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Messages to arts audiences tend to focus on getting people to attend, but do little to trigger the strong feelings that will create long-term loyalty. Ron Evans explains why – and how – this should change.

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demandaj via visualhunt.com (CC BY-NC-ND)

Have you ever wondered what drives your loyalty to a particular cultural organisation? Is it the quality of the art it creates? How the people there treat you? Tradition? It’s likely that all of these are factors play a part, as well as – most importantly – how the organisation and experiences make you feel about yourself and your connection to others. Those feelings can have a big impact on your cultural participation.

By focusing on creating positive emotional experiences, you are likely to create strong loyalty that may last a lifetime

Loyalty is defined as a strong feeling of support or allegiance. Notice that ‘a strong feeling’ is a vital part of loyalty. For example, when you buy paper for your printer, do you have strong feelings about a particular brand? I can’t even name any specific brands that sell printer paper, so being human I use other factors, such as price, to decide which brand to buy.

That’s not a place where we want our cultural organisations to be. Thankfully, we have the potential to build strong loyalty among our patrons because of the strong emotions we help them to feel.

Loyalty frameworks

Research into the psychology of loyalty is ongoing, but solid criteria for increasing a sense of loyalty are emerging. One of the most approachable frameworks is the work of Rajat Paharia, author of the book Loyalty 3.0. It’s an illuminating read. Paharia suggests that there are four different levels of loyalty:

  • Inertia loyalty: Loyalty because it is too hard to change to another brand. For example, a mobile phone provider making it difficult to cancel its service and move to a different provider.
  • Mercenary loyalty: Loyalty because of points, discounts or other extrinsic rewards you don’t want to lose. If you have a rewards card for a brand, you’re at least at this level.
  • True loyalty: Loyalty because of an emotional connection to the brand, creating a compelling reason to resist competitive offers. If you have strong feelings about the brand of car you drive, when it is time to purchase again you will likely consider that same brand over other brands to which you have no emotional connection.
  • Cult loyalty: The customer and the brand merge so that rejecting the brand would be rejecting one’s own values. We see this often in fanatical support for a sports team. Rooting for the other team would simply be impossible for some people.

Think about your patrons. Where do they fit into these levels? As you promote your cultural experiences, your choices have an impact on how people are exposed to your brand. It is easy to create a discount to draw in new people, but this puts the focus on price and has temporary benefits. By focusing on creating positive emotional experiences, you are likely to create strong loyalty that may last a lifetime.

The variables of loyalty

One of the pioneers in the research of influencing loyalty was the late Richard Oliver of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Over decades of research he identified five specific variables that must be in place for loyalty to grow:

  • Satisfaction: Frequent and cumulative ‘pleasurable fulfilment’. What expectations are you setting for your patrons? What would exceed these expectations and even create the potential for delight?
  • Product superiority: What is it about your art that sets you apart from any competitor? How can you communicate this?
  • A threshold of supporters: Enough people must be available to experience your brand and to find it superior. This is often difficult for new organisations, and much easier for established organisations.
  • Embedding support in a social network: ‘Social network’ has a new meaning in the digital age, but really this is any means for supporters to see each other’s actions and feel a part of a family, both online or offline.
  • Maintaining your social network: How are you helping your supporters see and interact with each other, so they can reinforce each other in their support for you?

Let’s explore how to apply Oliver’s criteria to an arts context. In my experience, cultural organisations have many of these ingredients in place. For example, subscribers to a theatre company or members of a museum form a network of supporters. We are doing a good job segmenting our audiences and sending them relevant messages. But this does not address the need to help our supporters see each other, communicate with each other, and reinforce each other in the feeling that they are part of a larger experience that other people find valuable.

To put it another way, nobody wants to be the first (or worse, the only) person at a party. The party really takes off only when a threshold of people shows up, and these people interact with each other to reinforce that it is a cool place to be.

Actionable steps

In my work with cultural organisations, I have found that there are several actions that they can all take today to begin the process of encouraging loyalty:

  • Reduce friction at all points: An easy way to create more positive experiences is to remove complexity in interacting with your brand. Where are patrons getting caught up and experiencing frustration? The ticket-purchasing process? Parking at the venue? Ordering food during the interval? Analysing your cultural experiences from the perspective of your audience often exposes areas for improvement.
  • Avoid negative memorable experiences: What negative experiences do you most often hear people complain about in relation to your brand? Addressing these areas and communicating your improvements to your network of supporters often creates strong feelings of gratitude.
  • Help people feel: Often our messages to arts audiences focus on getting them to attend, but do nothing to encourage them to feel emotion while they attend or to reflect on their experience afterwards. A little effort creating new experiences to help people in these areas often produces dramatic results.

The cultural sector has an incredible advantage over other activities competing for people’s attention: we are known for our emotional experiences. By helping people to have positive emotional experiences, we are not only fulfilling our mission, but we are setting the stage for loyalty, and all of its benefits, to flourish.

Ron Evans is a consumer researcher and Principal Consultant at Group of Minds. He is also a mentor on the AMA’s Digital Marketing Academy.

This article is a summary of Ron Evans’ presentation at AMA Conference 2017. Visit www.a-m-a.co.uk to find out more.

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