We Are the New Audience

This month’s newsletter article was written by Michelle Paul, Director of Product Development here at Patron Technology. —Gene Carr

Attract Younger Patrons
Most of the arts organizations I talk with are constantly looking for ways to attract younger patrons and to counteract the perceived “graying” of their audience. I can see the truth in their concerns every time I go to a Broadway show or a classical music performance here in NYC — my friends and I, at 30 years old, often get the sense that we’re the youngest people in the venue by a matter of decades.

The more I explore this issue, the more I begin to think that the answer to this problem might be sitting in your office right now. How many people reading this either have entry- or mid-level coworkers who are 30 and under, or are yourselves those “emerging leaders”? My sense is that members of the next generation of arts marketers are ready and waiting for the chance to express their ideas and reach out to their peers to attract that younger audience everyone is looking for.

In November, 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).

This month I’ll be giving a solo recap of that session at the Arts Reach Conference in New York, to share the ideas we came up with about what the “next generation” of arts audiences looks like and what they want. We will also explore how to encourage the emerging leaders in an organization to be the driving force for reaching this new audience.

Here’s a preview of my main takeaways from the discussion:

  • 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 to make it a more comfortable environment. This could be in conjunction with a show, or possibly even just a separate event in the same location. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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?
  • 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).
  • Millennials generally 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. So take from that what you will!
  • 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.
  • When working with younger people within 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.
  • 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.
  • Finally, my thesis statement for this whole conversation: 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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2 responses to “We Are the New Audience

  1. I think the point about serving alcohol for parties and events is a great way start to breaking down the preconceived ideas that “the arts” known for being formal and don’t want to be around a bunch of stiffs. It’s not their idea of a fun time.

  2. Ms. Paul,
    This is an interesting and timely post that addresses on the strategy of attracting younger audience in a new perspective. As a theatre lover and actress, I was particularly drawn by your idea about planning special events and parties targeted at young people. As Diane Paulus, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater said, “[young] audience isn’t one that ‘goes to the theater’—they go out at night. They want to be in the presence of others, to socialize; they need that release.” Indeed, it is necessary for performing arts to be something audiences desire to watch as I believe performance is an art form itself, which is totally different from learning it in literature. Thus, some organizations such as Art Milwaukee aim to increase theatre’s exposure for young professionals by providing unique single-night events in the form of parades, where short plays are performed multiple times independently in different rooms for audience to watch in any order. At the same time, as you mentioned that young patrons are “transitioning from the tight-knit community of a college campus to the wider community around them”, which indicates that social experience is indispensable among young arts goers. Just like crowds of people would attend the downtown LA art-walk every month to be part of the social norm, to fit into a broader collective community. However, while it is essential to establish marketing strategies for audience expansion, we ought to back up the performance with genuine and engaging materials. The arts experience cannot only be about the marketplace, Tina Packer, founder of Shakespeare & Company challenged the overlook of the art itself that the greatest art works would never been made if they were just about marketing forces.
    While the actual performance needs to live up to audience’s expectation, we can never ignore the market demands entirely. Yet I suggest that we need to re-define what performing arts are among young demographic. The versatile marketing strategies might work with what André Gregory describes as “show business”, which is the type of performance which does not require audience’s deep understanding such as Broadway. Yet it might not work for extremely disturbing plays such as King Lear, Duchess of Malfi, and Death of a Salesman which force audience into asking questions about their own lives, culture, and society. I imagine that probably only people who study or are passionate about theatre arts would be attracted to those classical works. Therefore, perhaps a different approach is needed such as by educating young generations about classical theatre. Organizations such as Young Audiences of Western New York are eager to convey classical arts in schools and arouse young students’ interests in classical performance. I believe that introducing and inspiring young demographic to engage in traditional performing arts would ultimately bring the potential audience back to the live experience. Thus, while young audiences could be educated to think critically regarding to classical works, it could be a solution to one of your concerns that “the themes that speak to a 50-year-old might be lost on a 25-year-old.” Ultimately, although it is efficient to listen to younger people’s opinions, we as the artists could also play an active role into affecting the young patrons’ values on live performances.

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