AudienceWe have been privileged recently to be the strategic partner for a long-time client and friend, TACA – The Arts Community Alliance, in Dallas on a first-of-its-kind Arts Accelerator. It is a 10-month, cohort-based program designed to increase organizational capacity, teach new business and leadership skills, build collaborative connections, and create strategic plans for sustainable growth. Its goal is to prepare participants for transformative change while building a foundation for long-term growth.

And the million-dollar question for this group – and all nonprofits – right now is: how do we connect to a diverse audience (or client base)?

At Social Impact Architects, we recognize the power of the arts to change communities and to operate with the same rigor as any of the best performing impact organizations. Today, we are turning to former Social Impact Architects consultant, David Claps, who has more than a decade of experience working in the arts, to share some learnings that apply to any organization expanding their reach and working in new communities.

In my 10 years of working in the arts, building diverse audiences has never not been a hot topic. Why have we, as an industry, focused so much effort on diversifying who pays for tickets and attends our events? The reason is two-fold. First, the number of baby boomers and older seniors – stalwart arts donors and often the largest demographic of any arts institution – is dwindling. TRG notes that today 65% of arts patrons are 48-71 years old. Secondly, the arts have had a reputation as an activity that caters to well-to-do white patrons. This has led to many arts organizations creating focused efforts around increasing accessibility to the arts for all. For example, Hi-ARTS is an organization that prioritizes incubating new theater works that incorporate social justice themes and elevate the perspectives of historically marginalized groups.

In order to replace (and grow!) the revenue generated by their largest demographic groups, arts organizations have for years been experimenting with novel methods toward diversifying their patron pipeline across all dimensions of age and race. While this post is centered on the arts, the learnings here can be applied broadly across the social sector – especially as an organization looks to expand its impact or reach new audiences or clientele.

The good news is there are many fantastic examples of arts organizations taking risks to build diverse audiences and succeeding! The bad news is there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to do it. Of those that have made progress, many have invested heavily in their own research capabilities and embraced the agile approach prevalent in start-up culture. While each solution is different, recent analysis has revealed common pillars shared by successful audience diversification efforts. Here are just a few:

Know Your Audience and What They Want

Before any organization can diversify their audience, they must know who their audience is in the first place — not only in terms of demographic composition, but also preferences. A great way to do this is through focus groups. For example, Seattle Symphony’s recent focus groups and audience feedback surveys found that young, urban consumers were more interested in attending classical programming than they expected (which certainly challenges assumptions about the tastes of young patrons). As a result, they invested more resources in elevating their classical, tried-and-true programming, reaching more young audiences with an offering that better aligned with their tastes. This example ties in nicely to Social Impact Architects’ work. Many of Social Impact Architects’ client projects include a survey component across different audiences, such as board, staff, donors or key members of the community the client serves. It’s an essential step in level-setting and reveals areas of priority.

Scale Your Reach by Investing in Digital Marketing

It should come as no surprise that digital marketing has become a key driver of reaching new audiences – often eclipsing the power of traditional marketing – in today’s world. The unmatched power of digital marketing is its ability to specifically target a demographic of interest through popular platforms like YouTube, Spotify and the other major social media players. If your organization desires to engage 18-44-year-olds in the Portland-metro area, digital marketing platforms can bring your message to the relevant eyeballs and provide useful data on impressions (how often the ad appears on any platform or for any targeted demographic), engagement (frequency of likes, comments, views, etc.), and conversion (ad click-throughs that lead to sales). For example, the decision by NYC-based dance company Ailey II to switch to an all-digital marketing strategy helped them sell out entire performance runs ahead of projections.

Introduce New Audiences to Programming That Reflects Their Values and Needs

There is a reason the majority of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s performances end with “Revelations.” Beside it being a mission-critical work that advances the organization’s objective to share the African American diaspora on stage, it reflects the culture and values of the many persons of color that fill the troupe’s venues. Arts organizations have seen evidence that when folks see themselves reflected on stage, they are more likely to remain loyal to the brand overall and experiment with more challenging programming in the future. Another way to shepherd more audiences into less traditional programming can be exemplified by Ballet Austin’s recent diversification initiatives. Through market research, Ballet Austin discovered that what makes audiences comfortable attending unfamiliar programming is not universal. In response, they took a multi-pronged approach to increase comfort – ideas like pre-show lectures to prepare audiences for what they are about to see and sharing rehearsal footage of new works on social media. As a result, they saw immediate progress toward their diversification goals.

Focus on Fun

LaPlaca Cohen’s Culture Track, a research tool for cultural institutions to better understand cultural consumers, notes that the No. 1 reason people cite for wanting to attend a cultural event is to have fun. This may be a hard truth for us who use the arts as an avenue for telling untold stories and pushing boundaries – but, if organizations take a fun-forward approach to branding, marketing and programming, they can drive visibility that will serve them in the long term. For example, New York’s Signature Theater gets audiences in the door via its “Sig Social” events – social events (e.g., ’90s night, trivia night, etc.) that are not associated with any particular programming. It exposes new audiences to the Signature brand and drives name recognition with the goal of converting goodwill generated by the events into future sales.

These are just a few ways to expand your reach, but there are many more. For more resources to build diverse audiences, check out the Culture Track, the Wallace Foundation’s Building Audiences for the Arts InitiativeCapacity Interactive and National Arts Marketing Project.

It’s clear that the question of audience diversification looms large. Yet, it’s also evident that progress is not just possible but achievable. We’ve learned that success lies in understanding the audience deeply, embracing digital marketing channels, tailoring programming to reflect values and needs, and above all, making the experience enjoyable. We’d love to hear how your arts organization has tackled audience diversification.


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