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The Secret Ingredients for Audience Development: Will Power and Patience

Share your Passion. Develop your Audience.

By: Denis J. Bertrand

Last month, through a facebook post, The Cultural Human Resources Council announced the Conference Board of Canada’s 2010 service data on Environmental Trends and Issues for the Cultural Sector. The Conference Board identified 15 trends or issues. You won’t be surprised to learn “Changes to government spending” and “Changes to government policy” came at the top of the list. In contrast, at least five issues are related to arts marketing and audience development. In order of importance:

  • Technological changes
  • The need to adapt to new markets or services
  • Changing consumer tastes or expectations
  • The ageing labour force
  • Increasing diversity of the labour force

Two other factors can be added to this list, ‘the differences between urban and rural populations’ and ‘regional differences’.

It’s evident that social media altered the way artistic organizations operate. They previously depended on traditional media outlets to promote themselves. The methods of communication were “simpler”; it was sufficient to give a statement, broadcast a commercial, print advisements and posters and that was that. Social media is a more demanding form of communication. It requires frequent updates to bring in results. This is why I recommend, to all my clients, using a short evaluation to assess their communications; are they working effectively? Is the method being used simply out of habit, all the while knowing there is a better method?  Why not invest some time into the production of social media content? This should be self evident in the arts and culture sector because one of the main goals is to tell stories. So, use social media as a tool to announce your next activity and speak more frequently to your audience, offer them virtual tours of your work, mention your successes, expose them to your work between showings, present profiles of employees, board members, volunteers and artists, speak to the ways your product has affected people’s lives and so on. You can even promote community events organized by other groups. Your ‘friends’ and ‘subscribers’ will not hesitate to share their positive experiences and reciprocate your generosity.

It’s true that:

  • Arts and culture consumers are ageing. It’s the case with Canadian society in general.
  • Our communities welcome people from different backgrounds who have integrated into Canadian society. Our cultures are different but often have many similarities.
  • Certain segments of the population consume arts and culture in different manners (online or at home with new technologies) others prefer to invent in the creation of culture rather than simply be consumers.

The challenge exists for all sizes of artistic organizations who want to rejuvenate, diversify and increase their audiences. The use or traditional media, and even social media, is not sufficient to reach the desired number of audience members. To do this we need to invest in the development of direct relationships with desired clients. Whether, it is adolescents, young adults, members of the cultural community, or people with disposable income who can buy your products.

The effort, I am about to describe cannot be achieved by a single person. It needs to be adopted by all members of your team, the board, your volunteers and your most fiercely loyal clients. In summary:

  • Leave the office and meet the people whom you want to attract. You can contact individuals or groups. Speak to them about what you do and how you serve the community. Avoid over the top promotional tactics and really listen to what the public has to say.  Share what you discovered with your colleagues and work together to formulate conclusions from the work.
  • Call on the members of your board and your network to introduce you to people who will exert influence over your target audience.
  • Familiarize yourself with the culture of your audience. It’s a good practice; after all, you want them to accept your own!
  • Fully immerse yourself in this exercise. Be prepared to revisit your function and your offer. And, above all, have patience. Do not forget, long term relationships do not occur over night.

I already know what your objection to this approach is: We don’t have the time to do all of this! Rather than going after the public at large, target one group and invest your organization’s time into reaching them. Start a pilot project over a year or two. Document your progression using social media. You can enlist allies.

I have often said, it’s not necessary to spend great amounts of money to understand the ways to develop your audience. You only need to invest time and will power.

Don’t hesitate to let us know your solutions for reaching larger audiences!

Denis J. Bertrand is an expert in developing audiences for art organization and is an associate with the marketing firm 50 Carleton. He conducts audience development strategy workshops, tailored for artistic organization, across the country. He also writes about the topic on his blog Denis is a member of the Association of Consultants Canadian in the Arts. He lives in Sudbury, Ontario.