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Just providing entertainment is no longer enough to draw in audiences. But by focusing on what people value, arts organisations can maintain strong relationships with customers amid competing demands for their attention, writes Dave Wakeman.

Photo of a group of people looking at their phones

Gaining ‘mind share’ in today’s world is tougher than ever, with the average consumer overwhelmed by advertising messages. This is a challenge for the arts sector: we struggle to know where to put our efforts to drive demand for our shows.

As customers spend more on experiences, we need to focus our value proposition on the things that we do better than anyone else

The challenge begins with how we define value to our customers. In years past, there was a certain inherent belief that consumers just recognised the value of the arts as a way to be entertained and provoked. As technology has changed and allowed people to walk around with a lifetime’s worth of entertainment only a tap away, the need to redefine the value of attending a live performance has increased. Entertainment alone isn’t a strong enough factor to make people take action.

Selling value

Reviewing how we draw attention to our value proposition should be something that sits at the top of our mind. First, consumers are voting with their wallets. Even as technology intrudes into every area of our lives, consumer spending on experiences is growing five times faster than spending on goods. Second, our focus on the benefits of going to the theatre shouldn’t just be limited to what is considered hot.    

Early in my marketing career, I learned an important lesson when working on the experiential marketing campaign that introduced Yellow Tail Wines to the mainstream American market. You are not your audience, and thinking that you are can cause you to make poor decisions.

This campaign was built around an item I knew little about: Australian wine. And, it was focused on a market that I felt I knew well: sports fans. When the crowds were offered the opportunity to sample Australian wine in the context of an American football game, they took to the product in droves. Which isn’t something I would have ever predicted, because it wouldn’t have been my beverage of choice at a tailgate party.

For those of us in the arts, this will mean that we have to take a step back and reconsider how we are selling our shows. It can feel easy to sell something like Hamilton, because that is the hot show, but not everything is that simple. As customers spend more on experiences, we need to focus our value proposition on the things that we do better than anyone else.

These differentiators include the community that pops up around performances, the shared experience of witnessing the arts with a friend, and the transformative power of art.

Marketing to the customer

Just as important is how we work consistently to stimulate and drive demand to our shows and buildings. And how we can market in a manner that enables us to build a sustainable customer base, not just a collection of single-ticket buyers.
A big step is to put the customer at the centre of the marketing effort. In this way, we achieve certain things that allow our value to shine through and be expressed in a more compelling way. You can see how powerful this is in every iPhone commercial that features a user-generated photo showing off the power of the latest camera and device.

By focusing on customers, we can start the process of building a relationship with them. Relationships are valuable because creating customers is expensive and all of us have a finite pool of potential customers. For many years, I have advocated for the need for all organisations to build assets they control and that they can use to communicate timely, relevant and personal messages to their audience.
This isn’t easy. It requires us to think about what we are going to say to our audience and how often. It means that we can’t just communicate with our audience when we want them to buy something.

The key to success over the long term is thinking in terms of relationships with our audience built around consistently sharing news, stories and information that will pull people closer to us, entice them to engage with our content and make sure they feel like part of a community.

A good example is the way that California's Diablo Ballet has been using Facebook video as a way to draw people closer to its work in the community and the performances it puts on at its venue. You can also see this approach in the way that the West Yorkshire Playhouse discusses its new productions through the lens of how it will communicate these stories to current audiences.
So we need to rethink our communications and marketing strategies to emphasise consistency and value, not just offers.

Many of us struggle to know where to focus our communication efforts, because there is always a new technology or tool that promises to magically reach our audience. Certainly, there are early adopters in our audiences who will use the latest technologies and tools, but most audiences are more comfortable with a few trusted communication platforms.

Focus on impact

We also need to centre our marketing efforts around one idea: impact. Impact can be measured in many ways, both tangible and intangible. But in the case of many arts organisations, we need to measure impact by how well communications reach our audience in a way that makes them take the action we want.

We need our audience to pay attention to the message, engage with it in a manner that is meaningful and deepens our connection, and then take action when we make a request like sharing, liking or buying. We can make our message meaningful by focusing on how our guests will be moved by attending our production. We can also create opportunities for our guests to connect at the venue.

One example is the violinist Holly Mulcahy, who has created cocktails, book clubs and holds discussions about the concerts she performs with the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra.

Getting people’s attention has never been easy, and over recent years the fight for it has become more pronounced. This doesn’t mean that we need to give up. But it does mean that we need to rethink our approach.

Dave Wakeman runs the Wakeman Consulting Group.
Tw: @davidwakeman

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