Chief Executives in the non-profit cultural sector have a lot on their plate. Beyond keeping the lights on and the doors open, they also need to make sure they they remain relevant, meaningful and sustainable in an environment that’s pretty hostile.
A massive part of this is making sure that your audiences old and new know what you’re about and what you have to offer that they might like to try. Loyal audiences need to know that you value their patronage and that they can trust your programme. New audiences need to know why you’re the place they should visit before they engage with your product. They’re more likely to build trust with your brand if you are talking to them in the right way.
Despite this, we very frequently hear from the sector that many venues still rely on using large, mature customer databases to tell everyone who has ever booked about everything that they have on, regardless of whether or not that’s working for them.
Often (but not always), marketeers continue to do it because they are scared of changing the status quo, are restricted by tools that don’t support their strategy and are limited in time and money. There’s often not enough experienced staff time available within an organisation to ensure that the way communications are managed are aligned to wider business objectives.
To an arts organisation that needs to value the revenue that every audience member brings, this is a huge mistake and a serious risk.The way that people (and businesses) communicate with each other has changed massively in a very short space of time. I’m not speaking just about shifting from print to email, I’m talking about a massive democratisation of web technologies that means people communicate in real time with other people all over the world as the norm. Businesses that recognise that and react accordingly are thriving. Businesses that don’t are dying.
This isn’t anything new - you can see the impact of this change throughout society. Earlier this month taxi drivers in London demonstrated against the impact of journey booking app Uber, recreating similar scenes from Paris, Boston and Seattle. Looking a little further back, the introduction of digital photography suddenly meant a whole industry built around film processing and expert services was made redundant. The introduction of cameras in phones eroded a worldwide market to the extent that Eastmann Kodak, once largest photography company in the world, exited the consumer market, spent a year in bankruptcy and stopped making cameras and had to sell most of it’s technology patents - just to keep the lights on.
So, how do cameras and taxi firms relate to the arts? The products are different but the concept is the same. Kodak fulfilled a need - photographers needed a way to record, process and print images. Their way was the only way it could be done until someone else came along and suggested a new way of doing it based around this fun little concept called ‘digital’. Kodak’s biggest mistake was failing to recognise the change that would have on the market and the opportunity it offered them. They did catch up, but the rot had already started to set in.
In the arts, theatres, galleries and museums have always been the portals through which audiences experience art. That’s unlikely to change, but audiences are now able to access cultural experiences through a much wider range of channels. Venues themselves are becoming conduits for art distributed through digital channels with initiatives such as ‘NT Live’ and ‘Met Opera: Live in HD’ experiencing huge success.
"Digital activity is forcing us to rethink our creative practice. For over a hundred years our activity has been grounded in collections displayed in buildings. The affordances of digital means we are rethinking this."
-The Tate Gallery, Arts Digital R&D Report
From what we see across the sector, the rot hasn’t set in and actually there are some really great things going on to engage audiences with venues across these new methods of communication.
Clearly some of the biggest names in the sector are reacting to this shift and capitalising on the opportunities afforded to them. Many, particularly the mid-size theatre based venues in the UK are not doing this, simply using the sticking plaster of shifting more towards digital in comms and investing time in social media. Certainly that will help, but it isn’t enough. Every arts organisation that manages relationships with their audience needs to consider digital at the core of what they do. That extends to the product on the stage, the work hanging on the walls and the messages crafted by marketeers.
"Not so long ago, it would have been easy for us to identify exactly where and how digital technologies directly impact. Now it is simply “integrated wholesale’’ into how we plan for, deliver, promote and evaluate all of our activity."
- The Big Difference Company, Leicester, Arts Digital R&D Report
People engage with the arts because it fulfills, entertains and enriches them. It provides depth to life. Engaging with art fulfills a need. But, the arts don’t exist within a vacuum and audiences (or described another way, consumers) are provided within an abundance of choices around how to fill that need. As a sector, we have to recognise just how much the world has changed and how we seriously need to revisit how we can thrive within this new, unfamiliar landscape.
If we don’t do it, we’ll simply become less relevant, make less revenue and ceasing to become vital. Bringing this back down to the day to day, in February 2014, consumer insights firm Experian reported that: “Consumers have come to expect content tailored to their unique interests and preferences, and there is a clear business case for why marketers need to meet those expectations.”
They go on to say that marketers who send out emails with personalised subject lines and content generate 37% more revenue versus ‘scatter gun’ messaging. 37%!? That’s a huge, vast amount and a statistic that’s just as relevant to arts marketers as it is to anyone else.
That statistic can likely be re-created across a wide range of other touch points we have with our audiences, and these are people your organisation is communicating with every day.
We’re extraordinarily keen to help the sector be better at this, and that’s what we spend most of our time doing. We’re keen to see a wholesale shift towards this way of thinking in the sector and a real investment of time, creativity and energy before it’s too late.