Huntington Theatre Company - Singer

Empty seats? Don't (just) look to your marketing department.

At a recent gathering of Boston arts leaders, researcher Alan Brown challenged participants to consider a new way to understand and make progress on a persistent challenge: how to build demand and diversify audiences for the arts.

Last month I had the chance to join a group of Boston arts leaders including many Barr grantees for a workshop on building demand. Our guest speaker was Alan Brown of WolfBrown Associates. How to build demand particularly for more diverse audiences is one of the topics that grantees currently supported by the Barr-Klarman capacity building initiative identified as something they wanted to explore together. Given broad interest in the topic we extended the invitation to other Boston arts leaders as well.

There was great energy in the room and lively conversation. For me one of the most interesting and provocative ideas Brown raised was that there are two types of demand – what he called "selective" vs. "primary" demand. Increasing selective demand is about convincing someone already interested in your product to buy it from you instead of from one of your competitors. Increasing primary demand on the other hand is about creating demand where it didn't exist before. In a paper on this topic commissioned by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Brown described the distinction this way "the marketing director's job is to harvest the lowest hanging fruit while the demand-builder's job is to plant new orchards."

Selective vs. Primary Demand Definitions (Source: Alan Brown)

Alan Brown

At our session Brown suggested that too often arts organizations try to solve a primary demand problem with selective demand tactics. In other words they try to fill empty seats and diversify audiences through more aggressive marketing efforts instead of through programming or other means with potential to generate new primary demand - like the New World Symphony's free "WALLCAST" live concert series in Miami Beach.

New World Symphony WALLCAST (Source: Miami Foundation)

Miami Foundation

Drawing on his research Alan Brown proposed ten key strategies for building demand including:

  1. Experimentation with setting
  2. Experimentation with format
  3. Accessing demand across genres and disciplines
  4. Building demand through active participation and bridging modalities
  5. Curating programs that incorporate crowdsourcing and co-creation
  6. Demystification (educational interventions)
  7. Communications strategies involving artists
  8. Leveraging media to reach new audiences
  9. Lowering barriers to producing new work
  10. New approaches to curating

For more on how to actually do this here are a few resources:

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