Sometimes a blog post derives from seeing something that only tangentially relates to its point. Such is the case with this one. A while ago I saw an article on the Wallace Foundation’s support of a project for Ballet Austin. It is an interesting and valuable marketing study related to audiences, arts industry assumptions about them, and new ways to draw more people into new work based on the research. It is a fascinating report and an important one. And to be clear I have great respect for the work Ballet Austin has done over the years in connecting with people and I’ve recently made friends with a number of the staff at Slover Linnett, the team that conducted the research.
So, the “however” that is coming has nothing to do with the research, the report, its findings, or any of the principals. It just stems from two nagging (and related) concerns. The first is our tendency not to see the people we try to reach or those who attend arts events as people. No one does this consciously, but the phrases “butts in seats/eyes on walls” is shorthand for our focus on numbers and results rather than relationships. And this tendency can have the effect of creating another barrier between us and “them” (which is another problem with our terminology). This was the genesis of the title of my first book, Building Communities, Not Audiences. We have to be vigilant in minimizing, not increasing, the distance between the arts and the people we should be serving.
The related concern is that datacentric research misses an opportunity. (This paragraph is based on assumptions so I’m perfectly willing to be corrected.) When focus groups are asked questions solely about what we want to know for marketing purposes, it can have the effect of making them subjects of our experiment. I can imagine adding a few questions that draw them into conversation with us that could have the effect of initiating or firming up relationships with them. Here are a few of my sophomoric ideas about possible questions:
- “Is this art form important to you? And if so, why?”
- “What about the things you saw/heard resonated with your own life?”
- “What things you saw and heard seemed particularly important or meaningful to you?”
- “What would you like our arts organization to know about you?”
You get the idea. I acknowledge that I’m not even a neophyte when it comes to arts marketing research. The field is way beyond me. However, there does seem to be an opportunity to turn focus groups into relationship building opportunities with the addition of a few questions like these. (This is an idea I first broached some time ago in Focus Group or Story Circle.)
I am, without question, excessively sensitive to anything that has the potential to increase the distance between us and the people we hope to reach. I put this forward not as a response to the article I cited but as a means to generate thought about how to use this important aspect of our work to improve connections with our communities.