“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.
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.”
The past is not the best way to predict the future; especially when the context is highly dynamic, change is rapid, consumer behaviours, values and beliefs have shifted and commonly held internal beliefs (like the one about price elasticity) no longer apply (if they ever did: like the one about price elasticity).
I see the live performing arts in general at a crossroads in these changing circumstances: Which parts of the sector will adapt, which ones will become obsolete, which ones will grow, which ones shrink? What will success for the performing arts look like in the near- and mid-term? I hear about the dominant concerns being “audience development” and stability of direct government funding. As a strategist and marketer I think the dominant focus on these two concerns has not been producing the requisite breakthroughs in most cases.
In essence, I plan to think out loud about the value innovation that the performing arts sector in Canada could undertake to reap awesome rewards through creating uncontested – and valuable – market spaces. There are already examples of Blue Ocean creators in the performing arts: most notable may be billion dollar empires Cirque du Soleil and Apple. Yes, that Apple: Music has already been revolutionized by digital music distribution and most of that is revenue that goes to Apple. That may well speak to the power of owning the de facto ‘operating system.’
A Blue Ocean is a strategic construct reverse engineered by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne. It’s a strategy frame to make your present-day competition irrelevant, often by redefining what business you are in and the attendant changes that follow that understanding. Those don’t have to be thought of as global – they can be local or apply to a sector for that matter.
To play with these ideas relating to the performing arts, I’ll draw on my experiences and perspectives from the arenas of research, strategy and marketing. This no doubt will be a non-linear exploration; it will simply evolve as it goes … I hope it will become a conversation.
(first posted November 2011)
Many of these thoughts originated here during 2010 and 2011. They are as interesting to me today as they were then.
I have enjoyed seeing how Canada Council for the Arts has joined the conversation about public engagement in the arts.
The latest addition is this report Dialogues: Public Engagement in the Arts (link to PDF)
Reading it, I noticed that much of my own work in recent years has become entwined in this national conversation:
- As lead investigator and author of the Value of Presenting study, commissioned by CAPACOA on behalf of Canada’s presenting networks.
- As part of the research team for the Canada Council’s ground-breaking Dance Mapping Study’s Yes I Dance survey.
- As workshop leader and presenter at the Creative City Summit and CAPACOA conferences which were cited.
- And references to the Value of Presenting study were part of the discussions at several cited events including Culture Days Congress, Wasan Island meeting initiated by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, and the Power of the Arts National Forum, co-hosted by the Michaëlle Jean Foundation and Carleton University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
I have been enjoying collaborating with CAPACOA to continue to bring to life this research and champion the lessons learned and apply them on the ground.
I believe now is a good time for the performing arts sector as a whole and individual arts organization to think about whether they are seeking “public engagement in the arts” or public engagement through the arts”.
The Council’s working definition of public engagement in the arts is “Actively engaging more people in the artistic life of society notably through attendance, observation, curation, active participation, co-creation, learning, cultural mediation and creative self-expression.”
Public Engagement through the Arts
Public engagement through the arts aims at something somewhat different — and more. It alludes to some of the community and societal benefits we are continuing to realize and are beginning to understand better.
- We are learning that attending performing arts improves health outcomes – there is plenty of evidence that participating in the arts via art therapy or choir practice, for instance, has proven health benefits; that attendance by itself does, too, I learned through looking at a much broader range of health sciences research cited in our report.
- We can see that there are strong correlations between civic engagement, like volunteering, and attending performances and festivals, thanks to Hill Strategies‘ reports.
- Canadians believe social cohesion, pride in community, understanding each other within and across cultures and backgrounds all accrue as a benefit of attending live performing arts events, of bringing the community together, and bringing energy and vitality into communities.
- My work on a needs assessment and feasibility study (PDF) for the formation of Sistema Canada as a national network for Sistema programs that can galvanize and grow a movement across the country allowed me to learn about how these programs are designed to help children and youth realize their full potential through ensemble-based, intensive music learning. These children are not becoming musicians, even though some might well, as much as they are becoming citizens.
The question I am pondering is this: what does it look like to design programming, curate arts experiences, behave in communities, contribute to solving community problems, create engagement in, with or through the arts, in order to engender some of these broader benefits? Can performing arts organizations design to obtain or increase these benefits in some way?
Certainly, I see opportunities for both approaches (the in and the through) to create lasting and important benefits. I do not believe one is more desirable than the other necessarily.
A lived experience
As someone who attends a lot of shows – for fun, not work – I wonder what, if anything, would change if the underlying purpose shifted toward my whole community more often.
There are examples of such effects already. One that amazed me was Northern Scene last April organized by the National Arts Centre. Ottawa has never felt more vibrant and exciting to me than when 250+ Northern artists, spanning the full range of cultures, heritages and backgrounds, were in the city. Attending shows and meeting people has left me with an indelible sense of the North I just have not had before. It left me knowing more, a knowing that is in the bones more than the head, about the country I inhabit and the awesome and endless variety of people and experiences. I have attended other Scenes featuring other Canadian regions before, but the Northern Scene felt to me like a cultural meeting of minds and hearts beyond anything I could have anticipated. It made me want to go North and see and learn.
In short, I was highly engaged through the arts with the North. And, perhaps not surprising, I am going to spend time this year in both Nunavut (for work) and Yukon (for pleasure). I will see. I will learn. I will experience. I will be. And that, I am truly excited about.
Since the release of the final report of 2 years worth of study, consultation and research to shed new light on the individual, community and societal values, benefits and impacts of performing arts in the lives of Canadians and Canada, I have had many opportunities to turn toward the So, what? and the Now, what?
The Value of Presenting is living research that I apply in my consulting practice every day, spanning from brand strategy and audience development with Magnetic North: Canada’s Theatre Festival to strategic planning with Alianait Arts Festival to ongoing consulting with the National Arts Centre.
A large part is giving public presentations and leading workshops. This winter is rich with travel to help presenters and the whole presenting ecosystem contemplate a few ideas – and share my perspectives based on this extensive research and my strategy and marketing practice:
- Audience development: A roadmap to engaged audiences and vibrant communities
- Performing arts for all: Utopia or Destiny?
- The opportunities and challenges that the rapid evolution of communications technologies hold
- How to lead audiences to new artistic experiences
Here is a list of 2014 workshops and conferences, that are being organized this winter. As event webpages appear I will add links to session and registration information:
- APAP|NYC, New York, January 13
- CAPACOA , Toronto, January 22 – 25
- Northeastern University, Boston, February 12 – 13
- London Arts Council and partners, London, ON, February 26
- Atlantic Presenters Association, St. John’s, NL, March 2 to 3
- Atlantic Presenters Association, Charlottetown, PEI, March 5
- Atlantic Presenters Association, Halifax, NS, March 7 to 8
- Manitoba Arts Network, Portage La Prairie, MB, March 25
- Iqaluit, NU, March 31
- Symposium for Performing Arts in Rural Communities, Haliburton, April 24-27
In all of this work, I am discussion a vision of vibrant communities fueled by performing arts and its community-engaged partnerships.