What It Means to Be Human

Okay, so I am in the middle of writing calendar listings and season brochure material trying to avoid falling into a boring writing style as pointed out by Greg Sandow and which I later commented on

I think I am doing fairly well, but time will tell and I may be too close to my own stuff. One of my other rules besides trying to avoid being boring is to also keep from quoting reviewers. I have seen so many people quoted saying “Fantastic”, “A must see”, “Best show of the season”, etc, etc, that I doubt the persuasive power of such quotes. Besides, it seems like inserting such quotes means you can’t think of enough interesting things to say about it on your own. Since I am trying to get into the practice of generating interesting things out of my own feeble brain, that is just another reason to avoid quoting folks.

On the other hand I was tempted to include a quote from a Pittsburgh paper that called a Dayton Dance Company’s performance “rollicking, lyrical, athletic and emotionally generous quartet of African-American dances” It was the emotionally generous part that caught my eye. I don’t frequently see that applied to people in reviews.

One thing I want to know though–when did being human become a selling point for a show? I constantly see (and I was guilty of it many times myself) people describe shows in terms of things that make us human or remind us of the human condition or celebrate what it is to be human. Andrew Taylor recently commented that people seldom go to the theatre simply because it will raise the SAT scores of kids in the neighborhood. Considering some pregnant women put headphones on their stomachs so that their forming child can be exposed to Mozart, I think there is a greater likelihood of folks deciding to support the arts for that reason than because they have lost touch with what it means to be human.

Now granted there are plenty of people out there who probably need to be reminded what it means to be human. However, I doubt anyone admits they need to be exposed to such stuff.

Again, I think this is a nebulous catch-all term people use out of laziness. It sounds impressive, but it really doesn’t mean much. I have seen it applied to some shows to refer to poignant moments, applied to others in connection with joy and familal bonds of love, and I have seen it applied to shows with incredible violence, hatred, pain and sorrow. You never know what you are going to get if you go to a “what it means to be human” show.

Yes, all these things are part of human existence, but it is much better to say poignant or violent. The problem is, using the term doesn’t help audiences understand art any better than they did when they arrived. It strikes me that this phrase is part of the alienating language the arts tend to use. I am not saying that language should be dumbed down–I am a big believer in people picking up dictionaries and teaching themselves. I am using phrases like “transient state” in my season brochure. Except in this case, the phrase very specifically describes a transformation which is occuring. (and I didn’t want to repeat the word transformation in the description.)

I won’t lie. This is hard. Even with all the practice I have writing about different issues, it is difficult to write something that accurately depicts a performance without falling back on newspaper quotes and important sounding, but empty phrases. This being my first weeks at a new job, there are plenty of other things I could really be spending my time on. But trying to do this well, even if I am not entirely successful, is important to developing my ability to communicate well with audiences.

Marketing by Drucker

To continue the discussion about Peter Drucker’s thoughts on Non-profit management that I started yesterday, I thought I would look at his view of marketing.

There are a number of interviews included in Managing the Nonprofit Organization where Drucker asks different people their views on a set topic. One of the interviews associated with marketing features Philip Kotler who teaches at Northwestern University. One of the things he says is that many people confuse marketing with hard selling and advertising.

He says “The most important tasks in marketing have to do with studying the market, segmenting it, targeting the groups you want to serve, positioning yourself in the market and creating a service that meets the needs out there. Advertising and selling are afterthoughts.” The difference is a function of how you start out. Do you look at who you want to serve or do you start with a product and then look for markets to push it into. The former is marketing, the latter is selling.

I will be the first to admit, I am guilty of selling under the guise of marketing. Part of this is due to pressure from above to fill seats and lacking the time, staff and environment to be asking if my actions properly served a market. Actually, pretty much all of it is due to those influences. I learned what marketing was supposed to be in school, much as Kotler defines. When I got out in the real world, I was never in a position to work under the proper definition.

Still, it is easy to market incorrectly even if you are acting in accordance with the definition. You may be clear about the needs you want to serve, “but don’t understand the needs from the perspective of the customers. They [organizations] make assumptions based on their own interpretation of the needs out there.”

I have been seeing this idea cropping up a lot recently in the articles I am reading. Arts organizations have been accused of not being cognizant of the changing needs and expectations of its audience. One of the things Mr. Kotler says is marketing can “help us understand why customers chose to be with us in the first place and why they’re not choosing to be with us any more.”

A couple ideas I came away from the reading with was that arts organizations could do a better job marketing by assessing their strengths. Even if there are a couple other theatres, orchestras, ballet companies, etc in the area, they can certain examine the market, see what there might be a demand for and fulfill it. This can range from things arts organizations already do like positioning themselves to the Shakespeare or modern dance niche or offering classes to adults and children and providing outreach programs free of charge to underserved schools.

It can also be new programs that recognize the different needs of all the segments you wish to serve. Instead of only having one format for an audience education program, you might pitch different ones for different segments. Older audiences might like a formal lecture/talk back after a Thursday performance that started at 7pm. Younger audiences might prefer a coffee house format discussion after a Saturday night performance that started at 8pm. Churches have different ministries under one roof to suit different segments of their congregations. This is a structure that arts organizations can adapt to their needs.

The methods that Drucker and Kotler discuss for making sure your organization is market rather than selling driven are fairly obvious but perhaps difficult to implement because it can require fighting institutional inertia. The first is to do market research to understand the market and its needs, the second is to develop segmentation and be aware of the different groups you want to serve, the third is to develop policies and programs that are structured to the meet needs of the groups. Everyone in the organization has to be invested in these programs over the long haul because the desired result won’t be attained immediately.

More Drucker to come.

I’m A Guru!

In his entry today, Drew McManus labels me a “theatre management guru” for an entry I made last week. I tell ya, this puts a lot of pressure on me to make today’s entry (which is actually my 50th) significant.

I think I will play it safe and direct my devoted readers to ArtsMarketing.org. I honestly don’t recall how I came across the webpage, but it has some interesting resources. The web page is a project of the New York City based Arts & Business Council, but provides valuable information for people on an international basis. (Some of the questions on their forums are posed by people from Hong Kong and Singapore.)

Some of the sections are a little outdated and the information presented is a little more general than I would have liked. If you are starting out doing arts marketing or are more experienced and seek some new ideas, it is worth a look. If nothing else, it will supplement what one already knows.

One section of the website deals entirely with creating a marketing plan from pre-planning to situational analysis to developing strategies and tactics. There is also a Hot Topics section that features articles on various aspects of marketing like audience development, communication, web marketing and research.

There is also a case study section which unfortunately only contains one study. Despite the note that you will have to pay to view it at this point, it is actually free to read. Perhaps as they build a library they will begin charging.

The portion of the website I found most interesting was their resource link page. Some of the links went to consultants, but others went to information sources of which I was not aware. Among them was BoardSource which deals with non-profit boards. (It seems like it would be a very interesting resource at first look.) Also included as a resource was a link to a Free Management Library which deals with 75 management topics in some depth. For example, it doesn’t only talk about the role of a CEO, but also talks about combating “Founder’s Syndrome” where the identity of an organization is so closely tied to the personality and energy of the founder.

It would be interesting to see if the Arts & Business Council continues to develop the arts marketing page. Since one of my goals for this blog was to eventually become a resource for non-profit organizations, I might defer to them if they do a good job. (They are underwritten by American Express and I ain’t)

Volunteers to the Rescue!

I have been closely watching a series of articles Drew McManus is writing on the topic “How to Save Classical Music.” He is using the docent program at the Denver Zoo as a case study of how to use volunteer labor to aid in the revitalization of orchestras. He begins by defining the problem, then talks about the Denver Zoo program and has most recently written on how to apply these lessons to orchestras. Volunteer programs are of special interest to me so I have already put a fair bit of thought into his entries. I suspect that additional consideration will so occupy me that this entry meant for Friday won’t be posted until Saturday.

Drew starts out with the premise that while most arts organizations inevitably have education as part of their mission, the focus of education departments is typically on school programs rather than on audience education. He suggests training and empowering docents will provide support in the areas of marketing, public relations, education and outreach. Docents are traditionally individuals who do tours and lectures at museums and cathedrals. Mr. McManus’ suggestion is to minimize the teaching posture and position docents more as knowlegeable companions.

He goes on to discuss the similarities between the Denver Zoo and orchestras which make the comparison valid. He also mentions the problems facing orchestras echoing the sentiments of the McPhee Knight Foundation speech I cited last week. The solution, he says, lies in adopting the Denver Zoo’s aims:

They facilitate people in their community with the tools they need to become an integral part of the zoos mission instead of looking at them as merely check writing automatons. The zoo gives up a measure of its own control over the institution, but in turn they create a passionate group of stakeholders that perpetuate ongoing community interest and involvement with the zoo. They enable members of the community to become involved partners as opposed to static participants. In turn, the zoo entrusts these individuals with the important responsibility of communicating with the public the value of their mission and to create an interest in the actual ‘product’.

Personally, I have always been interested in getting volunteers more involved in the organizations for which I have worked. However, I have been concerned about the administration’s commitment and investment in the volunteers. This is why I would be cautious about starting such a program in an arts organization.

The problem I have faced is that administration often looks upon volunteer help as a forgone conclusion. There is a Field of Dreams assumption similar to the one made about audiences–if you are offering the opportunity to volunteer, then certainly people are going to want to do it so they can be associated with the wonderful things the organization does.

One place I worked had often discussed, but never held, a volunteer appreciation event in the 15-20 years of the program. I felt victorious at having been the first to successfully organize one. When it came time to plan for the next one, I was told money wasn’t the issue but in light of the fact that after 20 years without an event, only 40 out of 350 invitees came, maybe it was better to have it every 2-3 years.

I was extremely annoyed. We had started doing performances at a 1000 seat venue that was much more accessible to major roadways than our other performance spaces, but with which our audience base was not familiar. The first show we hardly had 200 people attend. However, we didn’t abandon doing shows there but worked on increasing awareness of the venue. In my mind, we could have done the same thing by noting the party date 6 months out on every piece of correspondence sent to participating volunteers.

As a result of perceiving an exploitative motivation with little thought of appreciation, I have never proposed additional programs in which volunteers could be involved. I do, however, collect ideas such as Drew’s against the day I am in a position to direct policy.

In the second day’s entry, McManus discusses how the program of the Denver Zoo is structured. I was impressed by the amount of training the docents underwent and how much they were invested in the zoo. One of the biggest complaints the volunteers had was that the program became too formalized and that full time employees assumed functions they once performed. It is to the volunteers’ credit that they feel such ownership for the program. The zoo is so happy with the program they intend to double its size to 600 docents in the near future.

In his third entry, Mr. McManus discusses the problems with orchestras and how the docent program can help. One of the biggest problems, he says, is that orchestras devote an increasingly larger portion of their ticket revenue to market to the same, ever decreasing, segment of the public. When they do try to attract more diverse audiences, “it often comes off looking like a tragically unhip old guy trying his best to look young and cool.”

Educational information that is provided is usually in the form of reams of printed material utilizing arcane terminology and might be supplemented by a brief pre-performance lecture. What it lacks, he says, is personal face to face contact with someone who is passionate and knowledgeable, but like you, doesn’t have all the answers. He also suggested essentially gutting the PR department of everyone except an editor and let docents write press releases.

My reservations about the exploitation of volunteers aside, I found his suggestions very exciting. Certainly the training of docents would have to be well planned and executed. I know that some people volunteer for the social prestige association with an organization or art form brings. People who want to impress others with what they know may only compound the intimidation a novice feels. Excluding a volunteer from being a docent can lead to a whole other set of PR problems.

The benefits for this program could be enormous. You could offer any level of interaction from having docents mingling in the lobby answering questions to offering a low intimidation program people register for in advance. In the latter program you might have a docent contact a person on Wednesday saying “Hey, why don’t I meet you for coffee before the show Friday night, my treat. Then I will make sure you get to your seat, we can talk at intermission and after the show. But if you have to get home to your kids, you can always email me with questions.”

If your worst problem is that the new attendee ties up your docent by wanting to meet for coffee before every concert, is that really a problem? You can always introduce new attendees to each other and encourage them to meet for coffee as a group. (Then hit up the coffee shop for a program book ad at the very least since you are sending so many people his way.) You can also direct people to internet tools like meetup.com (which includes classical.meetup.com and theater.meetup.com) and evite.com that make it easy for those who share interests to organize discussions with people they have never met.

The idea about volunteers writing press releases was very intriguing. I am not as confident about the writing skills of volunteers as Drew is, but I have never tried it. This actually may be the answer to the boring press release thread Greg Sandow brought up. If you have docents submit press releases that highlight why they are excited by the piece or person performing, you excise the boring “professionally” written junk. As Drew suggested, all it takes is an editor (who can resist the temptation to insert boring stuff) to polish it up and perhaps reorder some points so the release starts out with the attention grabbing details.

Drew also suggests that docents could be valuable in attracting new audiences from the diverse communities they live in by disseminating information and generally acting as an advocate for the insititution. My thought was that unless people from these communities were already experimenting with attendance and just needed to be empowered by such a program in order to gain the confidence to volunteer as a docent, there wasn’t much chance of achieving diversity.

I mentioned this to Drew and he agreed drawing docents from the current audience would only serve to continue drawing the current audience. He said instead “the trick is to get the program started with a core group that is not entirely representative of the current audience. A few ideas I’ve had is for orchestras to utilize individuals such as private music teachers who have adult students, retired school teachers.” This sounded like the most prudent course to me.

A variation of the Denver Zoo docent program could certainly be worth the effort to implement. I didn’t check out the Denver Zoo marketing budget, but the fact they estimated it only cost them about $25,000 to run a 300 person docent program is probably a miniscule portion of the budget. However, according to Drew’s survey they heavily depend on the program to enhance the visitor’s attending experience, educate visitors about the zoo’s mission, provide staffing for in-school and summer education programs and provide paid staffers with time to attend to zoo operations. The docents are essentially the public face of the zoo.

I took a quick look at Baltimore Symphony’s 2002 990 return. They reported 1.5 million for marketing. Even if Drew is wrong and a docent program only reduces expenses by 10% instead of 25%, $150,000 is still a fairly significant savings. Imagine what sort of docent training program you might have if you added half of that savings to a current volunteer budget?

To make all this work requires the docents to be invested in and well informed about the organization they represent. This level of investment and information can only be achieved if the docents have control of their program. It is straight from Management 101 that when you assign people responsibilities, you need empower them with the authority to act. The program also needs to receive the full support and cooperation of the organization administration. Essentially this ties in with the concept of open source management I wrote on back in February.

Drew doesn’t think this is likely in symphonies due to an insular nature that resists releasing authority and transparency of information. His fear is that “Without their continuous support and involvement, the program will come across as nothing more than another propaganda tool that orchestra’s are already well known for.”

Drawing from my background in theatre and popular music, I would say it depended on the age of the organization and how entrenched current management was in their ways. If it was relatively young in its institutional development, I would say there was a fair chance such a program might be adopted. Otherwise, I would have to agree with Drew that there would be too much inertia in the corporate culture to make progress. It seems that the biggest contributions of innovation and change in areas of business like the tech sector come from people who admit they didn’t know any better. I imagine it change in the arts world would originate in the same place.

Of course, this is not to say that old dogs can’t learn new tricks. Looking to the tech sector again you have IBM who have shown they can do just that. We should always strive to do better at every age.