A Crisis of Audience

We have an audience crisis on our hands. More grim news in the performing arts field this week comes from the New York City Opera, which is leaving Lincoln Center for someplace, somewhere, sometime. It wants a smaller hall which it hasn’t yet found, and it wants to eliminate fixed operating expenses. Why? On any given great performance evening, it can only count on what is reported to be an audience so small that it fills no more than 40% of the hall.

Sound familiar? My blog on the Philadelphia Orchestra noted that in their case, too, small audiences are at the root of the problem. In too many American cities and for too many great American live performing arts institutions, ticket sales are now making up the decided minority of overall revenue. And that’s the most serious problem in the field today. Without regular, repeat buyers – and I’ll take any kind of repeater, not just a subscriber, but anyone who cares enough to come back a couple of times a year – organizations can’t build loyalty. Without loyalty, there is no real personal identification, involvement, and investment. And without that personal identification, there is no annual gift. Without annual gifts, there are rarely major personal gifts, and even more rarely bequests and planned gifts that have long been the foundation for endowments and special programs.

So eventually, smaller and smaller audiences spell fewer and fewer donors. This is particularly critical as we move toward 2012’s Federal proposed cap on itemized deductions, including those for charitable contributions, at 28% of personal income. Not only will this have a highly negative impact on larger gifts from more affluent donors, it will place the burden on more smaller gifts from more people who will be essential to the survival of nonprofit arts organizations. That means we really have to hustle to get more repeat ticket buyers that will make a greater quantity of albeit smaller gifts.

A lot of what is keeping people away from ticket buying is cost; even a musician in the New York City Opera orchestra was noted as saying that he didn’t blame folks for not being able to afford tickets to the organization that has employed him. He’d probably just go out for a beer, he said, if he had any extra change. A beer out is about as much as many arts lovers can afford these days, and that’s flat-out tragic.

But others are fortunate enough to be able to pay the price of admission. And right now, we have to connect to them, woo them, and win them. We need an audience that can and will pay, will come back, and will stay. That means we have to find them, first; then win them.

Typically, development officers are the ones that put stock in donor research. Here at ArtsMarket, we believe in starting prospect research much earlier than in the development office: you’ve got to find likely markets that will be able to buy tickets, and begin with getting them in the door. That takes a lot of research and analysis, and prospecting that is pinpointed.

Yes, social media and mobile-marketing and advertising can do a good bit to get the last-minute buyers to your box office. Both are essential in connecting to younger buyers, and particularly to impulse buyers. But maybe institutions that budget too little for arts marketing – arts marketing has remained perennially underfunded – need to think again. We know of too many organizations that have just been kidding themselves into thinking that more and more (even all) of arts audiences can be won through low-cost social-media based marketing, alone.

This has to be the time when solid research-based prospecting and communications that can be accurately predicted and managed comes into play. We have to build a new pipeline of prospective audience loyalists. Those who take marketing seriously and do it comprehensively stand a chance of winning. And right now, we need a field-wide commitment to winning – to winning people back and into halls for great art. Before for others, like NYCO, it is too late.

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