Row X Blog by Hannah Grannemann
I’ll just say it straight out, so you know where I’m coming from: I hope many organizations choose to keep and grow their digital programming as we come out of the pandemic. I think it’s great for audiences, a solid strategy for organizations that can handle it operationally and financially, and for the arts field to increase participation.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the strategy of the Long Tail as I watch arts organizations and artists deliberate their post-COVID programming strategies. Listening in on webinars and reading media coverage, it’s clear to me that it will take a shift in mindset of organizations to transition digital programming from a stopgap replacement during the pandemic to its own category of programming. For those who do it, it offers great possibilities in the long game of audience building.
In his 2006 book The Long Tail, Chris Anderson fleshed out a business strategy centered around the observation that there is an audience for anything, it just might be a small audience – aka, multiple, niche audiences. Much has happened in the past 15 years since he wrote the book, but I think Anderson’s analysis offers a lot for arts leaders to consider. As relates to audiences, the topic of this blog, he argues that The Long Tail strategy creates value for audiences it brings them content they’re interested in but they just can’t find. When companies offer niche content and make it easy to find, audiences will engage. Next, through network effects (word of mouth) and discovery prompted by the company, or discovery after engaging with familiar content, audiences’ interests expand and they watch a wider range of work. (Describing it in three sentences makes it sound easy, and of course it’s a lot of work.) Anderson tackles the question on everyone’s mind right now: does offering more content increase demand? It can, he writes. Audiences can be activated that were just sitting out, either disappointed by the existing offerings or not able to take the offerings in the way they were presented.
Sound familiar? For the last year and a half thousands of people watched online content from organizations where they had never been to, could not get to, and most likely never will visit in person. The new digital offerings made their engagement possible. There were oceans of latent demand for arts content. Suddenly, people had more time AND it was easier to access. So they showed up at the virtual doors of arts organizations around the world.
One person’s noise is another person’s signal.”Chris Anderson, The Long Tail, 2006
The Long Tail idea is not entirely new to the arts, of course. Portfolio (or “tentpole”) programming, mainstage/second stage programming or having different programs for community or outreach programs is common. But there are some differences.
- The Long Tail approach “counts” audiences that engage with the same form in a new way. One of the primary case studies in Anderson’s book is Netflix. It’s watching movies, but not in the theater (to state the obvious). A Long Tail approach for digital programming means that digital is considered a valid art form and way for audiences to participate.
- It puts the match between audience and programming first, not reaching big numbers, betting on reaching financial and audience size goals over time and across more content. With time, it becomes less of a bet. Accepting and embracing that the audience for any one work might be small, not measuring it against the hits or the tentpoles, is a mental shift that requires discipline to keep.
- It appreciates the audience they have, seeking ways to interest them with other content to deepen their engagement and expand their interests. It respects the audience’s interests and preferences, not pushing too hard to sell them everything. Yes, a Long Tail company seek to find new customers, but deeper engagement with the ones they have isn’t sacrificed.
Upstream of the audience, a Long Tail approach offers the opportunity to support programming a broader range of work. Call it experimentation, managing expectations, commitment to artists, or whatever. Pick a work, commit to finding an audience for it, then welcome that audience as new members of the family. This is true especially with on-demand digital programs, where sales or attendance goals aren’t in the pressure cooker of time in the same way.
There’s no one strategy that will solve all problems or be a good fit for all organizations. But I hope that more organizations will adopt a Long Tail/Long Game approach as a way of emerging post-COVID for the sake of the audience, and progress.