If You Are Apt To Overlook It, How Do You Know Enough To Track It?

Seth Godin made a post a week or so ago about the need to track things that are really important, but invisible to us or transpire gradually. I sense there is something valuable for arts and cultural organizations in what he has to say, but I am having a difficult time trying to figure out how to accurately track these things. I am hoping readers may have some idea.

In his post he writes:

Gas-powered leaf blowers would disappear if the smoke they belched out was black instead of invisible.

And few people would start smoking if the deposits on their lungs ended up on their face instead.

We’re not very good at paying attention to invisible or gradual outputs.

The trick is simple: If it’s important, make it visible. If it happens over time, create a signal that brings the future into the present.

One of the first things that occurred to me as important, but may transpire gradually is employee or audience dissatisfaction. But how do you accurately track and signal this situation? How do you know whether a dozen individual complaints are related to each other or independent rumblings? In hindsight it is easier to see that comments made in a series of staff meetings over the course of a months culminated in the departure of multiple people, but at the time those comments may not have seemed to be related.

Obviously, it is good to have supervisors who are responsive and emotionally intelligent enough to head off these issues, but if the supervisors are only seeing what is happening in their area, they may not feel there is enough of an issue to report it to those with a more global view of the organization.

Conversely, you may notice a gradual increase in audience satisfaction with their experience, but may not be able to pinpoint why. Is it the new ticketing software? The receptions for audiences under 40? The advance emails telling people where to find parking? These are all great ideas and making people happy so let’s keep them and continue to make everyone happy!

Except what you didn’t know was that it was a front of house manager whose infectious enthusiasm and good training transferred through the staff to the audience. When their parents got sick, they moved back to their hometown. Gradually, that lack of leadership and energy seeps out of the experience and audiences aren’t as satisfied. Having no idea this is the cause, you try new innovative programs to which people may respond, but it isn’t quite like it was. Even if you recognize that the departed staff member was a valuable asset that had been lost, you may not realize their work sent imperceptible ripples through the organization.

Godin uses examples where the link between cause and effect is pretty well known. So there are ways to measure leaf blower exhaust that don’t depend on sight and you can monitor lung health in different ways. But there are other situations where there are multiple factors which may contribute to outputs so it is difficult to know which to make visible. What might be relevant in one community may not be in another. The social dynamic of one region of the country may enjoy the enthusiasm of the front of house manager, but it may come across as insincere and cloying in another part of the country.

But I may be overthinking this and/or coming at this from the belief that just because you can measure it, doesn’t mean it is meaningful. Some readers may immediately identify the type invisible or gradual issues Godin may be referencing that are associated with the arts and some relatively objective measures that can be used to track them.

Return To In Person Date Searches Presents An Opportunity

Bloomberg had an article on a trend that presents an opportunity for arts and cultural organizations. In some respects it could be considered rather mundane news – Gen Z Is abandoning dating apps in favor of in person singles events. Arts and cultural organizations have the opportunity to create specific experiences for this group either internally or in partnership with nearby businesses (bars, restaurants, etc.)

Though if there is a group in the community already organizing singles events it would probably be best to work with them to discover what sort of experience is most appealing to their participants.

It’s not formally conventional places, like bars or coffee shops, where Gen Zers are looking for potential matches. Think interest-based functions, such as the popular running group Venice Run Club, where new members have to state if they’re single as part of their introduction, or even a late-night chess club.

LA Chess Club, which runs every Thursday night from 8 p.m. to midnight, has become a recent hotspot for singles in Los Angeles in their early to mid-30s….But after the success of a speed dating event Kong hosted on Valentine’s Day in an attempt to get more girls to come, the club morphed into a space singles gravitated toward.

[…]

Pitch-A-Friend Philly, a monthly event series in Philadelphia inspired by Pitch-A-Friend Seattle, encourages participants to share a roughly 5-minute PowerPoint presentation about their single friends to help them find a potential partner.

According to some of those interviewed for the article, the appeal of singles events organized around board games, movie screenings, dinners, brunches and other activities, is the opportunity to interact with people with shared interests in an environment that differs from the bar/coffee house/nightclub nightclub scene where you might be bothered by overly insistent people when you might want to be left alone.

Those are among the considerations that arts and cultural organizations might need to factor into any attempt to design singles experiences.

Still Seeking A Quality Experience, But Want Increased Comfort

Here is something of a metaphoric lesson for arts and cultural organizations about changing the nature of the experience you offer to align with the needs and expectations of your customers. Bloomberg CityLab recently had a piece about how the work from home trend and loosening office dress codes are impacting  shoe shine services. Basically, fewer people are going to the office and an increasing number of those who are heading in to work are wearing sneakers.

As a result, many shoe shine businesses are shifting to sneaker cleaning services. People may be going to work in sneakers, but they still want to look neat and put together. It appears that people may be less confident in their ability to clean their sneakers themselves than shining their shoes.

“The industry isn’t the same anymore” said Charlie Colletti, owner of Cobbler Express, a third-generation shoeshine and repair shop in Lower Manhattan. “We’ll do some sneaker work, we clean sneakers, you know, try to keep up with the times.”

Sneaker-cleaning services helped Anthony’s Shoe Repair, near Grand Central Terminal, survive the pandemic. Like shining dress shoes, it’s a specialized service. “Many people do not know how to clean them,” owner Teodoro Morocho said. “You need the right equipment and material to be able to do it well.”

At the end of the article, Charlie Colletti quoted above says in the 1990s he was super busy, had a contract with Merrill Lynch, and about 16 employees. Again this has parallels with arts organizations who remember having packed houses of subscribers. Except in this case, instead of those core audiences getting older and younger audiences not replacing them, the cobblers and shoe shine companies are facing a change in work environment and style choices.

Whether it is arts and culture or shoes, people are seeking a heightened experience, but want to be more comfortable doing it.

After Nearly Six Decades It Is Time To Stop Striving And Start Doing

American Theatre recently published a “Confidential Plan” written by Zelda Fichandler, founding artistic director of Arena Stage in 1968. Initially a memo written to the Arena Stage board about integrating both the acting company and audience. A revision of the memo was published more publicly. The notes on the article say that Fichhandler was initially unsuccessful and had to rework her plan. The fact she labeled it confidential is likely a reflection of that fact she knew her proposal would not be well-received if made public.

As you read her thoughts, it is somewhat depressing to think that observations she made about audiences in 1968 are still true today. After noting that the population of D.C. was 63% Black and yet there are no Black actors in the Arena Stage company she states (my emphasis):

The Negro’s struggle for power—economic power, business power, political, intellectual, psychological, human power—foundationally affects his relationships with other Negroes, with whites, and with himself. This struggle reverberates through contemporary American life. Each of us feels its vibrations every day. And yet we come into our theatre at night as if into an unreal world: A white audience sits around a stage upon which a white company tells “sad tales of the death of kings.” Surely we are in the wrong place!

Then later, in discussing the composition of audiences and her vision for increasing representation both on stage and in the seats:

Homogeneous audiences, who connect with a play in a predictably uniform way, with one pervading attitude, are anathema to the pulse of a living art. It isn’t coincidental that, in all its years of history, Arena seemed most alive while we were playing The Great White Hope and Blood Knot this year, both with interracial casts, both drawing an audience more diverse than usual with regard to race, income level, age, education, occupation, human experience, preoccupations and interests, patterns of entertainment, and expectations about theatre and life in general.

She makes other thought provoking statements and observations in the sections excerpted in American Theatre. However, some of the more general ones like those above remain as ideals arts organizations strive to achieve 56 years later.  She says the theater was never so alive as when the programming and performers were most inclusive, yet that is still a goal everyone says they want to chase.

Many non-profit arts organizations have made statements committing to a better job diversifying representation in programming, performers and audiences.  Hopefully those commitments are sustained and endure. There were many commercial enterprises that made similar promises in response to social pressure in 2020 after the deaths of people like George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery but have eliminated much of  the staffing and funding that supported those initiatives.