Culture in Lockdown. PART 2: The 7 Pillars of Audience-focus

Our sector is hurting, our colleagues’ jobs are in the balance and our organizations face uncertain financial futures. What we do next is going to shape the sector for the next decade. So, rather than looking backwards in an effort to re-create the way we were, this crisis presents us with a unique opportunity to take a leap forwards.

In Part 1 of this think-piece, We can do digital, can we do strategy?, I made the case for urgent, radical experiments in Audience-focus. In this, Part 2, I’m sharing The 7 Pillars of Audience-focus, a framework to help us do that. At the end, there’s a link to a webinar recording that explores these ideas further.

Are we there yet?

Here’s the fundamental truth: people engage in culture to meet their deep seated, social, intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs. Being Audience-focused means putting those needs at the heart of all of our processes, across all of our functions and departments. Why bother? Because the benefits of Audience-focus are legion: it attracts new people, deepens engagement, builds community, earns brand equity, generates income, increases our resilience and ensures we deliver our mission/vision/cause.

But we’re not there yet, not by a long way. The sector has been on the journey from Product-focus through Marketing-focus towards Audience-focus for nearly four decades. It’s been a long, slow, winding road, and many have got waylayed.

Traditional institutions began life unequivocally Product-focused, concerned not with audiences but the excellence of their performance, collections or exhibitions. But, funding changes have necessitated a greater reliance on the market: an imperative to earn more income and justify any subsidies with higher visitor numbers. Though this Marketing-focus model continues to dominate our sector, it’s trapped many organizations in a money and numbers game in which we second-guess the audience’s appetite for new experiences. The result is a very peculiar balancing act between thrilling, front-foot programming that engages, and safety-first, defensive re-programming of what’s already known to be popular. Ironically, Marketing-focus’s myopic pursuit of income has left many organizations financially vulnerable: with too narrow a core audience base and far too dependent on populist programming to win a share of fickle, occasional attenders or tourists.

Conversely, those that have broken free of this trap to embrace Audience-focus have become far more resilient. They understand and respect their audiences, and so can programme more freely and engage them more deeply. They want audiences to be so much more than consumers: loyal supporters; persuasive advocates; active stakeholders; trusted partners; valued volunteers; and inspirational co-creators. In short, they build strong, engaged communities around their institutions. This guaranteed wellspring of support underwrites their income generation and can sustain the organization through crises like Covid-19.

So, what’s the secret?

My entire practice at MHM is working with leaders and change-agents to make their cultural organizations more Audience-focused. Through our work, we’ve identified seven characteristics that set Audience-focused organizations apart. These 7 Pillars of Audience-focus are not rocket science, nor are they particularly difficult to emulate for an organization that has belief in what they do, faith in the audience and the appetite for change.

We can use this 7 Pillars framework, right now, to re-frame our lockdown efforts and our re-opening plans into experiments in greater Audience-focus.

Using this framework

Read through the descriptions below of the journey from Product-focus through Marketing-focus to Audience-focus. See if you can place your own organization – you may find you’ve got traits of all three. For each Pillar there’s a practical exercise – or a potential experiment – that’s a step towards greater Audience-focus…

Pillar 1: Vision-led

Product-focused organizations envision their own excellence as an end in itself. Marketing-focused organizations claim ownership of territory, types of content, and market position (“We’re the foremost ballet company in northern Ontario”). But, Audience-focused organizations articulate a proper Cause. They believe what they do enriches and transforms people’s lives and makes society more equitable. They invite the audience to be stakeholders and make common cause.

Actions to take right now: Visions are big stuff. Pause for a moment and reflect on yours:

Does it pass the ‘Cause’ test? And has it actively inspired and framed your entire team’s lockdown response? Or could it use a refresh, or deeper embedding?

This would be a great way to regain your momentum and rally your staff and stakeholders once you re-open. Plan ahead now, because Cause led-visions require an inclusive, iterative, all-hands process if they are to be fully embedded. Typically it takes us 4–6 months to support an organization through the process. We’ve been busy all through lockdown, taking organizations and their staff through this process on Zoom.

Pillar 2: Outcome-oriented

Product-focused organizations are not concerned with outcomes for audiences. Marketing-focused organizations pay attention to outputs like visitation, ticket sales, retail, food & beverage income, visitor satisfaction, brand awareness and market share – rather than outcomes like the difference they make to audiences and communities. But, Audience-focused organizations measure success in three ways. First, by how deeply audiences engage. Secondly by the social, intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs that engagement meets. And finally, by the difference the institution makes to society and the world.

Actions to take right now: For each digital touchpoint you’re offering during Covid lockdown, try this simple exercise… Use the questions listed below to define (write down) the main visitor outcomes they deliver:

What do you want audiences to know and to understand? What thought processes do you want to trigger? What do you want them to experience and feel? What do you want them to do, and do next?

Secondly, which audience needs are you meeting… relaxation and entertainment; the opportunity to play; quality time and shared experiences; food for thought; challenge and provocation; self or professional development; a feast for the eyes; awe and wonder; empathy; nostalgia; cultural identity; escapism; nourishment for the soul; space to contemplate; sparking creativity; or achieving an altered state?

Finally, what difference are you trying to make through your community work and partnerships?

Looking forwards, repeat the above for every service, touchpoint or experience you’re planning for our new post-lockdown world. Make the intended outcomes explicit from the start. Design deliberately to ensure their delivery, then communicate these benefits/outcomes as the main message.

Pillar 3: Interdisciplinary

In Product-focused organizations, the program is ordained by a priesthood of content experts and delivered by downstream functional departments, each operating as a siloed hierarchy that stays in its own lane. In Marketing-focused organizations, money talks and responsibility for earned income gives marketers a seat at the table. But, instead of a team, this often creates a stand-off between programming ambition and the anxiety that it won’t sell. In Audience-focused organizations, programs and projects are delivered by interdisciplinary teams of all the talents, valuing expertise but breaking down silos and setting aside hierarchies. It becomes everyone’s job to understand, think about and respond to the needs of audiences. Rather than rely on fickle ‘push’ sales, they build solid demand.

Actions to take right now: For your very next project, break the silos and create a more diverse team. Go beyond the usual suspects, include people just to give them experience and they’ll repay you with left-field ideas.

Take a look at Lauren Vargas’ C.A.L.M. method and canvas which urges us to “let go of command and control leadership and discover emerging leaders from every level”.

Check out Nina Simon’s generously shared example of how her organization developed a progressive staff handbook.

Read Kajsa Hartig on changing work practices, quoting Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Douglas Hegley: “Knowledge workers expect to have a say in what they focus on and how they do their work. That requires a flatter, non-siloed organizational structure and cross-functional collaboration the likes of which museums have never really seen before.”

I regularly help staff teams develop ‘Culture Codes’, a kind of social contract that delineates what staff can expect of the organization and what they should expect of each other. Teams are telling us how invaluable these have been in lockdown. If that sounds useful, message me – I’m happy to share.

Pillar 4: Brand DNA-driven

Product-focused organizations distrust the whole idea of Brand, but jealously guard their reputation. In Marketing-focused organizations, the Brand is owned, controlled (and often policed) by marketing. The logo’s now a visual identity complete with tone of voice. There’s usually a brand model (circles and pyramids are popular) listing out brand values, attributes, benefits, personality traits, positioning and propositions. Despite all this, internal adoption (compliance) is often patchy. But, in an Audience-focused organization, Brand belongs to everyone and is fully understood to be the DNA that informs every aspect of their work. It’s the Essence of who they are and what they own, the Belief that fuels their commitment and the Cause they’re serving.

Actions to take right now: Like Vision, your Brand DNA is another fundamental. But try this:

Out of 10, score how well your brand has actually shaped and guided your whole team’s Covid response.

An 8 or below? Then give staff a post-lockdown, Brand DNA shot-in-the-arm. But, like Vision, Brand DNA demands inclusive, all-hands sessions. Ideally, we’d integrate both into a single process, as Vision and Brand DNA are co-dependent. This is the stuff I live for.

Pillar 5: Meaningfully-segmented

Product-focused organizations have no real need for segmentation: you either come or you don’t. Marketing-focused organizations need to categorize existing audiences to push ticket sales and prospect for more of the same to push the unsold tickets. But, ‘past-behaviour’ segments just lock people into narrow patterns, while demographic segments usually just tell us where old, white, affluent people live. There’s been an attempt to jazz this up, combining postal zip codes with ticketing and survey data, in a futile attempt to auto-predict (guess) audience mindsets. But the data science used to sell refrigerators simply doesn’t illuminate people’s engagement with culture. Audience-focused organizations have swapped these fumbling demographics for powerful, reliable psychographics. Segments are based on the deep-seated values, needs and motivations that frame how people actually engage and respond. It gives staff and teams a common language across programming, experience design, communications and everything in between.

Actions to take right now: You’re going to need to understand how different audiences will respond to your post-lockdown offer. Ticketing history and postal code predictions will be of limited use.

Have a look at the free Culture Segments system. It’s widely used by Audience-focused museums, performing arts, zoos, heritage and nature sites in many countries.

You’ll discover your own segment and instantly recognise which segments you engage and which you have less success with. There’s plenty of freely available insight that you can apply straight away, both to your lockdown activity and to your re-opening plans. Case studies show how to put segments into action (and we’re always happy to chat and advise). Some choose to take it a step further by ‘tagging’ their database records by Culture Segments or adding the segment questions to their next survey. Ask if this interests you.

Pillar 6: Insight-guided

The Product-focused organization has no need for audience insight. Nor has it any intention of being ‘guided’ by it. The Marketing-focused organization needs to gather a raft of audience metrics to report against its many output targets. Big on quantification, there’s often great detail on the who, what, where, when and how many, but far less on the more important why and how. In contrast, the Audience-focused organization is fascinated with what makes the audience tick. Rather than counting heads, they want to know what’s going on inside those heads. Instead of the high-level findings that ‘big data’ may offer, they get far more personal, collecting much richer, deep data, revealing insight that can illuminate every aspect of audience engagement. All staff use this insight: it’s the life-blood of the organization.

Actions to take right now: We’d all like a crystal ball, but long-range speculation is a risky business. There’s now a rash of at least six competing, Covid audience tracking studies, all attempting to capture mood and sentiment and predict post-lockdown behaviour. While we‘ll all welcome any generic pointers they’ll give us, this will not be enough.

Every organization will need it’s own audience research that’s specific to its own situation, its own lockdown content and its own emergent re-opening plans in its own venues.

But it can’t be a cookie-cutter survey. You need to talk to your audience, probe for underlying issues, and you’ll need to listen. This means informal and qualitative questions not just formal, quantitative ones. And, to understand the why, it needs to be psychographic, not just demographic. A few organizations may have the in-house expertise to undertake this kind of study themselves. For those that don’t, we have developed the at-cost Covid Audience Mindsets Re-opening Survey. If this is something you’d like to know more about, please get in touch.

Pillar 7: Interactively-engaged

The Product-focused organization prioritises relationships with its peers and with a select core of well-connected insiders. To the Marketing-focused organization, audience members are principally consumers, so the default mode is one-way, downward, ‘push’ marketing, with a side-helping of social media. But, the Audience-focused organization seeks a continuous two-way exchange. It engages audiences with artists and experts, co-creating content and building community around the institution. It pursues external partnerships to extend resources and relationships with the wider community, especially those with the least access. It builds trust, earns brand equity and grows social capital.

Actions to take right now: For each experience or communication you’re planning right now, digital or analogue, in lockdown or for re-opening, think how you could maximise audience interaction…

Are you soliciting their input and ideas? Can they engage with your artists or experts? Is there an opportunity to create or co-create? How do they give feedback and can you curate and sustain that discussion? Could you work with a partner? Can you reach out to the community? Is this a chance to increase access for those with the least?

We really need to take every opportunity to engage, if we are to emerge successfully from this crisis.

I hope that this 7 Pillars framework is immediately useful and that you can re-frame some of your plans to embed a greater Audience-focus. Part 3 of this series, Covid Audience Mindsets, is packed with segmentation insight, tips and practical examples from Audience-focused organizations. There’s also a recorded webinar on the 7 Pillars of Audience-focus which you might find useful or want to share.

Andrew McIntyre

4 May 2020

MHM has established Audience Matters, a ‘hive-brain’ forum of over a thousand colleagues across the sector and around the world, sharing their lockdown practice and strategizing future plans. All are welcome to join.

Andrew is a co-founder of the international consultancy, Morris Hargreaves McIntyre (MHM), and works with forward-thinking, cause-led cultural organizations.