By Sara R. Leonard, Founder and CEO, Sara Leonard Consulting
As any client of mine and any attendee of the February 2018 Audience Building Roundtable (ABR) meeting will attest, I always remind organizations I’m working with that there is no silver bullet in audience building. If there were, all of the brilliant and diligent nonprofit arts administrators I see would have found it and put it to use. There is no single strategy or tactic that will be successful for all organizations. Each has a different identity: different missions, different values, and – of course – different audiences. But it occurs to me that when we make the time to create really good audience development plans, we’re equipping ourselves about as well as we possibly can.
When it comes to making plans we tend to fall into one of two camps: the folks that like developing the plan more than they like carrying it out, and the folks who’d rather cut the chit-chat and just get to work. The problem with the former, of course, is that little gets done; the problem with the latter is that each action and tactic is unlikely to build into cohesive approach. With a good planning structure and good information as our guide, each of us is required to do the parts we’d rather not, covering our blind spots, and leading our organizations toward building audiences and audience development strategies that really work for us. Without a plan, we run the risk of chasing audiences as we put out fires and focusing solely on the need for immediate transactions; with a good plan, we have the opportunity to build more and deeper relationships with our audiences, resulting in more transactions, committed patrons, and the loyal fans who will sustain us. It’s a difference in strategy – and the latter is the better way to go. But if you’ve been around the Audience Building Roundtable of The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, you already know that. A good plan, firmly rooted in what we know we know (not to be confused with what pithy but unsubstantiated conventional wisdom tells us) and grounded in organizational values and identity, may well be the closest thing to a silver bullet that we have.
While every organization’s plan will necessarily involve unique strategic and tactical approaches to building audience, there are trends and emerging research that can jumpstart your creative process. (What? Surprised I said “creative?” Embrace it! Building audiences is absolutely an exercise in creativity, among other things.) So, let’s review a few things we know that we know. This list is not exhaustive, but it offers a good start.
Make the effort to keep the right people. Of course our organizations need to think about bringing new folks in the door, but we cannot afford to take the people we already know for granted. In ABR terms, always think about strategies that are going to move people up the patron ladder. According to INVESP, “it costs five times as much to attract a new customer, than to keep an existing one.” Invest in building and deepening your connections with the people you already know.
Go deeper than demographics. While we absolutely should ensure that the demographic make-up of our audiences, boards, and – ideally – staffs, are representative of the communities we serve, we need to conceive of our audiences in ways that go deeper than demographics. As I’ve said before, there is nothing innate to our sex, bank balance, or the color of our skin that leads us to participate in an arts event. Imagine your audience complexly and connect with them on shared interest and values.
Know your core values. Organizations making values-based decisions about their content in both programmatic and marketing realms, and using their values to guide how they engage with audiences are seeing gains in audience building. If we know what makes our organization tick, then we can connect with the people who share these interests and values. These are the people who will sustain us. As yourself, “Who are the people who share these interests and values? “Where can we find them?” and “Why do they already care about what we are doing?” Now, what’s a values-based decision? It might be as “small” a gesture as a hand-signed thank you note or as grand as a concert focused entirely on the works of black American composers – both things that the Georgia Symphony Orchestra is doing this season. It has to do with building your reputation, which will increase your visitation.
Put your audience at the core of your work. Over and over again I see this common thread among organizations having success in audience building: the audience is literally in the mission statement and figuratively at the forefront when all decisions are made. Remember, without them, it’s just rehearsal.
Audiences are comprised of (gasp!) PEOPLE. We often talk about audiences like they are mythical and mystical beasts the power and glory of which we will never harness. Nonsense. Audiences are full of real-life, actual people who are interested in relationships for the same reasons you and I are: shared interests, challenge, reciprocity, fun. Focus on building relationships with people and you’ll find that your audience will emerge. So, if we’re building relationships with people, remember to:
- Listen. Listen to what your community needs and wants from you, and make space for them to tell you. Think programming. Think member benefits. Think patron experience. Ask ABR colleagues from Southeast Fiber Arts Alliance about how they’ve been listening to member organizations this year! No one likes to be talked to all the time. Earn your right to be heard by doing your fair share of listening.
- Engage the audience where they are. Take a hard look and how you engage with your current and perspective audiences. Are you using their language or yours? Are you engaging with their motivations or your own? Are you connecting with them based on interests and values that you share?
- Pay attention. The frontlines are not the place for untrained volunteers (though well-trained ones can be lovely.) Audiences’ estimations of their experiences are heavily influenced by their experiences with frontline staff.
- Don’t just sell. When you’re communicating with current or perspective audiences, keep Seth Godin’s mantra: keep it anticipated, personal and relevant. Digital Marketing experts, Capacity Interactive, suggest a 70/30 rule. Focus on being fun and informative 70% of the time, and you earn the opportunity to ask for something the other 30% of the time.
So, now it’s time to get to work building your strategy. Remember to always ask yourself, “why am I doing this?” It should be easy to clearly explain how each tactic you choose relates to a strategic approach you believe will resonate with part or all of your audience, and is authentic to your organization. If it’s not, back up. And – of course – be SMART (specific, measureable, attainable, relevant/realistic, and timebound).
Editor’s Note: Click here to download .zip of meeting materials from Sara’s February 2018 planning workshop with the members of the Audience Building Roundtable.