Collective Insights: Innovative Outreach Strategies are Winning New Audiences

Recently, the Arts Work Fund convened a group of arts organizations to reflect on recent grants geared toward testing new strategies for attracting audiences. Participating in the conversation:

Small arts organizations are adapting to changing economic models and technological opportunities.

Using modest capacity-building grants, some small arts organizations are fundamentally rethinking aspects of their business model to remain relevant in today’s marketplace. The biggest changes, for most, have been technologically driven.

Some of the innovations include:

  • Engaging younger audiences through integrated social media campaigns using tools like blogs, Facebook, podcasts and email

  • Enhancing the theater-going experience by using online video content or music downloads to engage new audiences outside the performance space

  • Sophisticated audience data collection schemes using both traditional and new techniques such as psychographics or customized web pages that can make Amazon-like recommendations based on past ticket buying histories

  • Creative marketing materials and techniques, including:

    • A flipbook promoting a dance company distributed to coffeehouses, music clubs, theaters and local gyms with a discount coupon to track response rates

    • Collecting audience email addresses by auctioning off “encores”

    • An interactive kiosk that allows people to simulate conducting an orchestra using a Wii-like device

Impressive Results from New Strategies

Results from new strategies have been stunning.

  • Lines out the door and around the corner for the International Contemporary Ensemble’s performance of chamber music at the Museum of Contemporary Art have led to an ongoing partnership with the MCA that includes four new performances this year.

  • A new online video play coming out from Silk Road Theater Project this year will more effectively engage the majority of e-newsletter subscribers who live outside of Chicago in the theater’s performances.

  • Capacity crowds at Fifth House Ensemble’s chamber music performances last year.

  • 40, 000 unique hits and $100,000 in discount ticket sales on Audience Architect’s website.

  • Dance company Lucky Plush Productions generated significant buzz and branding among young audiences with its flipbook piece.

  • Chicago Chamber Musicians grew its e-newsletter subscriber list by 44 percent over the last two years, and a recent free concert drew the group’s biggest audience in 14 years.

  • Evanston Symphony Orchestra’s new, tailored approach to marketing reaches “older” and “younger” audiences in different ways.

  • TimeLine Theatre sold all its subscriptions for this season with very little advertising and is now undertaking a controlled test designed to measure its traditional marketing strategies against its new web-based approaches.

  • Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra’s Virtual Maestro will expose new audiences in malls, libraries, art galleries and other unconventional locations to this very successful south suburban orchestra.


Social media provides an op- portunity to engage new audiences in new ways and outside the traditional performance space.

Today’s audiences are challenging the conventional notion that the arts experience is comprised of sitting in the audience of a performance and moving toward more emphasis on participation and engagement with the art.

One advantage of social media is that it gives audiences a new and different way to experience their work outside the performance hall.

Malik Gilani, Silk Road Theatre Project said that local outreach and engagement, using the web, tv, and video helped it build a following outside of Chicago. The company is now producing online productions that have the potential to open up a whole new audience realm, located virtually all over the world.

“The majority of people receiving our e-newsletter are non-Chicagoans. Online plays serve this audience. Silk Road is the only theater nationally that offers theatrical content on Asian and Middle Eastern communities.”

The money and time saved in producing print materials and other traditional marketing tools is offset by the staff time needed to create powerful, compelling and strategic social media content. Unfortunately funders often don’t understand this need or don’t find it sufficient sexy.

“It’s logistically easier than producing written and published pieces, but the labor now goes to producing content. We’ve dealt with this by sharing the workload among everyone in the organization,” said Whit Bernard, Interna- tional Contemporary Ensemble.

“Funding someone to do this is not sexy,” said Niki Morrison, Audience Architects. “Funders don’t get that you need a body to do this. It is expensive in time spent. ”

Organizational cultures don’t always make the shift to social media easily.

Lara Goetsch, TimeLine Theatre commented that organizations need to make a cultural shift to do this work.

“I planned a discussion on this at our company retreat and it was a passionate discussion. Artists are opinionated people with strong ideas. They now need to think about their art form in these arenas. For example, is a video of a theater production appropriate or not? People have conflicting feelings and ideas.”

Goetsch added that there is a skill to creating an online personality that stays true to the mission of the company and is authentic, yet appropriate.

“Sure you want ‘backstage stories;’ but which backstage stories?” “People need training to develop their organizational personality, ” added Niki Morrison, Audience Architects.

Malik Gilani, Silk Road Theatre Project noted that not everyone in the organization has experience with social media. This can cause resistance to new ideas, or inhibit creative thinking about audience development strategies.

His theater hired a professional social networking expert to attend several board meetings for a series of 30-minute sessions to train board members in the basics of social media. The consultant helped them set up Facebook pages, for example.

Julia Rhoads, Lucky Plush Productions, said that “producing the ’flipbook’ helped her organization begin to see marketing as an extension of the company’s artistic work.

The meshing of marketing as another arm of Lucky Plush’s artistic work has opened up new and continually fresh approaches to deepen branding and develop the company’s distinct voice.

Securing legal rights to content used online is a major challenge.

“Most of our artists started in their thirties and are now in their fifties. Rights are a major issue,” said Amy Iwano, Chicago Chamber Musicians.

“They are perfectionists. They want to review everything before it is published and patch over imperfections, which is impossible.”

“Our musicians are young and love to have anything they do out there,” said Whit Bernard, International Contemporary Ensemble. “And they play a lot of stuff that isn’t heard much.

We are expanding an audience for this music, and it would be helpful if the publishing industry could come to the table and compromise a little – like allowing more than 30 seconds of content, which is what is legal right now.”

“It’s generational. Younger musicians don’t care so much about rights. They just want their stuff out there,” said Adam Marks, Fifth House Ensemble.

“We made an agreement with our equity actors that our online performances would be for ‘not-for-pay’ audiences,” said Malik Gilani, Silk Road Theatre Project.

Next Steps for Small Arts Marketing Innovators

All of the participants valued the dialogue and thought it an honest, open discussion that they would like to continue.

People expressed appreciation to the Arts Work Fund for organizing the meeting and noted that the Fund was exceptional among funders in that it honestly wants to know about what doesn’t work as well as what does work in the projects it funds.

Some suggestions for continuing included:

  • Similar meetings in the future organized to exchange information – peer networks being the strongest form of information sharing.

  • Case studies or spotlighting 5-6 organizational marketing programs each year.

  • A resource for knowing which programs are really working well.

International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE)

International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) is a chamber ensemble comprised of 30 versatile young performers, described in the New York Times as “one of the most adventurous and accomplished groups in new music.”

This past season included over 60 public performances and three major recording projects. Using an MCA performance to pilot a new media outreach initiative, ICE revolutionized its approach to audience development.

While building this audience was an important end in itself , . . . it was also of strategic importance in achieving one of ICE’s long term goals -- demonstrating to venues like the MCA that ICE is capable of serving in a copresenter role and attracting enthusiastic capacity audiences to performances of contemporary music..

Through an integrated system of blogs, podcasts, e-mails, Facebook messages and invitations, and wall postings ICE marketed its per- formances and drove traffic to the group’s other new media content.

In the course of doing this, it doubled its email subscriber base and acquired over one hundred podcast subscribers. Moreover, its performance at the MCA was sold out, with lines stretching around the block. The audience was among the most diverse to ever attend an ICE performance.

While building this audience was an important end in itself for ICE’s audience development goals, it was also of strategic importance in achieving one of ICE’s long term goals — demonstrating to venues like the MCA that ICE is capable of serving in a co-presenter role and attracting enthusiastic capacity audiences to performances of contemporary music.

This coming season, ICE will be performing four times at the MCA, and it plans to apply the same social media audience development techniques to all four of these performances.

ICE discovered the many factors that draw people to its concerts – from enthusiasm for its repertoire and reputation, to invitations from friends, to simple curiosity, to tangent points with other genres. It also learned about which aspects of the online initiatives most appealed to its readers.

One of the most common re-sponses ICE received to an audience survey was that readers and listeners particularly enjoyed “getting to know the performers” through the blog and podcast. As a result of this feedback, ICE launched the ICECast, a podcast preceding each of its self-produced performances, which features interviews with the performers and composers involved. This season’s ICEcast episodes have been downloaded by thousands of listeners.

ICE also learned more about who its listeners are, what motivates them, how they hear about it, and why they attend performances. ICE learned the power of context in its listeners’ experiences and the role that knowledge of the composer, the performer’s experience, and the ideas and politics behind the music in providing a more meaningful listening experience.

This has inspired the development of a new workshop-based education program, which ICE will launch in early 2011. ICE also realized that marketing, outreach, and education are all part of the same audience development process, and that its success as an organization is inherently linked to its success as an incubator of new audiences for its work.

Silk Road Theatre Project

Silk Road Theatre Project showcases playwrights of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean backgrounds, whose works address themes relevant to the peoples of the Silk Road and their Diaspora communities.

The creation of online stage plays will enable Silk Road Theatre Project to expand its organizational reach, more cost effectively fulfill its mission, and to meet the audience where it congregates – which is, online.

While a third of its audience in non-Caucasian (typically com- prised of the Silk Road community being represented in a given play), a majority of its audience is “mainstream” and not familiar with the cultures being represented on stage.

Productions are typically world or regional premieres about communities and experiences rarely understood in the broader public. The content, the nuances, the subtext, the cultural markers and reference points – In other words, the world in which a play exists — are more often than not “foreign” and inaccessible to the traditional theatre-going public.

Therefore, for a majority of Silk Road’s audience there is a disconnect between what’s on stage and the cultural context with which they are most familiar.

This challenge became clear through audience feedback and patron requests for programming, which explains the cultural context that is presumed in Silk Road’s plays.

In 2008 and 2009 Silk Road launched “Silk Road Sojourns,” an audience engagement tool comprised of video programming and print media that helps to create a bridge between what an average person already knows and what he or she needs to know to fully understand the productions.

Approximately 1,000 viewers have accessed videos generated for this purpose for each production. This method of tackling the capacity challenge allowed Silk Road to shore up current audiences and build opportunities to expand audiences.

One aspect of this is the creation of video plays – stage plays developed to be viewed exclusively online as a means of expanding organizational reach and more cost effectively fulfilling Silk Road’s mission, and to meet the audience where they congregate – which is, online.

Fifth House Ensemble (5HE)

Founded in 2005, 5HE pioneered the art of narrative chamber music, often performed in unexpected venues. This approach enables it to engage audiences not normally interested in classical music, especially people who are aged 25-45.

5HE is creating a multi-level marketing plan that includes audience research to generate a demographic and psychographic profile of its very divers

After working with a PR firm for the first time last season, 5HE drew capacity crowds this season.

Using a second grant from the Arts Work Fund, 5HE is creating a multi-level marketing plan that includes audience research to gener

ate a demographic and psychographic profile of its very diverse audience.

Demographics are the average or typical characteristics of audiences, such as age, income, education, occupation. Psychographics take this a step further to include people's lifestyles and behaviors — where they like to vacation, the kinds of interests they have, the values they hold, and how they behave.

This data will inform the development of a season marketing plan and marketing strategy targeted to presenters and venues, and audiences. The project will help 5HE capitalize on its past season growth and build a more loyal and sustainable audience.

5HE also has created online video content based on last season’s “Graphic Novel” theme and will do so again with this season’s “Weavers’ Tales” theme.

Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO)

Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra is a professional orchestra serving the 71 diverse communities of the Chicago Southland region.

It draws audiences of 9,000 to 11,000 each season for its nine annual concerts, two Holiday concerts, a classical Saturday subscription series and a Sunday matinee series.

IPO received an AWF grant to implement “Virtual Maestro,” an interactive conducting system used to simulate the

Like orchestras around the country, IPO is challenged to remain relevant to a modern society; sixty-five percent of IPO concert-goers are above age 50, and it has relied on traditional direct-mail and print media-based marketing strategies.

IPO received an AWF grant to implement “Virtual Maestro,” an interactive conducting system used to simulate the experience of orchestral conducting. The kiosk provides both an opportunity for meaningful educational engagement with passersby and cultivation of new audiences.

The system uses a Wii (Nintendo gaming system) remote, which users hold and move like a conducting baton to affect the tempo and dynamics of an orchestra on screen with prerecorded audio of the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra. Kiosk users will hear, see, and conduct the IPO as if from the podium.

Kiosks will be place at libraries, art galleries and shopping malls across south suburban Chicago.

A donation box will collect contributions, a short survey will collect feedback, and a label printer will distribute coupons for tracking outcomes.

Lucky Plush Productions (LPP)

Lucky Plush Productions is a contemporary / experimental dance company whose work is infused with humor, theatrics, and elegance.

Choreographer Julia Rhoads first imagined using a flipbook to promote Lucky Plush Productions in 2006. Created from stills of performances, the flipbook portrays several seconds of movement when its pages are flipped. Like Lucky Plush’s performances, it blends dance, visuals, and new media to express a new and different synthesis.

A discount coupon for the MCA performances included in the flipbook, allowed Lucky Plush to track response to the flipbook as a promotional tool.

When Lucky Plush was offered a chance to showcase its work at the MCA, the flipbook became a means for reaching MCA audiences not familiar with Lucky Plush. Copies were mailed to lapsed donors; placed in coffee-houses, music clubs, theatre lobbies, and local gyms; and distributed by “street teams” to patrons of non-dance shows.

A discount coupon for the MCA performances included in the flipbook allowed Lucky Plush to track response to the flipbook as a promotional tool. According to Rhoads, the flipbooks “got more butts in seats.”

Impressed with the results of the flipbook, Lucky Plush used a second AWF grant to link branding and marketing activities to 10th anniversary themes related to intellectual property and dance. It is now focusing on using beautiful and unusual marketing pieces and social exchange networks to catalyze broader audience involvement.

All of this activity has won Lucky Plush recognition for creating innovative and socially relevant marketing materials.

It has also stimulated a fundamental shift in the nonprofit’s approach to marketing and audience development.

Today “every person affiliated with the organization [has] ownership of exporting [the company’s] visual identity,” says Rhoads, and “every promotion is an extension of the company’s dance work, maintaining an artistic integrity of its own.”

Chicago Chamber Musicians

Grammy finalist, The Chicago Chamber Musicians, knew that increased exposure to chamber music is a proven way to grow an audience.
To get there, the ensemble took something it already had a vast library of recorded music and gave some of it away, in the form of one free download per month. This approach is paying dividends online the incentive helped grow the e-newsletter subscriber base by 44 percent since January 2008 and in the concert hall, where one of its free concerts drew its largest audience in 14 years.

Investing in its website has given The Chicago Chamber Musicians clear metrics for tracking audience engagement, both on its site and in its seats.

When it first began to scale new media’s learning curve, Chicago Chamber Musicians found web management and content creation to be time-consuming tasks and the return on investment wasn’t always clear.

As a result, it took a leap of faith to give away a monthly music download. Happily, the results have gone beyond increased web traffic: Investing in its website has given Chicago Chamber Musicians clear metrics for tracking audience engagement, both on its site and in its seats.

Now the entire organization can see how a robust online presence engages and expands its audience. As a next step, the group is building a comprehensive database of its recordings that it will use to support its audience development initiatives, as well as back-office functions and the professional development of its musicians.

Audience Architects

Giordano Dance Chicago via

Audience Architects is a relatively new organization that seeks to build new and broader audiences for dance in Chicago.

Its major audience development tool is Since the site’s launch in 2005, it has generated over 40,000 unique hits and $100,000 in discount ticket sales. More than 250 local companies/venues are listed, free of charge, on the site.

Each Personalized web page will recommend dance events of interest based on past dance ticket buying histories, similar to how Amazon works.

AA received an AWF grant to implement an audience development campaign, which will include inviting people to create their own customized webpage (Personalized URLs or PURLs).

Each PURL will recommend dance events of interest based on past dance ticket buying histories, similar to how works.

The organization will launch an active promotional campaign to drive known ticket buyers to the new websites, immediately on the heels of their going live.

Evanston Symphony Orchestra

Evanston Symphony Orchestra turned the website-to-concert- seat pathway on its head, using the energy and excitement of a live concert to drive supporters to its website, where it can cost-effectively cultivate them between performances.

Time spent figuring how to market to both younger and older audiences does triple duty: It continually improves the database, routes feedback on marketing materials right back to the organization, and offers the opportunity to be responsive to patrons.

This 64-year-old community orchestra had tried several traditional and e-marketing techniques that fell flat.

But when it offered to call a soloist out for an encore if at least 200 people signed up for the e-newsletter during intermission, a motivated audience responded with 282 e-mail addresses, including 78 that were completely new to the group, and 47 for patrons whose database records were missing an e-mail address.

To communicate with its audiences, Evanston Symphony Orchestra made a one-time investment in design services, so that its volunteers can reformat and reuse digital images, creating high-quality e-mails that reinforce the organization’s brand and identity.

The orchestra’s Board President, Penelope Sachs observes that while more and more older patrons are reading the elec- tronic version of Keynotes, Evanston Symphony Orchestra’s newsletter, the group is always happy to fine-tune communication preferences.

Switching patrons, at their request, from the electronic to the hard-copy version of Keynotes, or vice-versa, is an attentive gesture, and a reminder to the group that the newsletter is read and appreciated.

Evanston Symphony Orchestra is constantly testing and tracking which practices appeal to their older and younger audience members.

Sachs believes that the time spent figuring it out does triple-duty: it continually improves the database, routes feedback on marketing materials right back to the organization and offers the opportunity to be responsive to patrons.

TimeLine Theater

Founded in 1997, TimeLine presents plays inspired by history that connect with today’s social and political issues.

Timeline’s staff is being trained to implement and measure several online marketing tactics. The project will enable the organization to evaluate each individual marketing tactic with targeted audiences.

In addition to receiving many critical awards for its artistic work, the company has historically had strong management. It received the Richard Goodman Strategic Planning Award for excelling in strategic planning.

Last fall, the company designed and tested an array of new marketing tactics, including search engine optimization, key word search advertising, online advertising and social media.

Based on its initial findings, a grant from AWF to Timeline allowed it to further explore the potential of these marketing strategies by testing the effectiveness of new web-based marketing tools to convert those who attend its plays into subscribers.

This effort will include a controlled test designed to measure Timeline's traditional marketing strategies against the new web-based approach.

Timeline’s staff is being trained to implement and measure several online marketing tactics. The project will enable the organization to evaluate each individual marketing tactic with targeted audiences.

Amazingly, TimeLine has sold all its subscriptions for next season with very little advertising. However, it is unclear whether that success is due to The History Boys, which played to sold out houses and had a 6-month ex- tended run, or the new market- ing strategies.

Participants included:

Whit Bernard, Interna- tional Contemporary Ensemble
Ed Feingold, Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra
Malik Gilani, Silk Road Theatre Project
Adam Marks, Fifth House Ensemble
Niki Morrison, Audience Architects
Julia Rhoads, Lucky Plush
Productions Penelope Sachs, Evanston Symphony Orchestra
Lara Goetsch, TimeLine Theatre
Amy Iwano, Chicago Chamber Musicians

Marcia Festen, Arts Work Fund
Laura Samson, Alphawood Foundation
Valerie Denney, Valerie Denney Communications

The Arts Work Fund invests in the financial sustainability, management, governance and growth capacities of small arts and cultural organizations located in the Chicago metropolitan region.

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Arts Work Fund for Organizational Development
P.O. Box 577309
Chicago, IL 60657-7309
773.296.2601 PHONE
773.435.6532 FAX

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