Butts in seats and Audience Development

I have lightly touched upon this subject before, but I felt it was good timing for me to approach it again.  I was recently contacted by an organization that is in need of filling their seats, “we need butts in seats!”   They needed someone who could guarantee butts in seats in order to make their sponsors happy.  I completely understand the bottom line.  Funding is necessary to continue their program.  However, fulfilling the bottom line does not guarantee that the bottoms they are filling it with will return again.

Butts in seats is not audience development.  Butts in seats is a series of short term marketing pushes to paper the house.  Butts in seats can bring short term rewards like creating the facade that you are successful in filling the house, but in the long term, you are actually taking the focus away from building an audience that will commit to you and your art form.  The % of your butts for these types of consuming initiatives (time and money) is low to return.

Audience development is a long term initiative (takes time, but less money); it is about building relationships with the right people.  This focus will build your audience and fill the seats with people that not only will want to come back time and again, but are likely to become more involved with your art and organization by subscribing, volunteering and donating.  It may take more time to build, but it is well worth it.  In the end, you won’t need to work as hard since all of those never ending bursts of costly marketing pushes will become more and more unnecessary as you go along.

Furthermore, your art form took years to perfect.  Wouldn’t it be wise to approach something as important as building the right audience with the same diligence?

However, in my current search for opinions, I have come across a most interesting blog entry.  This blog is from March 19, 2007; the challenge of defining audience development is not a brand new one.  Jim Morris who was then the executive director of the Central Florida Performing Arts Alliance (now the Arts & Culture Alliance of Central Florida), succinctly discusses the difference between butts in seats and audience development, coming to this conclusion:

“The beauty is that by working together, both with attempting to fill seats to maintain the bottom line (arts organization role) and on audience development (Alliance role) through new collective initiatives our whole community will gain. That is where the real bottom line of producing art becomes more than just a commodity or widget to be promoted. It becomes a part of the completion to being human.”

I invite you to read the entire blog.

So perhaps butts in seats can serve a purpose, but the organization would get a little behind if it is not accompanied by audience development.  The short term and the long term can be accomplished together.  Bottom lines and people with bottoms will both be happy!

For further reading about butts in seats and audience development:

Invitation to the party: building bridges to the arts, culture and community, By Donna Walker-Kuhne

Beyond Butts in Seats: Building an Elite Program (not an article about the arts, but still valid)

Black like me (a very powerful blog entry about butts in seats and diversity)

Way beyond butts in seats

Until next time, may your audiences be happy and loyal ones, and if they are not, feel free to contact me!


Shoshana Fanizza is the founder of Audience Development Specialists. Her mission is to introduce artists and arts organizations to their existing and potential audiences and to help them to form more rewarding relationships.


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Filed under arts management, arts marketing, Audience Development

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