Audiences as Consumers: Revisiting Assumptions

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What do arts consumers want?

For many people in our business, it is an inconvenient truth that consumers’ participation in the traditional (i.e., Western European) performing arts is declining. The most recent version of the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, published by the National Endowment for the Arts back in September 2013, shows that the percentage of adults going to a performance, already low, has continued to decline:

SPPA Highlight

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The trend is the same for musical and non-musical plays.

Audiences are shrinking for a variety of reasons.

What are the reasons for this? One is more competition from film, TV and forms of online entertainment. Fewer people have the background and education that would suggest an interest in traditional performing arts. And for many people, the value proposition (what you get for your money) is simply less compelling.

Let’s go back to the four “P’s” of marketing to think this through.

Product: In the commercial sector, the challenge is to figure out what the people want and give it to them. But in the arts world, our product is developed and presented in pursuit of a mission. Our job is not to give people what they want, but rather what they need to serve that larger purpose.

Price: We are similarly constrained by price. The market generally won’t support a ticket price based on full cost-recovery, and the plethora of other choices available to consumers continually force producers and presenters to discount prices and hope they can balance the budget with more aggressive fundraising. Because of the high fixed costs of putting on a show, we have limited ability to improve those margins.

Place:: The place where art is consumed is also a challenge, particularly when it’s a traditional performing arts venue with its own rigid rules of engagement and cost structure. This is a huge topic, but for now look at the work of Lynne Conner — in particular her theory on the “sacralization” of audiences.

Promotion: The last element connecting the work to the audience is how it is promoted, which involves the message we’re sending and the media we use to deliver that message. We’re doing pretty well these days adapting to changes in media, but I’m afraid we’re doing a terrible job with the message we’re sending to potential consumers of the performing arts.

There are a number of important trends in the behavior of arts consumers, which should be leading to changes in how we appeal to the market. I would credit Alan Brown as a thought-leader in the area of arts-consumer behavior, as he has helped us numerous times over the years to get a stronger sense of the motivations and barriers that drive audience behavior.

Let’s look at a few of these:

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The desire for convenience: In other sectors, consumers are increasingly spoiled — barriers and constraints are eliminated in order to remove any possible excuse not to participate. I think of what has happened to the sport of skiing. When I started, it was about burning mittens on the rope tow, skiing through the crud and eating some bad chile for lunch. Now there are fleets of groomers smoothing out the hill, warmed seats on fast-moving lifts and attendants handing out hot chocolate and warm cookies at the bottom of the hill. There are basically no excuses not to get out there. And that’s the goal — to make the experience free of hassle and pain.

The search for stimulation: In other areas, the volume levels are higher and consumers are bombarded with a multi-sensory experience. And though we know that the whole idea of multi-tasking is physically not possible, consumers still believe that they can and should be stimulated from different directions and to higher levels, with everything coming in fast.

The avoidance of risk: Consumers are increasingly risk-averse, meaning they are less likely to invest in a ticket to an event without having a strong sense that what they’ll see is worth it. So they’re looking for familiarity. A story they know, a performer they recognize, or music that they grew up with.

The challenge of choosing: Consumers have many more choices today, but the problem is that they are paralyzed by all of those options and often end up choosing nothing. They look for filters —  someone or something to help them make a good choice.

The demise of advance planning: The old subscription model of selling tickets well in advance is dying a long, slow, painful death. There are still some holding on, but the average consumer (myself included) is no longer prepared to make the commitment to attend an event months out into the future.

What do consumers want?

The search for a “special” experience: Under the heading of exceptionalism, we all want something that has been tailored (i.e., customized) just for us. At the same time, we are less inclined to take risk and even less prepared to plan in advance. And here we are with these funny old-fashioned buildings where we are forced to engage in long-term advance planning in mission-based programming that offers pretty much the same experience to all consumers, with the limited sensory stimulation associated a person on a stage and all of the inconveniences associated with shoving a crowd into one room and telling them to pay attention and behave!

So how do we respond? Stay tuned — I’ll cover that in my next column.

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Duncan Webb

Duncan M. Webb, President of Webb Management Services, Inc., has been a management consultant for the development and operation of performing arts facilities for 25 years. Mr. Webb entered the theatre profession as a lovesick maiden in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience in 1969. Since then, he has completed degrees in economics and business; worked in international banking; produced commercial, industrial and experimental theatre; and has been teaching for New York University’s graduate program in performing arts administration since 1990. He worked for Theatre Projects Consultants from 1989 to 1995 and founded Webb Management Services in 1997. That practice has completed over 300 feasibility studies, business plans and strategic plans for facilities, organizations and districts. Mr. Webb is also the author of Running Theaters: Best Practices for Managers and Leaders, published by Allworth Press in 2005. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children.