The National Black Arts Festival: Communicating with our Audience

By Vikki Morrow, President & CEO

In early 2016, faced with a declining audience base, the National Black Arts Festival (NBAF) looked to better understand who our audiences are, why they support us and how we are serving them.

Current Situation: Our 30th Anniversary

One of our challenges is a change in programming that NBAF implemented during the last several years, moving from a festival season to year-round programming. The move to year-round programming resonated with a segment of our audience but left others, including working artists of African descent, feeling abandoned or not included. The change in program direction also caused some confusion among our audience about who NBAF really is and why we exist, what our programming is, and when our programs are offered. The programming changes, combined with leadership transitions and financial challenges, have moved NBAF to concentrate on rebuilding our audience and stabilizing our programming. I joined NBAF as the President and CEO in May 2017 and I’m excited about the opportunity to lead our work as we embark on our 30th Anniversary (2018.)

The National Black Arts Festival is the oldest multidisciplinary arts organization in the US focused exclusively on artists of African descent and their work. Since its founding in 1988, NBAF has been presenting the art of local, national and international artists with an emphasis on free and low-cost programming. We have presented world class performances, master classes, symposia, film screenings, literary and visual arts programs.

In preparing for our NBAF’s 30th anniversary, we are focused on four priorities:

  • Clarify who we are and why we exist - for ourselves and our audience.
  • Present a diverse series of arts programs and performances to the public that reflect our mission - and that engage loyal, diverse audiences.
  • Expand our visual arts and dance education programs in Atlanta’s Title 1 schools to address gaps in curriculum.
  • Continue to support visual artists by giving their work greater exposure and providing opportunities for income generation.

To reinvigorate our public programs, we are looking at how we retain our loyal audience, regain lost audience members and attract new ones across demographic lines. We are asking:

  • Who are our audiences for public programming and for education programs?
  • What are their interests and their needs?
  • How we can engage and/or serve our audience during our annual festival season and throughout the year?

At the same time, we are also asking the community of artists about their need to reach broader audiences, advance their careers, and how NBAF can best support their work.

We want to increase our audience for the festival season, attracting both more people of African descent and drawing from the broader community. At the same time, the beneficiaries of our education and support services—students and artists—by intention are (and will continue to be) those of African descent.

Addressing our Most Immediate Need: The Ability to Communicate with our Audience

In October 2016, The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation provided a grant to NBAF through its Audience Building Roundtable initiative, which NBAF is a member of. NBAF utilized the grant dollars to develop a new website to address our most-immediate audience development and communication issues. We launched the new website in June 2017, and our ongoing participation as a member of the Audience Building Roundtable has helped us reimagine our relationship with the community.

NBAF’s new website is vibrant and designed to draw people in. It is easier to navigate and enables finding upcoming events and works equally well on laptops and mobile devices. Content has been updated and streamlined to improve the user experience and encourage exploration of the entire site. The website is integrated with our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram platforms, as well as with the Network for Good platform to support online and email appeals and provide a new, easy to use online payment system for donations. We are capturing supporters by encouraging visitors to the website to subscribe to receive periodic programming and event news and appeals. Check us out:

This website allows us to more effectively communicate with our audience, track usage, evaluate audience interests, and analyze response to our content using Google Analytics. It allows us to update personal information of our audience and keep in touch with the people who care about what we are doing. This has begun to correct the issues of lost/bad audience data.

The website has already effectively supported our July 2017 gala and our summer/fall 2017 festival season. We now have the digital underpinning of our audience building initiative in working order. Below are the most recent stats from Google Analytics for our website. We were not able to track website usage previously because the platform was too out of date to utilize Google Analytics, so we don’t have comparative data.

  1. We have had 9,403 unique users to the new website since June 2017.
  2. On average, our visitors view 4 pages on our website before they leave the site.
  3. Besides a direct search on Google, our top referral source to our website is Facebook.
  4. Our top 3 visited pages are the Home Page, the Festival Page, and the Youth Programs page.
  5. 58% of our audience views our site on their desktop. 36% view the site on their mobile device. Our site is optimized for mobile devices.
  6. 3% of the site visitors return to the site within one week. 
The goal of an organization is to engage those who believe what you believe—and who will be loyal supporters.

Another opportunity NBAF was afforded by The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation was a scholarship for me to attend the American Marketing Association’s Nonprofit Marketing Conference in early July 2017. During this conference, Simon Sinek, author of START WITH WHY, led a session that emphasized that audiences respond to an organization’s purpose: “why” you exist, not what you do or how you do it (although quality of product certainly matters.) “What you do” should serve as proof of what your organization believes. The goal of an organization is to engage those who believe that you believe—and who will be loyal supporters. Finding those loyal supporters by focusing your marketing on the “why” brings results.

At NBAF we support the beauty of our culture, the desire to preserve it and celebrate our roots by understanding that this rich culture made us who we are and is best expressed through the arts—music, dance, visual arts, film, theater and literature – made by people of African descent. We believe it is important to preserve our culture, share the rich legacy of our artists with all generations and support the next generation of artists so our stories live on. That is our “Why.”

In fall 2017, we put some of these powerful concepts into practice by reshaping our messaging to evoke emotion and testing our messaging to see if it resonates with our audience. As we continue to refine our messaging, we will incorporate it in all areas of our program development, audience building and fundraising work.

The meetings and discussions of the Audience Building Roundtable have been invaluable in helping us to look at our audiences with empathy. For instance, we have used the Design Thinking framework to deepen our understanding of the needs of the artists we support and integrate that understanding in our programming. We learned that artists felt abandoned when NBAF discontinued its annual outdoor Artists Market several years ago, even though NBAF closed the market because of its unsustainable cost. Once we understood how the artists viewed the Market as critical to their public exposure and economic success, we knew that we had abandoned a program that this audience found appealing. The Market had connected the artists and the public for the benefit of both. Because it is a Market exclusively for artists of African descent, it provided a cultural touchpoint that was important to both. The Market spoke to our “Why.”

This understanding opened a discussion of how to support artists’ success more broadly, including opportunities we might create to help artists market their work. These include looking at online sales, commissioning new work, hiring artists to manage programs or teach in our programs, hosting artists’ talks and appreciation events, and exposing emerging artists to our followers through our website, social media platforms and email.

We will pilot a new prototype for the Artists Market at our outdoor festival in Piedmont Park in July 2018. The new prototype includes ways to produce the festival at significantly lower cost, in part by eliminating the high cost of presenting marquee national performers during the festival and focusing instead on local and regional performers who would benefit from the opportunity. The new format involves a more effective and efficient approach to marketing to visual artists, using a nationally recognized website that can push information out to artists around the country.

As NBAF continues to participate in the Audience Building Roundtable, I will encourage our peer organizations to focus on determining their WHY: not just WHAT they do and HOW they do it, but WHY? Once we all get clear on WHY we are doing what we are doing and share that with others, we will engage the people that believe what we believe and we will build and retain those audiences we all so desperately want.

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