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Uncertainty is Keeping Your Audience Away
Episode 66

Uncertainty is Keeping Your Audience Away

CI to Eye with Peter Linett

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Peter and Erik discuss some recent studies that examine how consumers decide which arts events to attend. They unpack why uncertainty is a more significant barrier for audiences than unfamiliarity and how marketing and positioning can help audiences overcome that uncertainty. They also discuss how arts organizations can adapt to meet the needs of 21st-century audiences.

Erik Gensler: Peter, thank you so much for being here.

Peter Linett: It’s good to be here. Thank you for having me.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. So, I want to start talking about a fascinating study that I’ve read some about that looks at unfamiliar work and how audiences respond to and act around unfamiliar work and you did some research with Ballet Austin and the Wallace Foundation.

Peter Linett: We had a great experience over several different phases of funding from Wallace to Ballet Austin to partner with them on some questions about what they began with, began thinking about, as the unfamiliarity challenge … or they had a continuum in mind that they call the “familiarity continuum” and the complexities that we were able to uncover with them with audiences were really quite striking. It turns out that it’s not really about whether a ballet is narrative or not, which is how the original framing was constructed—the idea was, stories were more familiar and more abstract ballets without a narrative were unfamiliar.

Erik Gensler: So someone will go to see The Nutcracker or Romeo and Juliet before they’d see new works by a contemporary choreographer?

Peter Linett: That’s right, assuming that the story was familiar to them or was a hook because it was familiar and there’s a lot of assumptions baked into that and, in fact, people were attending ballets that were both familiar and unfamiliar to them, not at the same rates, but there wasn’t a giant barrier to attending work that people didn’t think was going to have a clear story. If it were about whether the work had a story, it would be a stylistic kind of preference. What we found out was that it’s actually more about their uncertainty, so less about unfamiliarity and more about uncertainty. “Am I going to enjoy this?” Some people do respond to and enjoy works that are non-narrative and, of course, a non-narrative where it can be familiar, as it is in many cases with many dance companies to their loyal audiences. And likewise, a narrative ballet can be unfamiliar if you don’t know the story. So, what happened was we started to complicate this and start to ask, “What are the various dimensions on which people make these decisions? Are they open to the unfamiliar?” That’s one question and also, “What are their stylistic preferences? Do those gravitate toward the narrative and traditional classical story ballet or do they gravitate towards something more abstract and sometimes edgier?” So, if they are open to the unfamiliar and to something that seems a stylistically progressive avant-garde, there might be interest, but they still encounter this uncertainty gap and they want to know before they buy that ticket whether they’re going to enjoy the thing. So, what’s the likelihood of enjoying versus the total cost of time and money, et cetera. And if they’re not sure enough, they will generally not buy it. So, it’s really not about the inherent qualities of the repertoire. It’s more about their likelihood, their certainty that they’ll enjoy the thing.

Erik Gensler: It’s really about a sense of belonging. It’s about a sense of being comfortable. It’s about a sense of being safe.

Erik Gensler: I saw on your write up, you talked about this and you said, “Market research suggests that encouraging people to attend the ballet more often was less about increasing their familiarity with the productions-

Peter Linett: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Erik Gensler: … “and more about bridging an uncertainty gap. Familiarity is about information, whereas uncertainty is about how an experience will feel. You can give someone a lot of information but that’s not necessarily going to reassure them that they’re going to belong in the audience and reassurance was key, considering the costs of attending and the stress of traffic, et cetera.”

Peter Linett: Right, so if you break it down, it is a bunch of human characteristics, as you say. I mean, it’s not only, “Is it familiar to me?” or “Is it new to me?” but it’s also, “Is it new to the world?” and there are folks, as you know, who are drawn to premiers and drawn to that sort of newness. The interesting thing is, if you plot on an axis, on a sort of quadrant, dual-axis graph, what people are attending based on whether it’s new to them or new to the world and whether they prefer things that are new to them or safe and familiar to them, the distribution is roughly equal in all four quadrants and so, there’s potential for Ballet Austin and other companies to engage people with unfamiliar-to-them repertoire and work that’s new to the world and untested, sort of raw.

Erik Gensler: Another thing we certainly experience with our ballet clients is the Nutcracker concept, which is, ballet companies have this massive growth in audience around Nutcracker, people who come, and there’s sort of this mythology that says people are coming only once a year. They’re the “Nutcracker audience,” they’re not really coming for the ballet. They’re coming for many other reasons, out of the tradition or to be with their family or out of the-

Peter Linett: Mm.

Erik Gensler: … you know, celebrating the holiday. But your research found some different things.

Peter Linett: Yeah, we learned that there’s more potential among the so-called “Nutcracker audience” to engage them in other repertoire, including unfamiliar and new kinds of ballets, as long as they were—and here it is a stylistic commitment—as long as the company was able to convince the audience that the things that they seek when they go to the ballet would be present in these other newer and less-familiar works. So, there are plenty of story ballets that function structurally like The Nutcracker and have a kind of clear arc and characters to root for and communicating some of that to those audiences in marketing, in education materials, in what we call, generally “content,” right, can give people that familiarity in advance and make them more comfortable and more certain that they will enjoy the thing.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Peter Linett: And I do believe that they are able to bring these new-to-file audiences whose doorway is The Nutcracker into a broader realm of repertoire than they would’ve guessed using some of the strategies that emerged from this research. And as I said a moment ago, you know, breaking it down into different components—”Is it non narrative or narrative?” is where they started, but, “Is it a clear conventionally structured story or is it something more abstract but still maybe narrativized or is it completely abstract and there’s no sequencing that feels story-like to the audience? Is it about spectacle and grandeur, as you might imagine The Nutcracker production is, or is it about minimalism and intimacy?” These are different ways of breaking it up and then there’s people who want repetition, who want to see the thing that they’ve seen before, and then there are people who gravitate toward newness, exploration, and “something I’ve never seen before.” So, it doesn’t matter for them if it’s new repertoire, but if it’s new to them, that’s enough.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Peter Linett: And that corresponds, of course, to the older work. So, when you start digging into these psychographics, right, these preference sets, there are people who attend The Nutcracker who prefer a ballet, or an arts experience in general, to be light entertainment, to be escapist, right? Happy endings in ballet or theater, for instance. And there are people who prefer more intense, darker, or provocative kind of experience. It turns out that not everybody who attends The Nutcracker is in that first category. It may be that they’re there because they have some certainty on that continuum that they will enjoy it, but that doesn’t mean that they have an aesthetic that’s limited to a Nutcracker-type approach. And so, captivation, entering another world, is a common denominator across light and escapist stories, but also darker and more challenging ones. And so, once you start to break these variables down and it’s not just about whether it is narrative or non-narrative, we start to open up some possibilities to engage folks who came in through the Nutcracker doorway with other repertoire.

Erik Gensler: And you came up with this continuum and it wasn’t necessarily linear, as we’ve perhaps hypothesized in the past.

Peter Linett: Their continuum was linear to begin with, but the uncertainty gap is sort of a counter-dimension to that. It runs on a different access because, as we said, people can be familiar with work that is avant-garde and challenging or they can be unfamiliar with work that is accessible.

Erik Gensler: Got it.

Peter Linett: The thing is that Cookie Ruiz and her team were really astute about breaking down the dimensions of familiarity when they set up their familiarity continuum in the first place because they knew that there could be a familiar dancer or a familiar choreographer that could be the doorway in for people who didn’t know the narrative. So, the familiarity didn’t always reside in the story underlying the ballet.

Erik Gensler: You did a similar study with the Goodman theater,

Peter Linett: Right, and in theater, it works a little differently. When we were first approached by the Goodman folks to help them with their Wallace Foundation-funded effort to look at this question of new works, we were struck by how differently it works in theater then in classical music, where there is a well-known and sort of much-lamented aversion by some subscription audiences to new classical music works. In theater, there’s great deal of enthusiasm for new plays, especially when there’s a kind of brand around that playwright and, you know, people are able to get in early, right, and see Hamilton before it moves to Broadway, that sort of thing. So, when we worked with Goodman, we found quickly through the research that audiences didn’t use newness as a filter for deciding whether to attend. It didn’t keep them from attending, but it also wasn’t much of a draw for most of them except the aficionados, who were really sort of theater buffs. There wasn’t an aversion to uncertainty in that landscape; they just wanted to know that they would enjoy the play and so they attended things that may be new or may be old, but were aesthetically or narratively or in terms of casting or what have you, exciting to them.

Erik Gensler: Hmm. But then, why do you see that it’s often so hard to sell new works? What did you decide is the driver?

Peter Linett: It does go back to that uncertainty. This latest round of funding from Wallace on this question was about stamps of approval and how with an unfamiliar work, the value and decisiveness of external stamps of approval—reviews, word of mouth, social media—becomes more acute. So, people do want to know that they’re going to like the thing, right? It’s true across ballet and theater, but there is no particular aversion to new work in theater. It’s not as suspicious category as it is in some forms of art.

Erik Gensler: Right, fascinating. Given all of the findings here, what are the takeaways for those trying to market these productions?

Peter Linett: Well, it’s easier to think about in a museum setting, where they have a whole department and a function called “interpretation” and in the performing arts, for better or worse, we think of all of the sort of pre-show engagement as marketing or content marketing, right, rather than the beginning of the artistic experience or setting conditions for a positive artistic reception or engagement with the work. And what we found in both of those studies is that the kinds of information and the kinds of queuing that can be offered in advance do a couple of things: they make people realize, “Hey, this is something that, despite my unfamiliarity with it, I will enjoy. It has my aesthetic dimensions,” and they start to feel familiar enough with it to have a relationship with it before the lights go down. So, titling, conveying the story, you know, many arts organizations in the past were averse to giving away too much of the story of a new work, particularly in theater, where everything is dependent on narrative, but it turns out that people not only don’t mind knowing something about it in advance, they actually need to know something about it in advance. It doesn’t seem to damp down anything as long as there aren’t giant spoilers. And also to connect emotionally in that pre-experience run-up of content, of marketing messaging. Connect emotionally so that the familiar elements are sort of established. It’s like listening to the Hamilton cast album before you attend the show..

Erik Gensler: Yeah, and I think it underscores a lot of the things we’ve seen in other studies, for example, the power of pre-show video to encourage purchase. There’s been studies that if people have watched a video of a product, they’re much more likely to buy it or if they’ve read articles or studies about a product 30 days before-

Peter Linett: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right.

Erik Gensler: … they’re more likely to buy it. It’s so interesting, some research that came out of Google that shows that people who are not regular attendees spend a lot more time doing research and visiting the organization’s website.

Peter Linett: Right, right.

Erik Gensler: Two to three times as much as regular attendees-

Peter Linett: Sure.

Erik Gensler: … because they’re looking to absorb that information.

Peter Linett: That’s right. We’ve seen that, too, about the value of word-of-mouth and its importance to newcomers to the art form or newcomers to a particular venue or producer. It is hugely more important that they be given a kind of confidence by a friend or family member that they will like this thing and it is for them or for “my kind of person” than the connoisseurs because connoisseurs are used to making these decisions and the risk isn’t as large for them that they might not enjoy the thing.

Erik Gensler: That was the podcast that we released with Mark Schaefer about, consumers control 75 to 90% of the marketing based on word-of-mouth-

Peter Linett: Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative)

Erik Gensler: … and it’s like, the companies are not in control anymore.

Peter Linett: Sure.

Erik Gensler: But what you can do as a company is put out a lot of great content because you want to give the tools to let people educate themselves and I think that’s a really fun way of looking at marketing is giving people information to learn and then from that-

Peter Linett: Right, or even more deeply, maybe it’s the beginning of the artistic experience.

Erik Gensler: I love that. Yeah, that’s really good. Right, and your marketing should be as artistic as the artistic experience and you look at some of the companies that do video really well-

Peter Linett: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Erik Gensler: … those are pieces of art of themselves.

Peter Linett: Right, right.

Erik Gensler: They’re not trying to replicate the experience, but they are art.

Peter Linett: Yes, and because so many of these decisions are social, especially for people who aren’t everyday, you know, hardcore theater- or dancegoers, the question in the Ballet Austin work became, “How can that company socialize the Ballet Austin experience and these messages and these content kernels that are circulating so that people feel engaged enough and, kind of, laterally comfortable communicating with each other enough to make each other kind of in aggregate, more comfortable and comfortable enough to pull the trigger and buy the ticket-

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Peter Linett: … “for something that they have never seen before and may not know much about?” So, it’s about sort of whetting the appetite through, as you just said, more information.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, and I wonder if that is a change in the 21st century, where, you know, before the World War, the consumer had 75 to 90% of the power and the marketer or advertiser controlled the messaging, meaning if you were going to buy an arts experience, you were less connected to other people because communication wasn’t as fast. You had to rely on the newspaper ad or the review that you read or the radio advertising you heard or the subscription brochure you got. But I think there’s just been a lot of change between the 20th and 21st century between how we consume art, what our expectations are-

Peter Linett: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Erik Gensler: … what we expect when we go to-

Peter Linett: Right.

Erik Gensler: … have an artistic experience.

Peter Linett: I think you’re right, of course, that there was a kind of automatic quality to arts attendance in some segments of the society of our culture in the 20th century that that is no longer present. I think its demise is a good thing. We have to sort of earn loyalty and earn relevance artistically. it’s no longer enough to say, “This play is prestigious,” or-

Erik Gensler: Right.

Peter Linett: “This theater company is the best,” in some abstract way. We don’t even know what that means anymore.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Peter Linett: But even the notion of a “masterpiece” and the notion of “canons of greatness” is gone. That’s the legacy of postmodernism and one of the ways to see the dichotomy between the 20th and 21st centuries that you’re talking about is that we no longer have a kind of a sense that the arts are out there, their value is out there and above us.

Erik Gensler: Mm.

Peter Linett: It’s much more, “What’s in it for my experience and how am I going to benefit from this thing?” So, instead of feeling like I should attend display or that symphony, it’s much more of a matter of deciding, on a personal basis, how to express my own tastes by my attendance decisions. It’s idiosyncratic. It’s much messier, but it also forces the arts to be more actively conscious about what relevance should look like.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, and I think there was this formalness, this seriousness, this, some could say, stuffiness-

Peter Linett: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: … of going to the opera.

Peter Linett: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Erik Gensler: You wore a suit. You know, you were going to have champagne.

Peter Linett: Yeah, it … Unfortunately, there’s still a lingering sense in the decision-makers and the arts leaders that it’s part of the, sort of, job of the arts to offer experiences for those who like getting dressed up and like acting in a kind of elegant way. That whole word, “elegance,” had such a stranglehold on criticism, for example, in the 20th century. “The pianist was elegant,” rather than overly dramatic; it was a sort of inward kind of serotype value. I think the key is to look outside of the arts and ask yourself, you know, “How does culture work more broadly?” If you think about food, for example, the notion of a Julia Child who can codify the “rules,” right, of French cooking and enforce a Eurocentric, high-culture version of what good cooking was supposed to be and that you could read the Bible and then replicate this in your own kitchen … That’s so different from what we see today and the very decentralized, democratized flavor of food trucks—no pun intended—where there are, you know, not only non-European cuisines that have been taken as seriously as French cooking used to be, but also, there is no rule book anymore. It’s much more about creativity. It’s much more about spontaneity. You don’t even know where these food trucks will show up, much less make a reservation, or something. And so, we’ve shifted to something that’s more improvised and more multicultural, which is, you know, absolutely central to where the arts needed to shift, and which is way less formal and rule-bound. And the same thing is true of news. I mean, we’re talking on a podcast and the difference between the typical sort of podcast if there’s a “podcast aesthetic” and what public radio used to do or what commercial media used to do. That difference is all about spontaneity and low production values and putting-

Erik Gensler: Hey! No, I’m just kidding. (laughs)

Peter Linett: No, but putting on display the things that used to be left on the cutting room floor.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Peter Linett: “Slate Political Gabfest” is a great example. These are three people who sound, at their best, like a dorm room bullshit session, but two differences: they’re enormously well-informed and they have made a conscious decision at the very beginning of that podcast to bring to the table, bring to the mic, the things that were forbidden by 20th-century or still-formal media like disagreement, right? And like personal opinion and, sort of, “mistakes.” I mean, the ways they banter include a lot of things that, you know, are sort of form but not content-

Erik Gensler: Mm.

Peter Linett: … and they’re still beautiful to hear. And so, you get to know them. You have a kind of relationship with their subjectivity. I often think that one of the big differences between 20th-century, you know, high culture, formal institutional culture, and 21st-century norms of culture, very broadly distributed across all these different domains of life is that question of subjectivity and science communication is a great example.

Erik Gensler: It’s becoming more human. The whole thing-

Peter Linett: Yes, exactly. It’s warmed up, humorous-

Erik Gensler: … embracing our humanity and-

Peter Linett: Right.

Erik Gensler: … as cultural marketers, I think it was about a distance. It was about a elevation.

Peter Linett: Right, prestige.

Erik Gensler: Right, and I’ve said this before in the podcast, like, look at how these theaters were designed. You have to step up to Lincoln Center.

Peter Linett: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right, right.

Erik Gensler: You have to step up to go on the platform that’s elevated above the street level.

Peter Linett: Right. Well, Lincoln Center also has a kind of bunker mentality to it. It was the triumph of Robert Moses and an urban planning notion that made a ghetto for a culture. That’s not the way he would’ve said it, obviously, at the time, but it was different from the interweaving of arts and culture into the fabric of a neighborhood, which is today’s creative placemaking ethos. And I think Lincoln Center, all of its resident companies and the center itself, fight against their campus.

Erik Gensler: How should an arts organization react to this, either curatorially-

Peter Linett: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Erik Gensler: … or the concert experience or the lobby experience?

Peter Linett: Right, right. Yeah, you’re asking the tough central question, which is, you know, for all these cultural organizations that were born in either the 19th century, in the case of some of the large ones, or the 20th century, for the most part, they got good at a set of values like seriousness, like formality, like professionalism, and this sort of unmediated presentation of the art. The art speaks for itself, and I’m thinking not only of museums, but of the ways music directors used to say, “I don’t want people to leave the concert and talk about me. I want them to talk about Beethoven.” So, this notion that, “I’m getting out of the way of Beethoven,” right? How do arts organizations steeped in all of that and in the kind of cultural hierarchies that were so clear and that you’ve been alluding to in the 20th century, how did they get good at a 21st-century set of norms and values that are quite different? Playfulness instead of seriousness, you know, this notion of improvisation or spontaneity, being in the moment rather than scripted, buttoned-down, preestablished intimacy instead of institutional values. These are the kinds of things we hear now as desires among audiences when we do the research. And when we work for big encyclopedic museums like the Met, we ask about desired or ideal experiences of that kind of art and we hear, “Hey, I’m lost here. I want to get a subset, a kind of managed, directed, focused version of this. Plus, I want to know what the curators are passionate about. What makes them excited? Why is that painting on the wall?” So, they want something both more intimate and more personal and subjective. The objects don’t speak for themselves, is one way to sort of summarize what visitors studies in museums have said to us over the last couple of decades.

Erik Gensler: Mm. So, people want to be taught, they want to-

Peter Linett: Well, they do, and it’s not as if they’re expecting the curator’s point of view or, let’s switch for a second back to symphonies, the music director’s point of view to replace their own, but they are expecting to see modeled for them some sort of personal, human connection to this stuff and some sort of idiosyncratic, human take on it because that inspires them to make their own. It is not a way of forestalling or constraining their own interpretation.

Erik Gensler: I think that’s scary for a lot of organizations that … especially older organizations that are still used to that traditional style and I think there’s also a push and pull and I think this is a really complex problem because, still, a lot of the subscribers that are responsible for a lot of the money, a lot of the big donors, they’re of a different generation-

Peter Linett: Right, right.

Erik Gensler: … and they still have sort of those 20th-century expectations-

Peter Linett: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Erik Gensler: … and you’re sort of balancing that with developing a new audience that is going to be turned off and turn away if it is too formal, so it’s a tough place to be.

Peter Linett: Right, right. Today, we expect the arts to be purposeful, especially in social change and repertoire like what the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz had done under Nina Simon’s leadership and Oregon Shakespeare Festival … I mean, there are many, many examples of this and it is no longer enough to say, “We’re doing high-quality, rarefied art work.” I think historically, what was anomalous was that notion of remove in the 20th century cause prior to it and now, as we’re talking about the 21st century post-this sort of modernist, clutched vision of the arts as on some sort of aesthetic mountaintop, it was much more messy, engaged, sort of less hierarchical, more social and participatory.

Erik Gensler: So, I’d like to turn the conversation to a study you’ve done with MFA Houston, which is around defining engagement and some segmentation.

Peter Linett: That was a really fun opportunity to work over a bunch of years, four or five years with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, to help cocreate with the community a definition of engagement and then use that as a filter for programming decisions and for audience segmentation and as a kind of checklist, or to develop in the course of all that work a checklist, for the kinds of affordances— as they sometimes call it in the museum field—that a program or exhibition would need to offer in order to be conceived of as engaging or experienced as engaging. So, you know, lots of museums are already talking about hospitality and relevance and this notion of choice making your way through an experience in ways that are sort of self-curated. But it goes quite a bit deeper. And as you may know from things like flow theory of Csikszentmihalyi, he was a psychologist, affiliated with the University of Chicago for many years and wrote a book called Flow about the psychological state of sort of losing yourself. When you start to ask people, as we got to do for MFA, Houston, “What constitutes an engaging experience, particularly subjectively? What does it feel like to be engaged?” they would talk about, “It’s an intense focus. It’s a sense of purpose. I have a sense of progress that I’m getting somewhere in this experience. My emotions are activated;” it’s never purely cerebral, right? And then the emotional outcome for them or the marker of, what was engaging was either this in the calming direction, “zenning out,” or feeling invigorated and kind of charged-up. And when you look at that with folks, they talk about how the exact emotions that are activated can vary, but they need something that moves them, right? And then, you know, we went more deeply into sort of, what are the conditions that the museum needs to set for engagement? And those were things like giving people choice and control, giving them measurable goals and an experience, which is really hard and kind of anathema to museum design in the past. It’s still tricky to execute. Making it participatory and not simply passive or receptive of the content, and making it immersive, multisensory, you know, you’re in an environment that’s not just a white cube gallery, but you’re in someplace that’s transporting you in time, in space, to some other world.

Erik Gensler: When I went to the MFA Houston, they had the pre-van Gogh exhibition where you can-

Peter Linett: Mm, that’s right! Exactly.

Erik Gensler: … that and you can go and there were all these digital experiences where you can put yourself in one of the pieces of art or you can sit in the room that looks like one of the paintings and I think from a marketing standpoint, that is so incredibly powerful. When somebody takes a picture of that and showed us on social media.

Peter Linett: Yes, and that installation was derived … it was built elsewhere, but it was embraced by MFA folks because, in part, because of this research. And part of the question is voice. I mean, you and I were just talking about subjectivity and the voice of the institution or the voice of the curator or artistic director, conductor or whatever. But when you think about this provision that people need to feel engaged, one of the many abstractions that I just mentioned, human connection, what does that look like? You know, on one end of the spectrum, is the museum speaking only with its institutional voice or are visitors kind of sharing and being exposed to the voices of other visitors? Is it lateral or is it, you know, unidirectional from the museum? And what about visitors having a kind of in-person, real-time, open exchange with the people who represent the museum and with each other? And what if that were a dialogue, not a didactic, one-way, you know, communication of information or content? So, as you said, we did a segmentation. We identified five broad segments that were … I want to differentiate these from a priori, segmentations that are done either multi-institutionally or applied to a new institution based on previous calculations and statistics. We identified “quiet contemplators” for MFAH, “social explorers,” “social and safe,” which is a kind of … there’s an interesting distinction there between the folks who are social and kind of open-minded and wanting to be challenged and invigorated and wanting active layered experiences and the folks who are similarly social, they want to do this in a shared way with their friends and family and the visiting party and sometimes with other visitors that they didn’t know yet, but they want something that is familiar content-wise to them. So, saying that someone is a social engager is not sufficient to understand their patterns and preferences. And then, there were “cultural intellectuals,” “active adventurers,” and you can guess which ones were overrepresented in the Museum’s population and which ones were underrepresented. And so, they decided to focus on the two social categories, “social explorers” and “social and safe.” Now, these are clunky names and they’re not totalizing, right? There are many other features of these people that we need to unpack and we’ve done so with MFAH, but it’s really revealing that when you look at their demographics, they’re quite similar. When you look at their relationship and behaviors to a museum or attendance behaviors with a museum, those are pretty similar to in certain ways. Although, as I said, the “social and safe” are underrepresented. So these are not demographic distinctions. It’s not enough to say, “Young people want ‘x,’” right? One needs to take a psychographic approach and then sort of profile to see if there are demographic differences.

Erik Gensler: So, how does the museum go about using that in their marketing and outreach?

Peter Linett: It’s really hard and even corporate marketers will tell you this. It’s really hard to operationalize a psychographic segmentation for marketing communication purposes, but they’re great for experience design. And that’s what I think we need to be moving toward as a field because, as you said earlier, with respect to word of mouth, it’s the experience that sells the experience. And so, if we worry a little bit less about messaging—not that it’s not vital, it is—and think about experience design more holistically and more creatively, we will do ourselves a great favor.

Erik Gensler: Oh, a hundred percent. Well, it’s the flywheel I’m always talking about: “Attract, engage, delight-squared, divided by friction.”

Peter Linett: Oh lovely, yeah.

Erik Gensler: The delight piece is the most important because it’s the squared part and the better the experience someone has, the more likely they’re going to talk about it and the better your flywheel will spin.

Peter Linett: Right, for sure. Sure, and the experience needs to be somewhat unique, right? I mean. a run-of-the-mill, sort of standard or predictable museum experience is enough for a certain small segment of the population and they pride themselves to some extent—and this is the 20th century lingering in to the 21st—on being open to and excited about those experiences. But for many others and a growing number of others, that’s just not enough. And here we come to a form/content distinction that I think is really urgent.

Erik Gensler: We’re going back to a few themes over and over about humanity and experience, which is tied into humanity, and I think in terms of museum experience or any experience, it has to be delightful so someone feels joy and then that makes them want to tell their friends-

Peter Linett: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Erik Gensler: … and the more an organization can then focus on creating delightful experiences and then creating the content or the environment that encourages sharing, I think that is modern marketing.

Peter Linett: Yes, absolutely. And so, you ask yourself, like, “What is missing in the museum experience that would have made it more delightful or can make it more delightful for more kinds of people?” and we’re at a moment when there are blinking, very sort of bright examples from just outside the field. Museum Hack is one. I know many of your listeners are aware and maybe have worked with them. They do kind of fun, irreverent tours in art and natural history museums, mostly in New York and DC, but they have consulted to and trained art museum folks around the country. It’d be interesting to think about what Arts Hack would look like if it weren’t strictly museums, if it were performing arts settings and they’ve been chatting and thinking about that. But the question historically that you and I are talking about, I think, is, “Why do museums need to be hacked? What is missing right now such that we need that kind of intervention or an example?” and one of the answers is humor because it’s deeply powerful social force, right? We laugh with each other for reasons that go quite deep evolutionarily, right? I mean, we all know that sort of, you know, it’s about defusing, it’s about forming community. There are all kinds of reasons for humor socially and Museum Hack is saying that a serious content area that is sort of valuable and not to be dismissed. In other words, it’s serious in one sense of the word, can also be lighthearted in the same breath, can be funny, even. So, we’re reminded, I think, by Museum Hack that serious content areas, let’s say the news, can also be treated in an irreverent, humorous way. And if you,and I think about all of the people who get their news from the Bill Mahers and the Steven Colbert or Trevor Noah, I mean, it’s not that the content isn’t serious, but the form is lighthearted and I think Museum Hack is trying to say something about a museum experience or, broadly, a cultural experience that admits that duality. Or Meow Wolf, which has actually, it’s an installation created by an art collective in Santa Fe that is now building in DC and Denver and Las Vegas, very fast growing, actually for-profit organization that has created these immersive, very participatory, very psychedelic and incredibly clever installations. And they’ve transformed not only the way Santa Fe is perceived by young creatives, but they’ve sort of illuminated some intersections between art and technology and spatial design or experience design that I think are really richly relevant to what museums and even, you know, theaters and symphonies and dance companies do. It’s well worth looking at.

Erik Gensler: So, we’ve come to your final question and this is your “CI to Eye moment,” and the question is, if you can broadcast to the executive directors, leadership teams, staff, and board of a thousand arts organizations, what advice would you provide to them to help them improve their businesses?

Peter Linett: I think it has to do with acknowledging a duality you and I just touched on, which is that an experience, even a program or programming, is not just content. It’s also form. And to see that holistically is vitally important. It’s not just what we put on the stage. It’s not just what we put on the wall or in these glass cases in a history museum. It’s how people are meant to interact with that material. How are they meant to engage with each other? What’s the vibe? Is it participatory? Is it informal? Is it humorous? If so, to what degree, and what sort of aesthetic direction is it humorous? Is it satirical? There are questions about what people are meant to do, how they’re construed as visitors, as audience members, that really are under-examined in the field. When I sit in on a programming meeting at a symphony we’re working with and I hear the conversation limited to, “What’s the repertoire and how does the repertoire fit together in a given program?” I think that’s vital. It’s important. It’s just as important as, what artwork should this museum acquire and exhibit on the … you know, who are the artists? How inclusive is the sort of range of aesthetics and cultures and backgrounds represented? That’s all content and it’s vital, as I say, but it’s not sufficient. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. And to think about the experience design more broadly and what we’re imagining people’s role in their seats, in the lobby, in their hearts and emotional lives, in their social interaction, that’s the rest of the experience design. So, it’s about programming, it’s about people, it’s place, it’s the positioning, of course, that sort of sets up the conditions for people to have a positive experience. The key is to not see programming as synonymous with content. It’s reinforced by the ways critics come at these. They review the content and don’t say anything about the form, but for a newcomer and for the audience that a cultural institution wants to engage, the form is odd. Once you feel those two apart, which is, it’s not enough to be more inclusive about content, we also have to sort of say, “What’s the form? What’s the experience design that would be more relevant and comfortable to more kinds of people?

Erik Gensler: Peter, thank you so much.

Peter Linett: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

About Our Guests
Peter Linett
Peter Linett
President, Slover Linett Audience Research

Peter Linett is the President of Slover Linett Audience Research, a firm of social researchers who work with performing arts organizations and museums to help them become more inclusive, innovative, and relevant.

Read more

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