Cafe Witness

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

An Audience Without A Reason to Care Is Just a Bunch of People That You Have to Clean Up After

Carson Summit - Audience

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

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  • One of the keys to a successful event is to always leave your audience wanting more.

    I have been to a few opening and art parties, and the ones that are the most successful don't last forever into the night, and don't have all of the goodies in one bash; they know that there is more to come at the next event - or next blog post - or next site visit.

    You leave knowing that this is THE cool spot to be, and that when you come back next time, it won't be a rehash of what you've already seen.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:56 AM  

  • Very interesting post, I'll be watching this discussion closely. I'm curating a show downtown in April, while I think we'll be doing some unique things I always think there's more that can be done.

    By Blogger Joe, at 12:44 PM  

  • Jeremiah: Great point about leaving the audience wanting more, and I agree. But make sure the audience knows what it is that they want more OF. (Unless you're "LOST," the answer shouldn't be "clarity.")

    Joe: What show are you curating, and what are the unique things you'll be doing (if you can say)? Or, what are your worried that you're NOT doing (yet)?

    By Blogger Justin Kownacki, at 12:54 PM  

  • I'm curating a group show at Future Tenant in April. The opening is a week before the gallery crawl, so already there are 2 major events that will be passing through. Along with the visual component, I have someone composing an experimental/musical piece to perform (with possibly more than one performance over the course of the month. I'm also planning a collaborative piece between the artists to be reproduced in limited quantity and sold to benefit a local charity (probably an animal shelter, it fits with the theme). The gallery is open to our planning other events over the course of the month, so my challenge is finding other ways to engage people and get them to come out. One idea I've had is letting artists showcase some of their other work on different nights and have some other form of entertainment going on at the same time. At the end of the day, I want as much exposure for the artists as possible. If someone comes to the opening and likes an artist, then sees an opportunity to see more of their work, they may tell a friend and bring them out for the next event.

    By Blogger Joe, at 2:55 PM  

  • May I be blunt?

    A freebie every three months may be too much.

    If I had that opportunity, I would also attend the freebies and not any other time. I would cut back the free events to once or twice a year.

    Of course, you have to keep in mind that the event probably is doing well in branding the artists name and (perhaps?) developing a relationship.

    But if its not resulting in direct sales, you have some serious reconstructing to do-in my opinion.

    And I would start with cutting the freebies back.

    Julie Bonn Heath

    By Blogger Julie Bonn Heath, Marketing and PR, at 12:07 PM  

  • you know i LOVE the gallary crawls -- they should have them every week. i think the free alcohol might have something to do with people not remembering to come back.

    also, i never buy art. i should, and i will someday, but rarely, very rarely.

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