Engaging a Fan Base: Arts Patrons as Fanatics

Posted by Whit Bones, May 01, 2018

Whit Bones

Imagine a world where arts patrons tailgate before a Sunday matinee of A Raisin in the Sun. Or a world where kids are trading rookie cards of their favorite ballet dancers, or collecting posters of the MVP (Most Valuable Performer) of their local playhouse. What about a world where season ticket holders attend programs religiously, trusting that they will have a good time because they are loyal to your company? If this culture can be built around sports, why not around the arts?

Okay, so there are certainly cultural factors that allow the sports sector to appreciate this kind of deep, fanatic engagement more regularly; but what can we, as arts marketers, learn from sports marketers about how they cultivate a culture of fandom? How can we benefit from thinking about our patrons as fanatics?

These are questions that we asked some of Indianapolis’ leading sports marketers in a panel discussion entitled Engaging a Fan Base: Arts Patrons as Fanatics, hosted by the Arts Council of Indianapolis in partnership with the Indiana Sports Corp.

Indy Arts Marketers hosts a panel discussion at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Home of the Indiana Pacers) with some of Indianapolis’ leading sports marketers in “Engaging a Fan Base.”

As it turns out, there are a few things that we can learn from sports marketers, so I wanted to highlight a few takeaways from the discussion.

Know before you go

Web pages, blog posts, or social media posts that set expectations and answer frequently asked questions can go a long way in making new patrons feel comfortable when trying new things. What to wear? When to arrive? Will there be alcohol? These are unknowns to newbies and may cause them to fall back on the familiar. What can you do to quell their anxieties?

It’s all about the visitor experience

Hospitality is key in making people feel that their money and time is well spent. A non-fan can quickly become an art buff if they have an enjoyable experience, regardless of whether they “liked” the show. If a first timer is greeted with open arms, and their needs are carefully catered to, they are more likely to come back.

It’s all about the visitor experience

This continued to be a theme during our panel discussion and they could not emphasize it enough, so I thought it was worth listing twice. I am going to include into this the cultivation of tradition. This is where we get into tailgating or autograph signing after the game. What traditions can your organization bring to the visitor experience? Does your audience get a chance to interact with the artists themselves? Is there room for your audience to participate beyond casual spectating? Does your organization support a super fan section? What other ideas might you employ to cultivate tradition?

Indianapolis has a culture of utilizing the arts to build fan bases such as Welcome Race Fans, a partnership between the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Arts Council of Indianapolis. Photo by pauldbestphoto.com

Give them something to root for

Don’t be shy about sharing organizational successes—they give your patrons something to root for. Is your artistic director a finalist for a big award? Announce it. Do you have one of the top clarinetists in the state? Tell people over and over again. Did your theater just produce the world’s shortest one act play? That is something to celebrate!

It’s not just about game day

Arts and sports do share one thing in common: they are oftentimes season-based, but everyone will agree that our job does not end when the season is over. Blue, the Indianapolis Colts’ mascot, does over 125 school visits each year, mostly during the off-season! Combine that with player appearances and organizational volunteer efforts and the Colts are in the minds of the community year-round. Few arts organizations have the resources for that level of external engagement, but everyone should include community events as a valuable part of a patron-focused marketing strategy.

If it’s not social, it’s not fun

People go out to be a part of something because we are social beings. Make sure your organization is a part of that social experience. People are more likely to return if they made a meaningful connection the first time they attended an event. A social ambassador program may position volunteers in the lobby to interact with and connect newcomers. Or a “bring a friend” discount could incentivize your existing patrons to create their own social experiences while allowing your organization to reach new audiences.

Don’t think you have all the answers

Sports organizations often have the resources to pour over ROI (return on investment) data and analytics, which allows them to adjust their efforts to better reach their audiences. Arts marketers are often doing about five other jobs and don’t have the time to weed through a truck load of data. What arts marketers do have is the ability to speak directly to their patrons. Don’t forget to ask how they heard about an event, or better yet, how they prefer to hear about events. A little one-on-one insight can go a long way.

We are all in this together

Our biggest competitor is not other arts events. It’s not even sports. It’s sitting on your couch and not being social. When your community is a community that is known to be culturally engaged, everyone benefits. In sports, a league thrives when each team thrives. In the arts, a city’s cultural identity thrives when all arts organizations thrive. Don’t be afraid to elevate the work of other organizations in your community. It’s when you build that kind of culture that patrons start investing more frequently in the arts. When patrons are investing more often in the arts, they naturally become fanatics.