Cracking the Code: A Foundation Shows Arts Organizations How to Engage Millennials

Millennials represent the Rosetta Stone of demographic arts engagement. They're plentiful, tech-savvy, and yet in many ways, mysterious. How can arts organizations break through to them?

For much-needed illumination, we turn to a white paper that the Wallace Foundation published in January, Building Millennial Audiences: Barriers and Opportunities. The must-read presentation, which you can download here, synthesizes market research conducted by 25 arts organizations in Wallace’s Building Audiences for Sustainability (BAS) initiative, along with secondary literature, and offers clues to action.

The elevator pitch? Arts organizations can attract millennials by "clarifying pricing and better explaining the value of the arts."

But before I dig a bit further into the study's takeaways, a bit of background is in order, starting with Wallace itself. Followers of the funder understand that this new resource isn't a one-off event.

In October of 2014, Wallace pledged a whopping $40 million to help performing arts organizations expand audiences through its BAS initiative. Roughly six months later they upped the ante, earmarking an additional $12 million.

Wallace's new paper should therefore be appreciated in this context. The foundation's work is starting to bear fruit. (In February, it also published Ballet Austin: Expanding Audiences for Unfamiliar Works, which looks at the company’s efforts to deepen audience’s engagement in multiple forms of ballet.)

"The millennial issue" first emerged in earnest here on Inside Philanthropy way back in 2015. Since then, the challenge has only intensified. The need for arts organizations to reach the this demographic is more acute than ever, but there isn't much clarity around how to do it. Which brings me to Wallace's key takeaways. 

Barriers to entry for the millennial demographic, says the study, include a lack of awareness of arts organizations, busy schedules, other leisure events that compete for their time, and misperceptions about ticket prices.

Most of these barriers sound familiar and certainly aren't relegated to the millennial set. Everyone is busy and distracted nowadays. Everyone is glued to their smartphone. Few people, regardless of age, seem to appreciate the value of the arts. What stood out for me was Wallace's point regarding pricing. 

"Misperceptions about ticket prices may be keeping millennials from the performing arts," the summary declares. "One study found millennials pegged the price of the cheapest ticket as more than twice as expensive as it actually was."

This is a problem. A world-class marketing pitch extolling the enriching power of the arts will fall flat if the listener overestimates the cost of the experience. Remember, we're not talking about baby boomers, here. As Wallace notes, "Millennials face more financial challenges than prior generations; many may never catch up."

Bottom line? It's hard to sell something your customers think they can't afford—especially something as intangible as the arts experience. Unsurprisingly, Wallace recommends organizations be more transparent and explicit in communicating prices. 

Back in December, Americans for the Arts published a piece titled It’s Time to Engage and Listen to Millennials on its blog. It represented a refreshing call to arms. Millennials aren't a lost cause. They can be successfully engaged. It won't be an easy task, but thanks to Wallace's robust, data-driven and action-oriented research, it's a task that now is a little easier.