Reach and Frequency

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.

Engage!

Doug

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Two-Phase Engagement

Community engagement practitioners are frequently asked to justify their work using traditional arts marketing/development metrics: ticket sales and donations. Don’t get ahead of me. This is not a touchy-feely objection to practical outcomes. Ticket sales and donations as well as grants from “unusual suspects” and friendlier public policy for the arts are all results of effective community engagement . . . eventually. However, when anyone in any field is attempting to sell things to a new group, if that group does not have any relationship with the seller or does not see any way it benefits from the product, sales can only come after considerable effort is put in to establishing a relationship, getting to know the people, and demonstrating to them (not simply telling them) the value of that product. In the arts, with at least some groups, this process is made more difficult by our being identified with “the 1%.” It’s not simply that we’re an unknown. It’s that we are seen as representatives of a power structure in which they have no trust.

So, with many, if not most, new groups, phase 1 of engagement is establishing trust and demonstrating value. The indicators of success are not (yet) sales and donations. Instead, this is the phase where relationship benchmarks are crucial. Are people willing to meet with representatives of your organization? Do they tell their friends and invite them to discussions? Do they begin to ask in what ways they might work together with you? Do other groups start to come to you based on what they’ve heard about your work with the first group?

The answers to these questions (and many more that can be tailored to your particular situation) demonstrate the depth of the relationship. The impulse to push too soon either in programming or sales/development is understandable. It is also almost inevitably counter-productive. We don’t ask strangers or brand new friends to lend us money. And we don’t try to build a house until after the foundation is poured. Early in the relationship building process what is important from a management point of view is making certain that trust and understanding (on both sides) is growing.

When that is established, phase 2, the exploration of programming ideas (demonstration of benefit) and results closer to the “bottom line” become more reasonable.

I am aware that there are objections to anything that does not yield immediate results. We as an industry are stretched thin both in terms of personnel and finances. However, for there to be any future for our work, we must drastically expand our reach. An expensive, labor intensive industry cannot long survive with the support of only small percentages of the total population. Community engagement–targeted relationship building–is one of the only practical ways of achieving this end.

Engage!

Doug

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What They Want

There is an unfortunate tendency on the part of some in the nonprofit arts industry to believe that it is their responsibility to provide to the public art that they think the public needs. This is usually based on little to no understanding of what those needs might actually be. In addition, when examined a bit, what they are really giving the public is the art that they want to give them. Anyone’s true need has little to do with it.

There is a closely related opinion that community engagement is simply giving people what they want. I’ve written about the fallacy of that too often to count. Obviously, people can’t make choices about things when they don’t know what the options are.

And it is this upon which the “give them what they need” advocates hang their hat. Over the last decade or so Steve Jobs has been cited as an example of giving people not what they want but what they will come to want even though they didn’t know that ahead of time. As I have written before, Apple was right. However, the “proof of concept” was their sales results with the iPod and iPhone. People often don’t know what they are going to come to want. In the case of Apples iProducts, if no one had bought them, clearly those products would not have been something they needed, much less wanted. (Think of, for example, blu-ray discs.)

A few weeks ago I read an article devoted to Mr. Jobs’ response to a disgruntled shareholder. It was an interesting piece on how to defuse a hostile questioner. However, one quote stuck out to me, unrelated to the focus of the article.

One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it.

He did not begin product development with a vision of the cool thing he wanted to design. He (and Apple) began with the customer. The relevant technology was derived from an understanding of the user. Substitute “arts experience” for technology and you can see why the Jobs example does not justify an authoritarian “this is what you need” approach to arts programming.

It seems so simple to suggest that knowing the people we are trying to reach and applying that knowledge in both communication and programming is important. Given many marketing practices and presentation choices in our industry it’s apparently not simple. This is certainly not a concern limited to community engagement. It is one that has, and will have, a significant impact on the health of the nonprofit arts industry.

Engage!

Doug

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Know Your Communities

This is part of a series, introduced in Baby Steps, about arts organizations’ initial efforts in community engagement. For details about the premises upon which these posts are based, see below. The essence is that simple, inexpensive initial steps offer the best way to embark upon community engagement.

Know Your Communities: Community-Aware Marketing
This is a sneaky post. The emphasis of this series is on the small, simple, inexpensive things that can be done to pursue community engagement in the early days of such efforts. That would be true of what follows if our industry’s marketing were grounded in audience awareness. Unfortunately, it is not. It has, historically, been self-focused, self-referential, and what I love to call artcentric. So, while what’s needed demands, for many organizations, a seismic shift, that is not the fault of community engagement. It’s the fault of our marketing history and practices.

Engaged Promotion
What’s necessary is simple–organize marketing efforts around the interests of the people you’re trying to reach; and to do this, you need to understand them; and to do that, you need to talk with (not at) them. (OK, if you feel the need to keep a distance, survey them; but make sure it’s a well constructed survey and respond to what they say.) Once you know about the people you want to reach, construct your messages in such a way that they might pay attention. Why should they spend their time and money on what you have to offer?

Relationship-Based Marketing
Phase II of engaged marketing is rooted in the relationships you have with the people you are trying to reach. (This is why the “survey only” can only take you so far. Surveys don’t build relationships.) When communities trust and value an organization they will pay more attention to communication from it. And, of course, the communication will be far better targeted so that it will be more effective.

How To
Granted, the practicalities of this go far beyond the scope of this blog post. So, I’m calling upon a couple of experts (and providing links) for readers to follow.

Last August, Aubrey Bergauer, Executive Director of the California Symphony, published four articles that explained how the CS had, in three years, reversed the national trend in orchestral audiences by increasing ticket revenue (by 71%), audience size (by 70%), new subscriber renewal rates (by 69%), and a host of other indicators by changing the way they did their marketing. Her concern is with what is called audience development, but the principles easily apply to community engagement. In essence, she advocates focus on “patron retention,” a concept that sounds a whole lot like relationship building (aka engagement) to me.

Here are the links to her overview and subsequent implementation articles:

I present these because they are so thorough and totally worth the time of anyone who is interested in effective arts marketing.

While I would normally have begun with my “go to” marketing guru, blogging buddy Trevor O’Donnell, let me point you to a recent and particularly pithy post of his dealing with the creation of marketing materials: https://trevorodonnell.com/2018/01/25/want-good-copy-say-it-then-write-it/. The essence of his suggested remedy for over-the-top arts marketing prose is, once again, “talk to people.” The real world feedback can be bracing and almost always incredibly helpful.

Both of these sets of principles, if applied, would make their application to community engagement a completely seamless transition, one that would require virtually no extra work for the organization except perhaps talking to more people. The fact that this is not the case is, as I said before, not the fault of community engagement.

Yes, truly effective marketing may necessitate major change. However, the required change is something that needs to be done regardless of whether you’re interested in community engagement. The simple economics of soaring costs and the most basic principles of marketing demand it. So, if this change is essential, why don’t you maximize your return and develop relationships with new communities while you’re at it? You know . . .

Engage!

Doug

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The premises of this blog series are twofold. First, since relationship building is the core of community engagement, attempting to do too much too fast (before the relationship is established) will likely not be productive and, in fact, may be counter-productive. Second, there are many things that can be done to support engagement that do not require new personnel or new budgets. Simply re-imagining (and perhaps slightly re-tooling) things that are already being done can support engagement in very effective ways.

It should go without saying that the core of all engagement work is a strong (even if not unanimous) desire on the part of the organization to make connections with new communities. If the will to do so is lacking, the work will be at best minimally successful.

Be What You Are

This is part of a series, introduced in Baby Steps, about arts organizations’ initial efforts in community engagement. The premises are twofold. First, since relationship building is the core of community engagement, attempting to do too much too fast (before the relationship is established) will likely not be productive and, in fact, may be counter-productive. Second, there are many things that can be done to support engagement that do not require new personnel or new budgets. Simply re-imagining (and perhaps slightly re-tooling) things that are already being done can support engagement in very effective ways.

It should go without saying that the core of all engagement work is a strong (even if not unanimous) desire on the part of the organization to make connections with new communities. If the will to do so is lacking, the work will be at best minimally successful.

Be What You Are: Connecting as a Social Catalyst
On the most basic level, arts events bring people together, literally. In order to participate, attendees must be in a particular place at a particular time. This is absolute for the performing arts. For the visual arts the “place” part is fixed as well. The “time” issue can be more fluid, but for openings and exhibition-related activities it is the same as the performing arts.

This fact of our work provides the opportunity to act as a social connector or social catalyst without needing to change anything about the work presented. Providing communities a place (and excuse) to gather together can be a great service and can be a means of connecting with those communities.

Promoting affinity group gatherings (singles, parents of young children, corporate staff members, professional associations–accountants, lawyers, real estate brokers) are already part of marketing efforts of at least some arts organizations. Including other communities is no more complex than learning who they are: e.g., West End Co-op, 13th Street Neighborhood Association, Hispanic League, Black Philanthropists . . . you get the idea.

This work need not be time intensive. It certainly should not be new work. Simply reaching out and providing a labeled opportunity to the groups can be enough.

And while you have the people in these groups together, why not talk with them, learn about them? If you feel you must you can tell them about yourself, but make sure you tell them no more than you find out about them. One-sided conversations (or those dominated by one party) do not foster good relationships.

If this sounds like an added burden, if you have not been doing this already, that’s a fault of marketing efforts, not an added job necessitated by community engagement. I’ll have more to say about this in upcoming posts, but a truth of effective community engagement is that it often employs principles of good marketing which should be part of your work even if you are not planning to commit to engagement as a core organizational function.

The time/place essence of arts events provides an ideal means of connecting with groups of people. The beauty of this ability to serve as a social catalyst is that nothing different need be done about the art presented. As your relationship with these groups develops you may want to consider offerings that do speak in some direct way to them. But that is (and should be) a good ways on down the road.

Engage!

Doug

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