Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Wallace Foundation Audience Engagement Study
By Lisa Traiger
“Oh my gosh. It was like winning the Academy Award for arts administrators,” Ellen Walker gushed recalling when Pacific Northwest Ballet was selected one of ten organizations for a three-year audience engagement project by The Wallace Foundation [see "Attracting a Crowd," by Steve Sucato]. “It was so thrilling.”
At the time, Walker was director of marketing for the Seattle ballet company. Presently she is the company’s executive director. At the time of the grant process, Walker and PNB articulated the goal of attracting more young people, ages 13 to 35 to the ballet.
What was essential in this targeted demographic plan, Walker and Bob Harlow, the author of the Wallace Foundation case study Getting Past ‘It’s Not for People Like Us,’ both say, was that this goal came from the highest level of the organization. “Peter [Boal, artistic director] worried about the longevity of the art form itself,” Walker noted. “If we didn’t infuse new ways to attract younger people to help them engage throughout their lifetimes, then the art form itself is endangered.”
This idea of leading from the top and incorporating the mission of reaching a younger demographic filtered into every aspect of the organization. It was essential to the success of the project Harlow noted in the recently published case study.
The process of this three-year study began with leadership taking a long-term view: “Thinking about what was keeping these audiences away, and then developing and deploying a multifaceted strategy to chip away at those barriers and build that audience over time,” the Wallace report said.
This began by examining assumptions. “A big finding for us,” Walker says, was that “people who had never been to the ballet had this perception that we were elitist and you needed to wear a fur coat. No one in Seattle wears a fur. They thought it was stuffy and not for them. But PNB is very much for them.” What the organization needed to do was a find ways to convince reticent audiences to try the ballet and, at Boal’s behest, the focus started with teenagers.
Walker notes: “We assumed young people would be drawn to more contemporary programs, the edgier work. I think we made that assumption based on the ways that young people push the envelope with their music choices.” But that wasn’t the case at all. PNB’s team observed that their teen audiences were most comfortable with traditional ballets and familiar stories: “The Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella,” and “Swan Lake.” Walker said they discovered that teens were uncomfortable taking risks in the ballet environment, which was unfamiliar to them. “They didn’t want to feel stupid or self conscious.”
During the granting period, that goal of welcoming teens and striving to make them comfortable pervaded the entire organization. From Boal to the ushers, box office, and maintenance staff , everyone was trained to welcome the teen students with a smile and make them feel at home. PNB is fortunate to participate in a Seattle-wide arts program, TeenTix, which provides $5 tickets for registered students ages 13-18 to attend performing arts events throughout the city. Walker reported that over the course of the grant period, PNB became the top choice among teens participating in the program.
The ballet instituted and continues an annual teen-only performance. “We discovered that this was not an area in teens’ lives where they were comfortable taking risks,” Walker said about teens venturing to the ballet. “They wanted to be comfortable and have a certain amount of familiarity about what they were about to see.” This is similar to how most audiences feel, but the teens were, in Boal’s mind, a special case, particularly because he viewed them as ballet’s future.
It became apparent that PNB not only needed to educate teens as they became ballet-goers, the ballet also worked on re-educating their regular adult audiences. They realized (and heard from) some audience members who wondered why teenagers were sitting in expensive orchestra seats. Walker says, “We had to retrain the core audience as much as we had to comfort the new audience.” So, she explains: “We put an ad in every program that said: ‘Are you curious about that teenager sitting next to you? Chances are they are a member of TeenTix and we’re so happy to have them here.’” This was a game changer for both the teens and PNB’s regulars. It provided openings for conversations and a more communal and social environment for attenders across the age spectrum.
But cultivating the teen audience has to start somewhere. “We have programs for very young children as well,” Walker notes, which include their parents. “Then when they turn 13, 14, or 15, and start doing things away from their parents, they know what to expect” at the ballet. And why shouldn’t teens be attracted to the ballet, the company thought, most of the dancers are just a few years older.
Essentially, Walker and Boal wanted to make PNB a choice for audiences from nearly cradle – let’s say preschooler -- to senior adults, and attract everyone in between. To accomplish that goal – and the company is still working on it with a second grant from Wallace – Walker and her marketing and executive team, with the help of a research organization, closely examined every component of the ballet’s public face – from the branding and logos to the use of social media outlets and how the box office sells tickets to students.
“It was so hard,” she admits. The company had never attempted a research-directed project of that scale before and was only able to tackle it because of the Wallace Foundation funding. “We had never faced all these research questions -- important institutional questions -- through intercept surveys, online surveys, focus groups,” Walker says. Yet, after their first round of focus groups, the PNB team had to regroup. “We heard some good and actionable items in that first round, but we also encountered missteps.” Seeking out a research agency better suited to PNB’s needs, one with expertise in working with arts organizations, allowed the second round to succeed.
The result? “We learned some things that blew us away,” Walker admits. “There was no way we could qualify going on doing the same things we had done. We had to make some serious changes and we did.” That meant re-branding and rethinking how the company was portrayed. Walker says, “To hear ‘that doesn’t resonate with me at all. I don’t even really know what I’m looking at there… and that has no relationship to me,’ I felt like I was going to die. But it was hugely helpful as we moved forward.”
Would Walker and PNB do it again? Absolutely. And they are. “We’re working on our [second] grant agreement,” she says. “The research we did for our earlier grant showed us that those in their late 20s to mid 30s, they’re ‘do-ers’ and not joiners. They have an expectation around participation, so more passive activities are not as appealing. They also wait and wait and wait until the last minute to buy tickets.” She adds, it’s not that they don’t like ballet, I think they do. And, of course, ballet is an art form made up of young performers, which should also appeal to both teens and young adults.
What does Walker hope others in the dance field and beyond can take away from the PNB experience and case study? Real-world experiences and action. The study is full of vivid examples. But, more important, Walker says, she hopes more companies will delve into the research component before revamping their marketing and engagement programming. “Here’s the thing: So few of us have resources for research,” she says. “We often have to chose between placing an ad or putting some new program on the website. A marketing director has to choose those things that most directly influence revenue.”
Yet, she now insists that research before action is the way to go. “I’m contradicting myself a bit but because we had the resources [from the Wallace Foundation], it was important to get a really serious researcher, someone who had a big body of work to draw on.” She knows most companies won’t have the luxury of obtaining a grant for researching their markets. “However, if you don’t have the money, you can still have a research mindset with everything you do.” She says, start simply with a low cost program like Survey Monkey. Do observational research at your theater. Talk to people as they’re coming in. Have feedback mechanisms on your website and contact patrons via email after the performance so they can let you know what they’re experiencing in your venue. “It’s about having that curious and inquisitive mindset around the experience that people are having,” Walker insists, that can make the difference in developing programming that engages and draws in audiences.
Her final bit of advice is one that was highlighted in the case study, but Walker doesn’t want to let it get lost in all of the reporting on PNB’s evolution. “First and foremost,” she says, “it started at the top [with the artistic director] and had to be an organization-wide commitment. The artistic, executive and marketing folks have to completely be facing the same direction. We have changed our organization and … It’s pretty great. We love it.”
Photo: Artistic Director Peter Boal leads Pacific Northwest Ballet's Teen Night. Photo by Rex Tranter; courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet
Lisa Traiger edits From the Green Room and writes on dance, theater and the performing arts from Rockville, Md.
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