Nonprofits should court audiences, expert says

Arts organizations can build audience by listening to the people in the seats, said Chris McLeod, one of seven presenters at the 2017 Delaware Arts Summit.

Chris McLeod, a Washington, D.C. marketing guru, once coached an arts organization that had been promoting itself as a “safe haven” for city kids since the ‘70s.

By 2017, though, the city neighborhood had been gentrified and the “safe haven” label puzzled the high-income young parents who lived there. It gave pause to suburban parents who were unfamiliar with the city too.

McLeod said the first step in wooing audiences is evaluating your own organization. At yesterday’s Delaware Arts Summit, he suggested nonprofits start by examining if they are all the things they say they are.

“Who are you? What’s your brand? Oftentimes, arts organizations are really on focused on the way they are trying to present themselves to their audiences, but not focusing on who they really are as an arts organization,” McLeod said. “I’ve seen organizations that say, ‘We are innovative. We are all about inclusion, We’re about creativity.’ And then we go to a performance and the way they take tickets is old school, and everybody looks the same. Everybody’s the same age, the same gender, the same race. If you say this is who you are, you actually have to be it.”

McLeod said every organization needs a strong brand and fans so enthusiastic they become brand ambassadors.

Arts organizations find audiences the same way single people find dates, McLeod told his audience at the arts summit. You wouldn’t wear Guess jeans from the ‘80s on a date in 2017, he said.

He laid out steps to start anew:

  • Identify all the different people you want to attract.
  • Find the common thread that all those different types of people will gravitate to.
  • Build audience profiles for each group you want to reach. Use surveys, interviews and listings to gather as much information about them as possible to help you understand them. “The more you know about how people lead their lives, the more you can find points where you can connect your arts organization,” McLeod said
  • Place photos of individuals from target groups in your office so you are reminded of your target audiences as you plan.
  • Put yourself in the audience’s shoes. Remove any barriers that might stop newcomers from getting to your performances. Find a way to offer parking if that’s been a barrier. If ticketing is convoluted, fix it and then get the word out that it’s now streamlined. “How can you remove physical, mental or emotional barriers that keep them from getting to know you,” McLeod asked.
  • Tell them what’s in it for them. What benefits will they get from giving you their time and money.

“For a lot of arts organizations, it’s all about just getting it done,” McLeod said. “It’s like, hey, you know what, we have to engage our donors and subscribers and the community, so we start praying: ‘Lord, pleeease let them come.’”

Because value equals benefits minus cost in buyers’ minds, McLeod said that, while most organizations focus on cost with pricing specials, the most effective approach is to communicate what practical and emotional benefits you offer.

He said one way to woo millennials – the holy grail for arts organizations — is social events. “Make it as social as possible,” he said.

Just like in dating, introductions are valuable. if you can get a millennial to introduce you to his friends, you’re more likely to be successful. “We always look to folks in our networks first, so, if you’re able to get an endorsement from somebody, that’s the best thing,” he said. “Have folks who follow you like a cult.”

Just as in dating, successful arts organizations move the relationship from just piquing someone’s interest to meeting all their needs, McLeod said. Contemplate how you can address what really matters to your audience. You might offer classes or social meetups or behind-the-scenes events. “Audience development is about building an nurturing relationships with target audiences,” he said. “How can we address what really matters to our audiences on personal, social, economic or cultural levels? What are the ways we can open the curtain and let them learn about who we are?”

McLeod said its important to listen to potential audience members to learn what they like and don’t like about your offerings.

Remember that audience members will weigh your offerings against all the other draws on their money and their time, McLeod said.

Once you hook enthusiastic audience members, McLeod said, you need to keep them engaged.

“The courtship should never end,” McLeod said.

The biennial conference was organized by the Delaware Division of the Arts.

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