From my perspective, all of us in arts and culture – from artistic, marketing, board, volunteers, staff – are in the business of audience development.
Quality, exceptional art is the beginning, but it is most certainly not the end, unless we choose it to be. Is great art truly great if it is never experienced by another human being? Perhaps. But I find that the more compelling questions are: are we really taking responsibility for the way we approach reaching current and potential audiences? Do our expectations of our approach and efforts really align with the ways we expect our audiences (or ticket buyers/donors/board members/community) to respond? Is our approach thinking more of ourselves or of them?
If results are not to our liking, perhaps we are creating incredible work, and yet we are not doing an incredible job of other things. Are we actively figuring out who our work appeals to, why that is, where we can reach those people, and crafting messages that not only compel them to complete a transaction, but inspire their loyalty and dedication to ramp up over time?
Audience development is not about transactions, it is about relationships. And the best relationships are ones where we not only share, but also listen. These are two-way interactions. In trusting, honest relationships, we gain insight into not only who we think or say we are, but into who our communities actually perceive us to be. Entering into this type of work – seeking feedback – can make us feel vulnerable, and as a result, some organizations deliberately avoid it. I believe that these efforts are typically worth it.
Actively seeking input from our audiences is extremely valuable, particularly if we really listen, reflect on it, and integrate our learning into our next projects. This doesn't have to apply to the art, but it can, and that can also open up new pathways for engagement. Feedback helps us know whether we are being effective as artists and organizations. If we allow it, it can also let us know when something is wrong or bring about exciting opportunities that we would not have otherwise have discovered. Input also helps inform and enhance our relationships with the people who care about our work, in whose hands we place ourselves for every artistic project.
Audiences are made of people. They know when we are not being honest. They also know when we care, and when we value them. And it doesn’t hurt to show it.