“The Work Will Do the Work” ??

by Chris McLeod


This post is part of a series in conjunction with TRG Arts on developing relationships with both new communities and existing stakeholders through artistic programming, marketing and fundraising, community engagement, and public policy. (Cross-post can be found at Analysis from TRG Arts.)

“The work will do the work.”  Wait. Not so fast.

As a strategic arts marketing consultant I spend a lot of time speaking with (and oftentimes consoling) arts organizations of all sizes across the country about one thing – building audiences while retaining current ones. Nearly all share the same challenges of trying to reach cross-sections of people who are categorized by everything from neighborhoods, race, culture, and income, to age (those pesky Millennials have proven to be a tricky bunch). What I tell all of them is that in order to reach one group of “whomevers” while retaining another group of “whomevers” you need to start with one thing:

Learn what matters to people
when they are not sitting in your performance hall

This is how and where the need to deepen relationships with current stakeholders while building new relationships with new audiences affects what needs to change about the future of how arts organizations do their work. Organizations will need to go from the mindset of “We just need to get them [audiences] here and the work/performance will do the rest” to building relationships based on a deep ongoing understanding of what matters to audiences’ everyday lives, outside of who they are as arts patrons.

Good luck, right?

Let’s look at the value equation:

Value = Benefits – Cost

What ultimately defines the worth and importance of the arts in someone’s life (“Value”) is the difference between what people believe they receive from patronizing the arts (“Benefits”) minus what they feel they have to give for patronizing the arts (“Cost”). Whichever they see as more will determine how likely they are to take desired actions such as buying a ticket or donating.

Cost. Most arts organizations think about cost in the most literal sense – financial. So what do they do? They reduce the price of tickets or give them away to remove the barrier. But when people still don’t come they wonder why. The answer is that costs are not just financial but they are mental, emotional, and sometimes painfully practical. Case in point, you can have a theater on the “nice” side of town and advertise a free event to an underserved community on the “other” side of town, but they won’t come. Why not? It could be that the reason they don’t come is because you are hard to get to via public transportation and they don’t drive (practical cost). Another reason could be that going to that side of town is outside of their social comfort zone (mental/emotional cost).

Benefits. Your work is great. Your performers are passionate and skilled. Your gallery is flawless. But folks still won’t come. Benefits are more than just a chance to partake in the great work you produce. Benefits are varied and change for each group or community you want to reach. For example, research shows that what attracts Millennials to the arts is the ability to experience something bold that goes outside the norm or enables them to socialize with others. This flips the paradigm from “Let’s do what we think is best and let the work speak for itself” to “Let’s find ways to package the work into an overall experience that this particular audience is looking for.”

Value. What’s left is the ultimate worth and importance of the arts to an audience and/or community. For an older audience the ultimate worth might be the enrichment gained from hearing the harmonious notes of a chamber music group, while for a younger audience the ultimate importance might be the opportunity to experience a new take on a traditional subject. Moreover, for two young parents it can be a chance to expose the kids to the Arts via a Saturday morning family paint event in the park.   The point is that value is not just about the work itself; it is about what that work is ultimately providing to one group vs. another.

The work will do the work.”

So what am I saying here? Arts organizations will have to shift from the mentality of “the work/performance will do the work” and start using the value equation to deepen and build relationships, delivering experiences to audiences based on what matter in their everyday lives rather than just trying to get them to buy a ticket. The need for relationship-building also means that arts organizations will have to be even more creative in how they express their craft(s), being bold enough to not look at their work as the endpoint by which their ultimate value is measured, but as the starting point to an ongoing dialogue of value between the organization and the audience(s).

Chris McLeod, founder of CLM Marketing, is a Strategic Marketing and Branding professional focusing on the arts. He has worked with numerous arts organizations, including ArtsMemphis, Arts Council of Indianapolis, Stax Music Academy, Stax Museum, Arts Services Initiative of Western NY, Soulsville Foundation, and Iris Orchestra. Chris began his career in the Entertainment industry working for both MTV Networks and Black Entertainment Television in their domestic and international Licensing divisions where he negotiated contracts with record labels and music publishers to use content across various BET and MTV channels. After completing his M.B.A Chris went on to serve on the account management teams for some of the top Advertising, Digital, and Branding agencies in the world with such notable clients as: ExxonMobil, Hyatt, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Humana, and Microsoft. Based in Washington D.C. he sits on both the faculty of the National Arts Marketing Project Conference of Americans for the Arts and the NEA-awarded Fellows Program at ArtsMemphis. He received a B.A. from Amherst College and an M.B.A. in Marketing from Howard University. Email: chris@chris-mcleod.com

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  2. Bravo, Chris, Well said. It’s a pleasure to hear someone else saying you have to learn what matters to people when they’re not sitting in your concert hall.

    Ill take that one step further, if you don’t mind, and say that you also have to apply what you learn about them in your communications. I’ve seen arts organizations collect reams of valuable information on new audiences and then refuse to allow it to inform the way they write and design their marketing materials: “We paid a fortune for that photo shoot. We’re putting the maestro’s photo on the cover and that’s final.”

    We not only have to learn about what matters to people, but we have to learn how to talk about what matters to them in a language they’ll find familiar, sincere and reflective of their perspectives.