communities and co-wrote the French-language report.
Over the next year, I will continue to explore the implications of these and other findings with the presenting field across Canada. In March 2013, we will publish a final report on the Value of Presenting in both English and French.
This next week, I will lead two webinars for rural and Northern presenters to review findings and begin conversations on the “So, what” part of this work. For webinar information: http://www.diffusionartspresenting.ca/events/
Being invited to participate on the Ottawa Host Committee for Juno 2012 has offered me a deeper perspective of the tremendous teamwork, expertise and volunteerism needed to bring a major national event to a city. Ottawa’s institutions are very well practiced in producing major events, having made that an important pillar of economic development activities in the region.
|Members of the Host Committee with the Juno Ice Sculpture.|
This collaboration ranging from the NCC and the City to Aboriginal and Francophone communities, from the Chamber of Commerce and local BIAs to museums, transportation hubs and local media partners to the universities, and, of course, the local bar/ music scene is awesome. Sponsors are also a key part in the “making it go” equation.
Producing and promoting a major event is a complex choreography. To make it go requires diligent effort, involvement and engagement of people and communities, and a flexible plan. Knowing the many innovative marketing and “civic animation” ideas we have generated to help bring a buzz for the Juno Awards and Canadian music to Ottawa and the nation is simply cool. Many of these ideas have been put in place. Any that aren’t seeing the light of day due to time and resource constraints will be well worth revisiting in the future; especially those that involved more advanced uses of communications technologies.
Meanwhile, partnerships like this one with the University of Ottawa/Ottawa Host Committee/ MASC are using technology to bust wide open the sacred walls of learning through video-conferencing master classes with leading musicians across Canada.
In the best of worlds, major events serve the visiting organization (CARAS, in this case), its constituents (music industry and musicians) while providing unique opportunities for participation to the local community and, at the same time, elevating the brand of the city in the Nation’s psyche. On April 1, Canadians will see Ottawa once again for what it is – a vibrant city and a diverse people much beyond the day-to-day political machinations inherent in being a capital. And almost better yet, all through Juno week from March 26 to the CTV Juno Award show broadcast on April 1, people in Ottawa-Gatineau get to celebrate Canadian music in bars, on the street and in concert halls across the region.