Crossing Over: Marketing to Non-Traditional Audiences

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Attraversiamo.   

It’s a beautiful word. Who would think of it as a marketing strategy?

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My job is to advise companies on how to grow their base of business. The biggest challenge (and most fun part) is not in finding ways to keep an existing base happy and engaged, as vital as that is. It’s in creating ways to attract new audiences — especially the often-forgotten or elusive non-traditional audiences. In the case of professional sports or the arts, this is the non-sports fan or the person who may know little about an art form. Art and sport are just two examples of experience-based products or services, but the goal is the same: find and convert. I like to think of it as “crossing over” — not from this life to the next, not why the chicken went to the other side. As I work with good companies trying to expose their product to new audiences, to expand their supply of go-ers and do-ers, I believe it’s all about attraversiamo.

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chickenWatching another exciting Fall Classic (note to non-fans, that’s a World Series reference) last month, I was reminded that “fair weather fans” — especially those with pockets deep enough to afford the price of admission — play an important role in the scheme of things. Like an opening night on stage or any big game in sports, many of those attending are there for the spectacle as much as for the artistry or the athletics. Maybe more. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, it helps in our quest for non-traditional fans because it begs the question “Why do they go?” And there’s a long list of answers. Some might say it’s an “ego buy,” or wanting to be part of “the show,” to see and to be seen. Or maybe there’s a desire to be part of history: being able to say “I was there” connects and builds memories. One of the more meaningful incentives is generational: taking the kids to be part of something larger than life, something “I” did, like my parents did before me. Tradition.

In the 1980s, when sports marketing was a brand-new concept, the Fenway Faithful consisted of Bostonians who called themselves “diehards,” and few others had reason to come to the ballpark. When the “old boys” gave a young woman the chance to address this issue, I was charged with finding new ways to bring people in, to increase attendance, to build new revenue channels — that is, to find and develop new audiences, meaning non-traditional audiences. “Diehards” were key, but they weren’t necessarily paying the bills. So we began to innovate, to find reasons beyond what happens between the white lines on the field for people to come. We created programs. We reached out to youngsters, oldsters, corporations, tourists.

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And we thought differently about “the product” — it was no longer simply a ballgame, it was about the experience. No, it wasn’t the obvious reason to attend an event, but it was a powerful one. In fact, the product wasn’t a game or a show, it was shared time, education and inspiration; it was new ways to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries; it was a night on the town with friends, company outings, school field days, fundraising for charity. I suggested that some ticket buyers barely cared that there was a ballgame going on because it was so much fun just to be in the ballpark. What game??!!

Fast forward to 2008. Museums, dance companies, theaters and arts programs large and small wondered how to keep their heads above water. Then, it was less about building new audiences and more about retaining an existing patron base. There was pressure to do more with less, to cut back on expenses, to manage resources, to get creative. It was around this time that the word “innovation” became an overused buzzword.

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Which is why, at Boston Ballet, we got scrappy: daily check-ins and malleable marketing plans; grassroots marketing and social media; relationships, relationships, relationships. We reached out to the community and to the media. Our patrons stood by us in a big way, the media was our ally, the artistic product was uncompromising and the institutional spirit was alive and well. With one eye on reaching non-traditional audiences, our focus was necessarily on retaining the one we had. We undertook a rebranding of the institution, created a new positioning statement, “Stage, Studio, and Community,” to tell the whole story of Boston Ballet, asked our public to “Re-think Ballet,” developed and launched a new website, brought ticket sales in-house, built a full-service in-house marketing and PR operation and – as they say in baseball – found a way to win. We retained so we could grow.

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Attraversiamo. I asked a close friend, who is from Lazio, just south of Tuscany, about this word. I understood it to mean “let’s cross over,” as in let’s cross the road or the path to get to the other side. In her beautiful, rich Italian dialect, Carla told me there is more to the expression. The word has come to have a deeper and different meaning — more the notion of changing your direction or state of mind. Like crossing over to a new way of thinking or even living. The idea of spreading one’s wings, opening one’s mind, trying something new.

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We know the key to sustainable business growth is through a combination of retaining an existing customer base while reaching new audiences. It’s not the push of selling a ticket, it’s the pull of engagement. The value, then, especially to the non-fan or non-theater goer, is in the experience.

Easier said than done? Attraversiamo.

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Leslie Cargill
Leslie Cargill is a “smarketer” and communicator, privileged to work with leading brands like Boston Ballet, United Way, the Museum of Science and the Boston Red Sox. From baseball to ballet, she advances experience-based programs in the arts, tourism, education, entertainment, healthcare, fitness and sports. While the goal is to retain and grow an existing base of business, the trick is in developing new or "non-traditional" audiences. She was Director of Marketing and Communications with Boston Ballet before returning to her consulting practice where she serves as advisor, project manager and interim CMO for her clients. She believes in a good mix of marketing basics, a campaign approach, and both program and institutional strategies in branding, positioning, messaging and communicating. A dyed-in-the wool New Englander, she splits her time between Boston and her family home on the coast of Maine. She can be reached at leslie@cargillboston.com. Or call Leslie at 617.913.9000.