Audience development is not like The Lord of the Rings

If you aren’t familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic, click here to catch up to speed.

Fast forwarding, according to Wikipedia, the translation of the inscription on the magic “one ring” created to dominate the land and the people is:

One ring to rule them all,

one ring to find them,

One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

Darkness aside, this is not how audience development works. There is no “one ring” in our work.

There is no single, simple solution to attract new people to our organizations. Forget about a quick fix, a magic bullet, a one-and-done, a quick-and-dirty initiative with immediate results. Many organizations dip their toes into the pool and then give up before their efforts can gather enough momentum to take hold.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, effective audience development is not about you. It’s about people. It’s about the community. Specifically, it is about the people you would like to attract and engage and what they may or may not value about what you have to offer. Further, it is about trust. And like it is with people and relationships, no one approach is a one-size-fits-all, and building trust takes time.

The reality is, because this work is so people-centric, it inherently requires customization, adaptation, and the ability and willingness to change course if it is not working. This means flexibility is required. As a result, it will likely take a few years of experimenting before an organization can quantify or "prove" ROI (return on investment) to staff, board, funders, community partners, and more. Again, this is people-centric work, and KPIs (key performance indicators) and ROI are likely going to need to be hard and soft. It is worth noting that often, when groups look only at the hard elements, the optics can suggest failure; however, when plugs are pulled and organizations give up before the work has a chance to take hold (before they can really be successful), it is often worse than if they had not taken on the initiative, as perceived abandonment of any sort naturally deeply deflates trust.

The best audience development efforts I have observed are typically taken on with intention, openness, and a very clear understanding across an institution of specifically why there is an interest in pursuing it. Is it just to ensure survival or financial sustainability? Or because someone wants more [name your segment] in the seats, onstage, in leadership roles? These appeals are repeated in arts executive suites and boardrooms across the country, and yet they are related to symptoms, not the deeper structural assumptions and practices. (That is fodder for another blog post.)

So what to do? The most successful audience development practices and programs on my radar share four key elements:

1)    mutual benefit

2)    quality

3)    a people-centric approach, and

4)    a commitment to the long-range timeline.

Before jumping into action around audience development, it is worth taking the time to understand and be intentional. Ensure all stakeholders know what is happening or not happening that has raised interest or urgency about this work, why the organization believes the work is important, with whom, and how it will approach the work. During this process, it is important to underline that this work will need a commitment from all, and it will take time. Talk to staff, board, artists, community, and funders to form a full understanding.

And although it should be intuitive, it is worth saying that when you are gathering information and forming plans, make sure you include the audiences you are setting out to attract and engage. Developing an audience engagement plan in a vacuum, without input from your intended new stakeholders, can nail your feet to the floor before you even rise from your chair.

So, roll up your sleeves and go forth. Go all-in on this adventure. Be clear, be curious, and please share what you discover!