Audience Development vs. Marketing

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If you haven’t heard the term audience development yet, the simplest way I know to describe it is the organized activity you take on to build long term relationships with the people who attend your shows. This definition certainly leaves room for some overlap with marketing. I would argue that audience development is contained entirely under the umbrella of marketing, but that depends in part on your definition of marketing – something of a nebulous term. By any definition, though, both audience development and effective marketing are critical to the success of every arts organization.

A few weeks ago I finished reading The How of Audience Development for the Arts. It’s a digital book written by Shoshana Fanizza. I’ve guest posted on her blog before, and when I saw this book was less than $3, that seemed like a trivial price for a chance to get a better sense of how she sees audience development fitting into the pantheon of arts marketing.

I learned Shoshana views audience development as something completely separate from marketing. To grossly oversimplify her words, she describes marketing as getting the word out about your show. (I think of this as show promotion – a small piece of marketing as a whole – and it’s largely where my focus is with Sold Out Run.) She describes audience development by contrast as “working with and creating with the audience to benefit both the organization and the audience.” Effectively this means taking a collaborative approach in how you create and present your art so that your audience feels more engaged and emotionally invested in the final product.

Of course you’re hearing my interpretation of her words. If you are interested in audience development, I feel very comfortable recommending that you read The How of Audience Development for the Arts yourself. It’s easily worth the $3 price tag.

What I think audience development is

I view audience development through the lens of examining every touch point you have with your customers, and being very intentional about the impression that experience leaves.

  • How do you answer the phone when someone calls the box office?
  • What sort of amenities do you offer to sponsors and donors when they attend a show?
  • Is your communication varied for the different segments of your audience, or does everyone receive a generic newsletter?
  • How easy is it to park when someone attends your show?

These are the types of moments that can foster or extinguish my loyalty to an arts organization. Starbucks grew from a regional name to a national mainstay in just a few years in large part because they addressed these questions so well. In the corporate world paying attention to these tiny details is called experiential branding.

Since I have a very broad definition of marketing in my mind (i.e. finding the people who want what you’re selling and motivating them to take action) I see audience development falling under the umbrella of general marketing. Though it is certainly different from show promotion.

Audience development vs. marketing (show promotion)

I should point out that Shoshana does not dismiss show promotion as unimportant. She just believes (probably correctly) that many arts organizations don’t recognize the value of focusing on audience development and assume that their general marketing activity will be sufficient to grow a loyal, engaged audience. As I’m writing this, it occurs to me that could be in part why she has made a point of drawing a distinction between audience development and marketing in her writing.

So while audience development focuses on building a relationship with individuals who become your loyal patrons and donors, show promotion is about finding the people who are going to love your current show. In many ways promotion is going to feed your audience development. Your marketing strategy and tactics for this show will pull in a new audience, and that’s when audience development takes over. But before you can start building a relationship with people, you have to make some initial connection.

Why I don’t blog about audience development

Frankly people like Shoshana are already creating great content around audience development. Valuable tidbits about audience development show up in my work because there is overlap in audience development and show promotion. But as far as taking a focused approach to developing your audience, I feel like that need is already being very well addressed elsewhere.

Where I do see an under served niche, though, is in helping small and medium theatres understand how to promote a show. It’s a fundamental set of skills that is necessary at every level of arts marketing – from the smallest community theatre to the largest national institutions. I don’t think arts marketing stops with show promotion, but I do believe that’s where it starts.

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