Category Archives: customer insight

What’s the matter with numbers?

With thanks to CAPACOA for commissioning my response to the Culture Shock debate entitled  “Hard Facts VS. Proverbial Truths: The Impact of Arts & Culture on Canadian Citizens & Communities” held on November 20, 2014 at the Community Knowledge Exchange Summit.  Moderated by Canada Council for the Arts CEO Simon Brault you can watch the archived livestream here

Billed as #CultureShock, Alain Dubuc, a journalist and economist, and Shawn van Sluys, who heads up a philanthropic foundation that works to make the arts more central to our lives, debated whether “For arts and culture to be fully valued by society, their impact must be demonstrated with hard facts” or whether proverbial truth are sufficient.

The case for telling the stories of transformation and understanding through art was made eloquently. Yet, I was more struck by the economist’s assertion that hard facts are “the best way” rather than “the only way” to ensure we fully value arts and culture.

This debate brought to my mind Daniel Kahneman’s observation in Thinking, Fast and Slow  that humans  have a propensity to believe that “what you see is all there is.”  He cautions us that we can easily miss important parts of a situation because there may be more going on than meets the eye.

And that reminded me of the old adage that what we count is what matters.  By inference that suggests that we actually count what truly matters, and that those things left uncounted do not matter.  In the arts much of what gets counted are ticket sales or attendance as a percentage of capacity. Until recently, little attention has been paid to collecting the stories, let alone data points, of impact and benefits of the arts. In my view, just because some things are (relatively) easy to measure, like attendance or GDP or employment figures, that does not mean that they tell the whole story – or the most important parts of the story. Conversely, just because some things are harder to measure that doesn’t necessarily make them any less important or, for that matter, immeasurable.

Indeed, I think we gain the deepest insights through a purposeful combination of numbers and stories. For numbers are not meaningful by themselves. Numbers require context and an understanding of the intrinsic dynamics at play. In my work as a researcher and strategist, my task is not merely to produce tables and analysis, but to interpret findings and create meaning. It is this highly creative process of meaning creation and collaboration with all the decision-makers that can lead to new insight. And in creating meaning we bring the numbers to life through examples: the stories.

Some in the arts do not wish to speak the language of numbers which they equate with the language of business. From my experience working with corporations I know that yes, numbers are important, but many invest heavily in innovation and creativity in order to solve significant problems and improve quality of life through new products and services. The divide is not so great. Rather, we may well be just lacking translators or mediators; people who are proficient in both languages and who can help us understand each other better.

Watch the debate. 

Research in the arts for everyone!

I was invited to present a webinar on the Dos and Don’ts of Research in the Arts this week by Ontario Presents and Atlantic Presenters Association. The full webinar recording and a few downloadable files are available here.

The audience for this session were people working in arts presenting organizations. They are not researchers typically, but use or commission research and may well put together the occasional survey. The focus of the webinar was understanding what value research brings, reviewing a comprehensive research design, exploring briefly major types of research (secondary, qual, quant and data analysis), a few high level observations on sample design and questionnaire design and, finally, legal frameworks that apply to marketing research.

Obviously, each of these topics merits much more time and depth . In fact, this webinar came out of a 1.5 day arts research seminar I conducted for Atlantic Presenters in St. John’s last June. All to say with this webinar I aimed to raise awareness of what we think about when undertaking and designing research and keep it real in terms of practical applications. The hands-on workshop is a whole different level of learning and practicing research and analysis skills.

 

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.

Strategies to grow membership

At a recent board workshop we discussed different ways to look at the association’s membership in order to understand better how to grow it.

I proposed to look at the cumulative number of members over several years for a more complete evaluation. Typically, we look at the total number of members – or subscribers – as an annual figure and then we pay some attention to churn (non-renewing members). Growth occurs when this churn figure is lower than the number of new members acquired, i.e. more people join than drop out. Evaluating churn makes clear why the first task in an established organization is usually retention, keeping members/subscribers year after year. High rates of retention mean that growth can be achieved more readily (as long as you have not captured your entire market);  it also means that your marketing efforts should become more cost-effective as retention should cost less than acquisition.

When we look at a wider time span, for instance 5 years or 10 years, we gain a different understanding of the degree to which an organization has reached and engaged its market. Is the the cumulative 5-year figure very close to the annual figure or is it much larger?

If it is very close then you are basically stable. If you wish to grow in this scenario then you need to focus on acquisition strategies to accelerate growth.

If the 5-year cumulative figure is much larger, then you might need to think not only about acquisition but re-acquisition. Re-acquisition means re-engaging with people who have made up their mind already about the value you provide by rejecting it for some reason. Re-acquisition is quite a different task, requiring different strategies, tactics, messages and channels. Because these people are not a blank slate (they have developed firm beliefs about your organization and have perceptions founded in their personal experience) I think that re-acquisition is fundamentally more difficult than gaining a brand new member, subscriber, customer.

Strategically this dynamic has to be considering in light of your total market potential.

There are times when re-acquisition can be critical to ensure an organization’s sustainability in the long-run. Given the nature of re-acquisition, strategies designed to re-engage likely run their course over 3 to 4 years. The focus then has to shift to true acquisition because those you wish to re-engage either have done so or simply are not going to have their minds changed unless something important, and likely out of your control, changes for them.

In both scenarios, retention driven by creating value and a mutually beneficial and meaningful relationship with members remains paramount.

Social web strategy for the performing arts

“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.