An Audience Without A Reason to Care Is Just a Bunch of People That You Have to Clean Up After
Every three months, downtown Pittsburgh's art galleries unite for a free Friday Night gallery crawl. All the spaces are open to the public, the arts organizations mount new works and performances, and there's free food and drink for everyone who attends.
As you might imagine, people usually show up in droves for these events. And then, afterward, almost none of them come back. (At least, not until the next free event.)
Because just getting an audience in the door once isn't enough to make them want to come back on their own. You have to make the effort to get their attention, yes, but you also have to dazzle them while they're in your space AND give them a means to stay involved even after they've left.
And all of that requires a lot more effort than just handing them a mailing list.
The Fallacy of Eyeballs
At concerts, all bands love to leave mailing list sign-up sheets around the merch table. Mailing lists are useful, but getting people to admit that they want to hear more about you is only one step toward RETAINING that audience; it has nothing to do with GROWING an audience in the first place.
If all a band did was play four shows a year and then hound their mailing list to buy a CD every week, they'd have the support of very few people. So why would an arts organization -- or YOUR company -- be any different?
Give People Handles
The takeaway is the key. A band sells (or gives away) copies of its CD. Their fans play that CD for other people, and their interest in the band spreads. People start talking about that band and developing an emotional or intellectual alliance with the band's style, content and point of view.
Being a fan of the band becomes an active part of each fan's daily culture, and it becomes a natural act to share their passion for that band with others.
The organizations involved in Pittsburgh's quarterly Gallery Crawls can hand out postcards, fliers and mailing lists all they want, but they're not handing out anything people can actually take away and share. Nobody gives their friend a flier, but they will give them a CD.
So what can artists or organizations provide that would be a "CD equivalent"?
What could someone take away from your business / site that would enable them to tell another person about you, and illustrate WHY they think you're so interesting and worth getting excited about?
You Don't Know a Thing About Me
The other major stumbling block most of the Gallery Crawl organizers face is that, for many attendees, this will be the first (and only) time they'll ever walk through a gallery's or theater's doors. If they don't understand what that space is about, what kind of work it normally produces, and why its work actually matters (not to the world at large but to them, the individual visitor), they won't have a reason to come back because they won't even know why they should.
How many websites do you visit where you can't immediately figure out WHY it exists? Did the site designers provide you with sufficient answers on the About page? (Did the site designers provide an About page at all?) If not, was the site still sufficiently interesting that you cared enough to explore it on your own, or did you press the "back" button and try to find something else more obviously rewarding?
Artists face this challenge every day, and yet so few of them bother to make themselves interesting AND easily explainable. The same conundrum applies to social media. If I visit your site or download your podcast and I can't immediately understand who you are and why you're doing what you do, do you really expect me to spend my own valuable time figuring out why you matter?
If you or your organization / site / company is able to generate occasional bursts of traffic, but you never seem to actually RETAIN it, ask yourself what it is that you're NOT doing to dazzle / engage / explain yourself to them before they leave. Then, make every effort to solve that problem. Because if you don't, all you end up with are some half-eaten cheese plates and a few scribbled names on a mailing list, and neither of those are going to pay your bills.
Photo by Pete Lambert