Power in numbers. There ought to be a simple formula to calculate it. Is it better to have a small devoted audience or a massive casual one?
It depends on the scale of what you’re trying to do. TV has power because it has the ability to attract millions of viewers. The New York Review of Books has power because though its audience is small, it is influential.
The problem is when the scale of the audience doesn’t match the cost of production. The little magazine might be high quality but if it doesn’t raise enough money from its small band of supporters, it can’t survive. TV might have a huge audience, but if the audience slips (which it inevitably seems to) or advertisers cut back, even popular shows get canceled.
So one model is all about the size of audience. The other is about the financial commitment of a community to support something. The problem then, isn’t just finding an audience, it’s finding the scale and kind of audience you need to support you. The little magazine doesn’t just need an audience, it needs an audience committed to paying to support it. The mass TV audience doesn’t have to pay anything as long as there are enough people watching and advertisers willing to pay to reach them.
The formula for audience support changes over time. In the 1980s a symphony orchestra was considered healthy if it made half its budget at the box office. Now the standard is in the 30-something percent range. In the 90s, newspapers weren’t considered healthy unless they earned profit margins in the 25%+ range.
So what’s so magical about a 25% profit or earned revenue of 50%? Nothing really, except that they’re formulas to measure relative success in a structure built to support a venture or industry.
Thanks to the internet, newspapers have bigger audiences than they’ve ever had, yet because the audience scale isn’t right, the industry is in crisis. If online ad rates were close to print ad rates, the problem would be solved. Or, ad rates could stay the same and the online audience expand by a factor of ten and things might be fine. Or the business model could change and the ratio between size of audience and how the content is paid for could be back in balance.
The audience you deserve?
So what kind of audience does an arts organization need? The more often-asked question is: how do we sell more tickets? I submit that that’s the wrong question. If an arts organization makes less than half of its income at the box office, then its challenge isn’t just selling tickets, it’s cultivating a more committed audience. If tickets were priced according to what it cost to produce that concert, they would be so expensive that we wouldn’t sell enough tickets to support it. So our model is a subsidy model. But a subsidy model only works if there’s an audience committed enough to subsidize.
The typical professional American orchestra performs in front of about 2.5 percent of the people in its area in a given season. This is the little magazine model, and it works as long as that small number of people are willing not just to show up at concerts, but give additional money to support it. In tough economic times, that small 2.5 percent audience has to be more committed than ever. And it must be the right kind of influential audience that can leverage corporate, foundation and government support. That’s a lot of work for a small number of people when 97.5 percent of a potential audience has no exposure to the orchestra and therefore have no relationship with it.
A classic way of developing broader relationships is with exposure through the free sample. Get a shot on The Ed Sullivan Show and millions of people will see how great you are and buy your record. The problem pre-internet was that there were few spots available on Sullivan.
The internet changes the scale of the free sample. If Cory Doctorow or Seth Godin can give away millions of copies of their books, it means their ideas gain currency and some of those millions of readers will be interested enough to pay attention the next time Cory or Seth have something to say. That’s worth a lot. If they hadn’t given away their work, they’d just be a couple more guys expounding to their friends about the way the world works. Giving away work establishes their brand and creates a constituency for them.
So how do we build constituency in the arts?
- It used to be through arts education in schools. Play an instrument when you’re young and you’ll be an audience for life. But arts education isn’t universal anymore, and despite best efforts of arts groups, traditional arts educational experiences seem to have less and less impact.
- The press used to review arts events, writing for a big general audience. But arts writing is slipping off the pages of our newspapers.
Add to this an explosion of competition for attention – iPods, online TV, millions of websites – and it gets harder and harder to hang on to an audience let alone build new ones. So some arts organizations see social media such as Twitter and Facebook and Flickr as opportunities to expand their base and create relationships with a wider audience. I recently consulted with an orchestra that cared only about collecting email addresses.The more addresses, they reckoned, the more chances they had to sell tickets.
But using social media as just an opportunity to sell tickets is a bad strategy, the electronic equivalent of junk mail. So the idea is to cultivate relationships with an audience that is increasingly online. Some of the most aggressive arts organizations have begun producing online content, figuring that, as the old mantra from the early days of the internet goes, content is king. But as some of the pioneers have discovered, content may be be king, but it can also be difficult to create and costly to do well.
Not only that, while producing original content might grow the number of people who encounter you, it doesn’t necessarily get you the kind of audience you need (see my earlier point).
- The kind of audience you build matters as much as the size of the audience does.
- Social networks show that community hierarchy is not only powerful, it drives loyalty.
- An underrated aspect of social networking is that you’re asking people to invest in a relationship. It costs them something – time, attention, their ideas, thoughts, feelings, even clicking their mice. You have to constantly reward them for participating or they’ll go away.
- Give away as much as you can and be as generous as you can to show your best to members of your community. Upgrade as often as possible; it’s a powerful reward.
- There’s no such thing as free for an arts organization. If someone participates in your community, you should reward them. If they buy lots of tickets, give them a chance to get more tickets if you haven’t sold them. If they’re out talking you up and selling your product, give them upgrades, free downloads, special access, souvenirs. If the incentives are right, they’ll work for you.
- An empty seat is a wasted resource. Selling the ticket is great, but there should be many other ways people can “buy” their seats by participating in your community.
- Drive-by clicks are seductive and traffic is always nice, but the drive-bys are fickle and low-yield and have no loyalty to you and yours. Don’t spend a lot of time chasing them unless it’s easy.
- Outside of your primary artistic role, don’t get into the content-producing business. Video is hard. Magazines are hard (and expensive) to produce and sustain.
- You say you listen to your audience? Prove it. Don’t do fake interactive. People hate being managed. And increasingly they’re wary of institutional voices. Mass TV is generic; arts organizations shouldn’t be.
- It takes work to build a community, much more work than to build an audience. But increasingly audiences are becoming communities because of the ability of social networking tools to link them. You can say you can’t afford to invest in building a community, but unless you do, it will be increasingly difficult to draw a crowd.