INSIDER MARKETING: Alienating New Audiences

31/07/2011 at 3:31 pm 1 comment

I have been trying in earnest not to write this post for some time. Partly because it’s a bee in my bonnet that has been difficult to pin down since it crosses over a number of bugbear issues of mine, but mainly because of a hesitation I have as a writer not to take too many sacred cows down to the abattoir at the one time. But in recent weeks, particularly as I have been thinking about marketing a lot, and what’s happening in the world of digital and social media; I realised that with my last two posts on the subject (in response to the Connecting research from the OzCo) I had been skirting around this very issue. Dipping my toes in the river without really going too deep. Upon re-reading the blogs I found myself asking “what do I really mean by that?”

There were things I wanted to say but didn’t, because they weren’t exactly on-topic, but were definitely relevant to how arts organisations define themselves, and how they relate to their audiences. But every time I held back from the issue, I felt a little treacherous inside. Which is no good, because I believe that if there is something to be said, we should say it, as respectfully as we can. Even if it hurts you more than it hurts me, I’m sorry, *I have no choice.

MAKE THE WORLD DANCE (arts & social media pt iii)

It’s about complacency. It’s about new audiences. It’s about entitlement. It’s about the money, money, money. It’s about the independent sector (something I have been a part of for over a decade) and why it pains me to say it, but the fringe is arrogant to the point of approaching irrelevancy.

That will probably cause a lot of outrage among the faux-bolshevik-semillon-sipping-sector. But I’m not worried by that. You know why? Because the same outrage that poured across our screens when the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards dared to not give a playwright their due credit has long fizzled out. Only a few months later just about every outraged playwright in Sydney was chomping at the bit to enter their work in the PWA Kicking Down Doors initiative (which, you guessed it, was funded with the money from the unawarded prize). So shake thy merry fists and gnash your teeth, independent artists – write a petition if you will. Your outrage is but a feather compared to the weight of what I feel when I look at how this culture of entitlement and self-importance has permeated this community.

It’s the same outrage that stormed the gates of the Belvoir St rehearsal rooms in droves claiming the sky was falling in on the independent theatre sector, only to see that twelve months later there are plenty of independent productions happening around the traps, and a number of organisations taking up a similar model to what B-Sharp supposedly represented. You read that right. Supposedly. Because, despite its creative and critical successes over the years – that particular program was deeply flawed in how it went about promoting itself to its target audience. One year on we can afford to be a little critical here (and I’m not talking about the quality of the art) and B# was increasingly an off-season for industry professionals, virtually impossible for emerging artists or companies to get a look in. Anecdotal evidence and my own direct experiences tell me that many independent artists felt excluded. It’s not my intention to gripe about unanswered inquiries or bag out the people involved; but I mention all this to highlight a discrepancy between how B# represented itself on paper, with how it actually engaged the audiences and communities involved.

I’m using this as an example (because it’s not current) but it’s an issue that effects any theatre company, large or small, who struggle to find an audience. B# is still a particularly sensitive topic but I want to go past that and examine why even as an industry leader over a decade into its tenure; the downstairs theatre at Belvoir found itself hosting small audiences. With a not insignificant marketing resource, industry profile, top-shelf actors and writers, it seems unlikely that there might be a struggle to reach audiences. It’s not as though they got a lot of bad reviews (we can chalk that up to the diminishing relevance of critics)… What seemed to be the problem?

Well, it’s twofold. Firstly there’s an unfortunate stigma in this city about co-op productions, which somehow becomes lumped in with ‘amateur’ theatre in the public eye. Anyone in the industry knows this is an absurd generalisation; but all the same, it’s one that the B# brand had completely failed to address. Instead, the message seemed to be one of ‘insider’ marketing, centred on those in-the-know. Friends-of-friends of the Belvoir family, if you will. Those are the people-most-likely to come, so we’ll convince them, since most folks don’t get independent theatre, we don’t need to engage them. Like asking an emo to go to the football. Eventually you’ll stop.

If you’re starting to see red right now it may be because I’ve touched a nerve. Remember there is often a difference between how a message is intended and how it is perceived. I’m a theatre-lover, I go to a lot of shows. I’ve been on the Belvoir mailing list since the days when it actually came in the mail. I knew about their work and often heard about shows that were really good, even saw a few myself over the years. But I never once felt a part of a community. What does that tell you about their engagement strategy? Obviously some people did feel as though they belonged to something – but what I’m suggesting here is a pattern of those who were in – and those who were not – ultimately isolates an organisation from the thing it craves the most. New Audiences.

Sadly this is not the only example of insider marketing in the arts. But before I get into exhibit B; let me break down the dynamic once more. It shouldn’t be too hard to recognise. For any performing arts venture, there are different types of audiences. There are friends, family and other artists in the community, who we assume will probably turn up anyway; then there are regular theatre patrons, to whom we promote the show and hope they’ll make up the bulk of our box office. Then there are the people who would probably never go to the theatre except maybe once a year. So it’s not really a productive target demographic, in typical marketing-return-on-investment terms. The real money is in those regular patrons, who see ten-fifteen shows in a year. The trouble is, there’s about 2-300 shows for them to choose from, and not enough of these people to go around. The classic mistake that arts marketers are making is targeting that pool on a show-by-show basis. Because these aren’t New Audiences, they are largely the same audiences, who simply can’t get to see everything, even if they wanted to.

So how can we engage that other 80% or so of irregular theatre patrons to come and see more than the one show per year? It’s the six million dollar question, and I have many a thought to share, but broadly speaking, people will come if they feel the art is including them in a public conversation that is relevant to their life. As I am often found repeating, art is conversation. By having that conversation in an inclusive way, the audiences will grow across the board. And for the record, inclusive conversations involve listening, and not always talking about what you want to talk about. It means not only talking to your friends or those already in the community about what’s happening in the scene. People are much more open to listening to us if we’re already making an effort to engage with them on their terms. That way when we do have something to say, through our art (whether experimental or mainstream); it’s natural for them to take an interest as there is an organic to-and-fro in play.

If we just chat amongst ourselves, the vibe is very cliquey, even for those who might have an interest in what we’re doing. Put simply, it’s a turn-off. Which leads me to Exhibit B.

THIS IS NOT (inclusive) ART

I’ve been a fan of this festival since the beginning. Since before TINA was TINA. The long weekend in Springtime, in Newcastle, I’ve been many times as an punter, and even run a few workshops up there. So it would be safe to say I’m something of a TINA veteran. Do I feel included? Not in the slightest. It really does pain me to say this but this landmark festival has crawled so far up its own collective self-importance that the people involved seem not to bother engaging with their audience beyond the barest of minimum. It’s a pattern I have noticed over several years. When TINA first began there was a newsgroup, in which anyone could signup and chat about the running of the festival and be included (for those born after 1988, newsgroups are a kind of social media that preceded the twitters and facebooks). It was clunky, but cool. I remember there was even a public discussion about what to name the festival when it finally came together as “This Is Not Art”. But now the newsgroups have become facebook pages and sadly, little more than sporadic e-blasts of “sign-up-for-our-newsletter” or “give-us-money”. And don’t even
get me started on their twitter feed. But it’s about a lot more than scarce engagement on social media. In recent times I have struggled to get any response at all from organisers, even when last year; they asked for some help via twitter- I might have been able to assist and replied with a question to clarify – and that was the end of discussion. No answer! Nothing at all.

What the hell? This is not the first time something like that has happened either. The festival seems to have a terrific little clique going of people who it talks to. Let’s call them “the cool people”. Literary insiders who kiss hello and organise panels for each other and basically expect hordes of people to turn up in October come festival time. Which they will, since there’s so much happening that weekend – it’s awesome! But let’s be clear: there’s a reason why at the end of the 2009 event an awful lot of collective hand-wringing was had about ‘unreliable volunteers’. There’s a reason I didn’t bother turning up last year. There’s probably even a reason why the Council defunded you (although, that particular dodgy issue is for another day). I even made an effort to volunteer my time one year, and got no response at all! I had a similar experience with FBi Radio, I went to volunteer and got no reply. When I subscribed, I received no information, no member number, nothing. I rang up to ask about it to no avail. When I wanted some help promoting an independent show I was in, I had to chase it up for three weeks, and then they wanted to charge me $350 for the privilege of a review! Oh, but when there was a funding shortfall, you can bet they were onto the phone to me quick-smart asking for the money. It’s not good enough.

There’s no engagement. Volunteers need to feel like they are a part of something. Audiences like to be a part of something. Councils like to be a part of something too. If TINA spent more time engaging with people outside the inner-sanctum, it would be next to impossible for funding bodies to refuse. And I can tell you, as someone who does engage with the writing communities of Sydney, I get sick of telling people about this thing called the ‘National Young Writers Festival’ and having them reply ‘Never heard of it?’… It’s a National Young Writers Festival that engages with maybe ten percent of the national young writing community. But really, don’t mind me. Talk amongst yourselves. And that’s the real danger of not utilising the tools of social media to engage with folks. You might never even know you’re turning away potential punters by acting aloof.

Bitter, much? Well, yes, I have been ignored by the festival organisers once or twice. But it’s not really about that. My bitterness is seeing what was once a vibrant, inclusive place for political and creative discussions, full of potential – become a sort of self-referential swamp of pop-culture references and literary hipsters. Yes it angers me to be excluded from a community I did once feel a part of; but it’s much more disappointing to see the slide into a sense of entitlement, even arrogance – where once there was hope that something new really was happening in this country. It’s this insider thing. Insipid, fashionable and everywhere.

Art, you need to get out more. For your own good.

What do you think? Ever felt excluded as an audience member? Am I completely off-the-mark?

*actual choice subject to interpretation of “free-will”. With great power comes great responsibility.

Entry filed under: Inside Theatre PROCESS, Marketing, Sydney THEATRE. Tags: , , , , , , , , .


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