Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Today may be the good old days for arts marketing!

I was recently asked by Chad Bauman, the bright young communications director of Arena Stage (Washington, DC), to offer my thoughts about the most significant marketing challenge facing arts organizations in the new decade. He posted a portion of my thoughts on his blog (http://arts-marketing.blogspot.com/) last month. My complete remarks are posted below.

Today may be the good old days for arts marketing.

Know that I’m not a fearful person. In fact, I’m typically quite optimistic about my future, the future of my family, my business and my country. So why do I hesitate when considering the year 2020 and the future of arts and cultural in America? My problem, I think, is found in the simple arithmetic of life. I fear that some very good organizations may be running against a tide of numbers that may ultimately prove overwhelming.
Three decades of selling tickets, raising money and balancing unbalance-able budgets frame this view. But it’s what we see in TRG’s cumulative data on arts and culture buyers that is alarming for arts managers everywhere.

As a young orchestra marketing director thirty years ago, a high proportion of my subscribers were serious avocational musicians. They studied seriously. Many performed chamber music in their homes. As this generation departed from the scene, marketers of the day successfully made a clever transition of message. The new proposition was that current study or performance of the art was no longer a prerequisite. Instead, study and performance as a child was all that was required. To “Subscribe Today,” one could find happiness as a spectator. Participation no longer mattered.

This strategy worked. Across the country we added hundreds of thousands of new subscribers and single ticket buyers. Admittedly, these new folks no longer wanted to attend 24 Saturday night performances. Simple, we said. We’ll sell you twelve performances – or nine. Or six. And it worked. Unfortunately, another force was in play. Demographics.

As theatre, opera, orchestra and ballet companies replaced one generation with another, the new target market came of age -- Baby Boomers. Today marks the best of times for serving Boomers. Right now the target pool is 60 million of us who were born between 1946 and 1964. Any current marketing or fundraising effort need not be as efficient as those programs implemented twenty years ago. There are so many people who fit the current target, one can miss the bulls eye and still be okay.

What happens in 2020? The members of Gen X finally begin reaching the target life stage. Even if we forget the cultural divide that resulted from the demise of public arts education when this group passed through our schools, the arithmetic boils down to one number: 20 Million. That’s how many Americans were born between 1964 and 1981 -- 60 million Boomers will be replaced by 20 million Gen X’ers.

The math is simple - and it doesn’t work. Everything an arts organization does well today must be three times more efficient in 2020 if they are to maintain today’s level of success.

We could, of course, wait and see what happens when Gen Y (born between 1982 and 1995) replaces Gen X. These so-called Echo Boomers are almost as big a group as its parent generation. But our data suggests waiting is a high-risk option.

Is there a solution? Yes, but it won’t be easy. The rate of audience attrition today is unacceptably high. Nationally, TRG analysis shows that 80% of all new single ticket buyers never return for a second visit. Unchecked, attrition will continue depressing audience growth and feeding decline. Smart organizations, however, won’t ignore the danger signs or wait for the generational echo. By 2020, the best among us will have long since stopped over-prospecting for new stealth patrons and will retain almost everyone they touch.


  1. Target the people who are teaching music. The people who are going back and taking summer courses to complete master's degrees over the course of a few summers. The people who also teach kids trumpet or piano one or two nights a week. The people who teach bible school music during their one free week in June or serve as church choir directors for zip. The lovers. The givers. The core community folks who direct the community bands after they get out of the AF or Army gigs. Give them some breaks for their students. Give them a lot more than what's been given before. Haul 'em in. Target piano teachers. Give 'em really cheap tickets when there's a piano concerto and they can take their students. Go back. Go beyond the 20 and 30 year olds. Touch the children. Why not?

  2. Alyce, thanks for writing.

    You are right about teachers. They are frequently good targets of opportunity for many audience development programs. The technique works because highly educated people represent a marketers bulls-eye of opportunity. For example, many smaller college-town markets boast an arts scene that surpasses what the raw population numbers suggest is possible. The issue is “who” lives in town – not how many live there – is the key.

    As for cheap tickets - TRG orthodoxy suggests that we let the marketplace determine the specific price point for any offer. Even people living on a teacher's salary will pay top dollar to see or hear a performance that can't be missed.