Brains, Rather Than Butts, In The Seats

Ever since it was announced back in July, I have been waiting for Arts MidWest to post their video from the talk given by Andrew McIntyre provocatively titled, Arts Marketing is Dead: Long Live The Audience. The video was posted last week (or at least they tweeted that it was posted then) so I got right to watching.

McIntyre is a founder of Morris Hargreaves McIntyre which has developed a system of audience segmentation being used in Europe and a number of the British Commonwealth nations. The talk, while an hour long, is broken up into segments itself so you can view parts of it and then easily return to it and continue if you can’t view it all in one sitting.

What McIntyre says is dead, or rather needs to be dead, is the underlying idea espoused by Danny Newman in Subscribe Now that vilified the single ticket buyer for not allowing the arts organization to illuminate their life. McIntyre says that while ticketing philosophy has changed, the underlying philosophy underpinning that idea remains. Most arts organizations view those who are not attending as having a deficiency in their cultural diet that their product can fulfill.

McIntyre says that the focus of most marketing is on people who are immediately loyal, not on those who haven’t been to a show in a number of years. The practice of cleaning a database doesn’t recognize that the cycle of attendance for most people is actually one that skips a couple years. He speaks of conducting focus groups with audience members who speak enthusiastically about the arts organization but whose previous attendance was four years prior. These people have a long history of being associated with the organization, it is just at 2-3 year intervals. According to McIntyre, these people are apparently just as likely to support an organization over the course of decades as someone who attends annually.

McIntyre doesn’t mention what an ideal period for retaining contact information with what appears to be former supporters might be. I suspect that it may be specific to each community based on various factors including the transient nature of the population. As he was talking about this, my first thought was that you should be clearing your mailing list of people who didn’t seem to want a relationship with you so you weren’t sending them unwanted mail.

That said, I basically use attendees from the previous 5 seasons as the basis of my annual mailing list. I occasionally get a call from people who are concerned that they didn’t know about a show because they know they are on our mailing list and have always gotten our brochure. But if we haven’t captured their name in the last five years either because they haven’t attended or made a purchase at the door when it wasn’t practical to collect their contact information, they eventually get excluded from our list.

McIntyre cautions against relying too much on technology noting that Facebook didn’t invent community and Twitter didn’t invent word of mouth. The arts are about connecting people with people so more direct and personal contact is needed to maintain your relationship. The typical practice has been push marketing where you push empty seats on the community rather than pull marketing where you try to engage people to become involved with you.

He makes some rather humorous observations about why audience development as a concept is on the way out. He says audience development has never been clearly defined as an organizational activity. For marketing it is a euphemism for marketing staff, for education people it is euphemism for outreach, for finance it is a euphemism for box office development and for artistic directors, it is a less objectionable term than marketing.

It has been about how many people you can get involved rather than how deeply you can get them involved. McIntyre says in the UK until recently audience development has been out going out to get people who don’t want to come. The task, however, is not to rescue stranded audiences. They are quite happy with the cultural experiences they have, thank you very much. It is the arts organizations who are stranded and so audience development is really about making the organizations relevant to audiences.

He is clear to point out that audience focus doesn’t mean audience led. Everything is still artistically lead. He gives the example of a theatre in Toronto, Pass Muraille, that has a program called the Buzz Festival where they have audiences view 10 minute segments of shows in development and then pass out surveys asking people to answer specific questions about whether the choices were working – “Did you believe the motivation/relationships of X characters in this moment?” By the time the full show reaches the stage, there is such a buzz and audiences have such an investment in the show, that they sell very well.

The playwrights and directors are still making the decisions, but they are getting the feedback they need to inform these decisions. McIntyre says that in the past this sort of engagement with the audience was viewed as dumbing down the product and so maintaining a high degree of isolation was sought. Audiences are more intelligent and creative than they are given credit for and don’t deserve this level of disdain.

McIntyre says we need to treat people as brains in seats, not butts in seats. (Erk, maybe I need to change the name of this blog. I can see how it is complicit in this mindset.)

It is a little too long to cover here, but in the 6th segment of the video, McIntyre covers the Seven Pillars of Audience Focus that they feel are embodied by those most successful at engaging with their audiences.

Among the changes McIntyre says that need to be made: An organization must be vision lead. It can’t exist only to make enough money to continue to exist. Organizations need to stop fearing audiences and feel the need for peer approval because it holds them back. Stop trying to build brand loyalty in favor of building brand equity where people feel they have a stake in the organization. Need to know more about our audiences than the average income people in their zip code. Everyone in the organization must be involved in the marketing. What each person does needs to grow the organization and its brand.

McIntyre talks about a self evaluation tool they developed so you can arrive at a score for your organization and then use it again multiple times to chart your progress. He says he is less interested in the score than in the discussion the score and test generate. I thought maybe it was online, but I couldn’t seem to find it on their website.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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