JULY 2018 ISSUE: Penny McPhee talks with the Audience Building Roundtable


Penny McPhee, President of The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, Addresses Audience Building Roundtable

Good morning. On behalf of Mr. Blank and our Foundation’s trustees, I’m honored to be here today to talk with you about our Audience Building Roundtable initiative. 

The Blank Foundation invests in the arts because the arts make life worth living. Our trustees have a deeply held belief that communities thrive when our arts and cultural endeavors flourish. 

You and your organizations provide the creative intellect that leads to beautiful, challenging, sometimes provocative—and always thought-provoking—art. Your work is one of the cornerstones of a healthy community—and we are all enriched by it. We’re grateful to all of you for contributing to quality of life through the art that you produce and curate.

Our Foundation’s trustees challenged us to identify and invest in innovationsthat strengthen and support Atlanta’s vibrant cultural landscape.

As I talk with you this morning, I’m going to begin with a walk down the path of how we got here—in this room—today. 

When I was at the Knight Foundation, we invested in audience building strategies and learned a great deal about how the behavior of arts and culture organizations impacts their audience development activities. At the Blank Foundation, we began by looking at promising approaches that were being used around the country, including those of the Wallace, Knight, and Doris Duke Foundations. Their initiatives focused on individual organizations but held learning for us. Our Foundation is not of the size and scale of these national funders. We must, as a Foundation, continually think about scope and scale, so we tried to find a way to have a positive impact on multiplearts and culture organizations in our community. 

We spent time talking with our own community’s funders and listening to cultural organizations. We were mindful of the Community Foundation’s 2013 study that showed that 80% of Atlanta’s arts and culture organizations had less than 30 days of operating cash on hand. We learned the startling national statistic that 80% of arts and culture consumers do not return for a second sample.

As we listened, we heard a key theme:a loyal audience moves an organization much closer to financial stability.

By early 2015, we were taking a deep look at best practices in audience building. What we learned led us to an initiative that could support audience building in individual organizations.

Here are a few of the headlines that guided us in creating the Audience Building Roundtable.

  • People want more arts experiences. And thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts and its team of investigators, we know more about what motivates audiences to seek out arts experiences—and we know more about the barriers that too often prevent them from buying a ticket and getting to the performance halls and exhibition spaces.
  • Leaders in arts organizations canimplement game-changing audience building strategies that focus on building lifelong relationships with customers (as opposed to transactions). We know this from real-life examples—not theory and research—and we continue to confirm this every day from your experiences as part of the Audience Building Roundtable. 
  • There aretried and true techniques that arts and culture organizations are using to deepen their engagement with the individuals they reach—their ticket buyers, donors, subscribers and the individuals who may attend once or twice and not return. We have learned that arts organizations that succeed in building audiences are smart about applying the methods for capturing, analyzing, and acting on the data that they gather about their own audiences.

Everything we learned confirmed that arts and culture audiences fit into the same principles that the audiences for The Arthur M. Blank Family of Businesses fit into: that listening and responding to audiences is paramount for viable, long term impact. When I joined the Blank Foundation nearly 14 years ago, I really didn’t know or care much about football—or soccer. That’s obviously changed. Now, not only am I an avid Falcons fan—and an avid Atlanta United fan—I’m part of the team that is thinking every day about what it takes to create loyal, long-term fans. The conversations at Falcons and Atlanta United staff meetings are not very different, I suspect, from those at your staff meetings. How do we make the experience more compelling? How do we get fans off their sofas and into the stadium? How do we overcome the barriers of traffic, parking, ticket price and childcare?

No one on our team doubts that there are many more fans staying home than buying tickets. And everyone knows it’s easier to keep a current fan or regain a former fan than to find a new one. So, a great deal of energy is expended on doing everything we can to keep fans happy and make them loyal—and we focus on the “door-to-door” experience, meaning we don’t just focus on putting on exciting game. The Falcons and Atlanta United both want to provide a great experience from the moment you leave your house to the moment you get home. You might be thinking that these organizations’ budgets allow them to do more—and in some cases, you are correct—these organizations are choosing to allocate a share of their budget toward marketing and experiences. But much of what they do involves personal contact, ingenuity, and making a real connection with those who believe in what they are doing. They know that retaining those who walk through the door the first time is much less expensive than acquiring a new customer.

What’s this example got to do with arts audiences? Well, everything. We learned from the best practice comparisons in the arts that it’s less expensive to retain an existing ticket buyer, subscriber or donor than to attract a new one. We learned that, over time, this retention builds stronger arts organizations who are able to “do more art” as financially sustainable enterprises. We learned that the marketing principles applied in other customer-driven industries apply to arts and culture. We learned that forward-thinking arts and culture organizations challenge the idea that cultural events are a one-way transmission of content or ideas, from the artist to the audience. Instead, the magic happens when the arts open up and nurture relationships. When ideas are exchanged, from artist to audience and from audience to artist, loyalty builds. 

So we held an inaugural “workshop” in November 2015 to test the waters. Many of you were at that workshop, at the Omni Hotel on a morning that featured a torrential rainstorm. Still, more than 180 of you attended. In a follow up survey to that workshop, we asked you what type of audience building interventions would be helpful as you build your audiences. The result of that survey is the Audience Building Roundtable, now entering its third year with more than 50 participating organizations of all budget sizes and disciplines.

As you already know, the Audience Building Roundtable’s is focused on one thing: that each member organization increases the size of its audience and that this audience’s financial support has a positive impact on your ability to deliver more cultural enrichment to our community.

The Audience Building Roundtable’s member organizations have learned from experts in the field, experimented with new ways to both attract and retain audiences, focused on tried-and-true practices that work, and re-organized your staff, board, and budget structures to focus on your audience. 

When we began this work, we suspected—and we now know for sure—that audience building is not something that is done in isolation or in silos by the development director, the marketing director or the artists. It is not for the faint-hearted or half-willed. It takes collaboration, innovation and resolve. But, when it is done with complete organizational faithfulness, we engage with audiences in exciting ways.

Moving from transactional ticket sales into transformational experiences is well worth the effort.

We have encouraged experimentation in the Audience Building Roundtable. We’ve provided a forum for our member organizations to share their audience building experiences. We’ve heard about the ideas that have worked—and those that haven’t worked. When we began, we indicated that we would all need to have a healthy appetite for failure. We said this knowing that many organizations have very little margin for failure and we said this in the hope that when we all fail and learn from it, we do it quickly and with forward progress. We don’t all need to make the same mistakes—we can learn from those of others.

The Audience Building Roundtable’s purpose is to support our member organizations in building their own audiences—attract new ticket buyers, patrons and donors while deepening relationships with the audiences that they have. We believe that data about your audienceis one of the keys to success and using that data to effectively deliver marketing and messaging to your target audiences is another key to success. 

Just as you do in your organizations, we’re evolving based on what we learn. For 2018, here are the major changes to the Roundtable:

  1. We are requiring attendance this year by several key organizational leaders. One person from your organization, hopefully the person who is in charge of marketing, is required to attend all meetings. The meeting schedule is on your tables and on the ABR website. If your executive director/CEO is not your “designated attendee,” this person must attend at least 6 meetings this year—of your choosing. And lastly, a board member must attend at least 3 meetings this year; again, of your choosing. We have always tracked the attendance of member organizations, which has made us realize that those with consistent attendance are getting stronger results.
  2. Each of your organizations must set numeric and financial audience building goals for 2018. You began that work at the December meeting; that work will continue later this morning.
  3. Your organization must submit a report at the end of each quarter to let us know how you’re doing in building your audience. We’ll remind you well in advance of the due date. The format and the information we ask for will be consistent for these quarterly reports. We’ll be asking for the same information that you will need to know to track your audience results.
  4. And lastly, we will be asking you to submit financial information about earned and contributed income for multiple past years. This will occur once and may include your 990s, your annual audits, and/or reports from your ticketing and admissions systems. I say “may include” because we are still figuring out exactly what financial information will tell us what we need to know.

I’m sure you’re wondering “why the new requirements?”

The answer is simple: we owe it to our Foundation’s trustees to be able to articulate results over time, and in our third year of this initiative, it’s time to go deeper and understand our results. We’ve also engaged Bob Harlow of Bob Harlow & Associates to conduct an outside evaluation of the Audience Building Roundtable; we are grateful to those of you who met with Bob in December and to those of you who have completed the survey, which this year is being compiled by Bob. If you haven’t yet completed the survey, please do so by tomorrow—the survey data is a critical part of the evaluation.

I’ll close by challenging all of you to dig even deeper into audience building in 2018—even if it means re-organizing your organization’s budget and staff structure to do so.

I challenge you to take advantage of the resources we’ve created for you. Our blog, our podcast, our innovative knowledgebase, the presentations and video from previous meetings of the Roundtable—all information is housed on the Audience Building Roundtable website is available for you to consider, learn from, and use.

Our hope is that your organization succeeds in steeping itself in the practices that will bring you new audiences—and keep the audiences that you have.

More attendees—more often -means that more people will have the transformational experience of art and culture in their lives. And that is the point.

On behalf of our trustees, thank you for your incredible engagement in this initiative. We have been thrilled by your response—and now we need your help to gather the data to tell us exactly what our results are.

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