Audience Appeal Requires Knowing Your Audience

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Howard Sherman, who writes on Audience Development and the arts, raised this question in a post from February of this year, ,

                “… as the “arts community” fights its valiant, essential, and never-ending battle to convince the public at large of the value of “the arts,” I cannot help but wonder whether those on the receiving end of such messaging each hear very different things when these words are presented to them.

Basically, he’s pointing out the difficulty in communicating with those who aren’t already aware of our brand. Do we understand who we’re trying to attract, and what appeals to them?  Do we know what they need to hear in order to be enticed into buying? Are we answering their questions or are we making assumptions and using those assumptions to guide our appeals? If we don’t understand what matters to our target audience, we might actually be turning them off with our marketing and advertising.

Here are a few assumptions I’ve heard about theatre audiences:

  •             Families with children don’t go to the theatre.
  •             Young people don’t come out to see Shakespeare.
  •             Men aren’t going to buy tickets to romantic comedies.
  •             Women aren’t interested in biography/history plays.
  •             Seniors are offended by profanity, nudity and sex onstage.

All of these are audiences you might want to attract, but are you making unfounded assumptions about them? Let’s look at one lucrative theatre audience: Seniors. These folks have time to attend plays, and often, they have the money to support theatrical organizations. They buy season tickets, and they might even donate money! During discussions about play selection and show promotions I’ve heard plenty of talk about Seniors and the pitfalls of plays that include “language,” or that are “too sexy.” The assumption is that if a play has vulgarity and sex, older people will be offended. They won’t buy tickets.

Is that true?

Let’s take a moment (and a calculator) to do a little simple math and discover who these Senior audience members are as a generation. We’ll pick an audience member at random — a woman 65 years of age who’s name might be Beverly.

Beverly was born in 1948, so she’s a member of the Baby Boom. That means that she turned 20 years old in 1968 – the height of the era of flower children and free love. Of course, this doesn’t mean she was a hippie, but it does mean that she’s familiar with their ideas. When Beverly was 25, in 1973, the women’s lib movement was underway. There’s a good chance that instead of being a stay-at-home-Mom, Beverly worked part of her life. She didn’t turn 40 until 1988! Her kids were the ones wearing neon parachute pants and watching MTV.  And she only retired this year – but she’s still healthy and active.

So what’s my point? My point is that we can’t lump people into generic groups and assign them a single profile of characteristics. If we, as organizations, are making broad generalizations about what appeals to or offends “Seniors,” what other groups are we making broad generalizations about? And if we’re off the mark in our assumptions, what are the odds that our marketing and advertising appeals are going to draw them into our theatre?

 Before we can attract new audiences, we’re going to have to get to know those audiences.

 What do you think? Leave me a comment and share your thoughts on attracting new audiences.

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Katie Strickland

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