Finding & Rewarding The Superstar Audience
by Douglas McLennan | printable version
Summer 2010| Volume XXIII, Number 2
We’re undergoing fundamental change in the ways people produce, distribute and consume culture. And with an explosion of choice, the challenge for anyone making art is to get an audience to pay attention to what they’re doing.
Traditionally culture is treated as a consumer product. I advertise the show and tell you how great it’s going to be and you decide whether or not you’re going to buy a ticket. But with an explosion of choice and much of it free, jostling for attention in a crowded marketplace with a threadbare traditional consumer transaction model is increasingly problematic. So how are you going to build an audience for yourself and keep people coming back for what you have to offer?
It’s about relationships. Most of our audience is there because it has some kind of relationship with us. Yet, while we value that relationship, we don’t encourage or leverage it. In the traditional model the audience is largely invisible in the public life of an arts organization. It’s the institution that controls the relationship, makes all the decisions and gets all the visibility. The audience’s role is to buy tickets, fill the seats and show appreciation. I think there should be more.
Onstage the most prominent artists get the most glory. We celebrate those who are the best and we reward them for it. Yet we think of the audience largely in generic terms – one ticket-buyer as good as another. And we don’t expect much from the “audience” beyond its traditional role. The audience is usually rewarded (with better seats) only based on how much money they’re willing to spend at the box office.
Is there such a thing as a superstar audience member? And if there is, is there a way for superstars to get attention, to be rewarded? What is a superstar audience member anyway? Somebody who spends more? Or is it somebody who participates more?
We do little to encourage and reward audience members to participate in the life of an arts organization. We don’t challenge them. We don’t give them enough to do, because for the most part our definitions of doing something stop at spending money. Other than buying tickets or giving money (or, for a very small number, asking them to serve on boards), we haven’t traditionally asked our audiences for much. And I think if we asked, we’d be surprised. People who invest in you with their time and energy (and yes money, too) tend to be much more loyal to what you do.
Why should an audience feel ownership when it is treated as largely invisible after stepping away from the box office? And what are the incentives for anyone to be more involved when the audience is largely treated as an undifferentiated mob whose only status is determined by how much they paid for a ticket?
There isn’t an airline out there that doesn’t have a significant rewards program to take care of its best customers. Incentives are aligned to encourage you to fly not because you bought more expensive tickets but because you bought more trips. The money follows. And the most significant rewards aren’t necessarily built around cheaper fares, either; you’re rewarded for frequent flying with a menu of services to enhance your experience, and that’s worth something. Such rewards breed fierce loyalty. They also create in the rest of the audience aspirations for better treatment and greater engagement to earn it.
Most arts organizations’ definition of audience interaction is asking for feedback. I’m asked for feedback every time I turn around these days. The car rental company. The grocery store. The restaurant. Mostly I think, “why should I help them?” They want my ideas. They want my experience (and that should be worth something, I think). Most feedback “opportunities” seem just like free labor, free consulting. An imposition. Except.
If I care about the company or service or experience I’ve just had; if I have a relationship with them that matters to me, then I’m happy to help try to make it better because it’s important to me. How do you get to do that with an arts organization? Don’t just ask me to give you free feedback, incentivize me to help make it better. You’ll learn something AND maybe even get some free labor in the bargain.
Here’s something heretical. Why are the best seats in the house all for those who buy the most expensive tickets? I’d suggest that the most valuable clients are not always those who spend the most money on their tickets, but those whom, if you incentivized their participation, would actually do things for you. Like tell their friends. Like spread the word about a great concert they just heard, or expressing their anticipation for something coming up.
Why is it that only people who give money to the theater or orchestra get their names in the program? How about making a page that recognizes superstar audience members? Those who’ve come to every concert for the past five years? Or those who brought 10 friends with them?
When I have an idea for an article, I don’t just look for who will pay the most. A year from now the money will be spent. More valuable to me is the audience a publication will deliver. One that has the audience I’m trying to reach but pays little is worth much more than one that pays a lot but whose audience I’m not really interested in.
Word-of-mouth has been super-sized by the internet, and it changes the dynamic of audience participation. Why shouldn’t I be able to “earn” my way to better experience through my involvement with you? Reward me for knowing more or becoming better informed or being a leader in my community. Web communities in which you earn your way into status are a powerful driver of audience participation and community-building online. The most successful online companies offer ladders of incentives to get you to participate and engage more. This ought to be the most basic strategy for arts organizations.
I’m not suggesting that everyone be made to become involved with the theater or dance company. There are many many people (like me) who just want to go to the damned concert without doing anything more, and should be able to do that. But the new measures of audience segmentation aren’t about demographics and past behavior; they’re measures of engagement and how (and with whom) you interact. And they’re much better predictors of loyalty in an audience.
Want to build a community of people around your organization that regularly engages with what you do? Then you have to reward them for their loyalty. If the tattered dysfunctional airlines can do it, it’s the least the arts can do. Even better, it works.