We Are the New Audience

Michelle Paul
This post is written by Michelle Paul, Product Manager here at Patron Technology, and co-author of Breaking the Fifth Wall: Rethinking Arts Marketing for the 21st Century.

Last week at the National Arts Marketing Project Conference I moderated a session called “We ARE the New Audience: Empowering Next-Generation Marketers to Reach Next-Generation Patrons” with panelists Sarah Benvenuti (The Civilians), Robert Gore (TDF), Katherine Mooring (Arts & Science Council), and Kaysi Winham (Young Affiliates of the Mint Museum).

The goals of the session were twofold: first, to share some ideas about what the “next generation” of arts audiences looks like and what they want; and second, to explore how emerging leaders can be the driving force for reaching this new audience.

We had a great panel discussion with lots of participation and feedback from the session attendees. We talked about the problem of the “greying” audience and how to attract younger patrons; whether or not “millennial” is a useful demographic category for this discussion; and the importance of making room for emerging leaders to be heard.

After a week of contemplation (and after organizing a Storify of the great audience tweets during the panel), here are my main takeaways from the discussion:

1. Events are effective

Plan parties and events aimed at young audiences and ply them (us!) with booze, if only to introduce them to your space and your work and make it a more comfortable environment. If someone’s impression of “the arts” is that it’s a stiff and formal occasion, a night dedicated to breaking down that barrier can be a helpful way to encourage future attendance.

2. But let millennials be millennials!

Don’t expect the 20-somethings in your audience to act like 40-somethings. Their lives are different and in the end you might not actually succeed in turning them into regular arts-goers right now. However, Sarah argued that even if they only ever come to the special event nights, that’s okay — you’re laying the groundwork for the future.

3. “Millennials?”

Incidentally, we discovered that a whole lot of millennials don’t like the term “millennials” and don’t consider themselves to be millennials… which itself is a reaction that seems to be pretty characteristic of millennials.

4. Arts experiences are social experiences

Many young arts patrons experience a paradigm shift in their lives at the ages of 22-23-24 — as Kaysi described, they’re transitioning from the tight-knit community of a college campus to the wider community around them. They’re often looking for a new niche to fit into. What does your organization do to establish itself as a welcoming part of that community?

5. Marketing is all about language

 What words do you use to describe the plot of a play or the dynamics of a piece of music? Robert pointed out that the themes that speak to a 50-year-old might be lost on a 25-year-old — so how can you spin the same story in a way that would grab her attention? I offered the National Symphony Orchestra’s “live-tweeted program notes” as an example of how to make classical music feel more accessible to an audience unfamiliar with the work (the whole story about this experiment can be found in the social media chapter of my book).

6. Different values at work

The way millennials think of leadership roles may seem very different from the way older people in the organizations conceive of leadership. Katherine’s experience has been that next-generation leaders often value passion and collaboration over ambition and independent success, which may mean a change for the culture of the whole organization.

7. Failure is free

When working with younger people in your organization, give them room to succeed and permission to fail. Find a project that’s big and exciting but with room for risk-taking, one that won’t break the bank if it doesn’t work out.

8. Take the initiative

 And if you are that young person, don’t wait for opportunities to be handed to you. If you see something that could be better or have a new idea that won’t cost much, just do it — especially in a small organization, you don’t always need to ask for permission to do something awesome.

9. Listen

And finally my thesis statement for this whole session: if your organization wants to attract a younger audience, start by listening to the young employees you already have on staff and let them drive the effort, as we probably have some good ideas about where to begin. We ARE the new audience, after all.

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