Monday, July 1, 2013

The Flip Phone Factor

When I was young, my first cell phone was a clunky box of a thing. Its screen was probably 1/8 its total surface area, and text messaging didn’t exist. A year later, with a couple months of allowance savings, I strutted into the Motorola store and purchased a shiny silver flip phone with a color screen. As I left the store, angels descended from heaven to bless me with instant coolness, and trumpets rang out across the mall. I belonged, and it was all thanks to Motorola.

Fast-forward 15 years. The Motorola website proudly displays an array of mobile phone options: the Photon, the Razr, the Razr HD, the Razr Maxx…but no flip phone, and nothing even close to the shiny silver patina of my youth. As I imagine myself purchasing one of these new devices, I actually scoff a little. Nothing could be as satisfying as the angels and the trumpets and the coolness I found 15 years ago.  In fact, if Motorola had asked me back then what to do to improve their products, I would have said, unequivocally, “nothing.”

It’s a good thing they never asked, or listened to me.  Motorola, and most other device manufacturers, saw that tastes were changing. Technology was, and still is, evolving to allow for bigger screens, more integration, increased access to media, etc. As a customer, my tastes would eventually change, or I would eventually die. When this happens, who will be left to buy the silver beacon of hope?

Arts organizations need to think more like Motorola (well…okay maybe Apple). If we want to increase our reach, we need to make an effort to increase our offering. This offering could (should) be in the form or programming. It could also be in the form of ticket prices, member benefits, and venue options.

Let’s make a really dumb assumption for the moment: artistic preferences won’t change from generation to generation. Were this the case, an organization, which attracts 15% of the available audience in a city, will attract 15% of the available audience when the next generation of arts lovers and patrons come about. Since the population is growing, the audience would grow with it, but probably not enough to account for the financial burdens of inflation and increased competition. Still, this isn’t a horrible scenario. The arts org keeps making a flip phone, and its audience keeps buying it – decade after decade.

Okay, back to reality. Tastes change. And even if they only change slightly, mediums change, and the amount of arts players change, and venues have moved from the concert hall to the backyard or computer screen. It is technology, especially, that has changed the form and mediums of art. We, as arts orgs, have to change with it. If you’ve ever met me, you won’t be surprised to hear that programming is the first thing that must adjust to ever-changing culture.

Lets get out of the hypothetical and start talking about you and your org. Now if you don't want to augment your programming because of a particular mission, or your obstinance, or that of your donors, all is not lost.You can still innovate by changing your fundraising strategy. Add an employee, or a part time role, to reach young donors. Change your member perks to better speak to the next generation of arts patrons (at my age I care less about having my name in a program than I do about meeting influencers from around the city at special events). Even try new mediums of fundraising like Kickstarter. Or simply, try asking newer and younger donors to join your family. Literally, pick up the phone and have a conversation with a young ticket buyer about their connection to the arts. Let them know how they can get more involved, and follow up next time they come to a concert.

Let’s not limit ourselves to fundraising and programming. Ticket prices often create empty seats in concert halls, so figure out a way to offer pricing to the next generation of arts enthusiasts (more on this in another post). If you can’t change your ticket prices just yet, change your marketing strategy. Try online advertisements, test a guerrilla plan on a local campus, or simply change the colors in your logo.

The point here is: change is necessary. It doesn’t mean that you abandon what works, however. Motorola didn’t stop using the numbers 1-10 on the keypad, and they didn’t suddenly start making mobiles phones larger than your pocket. They innovated and tested and innovated and tested – keeping what works and augmenting what could be better based on customer feedback and the changing environment.

Us arts folks need to do this too. If you have a concert that sells out out every year, don’t scrap it! Add to it. Introduce a unique opening act, or cross-promote your other presentations at the sold out shows. If your major donor base loves folk music, keep it! And then add in some folk/rock crossover concerts to expand your audience without alienating your base. Your org doesn’t have to be on the cutting edge all the time. But if you still look like a flip phone, then it may be time to try something new.


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