Pay Attention! If Selling Tickets Is Your Business Model, You've Got A Problem

Another lifetime ago we were in the Manufacturing Economy. We made things. Then we were in the Transportation Economy. We outsourced making things and brought whatever we needed to us. Then it was the Experience Economy. We created entertainment around the things we buy (how we justify paying $4.50 for a 50-cent coffee). Now we’re in the Attention Economy. In the infinite choice marketplace, ideas and products only get traction if they get noticed.

The American arts economy is run as though we’re still living in the Manufacturing Economy or the Transportation Economy. That is, most arts organizations and artists believe they’re in the business of making things.

Of course they make things. But these days everybody makes things. There’s an abundance of everything out there, so making things, even if they’re very very good, means less than it did 30 years ago because there are many other very very good things to choose from.

In the Transportation Economy, scarcity dictated opportunity, and getting the word out about a product could build an audience. In the Attention Economy where we can get what we want when we want and how we want it (metaphorically, if not in actuality) we grab for what inserts itself in our path. The issue isn’t access, it’s overload. How do we sort out things we want from the overwhelming mass of “stuff” that engulfs us?

supermarket seizure.jpgIf you believe your business model is the classic consumer transaction (I make the performance, you buy the ticket) then you’re done. Sorry. That’s a Manufacturing Economy mindset, and while it worked when choices were limited, now that you’re competing in the infinite marketplace offering 8000 or 8 million choices, it’s increasingly unlikely that your “audience” is going to choose you as often as they did in the past.

In the Attention Economy it isn’t enough to be the best orchestra or theatre or dance company. People aren’t comparing you with other orchestras or theatre or dance companies; they’re measuring whether classical music or theatre or dance is something they want to choose at the moment. They’re deciding whether they want an active or passive experience; they’re trying to determine what level of social encounter they feel like today. They’re weighing whether they want a predictable, known, comfortable quantity or whether they want to be adventurous and try something new. They’re figuring out whether they want to learn something and are willing to work for that or whether they’re looking for pure entertainment that costs them little. Price matters – if it’s going to cost, it’s got to be better than the free alternative. It doesn’t matter that there are 47 varieties of spaghetti sauce on the shelf in front of me if what I really want is pesto.

The choice is bewildering. Paralyzing, even. You can’t compete with such overwheming choice with a consumer transaction model, no matter if you’re the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera or the Guthrie Theatre.

One of the big lessons of social media is that community matters. A lot. People make their choices about culture based on their community. Peer word-of-mouth is a much more powerful driver of cultural choice than newspaper reviews or advertising. How do you fight infinite choice? Build community rather than audience. Give people reasons to engage with you, care about you, so when they’re making choices it’s more than just a consumer transaction. Nothing new about this. Amway, the mega-churches, the Barack Obama campaign all understand this.

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  1. says

    Great post, Doug. Essential questions for any arts organization.
    The challenge, of course, is that we don't get a fresh start. We are also serving essential audiences who believe that they're buying a product, and will push back against efforts to deconstruct and reassemble it.
    See my post for specifics:

  2. says

    Unfortunately many arts organizations still are focused on the transaction as the goal. What would you do differently if the transaction was the outcome, not the goal? Our current non-profit model does not provide a financial safety net for such bold thinking or experiments, but it should. Any early adopters?

  3. Catrina Boisson says

    There is no doubt that we now live in a world where the power has shifted from the manufacturer to the consumer, and that is not a bad thing. It is said that there is no such thing as selling any more – the best that we can do is help our customers buy. How do we do that? By actually spending the time to get to know them, to understand their needs and their desires, by listening to what they have to say and responding to what we hear. This does not mean a move towards programming by audience vote, but it does mean a recognition that we do not always know better than the audiences we wish to attract and keep.
    NJPAC is definitely one of the early adopters that Kelly references. We believe strongly in putting relationships at the center of all that we do, and we’ve put those beliefs into action through an institution wide loyalty initiative. The best news? It’s paid off.
    It is ironic that what we are really talking about is not that different from the one to one approach that our fundraising colleagues have been employing for years. Somehow marketing has just been incredibly slow to jump on the bandwagon. It’s not too late! As you so eloquently point out — give people reasons to engage with you, care about you, and when they’re making choices it becomes more than just a consumer transaction.

  4. Carol I. Crawford says

    Doug’s posting and Kelly’s incisive comment (…”current non-profit model does not provide a financial safety net for such bold…experiments”)lead to two other questions: 1) how likely will existing institutions adapt to these challenges in meaningful ways if the Board, administrative, and/or artistic leadership remain entirely focused on the financial bottom line, particularly while navigating through the current economy?, and 2) what signals indicate that serving “the institution” has taken precedence over serving “the art form”? (E.g. some executive level compensation levels, certain aspects of CBAs, the inability to utilize new technologies for distribution because of rules and regulations that are antiquated, etc.)Bill Ivey’s book (Arts,Inc.)outlined some of these issues in a very fair-minded way.
    The work of Seattle Opera and NJPAC are models of resilience and creativity in this financial and social climate, no doubt about that. I imagine that some of the real adopters, though, will probably emerge as new entities with mission statements that reflect a recognition and understanding of everything Doug outlined.
    Great post!

  5. says

    Thank you Doug and others on your wise words. Yes, community is the key. The big question I see facing any arts organization (and, frankly, ANY organization) is, “How are we relevant to our community?” If there is no relevance, then why is the organization in business? I think this question is a huge challenge for large organizations to ponder. Is putting good work on stage enough? As we are all learning, people are hungry for co-creation, for meaning, for connection. Yes, there is Facebook and multiple other technological venues for virtual communities, but I do believe that people ache for human connection. And isn’t that what the arts do? Help us to understand what being human is all about? In a world where technology is advancing at an exponential rate, more and more we will seek what it means to be human. Now, that’s pretty darn relevant. How to actually accomplish this is the challenge.

  6. JANE REMER says

    Doug: A clarifying and articulate analysis that fits all corridors of the art, including education…I'm about to send it around to my colleagues…this bears discussion
    Well done, and thank you!

  7. says

    Thank you Doug for this article and all the great responses.
    I would like to say that my partner and I had just this in mind when we created There were two primary issues that I wanted to help resolve when creating this social network. 1 – help the small community theater and independent theater reach and better understand their communities – 2 – give performers an outlet to find new companies and performers in their area or areas that they move to.
    At rGreenRoom we have allowed theater companies to create detailed profiles where they can make sub-pages for each of their productions with full cast lists, photos, calendars, etc. The audience members can also sign in and connect to their favorite performers and companies and leave feedback and what they liked and didn't like. It is a social network, like Facebook, but connected to a large database of plays, musicals and venues that give the companies and performers a new way to connect to each other and their communities.
    Hopefully together, as a network, the theater community can reconnect to their communities like they have never done before. I think it's possible.

  8. says

    Artists who isolate themselves to create art may well need that time alone for the process. Artists who understood the experience economy were able to make more money to make more art because they were not afraid to step out of that isolation. Fortunately for introverts, technology makes the attention economy entirely possible. Thanks for your usual spot-on writing!

  9. says

    Communicate, connect, community. That’s what the arts must do in order to survive. I’ve been wondering lately if it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if Broadway (which seems very much the sell the ticket, buy the ticket model) went away. Or changed. Or actually believed in the value of the arts…

  10. says

    The Ticket Broker business is a great business to be in. Minimum investment, high returns, short sales cycles and best of all, it uses what individuals already built-in passion about a sports team or entertainer.

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