I always proceed with fear and trembling when I venture into the topic of marketing. As I have said in the past, I am not a marketer. Nevertheless, there continue to be numerous valuable lessons from marketing that should support our work in and understanding of community engagement.
Stick with me. This will get a tad “wonky.”
“Reach” and “frequency” are marketing terms that have much application to the discussion of various types of engagement–specifically here, audience engagement and community engagement. To put things too simply: Frequency is the measure of the average number of times a member of a particular group takes advantage of an organization’s offerings. Reach is the percentage of a given population that takes any advantage of those offerings.
Audience engagement, as we understand it at ArtsEngaged, is designed to deepen relationships with current stakeholders. The purpose is, over time, to improve retention, increase frequency, and expand reach through stakeholder networks. (The reach expansion is a secondary element of audience engagement.) Community engagement is designed to build deep relationships between the organization and the communities in which it operates for the purpose of achieving mutual benefit.
So, in broad terms, a prime goal of audience engagement is increasing frequency. (Retention is, of course, the foundation of that.) It is through community engagement that we have the greatest opportunity to increase reach. (And remember that community engagement can be about any community that is not taking full advantage of what the arts have to offer, not “just” historically marginalized ones.)
All of this is important in two of ways. First, increases in frequency can (and should) occur much more rapidly than increases in reach because you are beginning with people who already value the product. The time frames for results are necessarily quite different. Organizations need to acknowledge this in setting results targets for each. Second, the economic realities of our industry demand significant increases in reach to yield the income growth required. This might not be true if the current reach of individual nonprofit arts organizations was greater than the 2-8% studies have shown it to be. Therefore, while it is important to increase frequency it is absolutely vital to expand reach. Community engagement is the most direct path toward that end. I would be prone to argue that it is about the only means available to have a significant impact on reach.
For any arts organization hoping to exist, let alone be a vital force in its community, two or three decades from now, it needs to re-think community engagement’s role in its planning and activities. Community engagement is not just a worthy or an admirable effort to pursue at the margins. It is critical to the future of individual arts organizations and to our industry as a whole.