I've been bandying this term around here, and I do a passable job it seems of describing it well enough in person. Time to put words to paper... or blog as it were.
People don't buy products. People don't buy services. What they are buying is an expectation of positive experiences that involve those products and services. Just be able to have a bunch of wood and sails floating on the water does not make me want to buy a boat. Having my friends over and cruising Lake Michigan with the wind in my hair makes me want to buy a boat.
The same is true of the arts. Not to devalue art for art's sake on a philosophical level, but patrons and donors don't give us money simply for art to exist. They expect that we offer them an experience with that art that they will appreciate. Whether that's purely being entertained or if they hope to achieve an emotional or intellectual fulfillment from the experience, the key is still that it's about the experience.
And in the end, the better our experiences with something, the more loyal we are to that thing. I'll shop at Jewel-Osco or Dominick's or any other grocery store based on personal convenience and prices in the moment, but I'm not loyal to any of them. I'm loyal to my local friendly game store for my board game shopping though over buying cheaper online, because my local game store takes the time to introduce me to games, demo the games for me, talk to me about strategy, helps me meet other gamers to play with, etc.
But how many companies, in the arts or otherwise, do you know that have a person that's strictly devoted to looking at things from the patron's point of view and really managing that experience? If this is the absolute core of where loyalty comes from and enables higher margins and increases the lifetime value of the customer and all those other things that business types drool over, where are the Directors of Experience Management out there?
To be certain, some people and companies do this sort of thing naturally. I desperately want to go to Masaharu Morimoto's eponymous restaurant in Philly as I hear from friends that he has achieved that level of precision. I keep wanting to go to Alinea here in Chicago as well. Ah, for the days when I have some extra pocket change for such adventures in edible delights... Maybe I should have experienced breakfast this morning... But you could probably come up with other excellent, if less tasty examples from Nordstrom's to that vacation spot you go to year after year to your own favorite comic book shop or game store.
What is needed is take that natural, unconscious competence and turn it into a process-driven conscious competence. Someone, a champion in your organization to coordinate with marketing, the box office, front-of-house staff, artistic staff, development, and anyone else in your organization that is part of the patron experience and start really starting to manage that experience with the goal of forever increasing the loyalty that your patrons have to your organization.
And of course, the most important part is interfacing with the patrons themselves to understand what they are experiencing. You can't turn a person from an outsider to a patron to a donor to an advocate without directly engaging with them. You need to see through their eyes and walk in their shoes. Someone needs to take an active role in doing, moving from just talking to potential customers to engaging with patrons in a dialogue.
Who will this person in your organization be? Well, I have a goal that in five years, major arts organizations everywhere will have a Director of Experience Management. Until then, however, it can be anyone that is willing to step up and be a champion. Someone that is willing to knock down silos and get everyone working together to create a cohesive process throughout the organization. Maybe that someone is you.