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Is It Still Possible To Slow Down And Pay Attention?

A couple years ago, Seth Godin notes what is has probably become abundantly clear to us all– people are looking for abridged versions of pretty much every activity so they can “acquire” an experience without having to spend the time having the experience.

There is a self-perpetuating cycle set up by the media and internet which has generated the demand by creating expectations which in turn forces them to ratchet things up a bit to fulfill the expectations they helped to create.

“A performance artist was on the local public radio station the other day. He didn’t want to talk about the specifics of his show, because giving away the tactics was clearly going to lessen the impact of his work. No matter. The host revealed one surprise after another, outlining the entire show, because, after all, that’s his job–to tell us what we’re going to see so we don’t have to see it ourselves.”

Godin had an interesting observation though about the exception to this.

My full-day live seminars have impact on people partly because I don’t announce the specific agenda or the talking points in advance. It’s live and it’s alive. I have no certainty what’s about to happen, and neither do the others in the room. A morphing, changing commitment by all involved, one that grows over time.

To some degree I think all seminars, not just his, result in people feeling like it has an impact on their lives because the format itself forces people to slow down to the speed of the proceedings. (Though they may be living at a slightly different speed via their tablet computers and phones throughout the seminar.)

Godin makes a similar claim about audiobooks changing people’s lives because they can’t skip ahead and still get the full story.

This dynamic may be why the Serial podcast became such a hit. People had to navigate the story at the speed it was being delivered and no one had any idea what the ending would be.

The performing arts have long touted the uncertainty of live performance as a selling point. You never know if someone is going to flub a line or the first chair violinist will kill off the second chair by bowing too vigorously. (Don’t pretend you haven’t imagined it.)

But it seems that this level of uncertainty just isn’t enough to interest people any more. The arts may need to kick it up a notch.

Ah, but what is the answer? Certainly the endings of many performance pieces are well known or can be discovered. Even if a performance company devoted themselves to offering entirely new works all the time, it wouldn’t be long before the show is summarized and reported.

In some communities it could be more detrimental to have a new work panned on social media by a couple people than to present a well known old warhorse.

More free formatted, choose your own adventure type shows like Sleep No More offer an alternative. Except there has been a problem when people discover the outcomes designed into those shows and try to impose themselves upon the different pathways.

On a smaller scale and performed over a limited time, I imagine that this model could still prove successful for many performance companies.

I obviously don’t know the answer, but I am intrigued by the basic idea Godin presents about how an experience that forces people to travel at the pace it unfolds and evolves can have a significant impact on the participants.

This describes the experience the performing arts have always aspired to and at one time, often achieved– people walking out of a performance feeling moved by the experience. People obviously have that reaction these days too, but at one time it was happening in greater numbers and in response to content rather than spectacle.

Many aspects of those days are certainly behind us and we shouldn’t seek to restore them because they were a product of a different social and cultural environment.

The Serial team may not be able to replicate the success of their first effort, but the fact that so many people became invested in the podcast suggests it is possible that people will slow down and pay attention if you create the right product.

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Strive To Advertise With The Highest Quality Generics

About a year ago, this video was making the round essentially pointing out how we are often being unconsciously manipulated by imagery in television and video ads.

I have been kept it bookmarked intending to use it in a post at some point. It is fun to watch because you realize how often you have probably fallen prey to the feelings the imagery is trying to evoke. In the context of the video, the images are basically tropes.

I had a vague sense that I would probably use the video to make fun of common generic arts marketing phrases like “takes you on a musical journey” and “exploration of the human spirit.”

It has been awhile since I last watched it so I saw it in an entirely different context when I rewatched it this weekend.

Back in October, Trevor O’Donnell made a post on his blog about a video advertising an Android phone. He perceptively pointed out that the content of the Android ad focused almost wholly on the consumer and their enjoyment rather than on the product itself. He encouraged his reader to do the following:

Watch it and pay close attention to these things:

The ratio of content featuring customers vs. content featuring the product
The fresh, down-to-earth, colloquial, customer-centric language
The emotional impact of customers engaging with the product
The emphasis on YOU (meaning the customer)
The diversity of the customers shown enjoying the product
The fresh, professional, contemporary production values

Then he suggested people apply the same criteria to their last season brochure and see how it fared.

As I was watching the “This Is A Generic Brand” video again this weekend, I realized the reason these general images were so successful at influencing people no matter how many times they appeared in ads was because so many of them focus on the consumer and subjects with which they identify, value or aspire (even if it has no basis in the reality of their lives).

Watch the video again with Trevor O’Donnell’s criteria in hand and see how many of them it hits. It shouldn’t be difficult since in some cases, the voice over almost states each outright.

So while the video has a cynical tone, it also provides an illustration that a good deal of arts marketing is behind the curve when it comes to appealing to audiences in the manner in which they respond.

Yes, I hate to admit it, but it appears even in the use of generic advertising techniques, arts organizations aren’t using the highest quality product.

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Low Cost and Low Expectations

I once had a situation where I got a call from an artist agent who wanted to change the date of our performance. The alternative date he suggested was really inconvenient based both on which days of the week are best for audiences and where it fell in our calendar.

When I talked about these issues, the agent suggested that given the really great price we had been given for our original date, we didn’t have a lot of basis for complaining. And this is true, we had been given a really great price since the artist was looking for a fill date between shows (which subsequently shifted, of course).

This came to mind when I was reading a New Yorker article last month that suggested airlines are essentially employing “calculated misery” to get people to pay to be more comfortable.

But the fee model comes with systematic costs that are not immediately obvious. Here’s the thing: in order for fees to work, there needs be something worth paying to avoid. That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as “calculated misery.” Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.

Later the article reports that an unnamed airline is considering an “economy minus” class of even narrower seating than they currently provide.

I don’t mean to suggest that the agent changing the date was an intentional diminishment value because we had received a good price. I don’t doubt the price made it easier for them to ask for the change, but ultimately I think they were trying to find balanced solution that served all parties well.

The point I wanted to illustrate is that we will often compromise our standards when we feel we are paying below the going rate.

There are frequently conversations about how cutting budgets will adversely impact the end product. Orchestras cutting musicians will cause quality to suffer. Trying to do more with less will mean staff will be over worked and may burn out or quit.

What isn’t talked about as much is how we may not feel we can demand better because we know a person isn’t getting paid enough. How often do you decide a press release or design is “good enough” because an intern or dirt cheap freelancer created it? Is your customer service not up to the standard you would like because you don’t feel like you can demand more from front of house staff for the same reason?

Most often arts organizations experience this reticence with volunteers, including board members. You don’t feel like you can ask people to work harder or commit to making difficult decisions because they are providing assistance for free.

In my experience, the conversations about volunteers not meeting standards occurs more openly. Staff will talk about how they might nudge a cranky usher into being a little more civil or trying to motivate an unengaged board member. Maybe the required action doesn’t necessarily follow, but at least the consequences to the organization are publicly acknowledged.

When it comes to paid staff, while everyone will grouse and joke about not doing it for the money, the conversation about compromising expectations doesn’t happen as much. The decision not to ask for a revision can tend to be individually internalized rather than openly acknowledged among peers.

Think about it a little. How often have you said to another person in your organization, this isn’t quite what I wanted, but I didn’t feel like I could ask for better since we give him/her so many responsibilities and can’t provide professional development opportunities. How often have you just kept that thought to yourself?

This is an under recognized consequence of trying to do more with less. We know that this will result in what staff we have being asked to shoulder more work and the quality will suffer. But there isn’t really a recognition that we may gradually accept the slippage in quality in a way that institutionalizes it as the standard.

Perhaps this is another reason to be resolved to do less with less when funding drops rather than killing yourselves to maintain your level of service. Probably 95% of arts organization have something akin to “to provide the highest quality…” in a mission statement or similar document.

When budgets get tight and cuts need to be made, the decision to be less ambitious and cut quality in order to maintain the same number of services is often chosen instead of maintaining ambition and quality and providing fewer services. There are many good arguments for this, including maintaining visibility in the community and fully utilizing a facility.

All that is publicly acknowledged. However, because everyone is working harder and has less time to for introspection, there is rarely an open conversation about whether the organization has started to tacitly expect less of itself in 1000 unacknowledged ways and ask its community to do the same.

Arts organizations are not airlines. The demand for service is not the same. Airlines can (unfortunately) get away with institutionalizing increasingly low expectations for low prices.

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What Do You Know About Propensity Score Matching?

While it was relatively quiet in the office over the holidays, I made an attempt to catch up on reading reports that I had downloaded and bookmarked over the last few months.

In the process, I came across Measuring Cultural Engagement: A Quest for New Terms, Tools, and Techniques which is a summary of a symposium of “Cultural researchers, practitioners, and policymakers from the U.S., the UK, and other countries” held in June 2014.

Instead of telling you about what I read and evaluating it, I actually wanted to ask- Does anyone know anything about Propensity Score Matching?

Well, obviously I guess I probably should do a little explanation for people.

It is a statistical method that has been around for about 30 years, but this is the first I have heard of it. It’s application to the arts is discussed on page 18 and sounds pretty interesting, but I am not quite sure if it is something an individual arts organization could engage in themselves.

According to Measuring Cultural Engagement (MCE):

“The Norman Lear Center adapted PSM to evaluate the impact of media and arts programming. The idea is to isolate a piece of media or arts programming to assess whether audience members who were exposed to it were more likely to demonstrate a shift in knowledge, attitude, or behavior compared to very similar people who did not encounter the programming”

The reason this technique can be valuable to the arts is because it is often difficult and expensive to identify a representative sample group of people who have participated in a niche event. Yet arts groups often need to gather data from people in support of grants and it is often difficult to get the data you really need: (my emphasis)

One key problem in measuring cultural engagement is confusing outputs with outcomes. It is easier to tell funders how many seats or tickets were sold or the number of “likes” on Facebook than whether a particular arts or cultural event had a substantial impact on an individual or a community. Since many cultural agencies and organizations, including the NEA, talk about the benefit or value of arts and culture to individuals and communities, it is essential that the research community develop pragmatic tools to help these groups demonstrate that their mission is being accomplished. Using PSM in this way, arts organizations can focus on outcomes instead of outputs, measuring the impact of their work on individuals and communities.”

The example used in MCE is evaluating whether people who saw the movie Food, Inc had a experienced a change in knowledge and attitude. The Normal Lear Center used surveys distributed through social media groups and email lists affiliated with the film and production company. They received about 20,000 responses.

MCE acknowledges that one of the weakness of Propensity Score Matching is that it requires a pretty large sample size, but that the Lear Center has been able to get good results from as few as 1,000 surveys. This is one of the reasons I was wondering if it is at all viable for an individual arts organization.

Being able to get results focused on outcomes rather than outputs sounds great–if it is something that can reasonably be done. Has anyone out there had any experience with Propensity Score Matching?

Something MCE mentioned that intrigued me but wasn’t expounded upon enough was (my emphasis):

“Seventeen statistically significant variables were identified that predicted the likelihood of seeing a film like Food, Inc. Of these, only three were demographic. This surprised the film’s marketing team as demographics usually form the basis of film marketing. The three variables focused on whether a survey participant was employed in certain industries or had children. Individuals were more likely to see the film if they did not have children. This was contrary to what the marketers expected.”

I really wanted to know what the nature of the other 14 significant variables were if they weren’t demographic. Arts marketing focuses pretty heavily on demographics as well so it would be really interesting to know what types of factors made up the majority of the significant variables if they weren’t demographic.

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