A recent post on Ken Davenport’s The Producer’s Perspective caused me to engage in a bit of internal debate.
Ken says a one of the worst things you can do is greatly exceed audience expectations:
“..But it also means that before they step into the theater, they have no clue what they’re about to see . . . and they aren’t expecting it to be anything to write home to Mama about.
Exceeding an audience’s expectations isn’t a creative problem. It’s a marketing problem. It means that however you are promoting your show, from the title to the blurb to the website, it’s not generating enough excitement with your potential buyer. And, unfortunately, when audience’s expectations are low, that means that most of them won’t make a purchase. People buy tickets to things that they expect to be good great. They are buying entertainment, remember? They want to be entertained. And in 2016, with the cost of tickets as high as they are . . . entertaining an audience isn’t enough. They want to be wowed.”
This is all contrary to the outcome I want.
One of the greatest pleasures I get from my job is when people enjoy a performance they didn’t expect to. There isn’t a lot of financial remuneration in non-profit arts, but hearing people say “Wow” when they leave the performance hall…and having them continue to talk about their experience weeks, months and even years later, is pretty gratifying.
The mission of most non-profit arts organizations is to provide an opportunity for exploration and learning versus the profit making goals of Broadway shows, so you might argue that you aren’t going to want to emphasize the entertainment value of the event. If you aren’t charging Broadway prices to enter the door, then the burden of expectations is relatively lighter as well.
The problem is, most people, even those who attend your events, don’t know you are a non-profit organization. They aren’t discerning between the entertainment or education value your organization is offering versus those of a profit seeking entity. Chances are, it is all the same to them.
Regardless of whether you think people want to come for the entertainment value or to learn new things, Davenport has a point that if people are arriving not knowing what to expect, then you are probably under- or mis- communicating the event to the wider community.
Note, he is just talking about generating enthusiasm for being there. People may have an entirely wrong concept about the event and have their minds blown and that is okay. If they are tentative about being there in the first place and hoping they have a good time, that is another thing altogether.
The reasons why non-profits aren’t doing a better job at this are myriad. In some cases, it is a matter of bad decision making when it comes to allocating money and personnel to marketing efforts.
There is often a desire, and perhaps a sense of obligation, to invest money in the artistic product rather than advertising and personnel, both of which can be regarded as overhead expense.
As has been noted many times before, donors and funders want to know money is going toward results and impact, delighting people and changing their lives. Even though marketing isn’t explicitly listed as something most foundations doesn’t fund, there is less support and tolerance for the costs to reach those people and generate interest and excitement in them.
It definitely requires a careful balancing act. Some organizations are good at it, some aren’t and some probably aren’t really making an effort.
It really feels strange to read Davenport brag that his team did such a good job marketing Altar Boyz, seeing the show only slightly exceed audience expectations. But if the audiences truly expressed a high level of satisfaction with the experience and seeing the show only slightly added to that, then it a measure of success if their satisfaction extended hours, if not days prior to, and after the performance.
Is that a feeling your arts organization can lay claim to generating?
Even though the discussion inevitably circles back to issues of time, personnel and money, these questions and ideas are worth regularly revisiting, regardless of your situation. Sometimes just thinking about them provides a little inspiration about a resource or opportunity specific to your community that can be tapped into.