Top 5 Ways NOT to Build a Younger Audience

04.30.10 | 36 Comments

CATEGORIES about 2am, audiences, ideas, marketing, social media

It popped up in my newsfeed again: another article about an opera/museum/symphony theater company’s new initiatives to attract a “younger audience.”

I open these articles with a combination of dread and excitement these days. Maybe this time, this new organization (that spent a couple hundred thousand dollars on a market research study) will announce a genuinely new idea- something that really addresses the interest gap between young pop culture enthusiasts and high culture curators.

Instead, it is the same five tired ideas that every other arts organization has tried. That did not work. The frustrating part? This company could have saved themselves the time and the money by just making  a few phone calls to their neighbor organizations who already tried these same ideas and asked them, “So, how did it work for you?”

You didn’t ask. So I’m going save us all some time and TELL you anyway. Here are the Top 5 things that have been tried at arts organizations large and small for the last decade to “build a younger audience” that DO NOT WORK.

5. Young Professionals Club.

How it’s supposed to work: You invite a committee of “young professionals” to organize parties and events related to your organization. These “influencers” invite their friends and like-aged colleagues to the events, after which they become delighted to have discovered your art form and develop into subscribers, donors, and board members.

What really happens: You spend an extraordinary amount of time and resources to find food, booze, etc. to repeatedly entertain this committee’s same group of 20 to 30 friends. In the best case scenario, these events become popular for the free booze and the meat market. Your art form is an afterthought. The percentage of new patrons gained in your target demographic does not even remotely compensate for the staff time, organizational energy and resource gathering it takes to carry this off.

Instead: Want to cultivate younger board members? Take them to lunch. Invite them to the theater. Don’t throw free parties for their ex-lovers and friends.

4. Regularly Scheduled “Young People’s subscription series” with catchy/hip sounding name. Probably with the word HIP or AFTER in the title.

How it’s supposed to work: You make people feel more comfortable coming to your otherwise uncomfortable venue by giving them a special night where they are promised other young people to hang out with while they see your work. You probably add enticements like pre-show wine tastings, post-show live bands in the lobby or on stage, and Wii competitions after the show.

What actually happens: You sell a few deeply discounted subscriptions to young people in this series. But it doesn’t fill, so you open up tickets to your regular audience. The pre-show wine tasting is a sea of cat-loving women of an age. The post-show band lets their friends and fans in through the backdoor once the show lets out- they don’t even know what the show WAS. Your building clean up staff hates you in the morning.

Instead: A young subscription series is like asking us to get married before we’ve been on a date. And our generation decides by cell phone where to meet up for dinner WHILE WE’RE IN THE CAR ON THE WAY. Your attempt to squeeze a year long commitment out of a new audience demographic is doomed. Accept it. Instead, create a standing offer for people below a certain age- one that’s available almost any time. And scrupulously examine and eliminate all of  your barriers to last minute ticket purchase (Do your box office phones close two hours before curtain? Are there ten clicks between your homepage and the actual moment you can purchase a ticket? Can you even PURCHASE a ticket through a mobile device?)

3. Your Student Ambassador Program.

How it’s supposed to work: You create volunteer positions for students at colleges and universities who agree to hang your posters and put your postcards in the student union in exchange for free tickets to the shows.

What really happens:The theater nerd you hired is ecstatic about the opportunity (and the tickets) at first. Then second semester slams them with a heavy course load, they get cast in the spring musical, and your postcards moulder in the trunk of their car.

Instead: How up to date is your contact list for the student newspaper? The “writers” there change every semester. But at least if you email them and invite them to the show, their opinion will be broadcast in print form throughout campus. Much more potentially influential than a coffee stained postcard in the student union. Also, how actively are you keeping in touch with the English and Humanities department heads? A regular invitation to them, with a reminder of how your art relates to their coursework is probably the single most efficient way to get college aged bodies into your building. Studies repeatedly show that people who are exposed to the arts as part of their college course work later go on to voluntarily participate in cultural events after they graduate (with a ten year lag, of course).

2. Starting a Facebook Page and Twitter Feed.

How it’s supposed to work:Everyone on Facebook is an overcaffeinated, multi-tasking 20-something dying to be “invited” to your performance series so they can later “tweet” about how awesome your show is and tell everyone to “#FF” you.

What really happens: You do know that the median age of Facebook is much closer to 40 than 20, right? And that over 70% of Americans have an account? Facebook is a fantastic tool to connect with your WHOLE audience. But if  you are mostly sending out endless “facebook invites” to your performances and then posting your press release and show poster with a “Don’t Miss this show, great under 30 discounts here” message, you are not only annoying that 20-something audience you are trying to cultivate , you are under-serving the rest of your audience to whom the discount does not apply.

Instead: Your audience should get the same high quality cultural experience from you on Facebook as they do when they show up at your venue. The difference? At a performance, they don’t get to talk to the artists. On Facebook, they should be encouraged to. So ask questions, encourage them to ask questions, tell stories, provide behind the scenes snapshots. To use the buzzword, ENGAGE. And make sure that “special offers to Facebook fans” are less than 20% of your overall communication on that medium. The same goes for Twitter- make sure you are entertaining/enlightening (and LISTENING) to your audience twice as much as you are “offering” to them. The young audiences on those mediums will notice (and appreciate) that you are “getting it right.”

1. Hire a “hip” Marketing Consultant to “freshen” up your materials and make them “speak” to a younger generation.

How it’s supposed to work: These people know the buzzwords to speak to that generation, and they know the cutting edge graphic styles that will make your Stravinsky concert look as thrilling as the latest “Passion Pit” concert poster.

What actually happens: They present you a proposal that suggests that you lower-case everything in your marketing materials, start a twitter feed, and have live bands play in your venue after hours. Then they charge you an exorbitant fee to “curate”  illustrations from the same illustrators  you could have found yourself if you had put out an RFP through any one of a number of design gig listservs.

Instead: Have a heart – to- heart with your core artistic staff. How willing are they to explore projects that have true cultural relevance to the under-40 generation? More importantly, who have they cultivated as a  resource to introduce them to artists and projects that connect with the current generation’s tastes and concerns? Is there, in fact, ANYONE in your artistic department under 40? This is where the real rubber meets the road. Just like you cannot expect to attract a diverse audience without a deep commitment to collaboration and programming that’s directly relevant to their concerns, you can’t introduce a younger audience to your art form if you aren’t presenting something that feels relevant to their lives and in touch with the world they live in.

Don’t put the onus entirely on the artistic department, however. It’s also time for you to have a heart-to-heart with your entire communications team, to comb through the language you use to promote your institution and rid it of double-speak, insider references to “legends” in your industry that people below 40 have probably never heard of, graduate level vocabulary and excessive, effusive adjectives intended to imply a critical approval of your art that may or may not exist (in other words, bullshit).

Ask yourself:

Does this description of our event connect the dots between the experience of the event and a familiar cultural phenomena of the last 10 years?

Does it smell like “corporate speak” to a generation raised in a media-saturated (and savvy) environment?

Does it imply a need to understand the entire context of modern theater/dance/music to get the references?

Does it assume familiarity with theater-going habits or ideas (subscription, exchange, orchestra,mezzanine, Tony Award, preview…) that may be entirely unfamiliar to someone who’s never bought a ticket to the theater before?

In fact, do that before you start a single new program, pricing plan or “committee.” And if you are not sure, take a great writer (who’s under 40 and not an insider to your art form) out to lunch and tell them to tear apart your copy. You’ll probably learn more about the audience you are trying to reach in that one lunch than anything else you could possibly do.

Speaking of just ASKING, what have you done to attract a younger audience that’s seen real results? I’d love to hear your success stories and any other ideas you’ve tried that weren’t what they were cracked up to be. Do TELL.

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  • nickkeenan

    I think what I've seen work is that last suggestion: When you empower younger creatives to shephard your messaging from within the organization, two things happen: Your messaging gets more accessible to a younger audience (even if it's still directed to an older audience), and your empowered creatives become more accountable over long-term results, because when they pull a “Oh, just create a twitter account” and start texting their pals instead of paying attention, they lose their jobs, not just an account.

    I think we fool ourselves sometimes into thinking that marketing and selling the arts will somehow find a shortcut – everything is a relationship, and everything requires the same amount of pavement pounding whether it's poster distribution or facebook / twitter conversations with patrons. It's all relationship building, and human beings still need the same amount of sniffing and handshaking and eating together to develop that core foundation of partnership and patronage: TRUST. The trick is to not find the shortcut which distracts you from building real relationships, but finding ways to build those relationships faster in a world where frankly, corporations and governments are FORGETTING that human beings make decisions based on trust. Arts organizations can WIN that game if they choose to embrace their audience instead of herding them around like cattle.

    If you want to speak to a younger audience, cultivate, connect, and train a younger staff, and make it worth THEIR while to stay with you for the long haul. Inspire them and teach them what it took to build the organization 20 years ago. Find common ground and stop treating the new cafe window (social media) like it's some kind of foreign valhalla wonderland. Have them tell you what it really is, and you tell them how important it is to shake a hand and build an audience two tickets at a time.

  • pcello

    Terrific post!

    One of the things that I like that you highlight right out of the gate is how more established arts organizations are spending all this money on market research when they could just be talking to other arts institutions in their market about what has been tried before and has or hasn't worked. The main problem with arts organizations in a competitive market based environment that model the development of new strategies on how big capitalist companies develop theirs is that arts organizations don't have the kind of budgets that can sustain this “shooting-fish-in-a barrel” approach. When your resources are more limited you MUST be smarter about how you spend those resources. Collaboration and information sharing is the key – but if we continue to see each other as aggressive “competitors” for every bit of market share (aka audience) we'll continue to not talk to one another and not get a sense of the bigger picture. We then become beholden to “guild” organizations tell us “through research” what the best practices around this or that are rather than discovering through dialogue and collaboration with other arts institutions what those best practices are.

  • Trisha Mead

    I couldn't agree more, particularly because the research shows us again and again that people who consume some culture are the most likely to consume MORE culture. We can become very entrenched in our belief in the scarcity (and poverty) of our audience, and it can make us blind to the amazing partnerships and mindshares availalable at our neighbor arts institutions.

  • pcello

    Amen. I also think that it is a multi-dimensional problem. So not only are theaters not talking to other theaters (“direct competitors”) but organizations are also not talking cross-platform (“indirect competitors”) when we should be having these conversations on a broad based level. ALL types of established arts organizations are having challenges cultivating new audiences and should be talking not only to each other but also to smaller up-and coming institutions (who in many respects are piloting all sorts of interesting audience development strategies). It's an eco-system and just like any eco-system if a holistic approach isn't taken we could be (at best) missing the mark with a scattershot approach or (at worst) causing further deterioration.

  • It's a little bit like the electrical power system. (Stay with me, here.) Up until deregulation a few years ago–see Enron et al (the company, not the play)–electrical utilities worked together and cooperated to ensure reliability and prevent blackouts. Once the landscape shifted and the utilities were told they were monopolies instead of services and all sorts of companies sprang up in the spirit of competition, the system splintered at that cooperative, service-oriented level. And then? Blackouts.

    (This is way over-simplified, of course. Hard to reduce down to a simple paragraph…)

    One thing we've talked about here and on Twitter is the difference between cooperation and collaboration. So many people think the words are interchangeable. They're not.

    If we can foster cooperation among arts organizations, communication, everything we're talking about here, I think all the boats would rise. We should embrace the idea that on some level, we're providing a service as well, and we can work together to help the arts thrive in our individual communities.

  • monicareida

    A very good post. I really do agree with most of this because I've seen it tried and fail at some theater companies. One even started a group of special actors to write and produce a play to attract a high school audience. It lasted one season.

    I know that one of the theaters in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls was struggling with a younger audience. Frequently I would go to a play and be the youngest person there, the next youngest would be in their 40s. They lowered their ticket prices for students to $10 and suddenly they had more high schoolers and college students attending their plays.

  • This is a great post.

    The best part is near the end: “Is there, in fact, ANYONE in your artistic department under 40? This is where the real rubber meets the road. Just like you cannot expect to attract a diverse audience without a deep commitment to collaboration and programming that’s directly relevant to their concerns, you can’t introduce a younger audience to your art form if you aren’t presenting something that feels relevant to their lives and in touch with the world they live in.”

    We get really, really precious with the actual content we're generating–so much that we get this stupid idea that it is inviolate. We have this myth of the independent creative genius that we love to hold on to, forgetting that all art has an audience and a context if it is going to mean anything. We actually get annoyed with audiences who don't enjoy the work, even if there is little of interest for them in the work.

    You could write a very similar blog post about attempts to attract culturally and racially diverse audiences. Very, very similar.

  • Chicago theater couldn't function the way it does if everybody played the game you are describing. There are so many small theaters here that we really are in a hypercompetitive environment. However, there are so many small theaters here that there are also lots of cross-pollinating worker bees. Companies that get too insular or sharp-elbowed in their competition frequently find that they aren't getting the assists from their peers anymore. And it certainly helps this process that most theater companies are too small to adopt monopolistic competitive strategies that they teach at business school.

  • Trisha Mead

    I totally agree with you Nick, and at the same time I can understand that it can be a substantial challenge for mid-sized organizations to afford enough depth of staff to bring young creatives on board- its a challenge, but one we're going to have to face if we expect to remain relevant over the next 5 to 10 years.

  • Trisha, thank goodness for that last point. I can't express how many times I've had theatre goers and theatre administrators scoff at the behavior of younger audiences, dismissing them as irrelevant to their overall theatre base.

    Drives me nuts.

    I'd love to see a play about the digital generation gap.

    About the ability to purchase tickets online – there's really no excuse for not being able to do this – for a theatre of any size. There are dozens of solutions available for arts organizations of all sizes (and budgets) that will enable you to sell tickets on the Web and via mobile.

  • dalematt

    Brilliant article, hopefully read by those who need to hear it.

  • Trisha Mead


    Regarding online ticket sales- agreed. There are at least three absolutely FREE ways for companies to do this in Portland alone. There's really no excuse anymore for the “leave a message on my cell phone” school of ticket reservation, no matter what size your company is.

  • Trisha Mead

    Thanks Dale!

  • Trisha Mead

    We did post a similar article about developing diverse audiences on 2amt- you'll find it here: http://www.2amtheatre.com/2010/03/17/the-divers

    Would love your thoughts on that post as well.

  • You have Brown Paper Tickets in Portland, right? Can you complete a BPT purchase from a mobile device? I tried to do it the other day, but couldn't complete the transaction.

  • With Brown Paper Tickets, you're plugged into an international network and it's all free. Between that, the upcoming project Fractured Atlas is working on and Chroma Tickets, life is good for theatres of any size wanting to sell tickets in the 21st century…

  • Trisha Mead

    We have Brown Paper tickets and HulaHub (formerly boxofficetickets.com). Both are national, HulaHub is based in pdx and has a fantastic mobile app that not only shows you what's playing near your current geographic location, you can buy tickets through the app in about three clicks (and then tweet or post to facebook that you've done so). And its free to the companies that use it.

    I'm hoping that Tessitura (the box office/devo system where we larger organizations have congregated in the last five years) will develop a good mobile app partnership that will allow us to transition to more phone friendly ticket sales while still operating directly out of our core database. That's the current holy grail for those of us that are too large for a Chroma or Brown Paper Tickets or HulaHub model.

  • Good luck waiting on Tessitura. The consortium model of responsibility means that it runs like navigating an aircraft carrier down the Mississippi River. It keeps picking up steam (and partners) as it goes, making it harder and harder and harder to turn the damn thing.

    We use it where I work, which is why I say these things. When we rebuilt our website just now, we wanted a serious improvement in ticket buying functionality. The difficulty of integrating with Tessitura caused massive headaches, delays, and cost overruns.

  • David or Trisha, do you know if transactions can be completed on BPT from a mobile device?

  • Trisha Mead

    I've never tried it, so I'm not actually sure.

  • I've been digging in to their website, have thrown the question at them directly. If not, I'd hope they're working on an option for that.

  • Trisha Mead

    I hear you regarding the aircraft carrier/Mississippi river analogy. With Tess, you sacrifice agility for stability and robustness. But I still remember quite vividly just how atrocious data management and CRM issues were for arts orgs across the country before Tess came along. So I'm willing to play “trimtab” (to quote Buckminster Fuller) and see if a few good ideas placed in the right ears at the right time can help steer the ship of state that is our current major national non-profit arts infrastructure towards embracing the next wave of consumer engagement.

    It won't happen over night, but I do trust the guys at Tessitura to get it right when they get it done. And that will impact all of us for the better.

  • Oh ho digital snob – when something goes awry on the website being able to get your seats in a second comfortable way is important. Especially when my company doesn't have the keys to the backend of the website. Google Voice vm enables quick and easy customer service that isn't dead by a long stretch.

    I whole heartedly agree that online purchase is now your first line (and I am excited for Chroma Tickets for a window to wall FOH solution for indie companies) but we need to not eliminate “legacy support” because the best solution is online.

  • Trisha Mead


    Voice mail can be a totally useful secondary mechanism. But if its my only mechanism for getting tickets to your show I am deeply annoyed- I don't want to play phone tag to secure seats.

  • LOL, I am a very excellent phone tag player 🙂

    I'm biased for the next show cycle as I had to play support personnel for our ticketing solution and almost lost 4 attendees to a weird registration loop 😉

  • Trisha Mead

    Ugh. Sounds like they need a new box office solution. Stat.

  • They're looking.
    They also need to not keep the registration info for themselves. But that's a different discussion.

    It put me in a good place to really examine a ticketing solution.
    It also gave me ten minutes on the phone with an audience member to begin a relationship…

  • Great discussion. Our site is fully functional on mobile devices, and we also have a REST API that allows event producers to integrate our service into apps they are developing. Aaron, not sure what happened with your experience but if you'd like to tell us more we'd love to troubleshoot.

    There's a museum here in Seattle that has done a pretty decent job bringing in younger crowds for evening events. They bring in all different types of artistic groups (performance art, comedy, juggling, poetry), along with DJs from popular local artists. Each group has their own draw but it's also curated so they fit together as a whole. The first 100 guests get in free but otherwise the bar makes a lot of money and it draws in a whole new crowd to the space.

    Here's an example of one of their events: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=102950381935 & they've also done a pretty decent job on Twitter: http://twitter.com/iheartsam – hope that helps as an idea of a success story!

    – Tanya @ Brown Paper Tickets

  • OK, I'll email you. Is this correct? Tanya [at] BrownPaperTickets [dot] com

  • Trisha Mead


    Sounds like an intriguing event. I wonder how it translates to museum membership? The Portland Art Museum has an After Hours event that sounds similar. I'd be curious to hear from museums who have tried this regarding how it has impacted the age of their membership and their regular museum attendence?

  • Trisha Mead

    P.S. Tanya, great catch on finding and responding to the Brown Paper Tickets sub-thread of this discussion. Your post is exactly the kind of “respond to a concern through social media engagement” that I would love to see more theaters take a proactive approach with.

    Look forward to hearing how it turns out.

  • John Bromels

    LOL @ “Is there, in fact, ANYONE in your artistic department under 40?” How true! Trisha, I have really been enjoying your posts on this and on Filthy Lucre. Not sure why I can't log in to make this comment, though…
    We encountered the same problem as Aaron Anderson: a website redesign didn't interface properly with Tessitura, and now we're doing a re-redesign only about 18 months later! Also, we've just started really trying to embrace social media, but are sort of fumbling in the dark: throwing a lot of things onto our Facebook page (videos, blog posts from actors and the AD, photos of opening nights) and seeing what sticks or at least sticks out.
    Anybody know of a theatre that has done the Social Media thing really, really well?

  • Aaron pointed to this entry. Sad to have missed it 4 weeks ago. That problem is now solved by subscribing to your RSS…

    I'm coming from an orchestra background and all these organizations face the same problem. One outstanding example of an arts org doing social media really well is the Brooklyn Museum: http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/community/

    I just wrote a post on the new Orchestra R/Evolution blog for their annual industry conference, about the tough questions for social media, what it is and what it is not: http://orchestrarevolution.org/?p=377

    I'm glad to see that I touch on some of the same elements as Trisha. Social media is not there to reach the illusive “young people” and it's not going to save orchestras. It might help the cause, but only as part of a complete strategy. Social media does mean organizational culture change and it does mean mission statement. Everything needs to originate from your mission statement and arts organizations' internal culture can do with some transparency, better collaboration between junior (new technology, social media) and senior (strategy, business experience) employees.

    What I like about this post, is as nickkeenan writes in one of the first comments: “The trick is to not find the shortcut which distracts you from building real relationships, but finding ways to build those relationships faster in a world where frankly, corporations and governments are FORGETTING that human beings make decisions based on trust.”

    That, paired with institutional change and a focus on your mission statement.

  • I really liked this post, Trisha. Well said! Only point that I do see working at times is the Young Professionals Club. Some organizations implement a small fee to join the club and the dues goes towards the costs of the extra social events. They also implement interactions with the staff, artistic/music directors, etc and make sure that the art is front and center to the club. Lastly, they don’t make it a point to invite every young professional, they work at finding the ones that enjoy their art form and build relationships with them first. All your other points I completely agree with! It can be a waste of money and time if you do not consider the realities. It is best to discuss and ask around for what is working, but always take into consideration what will work best for your company and art form (do not simply duplicate other people’s ideas). Thanks again for posting this, Trisha.

    • Trisha Mead


      Your point is well taken regarding Young Professionals clubs- I have seen good evidence of organizations who have used this model to cultivate close relationships with small groups of targeted people who have subsequently become donors and board members.

      This is a classic situation where clearly identifying the goal of the tactic makes all the difference in the world- and if your organization’s goal is narrowly focused on high end cultivation of key young donors and opinion leaders in your community, then this tactic is TOTALLY worth it.

      My caution regarding the Young Professionals Club is that, in my experience, the time and resources spent per person to cultivate that small group can rapidly outweigh the additional ticket revenue… without dramatically increasing attendance by that age group overall.

      In other words, Young Professionals Clubs can be a wonderful development tool to cultivate a small but critical group of next-generation donors and supporters. I just haven’t seen the evidence that, as a marketing tactic, it increases the overall attendance of a younger demographic.

      Another recent example of being clear on your goals in order to measure success appropriately would be my own organization’s recent experiment with free live pre-show music in the lobby on Saturday nights.

      We became concerned that the tactic was not working because the average attendence for the music events early in the season was somewhat low. Before cutting the program, however, we looked back at what the original intent of the project was. Our original goal was to increase premium Saturday night subscription sales by providing a “perk” that would help justify the higher price on a premium night.

      And when we surveyed our sales staff and compared subscription numbers year to year we discovered that, not only had Saturday subscriptions increased, anecdotal reports made it clear that many patrons were citing the live music as one of the reasons they chose that performance series. So the tactic was successful, even though those same patrons were not necessarily ATTENDING the live music portion of the evening!

      So we ultimately decided to keep the tactic, and instead increase our reminders and communication about the free live music to ensure that the people who signed up for the event actually attended.

      The moral of the story- keep your original goal clearly in mind and make sure your measures of success accurately show achievement of that goal. And remember this weird quirk of human nature: we often by a product based on a shiny special feature that we never actually USE…

      Thanks for weighing in Shoshana- its good to hear that organizations are finding a successful way to utilize the ‘Young Professionals’ model.

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