The Kids Will Come: More Insights About How Arts Groups Can Engage Millennials

photo:  lapandr/shutterstock

photo:  lapandr/shutterstock

"Kids! I don't know what's wrong with these kids today."

Fans of Broadway will instantly recall those timeless words from the play "Bye Bye Birdie." But I suspect that programmers at performing arts organizations can also relate. 

Barriers to entry for the coveted younger demographic include a lack of awareness of arts organizations, busy schedules, and misperceptions about ticket prices. Or to put it another way:

"Kids! You can talk and talk till your face is blue. Kids! But they still do just what they want to do."

Fortunately, programmers have a bit more to work with thanks to the Wallace Foundation's third installment in its Building Audiences for Sustainability (BAS) Stories series. The series looks at efforts of performing arts organizations to attract and retain new audiences in ways that also contribute to their financial health.

Its most recent story, entitled Denver Center Theatre Company Is Cracking the Millennial Code...One Step at a Time, looks at the company's efforts to attract millennials through experiential or "immersive" theater. 

Wallace, of course, famously launched its $52 million initiative on engagement back in 2015, and has been methodically rolling out its findings ever since. 

Last year, it highlighted Ballet Austin's efforts to expand audiences for unfamiliar works. And a previous BAS Story profiled Seattle Symphony's efforts in using market research to engage new residents in a rapidly growing city.

The Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) also relied on the power of market research to attract younger attendees.

The troupe started with the testable hypothesis that experiential theater—productions that allow performers and audiences to interact with one another in an immersive environment—would appeal to younger audiences. So they began to experiment with small, interactive performances in non-traditional spaces. 

After each production, staff analyzed ticket sales and conducted focus groups and audience surveys, tracking average age and the "net promoter score," a measure of audiences' eagerness to recommend the show to others. The process yielded significant and actionable dividends.

"Our ability to learn from each new production through market research, sales data, and audience feedback has been critical in helping us make strategic decisions for continuous improvement," said Charlie Miller, Associate Artistic Director of Denver Center Theatre Company.

The full story is available on the foundation's website.

While Wallace is clearly bullish on the transformative power of market research, its collective findings thus far suggest it's only one piece of the millennial engagement puzzle.

The foundation previously published a white paper entitled Building Millennial Audiences: Barriers and Opportunities, which synthesized research conducted by 25 arts organizations in its BAS and secondary literature. The main takeaway here? Arts organizations can attract millennials by "clarifying pricing and better explaining the value of the arts."

With more BAS Stories in the pipeline, it's becoming increasingly clear that Wallace's big bet on engagement was exceptionally prescient. Engagement lies at the heart of the public art boom, the surging field of social justice giving, and even some new journalism initiatives. Funder interest will only increase over time.

As a result, Wallace's ever-growing BAS stories series should be required reading for arts organizations looking to engage under-leveraged demographics by tapping the power of market research, price transparency, and other innovative and exportable strategies still to be revealed.