Experiencing the National Arts Marketing Project Conference

By John Turner, Board Member, DeKalb Symphony Orchestra

The DeKalb Symphony Orchestra received a “scholarship” for one person to attend the National Arts Marketing Project Conference in November 2016; the conference scholarships were a joint project of The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and the Georgia Repertory Theatre through the Foundation’s Audience Building Roundtable initiative.

As a board member of the DeKalb Symphony Orchestra, I utilized the scholarship to attend the conference. At the time, I was relatively new to the Board of DeKalb Symphony Orchestra (DSO) and new to the Atlanta arts community. I had a lot to learn about arts marketing and audience building. I saw this is a real opportunity to dig deep quickly and learn from both the conference content and my peers.

What did I learn?

My a priori plan was to collect information on audience database management software/platforms, talk with people about social media, and learn whatever else I could during the four-day conference. While I did come back with the new information I expected, I also learned a few other really valuable things that weren’t originally on my list.

My first “AHA!” moment came during the preconference workshop on relevance, led by Nina Simon and Elisa Granata. I chose that particular workshop because DSO faces a challenge to be relevant for the new audiences we want to attract to our performances. The DSO is a 50-year-old organization and our core audience is 20 years older than that! In November of 2016, we weren’t bringing in any significant new audience members. My “AHA!” moment was this: we must open doorways that are meaningful for the people we want to attract. In her book, The Art of Relevance, Simon says it well: “Relevance is an exercise in empathy—understanding what matters to your intended audience, not what matters to you.” There was so much more in this workshop on relevance, but this one strong takeaway really resonated.

A real highlight of the conference for me - and my second “AHA!” moment—was in the session Gray is the New Gold. It was about embracing the graying (aging) audience as an asset, rather than a problem to be solved. It gave me a fresh lens for looking at both the existing audience we have now, and the new audience that we are seeking.

What is the DSO doing with this new knowledge? We re-defined our target audience!

Prior to our involvement with the Audience Building Roundtable, the DSO had been thinking that the best way to “build audience” was to get an infusion of young people (20s and 30s) to counterbalance the older core audience. There is no question that this would be a real challenge for us.

With this new lens of appreciation of our senior patrons, I made a case to our board to redefine the target audience we are seeking. With Baby Boomers retiring at a record pace, there is actually a larger pool of seniors available to attract than there are of the younger crowd. As a result, we did not abandon our goal of attracting younger patrons, but we redefined ‘younger’ as those age 50+ with the goal of lowering our average age from those in their 70s to those in their 60s. We believe we can be successful in engaging active seniors who have more discretionary time and entertainment dollars, and who are likely to enjoy an evening of orchestral music.

This redefinition of what a younger audience is will have a profound impact on how we operate our organization - and in how we super-serve our patrons over time.

Implementation Begins: a Marketing Committee, a Plan, and a Process

In a first for the DSO, we established a Marketing Committee. The committee is now focused on two things:

  • Generating data-driven results; and
  • Implementing the redefinition of our target audience.

We are creating a marketing plan to reach active seniors and those living in senior communities. We are addressing barriers, like needing transportation to get to performances, so that we can include more of our community in the DSO patron experience. We want to reach “group-ticket tryers” versus “single-ticket tryers” because not having someone to attend a performance with is one of the barriers identified in the 2015 NEA study on audience building.

With help from a communications firm, we are strengthening our social media presence with our newly-defined target audience of age 50+.

We know we must dig deeper with our current audience to understand what is relevant for them, both in program content and in the “DSO experience” from first contact with us through every stage of how DSO touches a patron. We want to know what will keep our patrons loyal for years to come.

We are at the very beginning of our change process, with expectations that all of this new work will bear fruit for our 2017-2018 season.

What can other organizations learn from the DSO’s experience?

While DSO’s particular situation may be quite different from other arts organizations, the process is the same for all of us:

  1. Find out what is relevant to your current audience and to your intended audiences. Then build new doors of opportunity for the new audiences to enter.
  2. Take a good, unflinching look at your current audience and what the drivers are for patronage.
  3. Consider that there may be potential audiences available to you that could be low hanging fruit - without having to go attract another, more challenging, “new” audience.

At DSO, we are grateful for the opportunity to attend the NAMP Conference. The scholarship we received from The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and the Georgia Repertory Theatre augmented what we are learning at the Foundation’s Audience Building Roundtable meetings and is providing us with the tools to have an immediate impact on our organization’s results.

The conference provided engaging content and fellowship with other attendees. I’m already looking forward to the November 2017 NAMP conference—in Memphis!

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