The Long Road

Several months ago Joe Patti of Butts In Seats blogging fame posted a reflection on advice from Seth Godin about why businesses might not be connecting with customers. While I’ve not met Mr. Patti, it seems that we not infrequently seem to be channeling each other on topics related to community engagement.

He pulled out, from Mr. Godin’s article, a list of problems that sounded way too familiar to me in my work attempting to get arts organizations to understand the long road that needs to be walked to build relationships:

  • Because the people you seek to serve don’t think they need you.
  • Because the people you seek to serve don’t trust you.
  • Because the people you seek to serve don’t talk about you, thus, you’re not remarkable.
  • Because your product doesn’t earn traction with your customers, they wouldn’t miss you if you were gone–the substitutes are easy.

That third point echoes my common observation “If you have to tell people you are important, to them you are not.” The thing to be remembered with each of these is that simply complaining does nothing to solve the problem. The arts organization is the only one with a vested interest in changing those facts. We must acknowledge the issues and–humbly, see below–figure out ways to address them. It’s our responsibility to build trust with communities. It is not theirs to discover (and come to appreciate) us.

And then there is the principal self-inflicted issue that keeps arts organizations from developing meaningful relationships with new communities:

  • Because even though you’re trying hard, you’re being selfish, focusing on your needs instead of having empathy for those you seek to serve.

Ouch! And, of course, on point. We must build trust to develop the relationships necessary to sustain ourselves. The bedrock for that trust is our humility and our respect for those we seek to reach. If you can’t muster that respect, you are doing yourself, your organization, and the people with whom you come in contact an egregious disservice.

Engage!

Doug

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Eureka!

A member of a current cohort of our Community Engagement Training is a professional musician who is passionate about connecting with communities and has been so for years. Even before running across my books she was intuitively aware of the need for deeper relationships between musicians and people outside the artiverse. She has been an eager and very perceptive participant in the training.

All of that is why it was so revealing when she confessed shock at an insight that is part of the program. I assign some short readings (among others, thank you Trevor O’Donnell for this post) that highlight how self-focused and self-aggrandizing much arts marketing is and contrast that with virtually all other marketing, marketing that is about the consumer enjoying or benefitting from what is being promoted. The Austin Symphony brochure in question is one in which there are very few pictures of musicians or conductors. Almost all of the photos are of happy people attending the concert.

This bright, passionate, insightful musician was shocked. I mean really shocked that she had never noticed that the arts marketing materials she was used to were so . . . artcentric.

But to be honest, we shouldn’t be surprised that musicians (and most artists) are not aware of this feature of our world. The old adage that fish don’t notice water applies. We are so steeped in the awards/accolades/inside baseball approach to arts marketing that we take it for granted. That is, we are until someone points it out to us.

The first step toward effective community engagement is changing habits of mind on the part of those inside “the system.” Here’s a good place to start.

Engage!

Doug

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Response to Listen vs. Tell

In Listen vs. Tell I spoke of the necessary switch from telling people about our work to listening to them as a pre-requisite for effective communication. 

As happens not infrequently, Carter Gilles responded thoughtfully and at length. He has given me permission to share his expansion on my thoughts here.


Carter Gilles

This particular phrasing [Listen vs. Tell] reminded me of the work that the philosopher Carol Gilligan did I think in the 80s. She has been criticized for framing her distinction in gender terms, and this is a bit unfair (she was not giving the final word but hoping to open a conversation). Her main point was that there are two different styles that we have in acting in the world and how we self identify. For me it seems they map directly onto the distinction you are making. She makes the point that “women define who they are by describing relationships. Men define themselves by separation, or the use of “I” statements.” 

In other words, the ‘male perspective’ embodies a sort of atomic conception of how things work, where the individual and his/her actions are isolated and act on others from the outside. The ‘female perspective’ by contrast embodies a conception of our actions that specifically live in the wider context of a community or conversation. The sense things make is from the INSIDE of these frameworks.

“Listen vs. tell” seems to capture some of that emphasis in that when we base a relationship merely on our own ability to tell things to others we treat ourselves and others as separate and isolated. When we listen there is an admission that we are merely a part of some larger whole, a conversation or a community, and that the role we necessarily share with others is active and engaged. 

I know you are searching for ways to phrase these ideas and help others make better sense of what you have in mind. There are happenings in so many fields that parallel what you are attempting to do. Your allusion to the internet styles was spot on, of course. 

One other distinction I find interesting that has some relevance to your ideas is the political analysis of George Lakoff who describes two basic styles of expectation for the role of government. He suggests that conservative minded folk have a more hierarchical expectation where there are defined roles and that the duty of a government is something like a strict parent, to keep folks in line and defend the borders/ideals. Liberals by contrast are folks who expect government to function by caring for the needs of the folks represented. Rather than handing down the law, the idea is seeing what things are necessary or important from the point of view of constituents as self-described, and then building out from there. “What matters to you?” rather than “This is important despite what you think.”

How I believe this relates to your distinction is that the strict parent version defines the role of those who tell us what is important and the rest are on the receiving end, much like in your “We Tell” version. The nurturant parent model is much more concerned with getting to know the people affected and to represent their unique circumstances and beliefs.


It’s wonderful to be able to take advantage of the insights offered by people smarter than I! Many thanks, Carter

Engage!

Doug

Carter Gilles is a working artist, a longtime arts instructor, and practicing Philosopher living in Athens, Georgia.

Listen vs. Tell

Over a year ago I began presented a somewhat tongue-in-cheek means of differentiating among two vastly different styles of approaching sales, audience development, audience engagement, and community engagement–the means by which we connect with the public. It was rooted in the difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0, the “tell” and “interact” versions of the internet.

In sharing the concept with people I realized that basing it on Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 was confusing since Web 1.0/2.0 are not universally recognized and, to be honest, are more than a bit geeky. I revised the presentation around the true essence of the matter: telling and listening.

So here, as we all break for the Holidays, is the new version. (My coding skills are far less than excellent, so a prettier version of this can be found on pp. 2-3 of this document.)


In the past, it has been common for arts organizations to adopt an “If we present it, they will come” attitude in which they simply told people about what was happening and assumed someone would respond. But in a world where the consumer is far less predisposed to “buy” the arts than they once were, we need to build relationships with those we hope to be our supporters. We do this by listening.

The charts that follow present a comparison of how this might work in the “We Tell” and “We Listen” scenarios.

We Tell
Spoiler: Not the way we should be doing business!

Sales

Audience Development

Audience Engagement

Community Engagement

   This is what’s happening.

   Buy a ticket.

   This is what’s happening.

   This seems to us like a reason you might be interested.

   Buy a ticket.

   This is what’s happening.

   This seems to us like a reason you might be interested.

   Here’s something we think is worthwhile/relevant to you about it.

   Buy a ticket.

   Get a grant

   Find some poor people

   Tell them why what’s happening is good for them

   Be surprised when they don’t show up

It does not take much imagination to understand why one-way communication has very limited success. Two-way conversations–dialogue–should be the default mode for our interactions with the public. Something like this:

We Listen

Sales

Audience Development

Audience Engagement

Community Engagement

    This is what’s happening.

    This is why it’s going to be worth your time and money.*

    Buy a ticket.

   This is what’s happening.

   This is why it’s going to be worth your time and money.*

   This seems like a reason you might be especially interested.*

   Buy a ticket.

   This is what’s happening.

   This is why it’s going to be worth your time and money.*

   This seems like a reason you might be especially interested.*

   Here’s something that might make this even more worthwhile/relevant to you.*

   Buy a ticket.

Step 1

   Pleased to meet you.

   Tell me about yourself.

   This is what we do.

Step 2

   If we do [this thing*], will you help us make it better/be successful?

Step 3 (Post event)

   Let’s keep in touch.

*Suggestions made based on what we learn from listening.


Happy Holidays . . . and

Engage!

Doug

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Targets and Timeframes

I have recently found myself concerned with issues related to measuring community engagement, particularly its benefits to arts organizations. (Two-Phase Engagement; Reach and Frequency) There is a tendency among some to know that community engagement is a good thing and, therefore, to resist attempts to measure it’s impact. If I’m honest, I may sometimes find myself in that group. There are others who assume that community engagement is at best “nice” and are dismissive of its potential to yield practical benefits for the organization.

To be sustainable, community engagement must benefit the arts organization in tangible ways. To be supported institutionally, the path to ticket sales (via increased reach), funding (via money from donors, corporations, and foundations who will never support the arts status quo), and public policy (via broad-based public enthusiasm for the impact of the arts on people’s lives) must be articulated and tracked.

A principal difficulty in this is that in order to accomplish these gains we must do work in marketing, funding, and advocacy that we’ve almost never done before. That is, we must lay groundwork among people who are not already pre-disposed to value the arts. (If you believe that a viable future for arts organizations exists without reaching new communities and new funders you may stop reading now.)

As I have pointed out on numerous occasions, immediate improvements in sales, funding, and public policy are impossible when you are approaching new people who are either apathetic about or hostile to the arts. First, we must build trust and, while doing so, measure indicators of improving relationships–for example, willingness to meet, willingness to introduce others, and (eventually) willingness to work together. Clearly, that is at least a one- or two-year project. Only after the foundation is built can we begin to set goals for the more traditional measures of institutional benefit.

Don’t have the resources to devote to this? What’s your alternative? Let’s reconvene in forty years and see who is still in business.

Engage!

Doug

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