On Keeping Our Audiences at Arms Length

27 Feb 2012

The more I delve into the world of Experience Design, the more convinced I become that the arts and culture sector needs to embrace it as a core competency.

The more I immerse myself in the subject, the more obvious it becomes that we, the arts sector, need to focus more intensely on the audience experiences we are creating, and could create in the future.

When I talk about Audience/Visitor Experience Design in keynotes, workshops and with peers, I see people’s eyes lighting up at this viable strategic approach that can deliver the triple whammy of delivering on mission, growing audiences and generating revenue.

Even better, when I talk to those people whose eyes have lit up, I notice the reason behind this is they have reconnected with their passion. You know what I mean … the one about the arts being a fantastic, valuable thing; how it can enhance our quality of life and help us celebrate, explore, experience and express our humanity.

That’s why most of us have joined the arts profession isn’t it? Because we want an active role in bringing the arts to people and people to the arts.

But how quickly have our belief and passion been dimmed by the stark realities of having to sell tickets, hit targets and meet the specific, changing demands of grant giving bodies? I’ve run countless workshops recently where I’ve invited participants to reflect on their modus operandi at work. From young nubies to long-in-the-tooth die-hards, the majority, I’m sad to say, have become disconnected from their passion by The Bottom Line.

Bizarrely, this focus on The Bottom Line has resulted in us keeping audiences at arms length. We want their time, their attention, their money, their loyalty, their Twitter and Facebook mentions. We want them to engage with our programmes and initiatives, in person and on-line. But actually, in reality, what kind of relationship do we have with them? How well do we really know them? Engage with them? Care about how they experience us?  

Now, there are some out there who perhaps regard me as a little maverick and not in the real world because of my ‘touchie-feelie’ focus on the audience experience. An alternative view is that my perspective is that of a values-driven, business-minded person who understands how to lever an organisation’s value to its audience, and thus the audience’s value to them.

And so, back to Experience Design.

Why is it so super?

In a nutshell, it develops products, processes, services, events and environments with the focus firmly placed on the quality of the customer experience. … and experience is our business. It’s all we have.

What value a performance, an object, an artwork if it is not experienced in the richest possible way? How can we hope to be desirable, relevant, meaningful, important and financially sustainable if we don’t continually focus on, refine and even re-imagine our experience offer so that people will come, engage, adopt?

If we could integrate Experience Design into the DNA of our profession, not only would it connect us to our passion, it would deliver real value for the audience and our business. 

[My thank you to Gregg Fraley for his wonderful illustration above]