To Re-Invent the Audience Experience, Become a Beginner Again

These days, the performing arts and Tinder, the dating app, have more in common than you’d think. On any given night in the city of your choice, you can find a wholly unique musical experience – one that looks, sounds and feels completely different from the last. This trend has brought with it an increase in single-ticket sales and new arts patrons looking to experiment. But the news is not all good. Subscription sales are down. It seems fewer people want to commit than ever before. 

In looking for reasons, artistic programming and marketing point the finger at each other or at societal trends outside their control. For the choice 45-year-old and younger demographic, a night at the symphony holds equal sway with movies, a baseball game, dinner out or a night at home watching HBO. A world of unlimited options has become the new normal, and the arts seem to be just another entertainment option. We’ve become a society of impulsive non-committers. 

Why does this matter to you, a young artist/entrepreneur? For those who want to make a living working in the performing arts, this downward trend in committed ticket buyers has great potential ramifications for the industry. Not-for-profits typically rely on a funding model in which single-ticket buyers evolve into subscribers and then donors. These last two groups combined can easily make up the majority of a company’s income. If, each year, you are spending the largest proportion of your budget marketing to people who are just fine with a casual relationship, you’ve got a challenging financial situation in your future. 

Consciously becoming a “beginner again” helps you see something with fresh eyes.

It’s easy to blame forces outside your control. But why feel powerless? There are actually many things an organization can do to change course, including taking on a beginner’s mindset and empathizing with your patrons to learn what they expect from you beyond simply a great performance. 

First, what is a beginner’s mindset? Your talent, education and time have made you an expert in your field. But when you need to reinvent, redesign or refresh something that isn’t working, these same attributes make it hard for you to see the interesting things a beginner might notice right away. Consciously becoming a “beginner again” helps you see something with fresh eyes. 

In my work, I help companies better understand their audiences’ experiences. During the initial stages of the research, I employ both the beginner’s mindset and empathy. Through a really good conversation with a patron, I can find out a lot about what they need from a company. To achieve that great interview, I follow the same rules one might use when learning something new: active listening, suspending assumptions or judgments, finding patterns and being curious. Next, my team and I look for ways to immerse ourselves in the actual experience, in order to gain insights. Part of this includes looking for analogous or extreme versions of experiences similar to what the organization offers. 

Recently, I conducted research for an arts organization experiencing a downward slide in both ticket sales and donors. Instead of taking the typical approach many do – changing the programming and spending more on marketing, we took a different, slightly circuitous route, starting with taking on a beginner’s mindset. First we visited numerous concert venues, bars and festivals – really anywhere we could count on finding people 45 and under who paid money for the experience. We then asked anyone open to a conversation one simple introductory question: “Why are you here tonight?” 

In our next issue, we’ll tell you what we learned from our research on this project and introduce you to the 5Ps – non-performance areas that we found most affect how a patron perceives your concert experience. 

Practicing the Beginner’s Mindset and Empathy 

To find out what motivates a demographic you are curious about cultivating, try conducting your own research, starting with the following exercise.

Step one: Select and experience a peer organization’s service, event or product. Imagine this is your first time engaging in the experience. Everything is new. Hint: Try one of the summer festivals we’ve recommended.

Step two: During each part of the experience, actively pay attention to your emotions. Do you feel happy, frustrated, sad, excited? Is it throughout the experience or just certain aspects? Hint: Emotions mean you are on the path to an important discovery.

Step three: Transfer the experience to your own company and patrons. What does your patron experience look like from the time the person buys the ticket to the moment they leave your world?

Elizabeth Hinckley

Elizabeth Hinckley is the founder of DefCult, a Los Angeles-based communications and organizational development consultancy. Her background as a musician and arts publicist gives her just enough knowledge to be dangerous as the co-creator and editor of …more 

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