Does your organization need a Chief Experience Officer?

A big part of our choice of favorite products and companies comes from the quality of how they engage us. My favorite coffee shop not only has the best coffee in Saint Paul but also the best playlist going in the shop, the best free Internet access, comfy chairs, an entertaining and useful Facebook page, and multiple ways of interacting with writers, visual artists and local food producers. It’s a sole proprietorship that’s curated by its owner in every sense of the word. Apple tries to do this on a global scale (and in my opinion, fails in many ways, but that’s a different blog post). Today’s successful companies not only develop services and products that are pleasing and useful but also curate our experiences with their people and their products to create (what they hope is) a unique brand.

Our larger performing arts organizations have a tough time curating what I’ll call “the total experience.” There’s no one person who has both the authority and the responsibility to curate the multiple ways an organization interacts with its public and to do so in ways that are interesting and unique; in cultural organizations, different aspects of the audience experience are handled by different departments. Artistic directors have their hands full dealing with what’s on stage. Marketing directors are focused on filling houses. So who is focused on the experience? And by this I do mean the total experience – from advertising to social media to how it feels to be in the house to how I am engaged before, during, and after a performance. I mean how I am greeted and treated, how things look from outside and inside, what food you sell me, and whether the program book is engaging or dull as can be.

As commercial enterprises get really imaginative at this, arts organizations are failing their audiences by not taking this curation as seriously as they do the curation of the work itself. What’s more, in an environment where so much engagement – both live and digital —  is smart and fun, a lot of arts organizations are coming off as boring and stuffy, no matter how great the work is once the show begins.

A few recent performances I’ve attended have me thinking about this, experiences where the sum total of my experience didn’t equate or align with the qualities of what was on stage. It’s as though the only thing that matters is the work once I’m seated and after I’ve read my program book – not all the experiences I have leading up to the moment the lights are dimmed or after the performance ends.

Some big corporations have an executive position called Chief Experience Officer (CXO). This is a new-ish (past 6-7 years) position for an executive in charge of the way people experience the company. A lot of what you can read about these positions is written in business-speak, but my take-away is that these people work cross-functionally to ensure that employees, customers, and shareholders receive the experiential value the company wants to create.

How could we define a position like this in the cultural sector? I imagine a sort of interactive curator or interactive producer, who applies intelligence and imagination to the total experience of a cultural organization. This person would need to work across artistic, marketing, development, and HR functions to help everyone work together and think about how to make total experiences as lively, creative, and engaging as possible.

Couple of questions for you. Do you think about the total experience when you go to an arts event (or exhibition)? Do your experiences fall short of ideal, or not? Are there organizations you know that do pay attention to the total experience? I’d love to hear from you about this.

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  1. says

    This is a concept we often talk about in our office. The challenge for us (and I’m sure for many others who rent their performance facilities) is that so much depends upon issues over which we have no control.
    For instance, entrance and exit from the parking garage (which can really spoil the event for some), quality of the coffee and/or refreshments served before and at intermission. Interaction with ushers provided by the facility.

    • says

      Maybe you can have more control over this than you think by working with the venue management to improve the audience experience. It would help all the renters, not just your organization! The venue needs to understand, too, that audiences make choices based on the experiences they have.

  2. Evelyn says

    With the world of social media, huge supply of information and the multitudes of ways of retrieving, or taking in information, the experience lies in the details.

    I think of this topic, all the time. The feel of the experience. Where does it start? where does it end? and what is the actual content or happening of the experience you are attending, or part of. People use the word vibe or energy. But that vibe or energy can be made. It all lies in the details. If one concludes that there is a happening that can be produced. A talent, a performance of any sort. Then the rest is what makes it or breaks it. how is that information gotten to you? Is there live tangible connection to the advertisement? The world of Social Media lends to this. Marketing is no longer 1-2 dimensional. The world of print is barely there but for the reminders. The post cards local artists hand out are the pin ups on our fridges and cork boards to remind us that we have interest. Ad’s of any sort do the same. Oh, yeah I remember seeing them, and look they are in town again. But the live clips, and event postings and personal shout outs to fans, and community is what makes the new world of Advertising work. That is the start. That is where the first feel comes in. Then is location of course, and venue, how your accepted into the community, venue and treated through out the event. There isn’t enough time right now in my life or lines in this comment area to go into full details of what I am thinking all the time, about this one very subject!

  3. says

    I absolutely believe arts organizations must get better at selling experiences, and not just tickets or memberships. I agree, we have little control over the parking garage, but we can communicate better with audiences about where to park, how to find us and what to expect upon their arrival. In my experience, very few organizations do this well. We have to be diligent in our training of ushers, concession workers and staff in customer service.

    While organizations may not have the resources to hire a Chief Experience Officer (personally, I like the idea) a small step forward would be for artistic, marketing and development staff to work together on choosing the work that is presented. I’m working with an organization that’s starting to do this more than in the past. So far, the conversations are richer and staff is more engaged in the process. In addition, organizations must continually collect data and information about the attitudes and behaviors of their audiences in order to engage them in more meaningful ways.

  4. Kaija says

    I think we already have that function in the museum world, at least in theory. It is what in the UK is often called learning officer/department but in other countries goes by other names such as ‘mediation’ or ‘audience work’. In the organisation where I’ve worked for the most part of my professional life (a big contemporary art museum), it’s been the task of the ‘learning’ team to consider the museum visit as a whole: before, during and after visiting the building. This work converges with many other functions in the museum, such as visitor services, communication, marketing and programming.

    My worry with (re)naming all this as ‘experience management’ is that it moves this work into the realm of experience economy and identifies it with packaging everything into entertaining, consumable commodities. I’d rather think about it in terms of respecting, being interested, and caring about the visitors. But I guess we might still be talking about the same thing.

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