Reverse Mentoring: My antidote to becoming a grumpy old man

Reverse Mentoring: My antidote to becoming a grumpy old man

By David Brownlee, Director of International Strategy

This article was originally published in the Arts Marketing Association blog on 25 July 2019.

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It’s 25 years since the first AMA Conference. I didn’t go (too busy having babies and promoting festivals) but as an AMA Member I received the conference report and still have it today.

A lot has changed in the last quarter of a century in our industry. One of the professional highlights for me in 1994 was procuring my first Box Office System. For a small arts organisation, this was revolutionary. We could trap customer data at point of sale and start building profiles of who was attending our events. We could identify our most loyal bookers and encourage them to become members or donors. In 2019 this may sound pedestrian, but in 1994 it was magic. Just like the fax machine.

I think it must have been the following year that I first became acquainted with the ‘World Wide Web’. I signed up for an email account and bought a URL. Before long we had a website. It had almost as much information on it as you could find in the brochure and told you the number to ring to book tickets. I’m not sure if anyone actually visited it (yes, there was a time before Google Analytics), but even then, we knew this was the future.

In 2019 my takeaway concept from the Conference was ‘Reverse Mentoring’. This is the notion of oldies like me be patiently guided and supported by the next generation of innovators who are far better placed to spot emerging trends in technology and society. We needed this concept in 1994. We need it even more today. If a digital native would like to volunteer to invest some time and effort in furthering the tech education of someone who hasn’t meaningfully engaged in gaming since the launch of Space Invaders, it would be much appreciated.

I’m hoping that some ‘Reverse Mentoring’ will slow my progress into becoming a ‘Grumpy Old Man’. Sadly, I’m already showing symptoms. I had a lovely time in Gateshead, but there were many moments of déjà vu where I was haunted by the content of conversations and conferences past. Here are three lessons I thought we’d all already learnt:

  • Learn from the successes (and mistakes) of the past. It’s wonderful that so much knowledge and good practice is collected in knowledge banks like CultureHive. It would be even more wonderful if arts marketers spent some time researching what has or hasn’t worked in the past before re-inventing the (square) wheel as a ‘ground-breaking audience development initiative’. A quick search on ‘young audiences’ could save a huge amount of time and effort and increase your impact exponentially.

  • Good data and resource management is essential. If I reflect honestly, the 25-year old me was probably far more interested in tracking down a talented ‘Web Master’ than focusing on the bread and butter of effective marketing, but there were basic notions that we knew were important then and seem to have forgotten today. For example, good data collection rates (in both performing and visual arts) and clean, well-managed databases. Tracking spend wherever possible to be able to demonstrate ROI. Segmenting communications to ensure you’re effectively engaging with a range of different audiences. Managing communications so you’re not overwhelming the same customers with a million messages.

  • It’s all about relationships. It may feel like we’re so busy that all we can do is focus on the next show, but this is a treadmill that leads nowhere. It’s crucial to understanding at what stage of the relationship you are currently in with individual customers and then engage with them appropriately. One-size-fits-all approaches rarely fit anyone.

Of course, some individuals and arts organisations are getting these basics right. But from my experience it is far from universal. And it’s not all about size and relative resource: there’s good and bad practice at all scales. Northern Stage’s story at the conference about how they have transformed the resilience of their business by putting increasing customer loyalty front and centre of their strategy was a lesson for all organisations, from the biggest to the smallest.

The next 25 years will undoubtedly provide huge challenges for AMA Members. I hope I’ll be able to join you at the carbon-neutral conference in 2044 where we’re all be celebrating the continued growth and increased diversity in audiences for the arts and a more resilient and reflective sector. We’ll only get there by getting the basics right and learning from the past as well as embracing the new.



Posted July 26, 2019
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