Top 5 Ways NOT to Build a Younger Audience


It popped up in my newsfeed again: another article about an opera/museum/symphony theater company’s new initiatives to attract a “younger audience.”

I open these articles with a combination of dread and excitement these days. Maybe this time, this new organization (that spent a couple hundred thousand dollars on a market research study) will announce a genuinely new idea- something that really addresses the interest gap between young pop culture enthusiasts and high culture curators.

Instead, it is the same five tired ideas that every other arts organization has tried. That did not work. The frustrating part? This company could have saved themselves the time and the money by just making  a few phone calls to their neighbor organizations who already tried these same ideas and asked them, “So, how did it work for you?”

You didn’t ask. So I’m going save us all some time and TELL you anyway. Here are the Top 5 things that have been tried at arts organizations large and small for the last decade to “build a younger audience” that DO NOT WORK.

5. Young Professionals Club.

How it’s supposed to work: You invite a committee of “young professionals” to organize parties and events related to your organization. These “influencers” invite their friends and like-aged colleagues to the events, after which they become delighted to have discovered your art form and develop into subscribers, donors, and board members.

What really happens: You spend an extraordinary amount of time and resources to find food, booze, etc. to repeatedly entertain this committee’s same group of 20 to 30 friends. In the best case scenario, these events become popular for the free booze and the meat market. Your art form is an afterthought. The percentage of new patrons gained in your target demographic does not even remotely compensate for the staff time, organizational energy and resource gathering it takes to carry this off.

Instead: Want to cultivate younger board members? Take them to lunch. Invite them to the theater. Don’t throw free parties for their ex-lovers and friends.

4. Regularly Scheduled “Young People’s subscription series” with catchy/hip sounding name. Probably with the word HIP or AFTER in the title.

How it’s supposed to work: You make people feel more comfortable coming to your otherwise uncomfortable venue by giving them a special night where they are promised other young people to hang out with while they see your work. You probably add enticements like pre-show wine tastings, post-show live bands in the lobby or on stage, and Wii competitions after the show.

What actually happens: You sell a few deeply discounted subscriptions to young people in this series. But it doesn’t fill, so you open up tickets to your regular audience. The pre-show wine tasting is a sea of cat-loving women of an age. The post-show band lets their friends and fans in through the backdoor once the show lets out- they don’t even know what the show WAS. Your building clean up staff hates you in the morning.

Instead: A young subscription series is like asking us to get married before we’ve been on a date. And our generation decides by cell phone where to meet up for dinner WHILE WE’RE IN THE CAR ON THE WAY. Your attempt to squeeze a year long commitment out of a new audience demographic is doomed. Accept it. Instead, create a standing offer for people below a certain age- one that’s available almost any time. And scrupulously examine and eliminate all of  your barriers to last minute ticket purchase (Do your box office phones close two hours before curtain? Are there ten clicks between your homepage and the actual moment you can purchase a ticket? Can you even PURCHASE a ticket through a mobile device?)

3. Your Student Ambassador Program.

How it’s supposed to work: You create volunteer positions for students at colleges and universities who agree to hang your posters and put your postcards in the student union in exchange for free tickets to the shows.

What really happens:The theater nerd you hired is ecstatic about the opportunity (and the tickets) at first. Then second semester slams them with a heavy course load, they get cast in the spring musical, and your postcards moulder in the trunk of their car.

Instead: How up to date is your contact list for the student newspaper? The “writers” there change every semester. But at least if you email them and invite them to the show, their opinion will be broadcast in print form throughout campus. Much more potentially influential than a coffee stained postcard in the student union. Also, how actively are you keeping in touch with the English and Humanities department heads? A regular invitation to them, with a reminder of how your art relates to their coursework is probably the single most efficient way to get college aged bodies into your building. Studies repeatedly show that people who are exposed to the arts as part of their college course work later go on to voluntarily participate in cultural events after they graduate (with a ten year lag, of course).

2. Starting a Facebook Page and Twitter Feed.

How it’s supposed to work:Everyone on Facebook is an overcaffeinated, multi-tasking 20-something dying to be “invited” to your performance series so they can later “tweet” about how awesome your show is and tell everyone to “#FF” you.

What really happens: You do know that the median age of Facebook is much closer to 40 than 20, right? And that over 70% of Americans have an account? Facebook is a fantastic tool to connect with your WHOLE audience. But if  you are mostly sending out endless “facebook invites” to your performances and then posting your press release and show poster with a “Don’t Miss this show, great under 30 discounts here” message, you are not only annoying that 20-something audience you are trying to cultivate , you are under-serving the rest of your audience to whom the discount does not apply.

Instead: Your audience should get the same high quality cultural experience from you on Facebook as they do when they show up at your venue. The difference? At a performance, they don’t get to talk to the artists. On Facebook, they should be encouraged to. So ask questions, encourage them to ask questions, tell stories, provide behind the scenes snapshots. To use the buzzword, ENGAGE. And make sure that “special offers to Facebook fans” are less than 20% of your overall communication on that medium. The same goes for Twitter- make sure you are entertaining/enlightening (and LISTENING) to your audience twice as much as you are “offering” to them. The young audiences on those mediums will notice (and appreciate) that you are “getting it right.”

1. Hire a “hip” Marketing Consultant to “freshen” up your materials and make them “speak” to a younger generation.

How it’s supposed to work: These people know the buzzwords to speak to that generation, and they know the cutting edge graphic styles that will make your Stravinsky concert look as thrilling as the latest “Passion Pit” concert poster.

What actually happens: They present you a proposal that suggests that you lower-case everything in your marketing materials, start a twitter feed, and have live bands play in your venue after hours. Then they charge you an exorbitant fee to “curate”  illustrations from the same illustrators  you could have found yourself if you had put out an RFP through any one of a number of design gig listservs.

Instead: Have a heart – to- heart with your core artistic staff. How willing are they to explore projects that have true cultural relevance to the under-40 generation? More importantly, who have they cultivated as a  resource to introduce them to artists and projects that connect with the current generation’s tastes and concerns? Is there, in fact, ANYONE in your artistic department under 40? This is where the real rubber meets the road. Just like you cannot expect to attract a diverse audience without a deep commitment to collaboration and programming that’s directly relevant to their concerns, you can’t introduce a younger audience to your art form if you aren’t presenting something that feels relevant to their lives and in touch with the world they live in.

Don’t put the onus entirely on the artistic department, however. It’s also time for you to have a heart-to-heart with your entire communications team, to comb through the language you use to promote your institution and rid it of double-speak, insider references to “legends” in your industry that people below 40 have probably never heard of, graduate level vocabulary and excessive, effusive adjectives intended to imply a critical approval of your art that may or may not exist (in other words, bullshit).

Ask yourself:

Does this description of our event connect the dots between the experience of the event and a familiar cultural phenomena of the last 10 years?

Does it smell like “corporate speak” to a generation raised in a media-saturated (and savvy) environment?

Does it imply a need to understand the entire context of modern theater/dance/music to get the references?

Does it assume familiarity with theater-going habits or ideas (subscription, exchange, orchestra,mezzanine, Tony Award, preview…) that may be entirely unfamiliar to someone who’s never bought a ticket to the theater before?

In fact, do that before you start a single new program, pricing plan or “committee.” And if you are not sure, take a great writer (who’s under 40 and not an insider to your art form) out to lunch and tell them to tear apart your copy. You’ll probably learn more about the audience you are trying to reach in that one lunch than anything else you could possibly do.

Speaking of just ASKING, what have you done to attract a younger audience that’s seen real results? I’d love to hear your success stories and any other ideas you’ve tried that weren’t what they were cracked up to be. Do TELL.

  • April 30, 2010
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