You want to grow your audience, but you have limited resources, so you target your marketing efforts at the groups most likely to respond to it.
Sounds familiar? Sensible?
It is. But almost everybody does it wrong, often alienating core customers and defining their offering by the needs of a completely imaginary group of people instead of the community around them.
Generally, we begin screwing up by turning demographic research into inaccurate stereotypes. We find out how our audience differs from the general population, define it by those differences, and then aim our outbound communication at an imaginary person who embodies every one of those differences.
You might discover that, compared with the general population, people at your concerts are more likely to be old, rich, smart, and male. You might then devise a marketing campaign to target smart old rich men. If you asked for a show of hands, though, you might also find that while the old, the smart, the rich, and the male are all overrepresented in your crowd, there isn’t a single smart rich old man among them.
This sort of thing isn’t sensible targeted marketing. It’s desperately clinging to any piece of information that comes along. When you’re adrift in a sea of ignorance, almost anything looks good to hold onto, but crude generalizations can be anchors instead of life rafts.
In that case, what is demographic data for?
Institutions love demographics. It’s easy to collect this type of data (you ask a sample of people at a concert), and sponsors/advertisers often ask to see it. As a result, the marketing department generally has a very good idea of the typical ages, incomes, occupations, and educational backgrounds of their customer base.
Let’s imagine, for a moment, that you’re not selling music. If you have an unrelated mass-market product to promote and you’re considering sponsoring a single event, then demographic data provides useful information. You’re being offered access to a room full of people united by an interest in something that isn’t your product. You don’t know anything (else) about what they like and there’s no easy way to ask, so you look at gender or social class to determine a rough fit.
It’s a blunt tool, and while it’s better than nothing, the results are underwhelming unless both groups significantly deviate from the general population. If the customers for your product are split 60:40 male to female, then advertising to a 60:40 male to female population split should result in a 4% greater response than advertising to a population split 50:50.
With results like this, targeting groups that are moderately overrepresented in your audience is not going to change the world.
If the question we really want to answer is “how can we sell more tickets?” then demographic research seems like it would help, but what we’re really doing is substituting the answer to a different question because that’s the information we have on hand.
The average concert audience member might be a little older, richer, and smarter than the average American. This is something to tell advertisers who are bad at statistics and want to reach old rich smart people. You know something substantially more valuable about this crowd: every one of them came to your concert.
So what do you ask?
The question to ask them is: why did you come to this concert?
You’ll find people who came because they wanted to see something at the venue, and this was what was on. Others will tell you they’ve always wanted to hear this repertoire. Another group have been following the artists for some time, and this was their chance to hear them live. Some people were dragged there by a date who is doing your marketing for you.
These are the reasons people left their homes on a cold night and paid money to hear some music, and they have everything to do with human motivation and almost nothing to do with income, gender, or education.
It’s the same with record sales: people are loyal to artists, composers, and sometimes even labels. They’ll buy records out of curiosity and they’ll buy them for who or what was on them. They’ll buy them because they’re beautiful, because they’re ugly, because they’re expensive, or because they’re cheap. They’ll buy them as souvenirs, they’ll buy them on impulse, and they’ll buy them as a culmination of a lot of research.
This is not the same as, “How did you find out about this concert/album?” The vast majority of the people who find out about your CD or your concert don’t go on to buy a disc or a ticket. It’s widely accepted in the world of marketing (indeed, it’s common sense) that people often make a purchasing decision only after hearing about a product many times. The thing you need to know is what sealed the deal. Why did they pick your event out of everything on the website? Why did they buy your album out of all the others on iTunes?
Knowing what motivates your customers is the way to improve the story you tell them. Knowing where they found out about you might tell you where to get the message across, but it doesn’t help you to figure out what that message should be.
Of course not. If you target based on motivation instead of demographics, there are still plenty of opportunities to screw up. Perhaps the most prevalent of these is making the mistake of preaching exclusively to the choir.
The people who come to your concerts, buy your CDs, or visit your website are a self-selected subset of the public—a tiny fraction—on whom your marketing efforts have worked thus far. They are not representative of the general public and they are not representative of the group of people who would come to your concerts if you did marketing differently.
Worse, any assumption based purely on your existing audience is likely to lead you round in circles, ultimately becoming self-fulfilling. Pick the largest group in your audience and market primarily to them, and your audience becomes smaller and, crucially, less diverse. Repeat this process a few times, and you have the audience of a modern major symphony orchestra.
For individual artists with a tribal following, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to ignore a whole section of society. For an ensemble, festival, or venue that purports to be a part of its broader community, though, this is a fatal error. If you want what you’re doing to be perceived as suitable for and relevant to the whole community, you have to speak to them all, and be seen to speak to them all. Otherwise, you become the Abercrombie & Fitch of music, scaring off those outside your target groups with an environment that is openly hostile to them.
Then again, maybe there’s something to be said for defining an audience by the people who aren’t in it.
Unadventurous thick people? This music isn’t for you.