Millennials and Arts: Can We Do It Their Way?

Here they come.

As the demographic wave bringing Millennials into positions of impact in society advances, many of us responsible for presenting or supporting the creation of culture are focusing on how to engage them. While endless characterizations of this large cohort exist, there is now hard data beginning to show that Millennials are more interested in participating in, and more appreciative of, the arts than various earlier generations. Consistent, though, with what we already know, they want to engage with arts and culture on their terms, in their way. It would be a serious mistake to think, therefore, that we can rely on earlier ways of engaging audiences without deeply considering what we know about this cohort, because the demographics and other macro changes have moved us to a new place as they have washed over us.

A number of sources have recently issued reports on Millennials’ behavior in relation to the arts. CultureTrack, a biannual study of trends from the ad-marketing firm LaPlaca Cohen, for example, notes that the monthly frequency of arts attendance is highest among the Millennial and Elder (pre-war) cohorts and Millennials look to such activities as part of their social life. For this cohort, not having anyone to attend with, for example, is one of the highest barriers to attendance. At the highest rate among the various cohorts, LaPlaca Cohen also reports that Millennials feel that participating in the arts reduces stress for them.

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This past July, the National Endowment for the Arts issued Arts Profile #10, an update of its analysis of public participation in the arts. As of 2015, they report:

…compared with other age groups, young adults aged 18‐24 are more likely to attend performing arts events, to see movies or films, and to make artwork of their own… While 32 percent of U.S. adults attend live music, theater, and dance events, nearly 37 percent of adults 18‐24 go to these events.

Most recently, Americans for the Arts, reported that Millennials are more engaged and interested in the arts than earlier generations:

Millennials GenXers Boomers Elders
Consider the arts important in places to which they relocate 52% 44% 34% 32%
Purchase art 47% 30% 18% 13%
Participation in the arts helps one understand other cultures 70% National Average 62%
Are more exposed to the arts b/c of social media 70% 55% 38% 30%

While this all appears to be good news, and possibly indicates the closing of the “donut hole” created by lower historical rates of participation by late Boomers and Gen-X-ers (as reported by the NEA and others), it is critical to consider other data regarding Millennials’ expectations and engagement patterns. Some of those additional things are:

In short: to engage Millennials successfully, organizations must build activities and approaches that capitalize on their increased arts interest but are also responsive to their particular motivations and ways. This means going well beyond what organizations used to do pre-donut hole.

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Unfortunately, we have not yet seen case studies demonstrating success in this effort that we can use as guides. There are some reports, such as the Wallace Foundation case study of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s attempts to bring in teens and young adults, but they do not provide sufficient depth, longevity or causal conclusions to be helpful in long-term or strategic decisions. Still, it is critical for the future interests of arts organizations that they lay a foundation for the inevitable impact that Milllennials will have as they mature and reach their capacity. At the same time, any comprehensive Millennial-engagement approach must avoid alienating existing audiences, who continue to make up the bulk of arts audiences and support.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Arts groups: lay a foundation for the inevitable impact of Milllennials.[/pullquote]How can arts organizations chart such a path? Recently, faced with a dire situation, the Louisville Orchestra redesigned the way they engage with their audience in a way that is instructive. Balancing the different interests well, the orchestra just reported significant increases in subscriptions, single tickets sales and donations achieved through a a proactive “untraditional” approach to defining what they do as an orchestra. Faced with competing needs and expectations, they reconsidered the marketing, fundraising and presentation of their cultural product — as well as the relationship between them — in order to realign the organization with (assumedly) the demographic shifts in their community. For performing arts organization, like Louisville, maintaining the presentation quality of their performances will be critical, and adjustment and, possibly, augmentation should be possible. Organizationally, the traditional distinction between marketing and fundraising should probably evolve into a single coordinated strategic relationship with customers that begins with an initial engagement of some kind and intensifies as the attendees’ connection and commitment to the organization grows.

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While the lack of conclusive data makes this discussion a matter of conjecture, here is a proposed plan of six ideas that a hypothetical performing arts organization might consider to design a program aimed at Millennials. (No doubt some professionals must be screaming already!):

  1. Bring the experience to Millennials in their native environment.
    Perform, either as a full company or in smaller groups, outside of the home theater in places Millennials spend time. Data shows that Millennials respond well to many types of entertainment once they encounter it, but they have little contact with some forms of culture. Additionally, they participate in culture for social reasons – e.g., to see their friends, to enjoy food and drink – so bringing the performance to their “turf” tries to match their interests.
  2. Build communication efforts around arts attendee psychographics (like that of Morris Hargreaves McIntyre) to communicate on deeper psychological levels.
    Such data and segmentation addresses the emotional and intellectual structure of different audience groups, trying to communicate compatibly through their lens of viewing the world. It requires a multi-faceted approach that rejects the notion that a single marketing campaign can reach the broadest number of people.
  3. Offer increasing price reductions as a patron buys an increasing number of tickets.
    For example: first ticket purchase at 100% of the price, second ticket at 90%, third at 80%, fourth at 70%, etc. Data shows that audiences today purchase more single tickets and make later purchases. In addition, that first time purchaser is the most expensive to acquire. Other data shows that as someone’s incidence of attendance increases, their propensity to donate grows and that Millennials donate at a higher rate than other cohorts, as we have seen in the Obama and Sanders presidential campaigns. This strategy applies a different incentive than a discount after a purchase threshold or membership. At the same time, fundraising strategies should adapt to be compatible. This effort attempts to focus on building a long-term profitable relationship with attendees, relying on efforts other than discounting to bring the people in.
  4. Develop a comprehensive digital presence including screens or kiosks in the venue. Millennials live in a digital world, carrying on many parts of their life there. The company would create a complete set of digital content that makes the performers and their performances accessible in a personal way in a language Millennials understand. The content would be available on-demand online and at locations within the theater. In addition, during intermission and after the show, twitter feeds with live comments from attendees might be running offering Millennials the opportunity to share and engage about the experience in their native environment.
  5. Reduce the formality of the performance ritual.
    Some ideas: leave the curtain up during dancer warm-up; do not have a conductor and/or soloist enter after the orchestra; provide ancillary information visually, on screens e.g., prior to a performance; allow audience to have drinks in the theater; alter the seating arrangement of the hall.
  6. Develop multiple places — onsite and offsite — that provide immediate opportunities for young patrons to socialize around the experience they had.
    Data shows that one of the most valuable social experiences audiences can have and desire is to discuss or engage about a cultural experience they have just had. This may be seen as a physical manifestation of the twitter feed mentioned above and could be structured as a “party” or social in the venue after the event at which the artists attend.

There is no way to know if such a package would work, but some such strategy, built around and addressed to the specific nature of the Millennial cohort, is essential to building connections to them. While some of these things may already be in the works or may have been tried, I have not heard of any such comprehensive approach (except for the Louisville Orchestra program, which may not specifically be directed at Millennials). The one thing we do know is that as this group ages, and as Boomers, Gen-X-ers and Elders leave us, we will rely on this group more and more to keep our institutions and cultural groups alive and vibrant. With this in mind, we need to invest in building profitable, consistent relationships with them now in order to count on them in the future.