Arts Marketers: Let’s make some memories!

January 16, 2019

During our inaugural JCA Arts Marketing Assembly in DC this summer, we asked a group of arts administrator panelists what position they would create in their departments if they had the budget. Monica Holt of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts’ answer stuck with me for several days. To paraphrase, she would create a “Memory Maker” position—someone whose responsibility is to ensure that the experience patrons have is memorable and positive. That may be snapping a picture on the terrace, meeting people at their seats when they are celebrating an anniversary, or overseeing any other number of personal non-sales/fundraising touches that happen during a customer’s visit.

I was struck by how elegantly simple the idea was. If one person at your organization could be dedicated to only making customers feel special the possibilities for deepening loyalty were limitless. I care so deeply about making patrons feel connected to not only the art, but the organization as well, so this idea resonated in a way that prompted me to share it with my partner that evening at dinner. I excitedly told him about it and how much I loved the notion. He chuckled and rolled his eyes. “No… you don’t” he said.

Some context:

I serve on the Helen Hayes Judging Panel—DC’s local theatre awards. It’s a position I truly love that affords me the opportunity to see a wide-range of art and talent in our community. One of the organizations I’m assigned to attend regularly is a dinner theatre about 40 minutes outside of DC. This company does great work, but I often dread the 20 minutes between dinner and the performance. You see, they’ve employed a gentleman to… “warm-up” the crowd pre-show.

He does typical pre-show announcements about upcoming productions, subscribing, turning off cell-phones, etc. But then his monologue shifts into insult comic-esque banter with the crowd. He asks about birthdays and teases people about their ages. He congratulates couples on anniversaries while jabbing ribs with husbands about the “ball and chain.” It goes on and on. And… I hate this. I really do. It makes me cringe and I just can’t wait for it to be over. Thus, my partner’s response about why I didn’t really love the Memory Maker idea. He said this person is doing exactly that for those people; making them feel special and giving them a personal moment to remember from the evening.

And he was right.

So is the issue that I just hate what happens there because it happens publically? That I envision this Memory Maker to be a private moment and therefore more special? Possibly. But that speaks more to my personality preferences (and disdain for curtain speeches) than to my profession as a performing arts consultant. I then have to consider that my interpretation might be based in an elitist sensibility around the non-performance experiences arts organizations should be providing. Do I have problematic perceptions of relationship-building between institutions and their patrons? If I’m being honest, I probably do. If both visions of this role are effective, then who am I to say one is correct and one isn’t?

It’s tough to admit when we’re faced with our own biases. Especially for people who work in the arts, who I believe genuinely strive to ensure everyone feels welcome. I think the problem is that we’ve become so desensitized by what typically happens when we go to a performance that spotting engagement efforts that fall outside our known and accepted bounds of understanding are jarring—at least for me. Setting boundaries around who, when, or how these relationships are cultivated are common structures organizations and administrators put in place. When I sat and thought about it I came up with a long list of things I have never questioned:

  • No public bathroom access
  • Liking/Sharing positive feedback on social without continuing a conversation or following back
  • Intermissions ending by a stopwatch and not the end of the bathroom/bar line
  • Staff emails not being on the website
  • Making people sit where they’re assigned instead of inviting them to move into empty seats
  • Ushers responsibilities post-show being limited to program clean up instead of dozens of other tasks that could have a positive impact.
  • The untapped potential of programs/ticket stubs/etc as physical pieces of memory

Each of those are such low hanging fruit to change that offer an untold capacity for creating a positive memory at and with an organization.

And let me be clear, there should be a difference between a “memory” and “engagement.” The latter implies and ongoing relationship where both parties feel they are getting something out of the relationship. A memory, on the other hand, can be one-sided and personal. Removing a transactional or even relational expectation from audience members, can allow a memory to exist in a vacuum of only warm fuzzies, which can be cultivated into engagement later on.

So, one of my resolutions for 2019 is recommit to challenging myself around these ideas. Being innovative doesn’t mean just finding something completely brand new to try. Thinking outside the box doesn’t always mean developing envelope-pushing strategies. Effective memory making can—and does —exist in overlooked areas as well as in tactics that may feel cheesy or unattractive. And to recognize that engagement may be a few steps down the road after a positive memory is first cultivated. I want to help organizations find what works rather than what feels glossy and impressive. Because if an old man playfully mocking a woman celebrating her 60th birthday gets her to call her friends to tell them about it, and then suggest they go see something else again next month, he’s knocking memory making + audience engagement out of the park.

JCA Arts Marketing collaborates with cultural organizations to increase revenue, boost attendance and membership, and grow patron loyalty. We provide consulting and software services to hundreds of cultural institutions across multiple genres, including dance, museums, opera, performing arts centers, symphony, and theatre. Let’s collaborate to achieve your marketing goals.