In the arts administration world, there is always a lot of talk about things that relate to the cost of admission. Are prices too high that they are preventing people from attending? Should we offer free events to bring new people in the doors? Quick, let’s do a discount to sell some last-minute tickets!
There is a host of data that shows that discounting and offering free events alone with the aim of reaching new/underserved/low income audiences doesn’t work. (Here is an example, and another, and another for your perusal.) Beyond this data, we know that offering frequent discounts brings the danger of training patrons to wait for a discount, or *gasp* cannibalizing ticket sales with patrons who would usually pay full price take advantage of a discount.
You guys, it isn’t just about the price! Price is not the only thing that determines whether someone is going to attend the opera or visit a museum. There are a host of things that go into that decision, many of which occur days, months, and years before you ever get to the point where you have enough of a relationship with a person to offer them a discount in the first place.
So, what is it about? It is about communicating to your target groups with a narrative that uses compelling messaging and imagery about your organization (and its events) that creates a relationship with them that, over time, becomes strong enough that they take action.
Authentic communication creates value for your product (yes, symphony tickets are products, folks) and when people see the value, they will buy.
What does all that mean?
- Know who you are trying to reach. There is no such thing as creating messaging that will be compelling for every single person in the “general public”. (And even if there were, I can guarantee that you don’t have enough budget to adequately reach the “general public”. #artsorgtruths)Create marketing personas for each of your target audience groups and work out what is important to them, what barriers they might have to attending, as well as some key demographic information (do they have kids? how old are they? what is their income?). This will help guide your messaging to be as relevant as possible.
- Talk to people using real words and not jargon. People don’t connect with jargon, they connect with language they can immediately understand. No matter how smart a person is, they are likely to be unfamiliar with your art form. Explain it using simple terms.When creating messaging for new audiences, I like to start with how I would describe the event or organization to a friend at an informal social gathering. What words would you use? Massage that wording into something that would be in line with the voice of your organization but be sure not to go too far in the other direction!
- Use images that your target groups will find interesting. If you are trying to get grandparents to bring their grandkids to The Nutcracker, show visuals of grandparents making memories with their grandkids at The Nutcracker. Not every image should be of the product; we need to show the experience people will have.We tend to focus on photographing the product and often forget about photographing the experience. Have your photographer come to the theater a little early to take some shots in the lobby before the performance. An extra 30 minutes can yield enough audience photos that you can use for multiple seasons.
- Be in it for the long haul. You can’t take this approach for a few weeks before a show and expect overwhelming results. This is a long-term strategy that takes many seasons to play out. I mean, how long did you date your spouse before agreeing to marry them? Probably for quite a while, right? This is the same thing.Rather than creating your marketing plan season-by-season, try thinking a bit further out. Make a marketing plan for three seasons at a time so that you and your colleagues can see the end goal.
- Stop assuming you know what your prospective patrons are thinking.Put yourself in the shoes of who you’re trying to reach and think critically about what their motivations might be. Perhaps even more importantly, identify what barriers they see in attending. Let’s get over ourselves and think objectively about these things. If you’re too close to the product, find people who will give you their unbiased thoughts. (Check out one of my favorite examples of what happens when we assume.)Yes, focus groups can be expensive, but they’re worth it to find out what people are really thinking. Work with someone in your area to set up a series of focus groups to take the guesswork out of why people are or aren’t attending and how they feel about your organization.
Let’s get to work.