Courting Sexagenarians

I’ve been interviewing executive directors about their vision for the future, and inevitably our conversation turns to their efforts to court the millennial audience. They consistently report that engaging younger audiences the first time is less of a challenge than getting them to come back. That’s a subject for an entirely different post.

But, you know who comes back over and over? Older audiences — particularly those over 65. I was reminded of this by an excellent article in ArtsProfessional titled “A Snapshot of Older Audiences,” which looks at data for more than 800 arts groups across the United Kingdom. The article states:

The over-65s are demonstrably the most organisation-loyal and frequent arts engagers. 58% visit the same venue multiple times a year — much higher than for under-65s.

Here is your audience that is already committed to the arts, and for whom going to an arts event is now (and has been) an important part of their lives for a long time. They are your subscribers, ticket buyers, and donors. You don’t need to change the arts form or the manner (or location) of presenting what you do to satisfy them. And our PatronManager research demonstrates that their online behavior tends to mimic that of younger audiences — thus you don’t have to bifurcate your marketing efforts to engage them in a different way.  

Since this is such a valuable cohort, what are the ways you can nurture and build participation? The article points to one avenue pretty clearly:

Learning and intellectual stimulation are the strongest motivations once audiences pass 75. There are some clear steers here for reaching out to older audiences. It is important to pay attention to these nuances and cater for the appetite for straightforward entertainment as distinct from learning and self-improvement opportunities.

We’ve seen examples of this in the United States. It started with pre-concert lectures and talkbacks, which are now standard fare. But this audience wants more. You may have read about the “One Day University,” which, among other things, brings college professors to Tanglewood each summer for a half-day of educational talks before a concert. This event is not free — yet it’s always packed.  

I was talking recently with an organization that is conceptualizing a program to allow interested audience members to sit alongside orchestra players onstage during a rehearsal, which lets them get a deeper understanding of the orchestral art form. And I’m sure there are many other examples of arts organizations doing programming with this same goal.

If you agree that this audience sector is worth courting, here are a few ideas to push you along:

  1. Focus Groups: Get some of your patrons in a room and ask them how you can engage them more meaningfully.
  2. Build a Standing Advisory Group: Build a programming advisory board specifically for this age sector — and let them take ownership of delivering new ideas and approaches.
  3. Research: Talk with your colleagues near and far to find out what’s working for them.
  4. Partner: If you’ve got a college or university in your community — is there a partnership you can develop that brings educational experiences to your venue as an add-on?

I certainly know there are many opportunities to apply for grants to find the audience of the future, and it’s tempting to chase them. I would suggest, however, that you first look at the audience you already have and do more for them. For this crowd, you don’t need a grant — you can talk with them immediately. And when you find success, your payoff will come right away in the form of increased participation and support.

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