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TOM HARTON Commentary: Don't fear the young; e-mail them

June 19, 2006

You don't always see it or hear it, but it's there. The quiet panic that sets in after a theater company or a newspaper or any organization realizes it must begin appealing to a new breed of consumer if it wants to survive.

Young consumers of news want it in bite-size portions delivered to their desktops.

Young church-goers want dynamic worship services and activities to match, not tradition-bound church groups that require elections, officers, meetings and minutes.

And young patrons of the arts want a social experience they can learn from. Observing the art-in whatever form it takes-isn't enough. They want to meet the artist.

Offering what this demanding group wants is difficult enough, but it doesn't end there. You have to get them in the door, and you can't do it simply by running an ad in the local paper or buying time on radio or TV.

Ignoring the challenge isn't an option. Organizations-and cities-that don't meet the demands of young consumers will eventually wither and die.

Heavy stuff. Panic-inducing. And reason enough for the Arts Council of Indianapolis to swoop in with a $125,000 study designed to help arts groups appeal to younger patrons but useful to any organization stumped by the consuming habits of people ages 20 to 40.

The Arts Council last year engaged the services of futurist Rebecca Ryan and her company, Madison, Wis.-based Next Generation Consulting, to find out how to develop programming for and market to young Indianapolis audiences.

Among its findings, released earlier this year, are the following gems already being tested by local arts organizations:

Young patrons don't demand free events. They'll pay an average of $22 to participate in something that involves learning, sensing and connecting with others.

Traditional advertising alone doesn't work with this group.

Recommendations from friends drive spending decisions.

Indiana Repertory Theatre is among the local arts organizations making use of the study, and the early returns are promising. The run of IRT's summer show, "Triple Espresso," produced by a Minneapolis theater company of the same name, has already been extended twice. Its fourweek run is now eight weeks, thanks largely to a marketing strategy built on the study's finding that word-ofmouth, often delivered electronically, is the primary way people age 20 to 40 learn about arts opportunities.

IRT packaged "Triple Espresso's" May 17 local premiere with a launch party for 160 people. The invitees-bloggers, hotel agents and other "in the know" types-were carefully selected by IRT's marketing staff, with help from Emmis Communications, to become "buzz agents" for the show.

IRT served up a good time, a good show and sent the buzz agents out into the world to tell 12 friends, in person or via e-mail, about what they'd seen.

Eventually, IRT probably would have stumbled upon some of the ideas itself, but about 80 percent of what IRT is working on from a marketing standpoint is a direct result of the Next Generation study, says Megan McKinney, IRT's 34-year-old senior marketing and public relations manager.

Among its 2007 goals are more face-to-face promotion and finding a way to make attending an IRT performance an experience that transcends the show itself.

"I think every business is going through this-unless you're MTV or Coca-Cola," says McKinney. "The worst reaction is to be afraid."

McKinney's assessment is on the mark. The quest to engage young adults isn't limited to the arts community. It's very much a business proposition. If you're not convinced, consider the origin of the arts-group study.

It was BioCrossroads, the cheerleader for the region's life sciences economy, that sought out Next Generation Consulting three years ago to learn how Indianapolis could draw more young scientists and entrepreneurs.

That connection led to the arts study, but the study isn't the only tangible result of BioCrossroads' youth movement. BioCrossroads is also behind Indy Hub, a not-for-profit founded a year ago to connect and energize the city's young professionals. The organization underwritten by BioCrossroads, the city and local employers, is already 1,300 members strong and has hosted half a dozen social events.

But Indy Hub has just scratched the surface, says its 30-year-old executive director, Molly Chavers, who's overseeing the launch of Indy Hub's new and improved Web site, which was scheduled to go live June 16 or 17.

The Web site-free, interactive and broad in scope-is intended to link 20- and 30-somethings with one another and with everything the city has to offer-from careers to entertainment to volunteer opportunities.

"If you live in New York or Chicago, it's not the city's fault if you can't make the right connections. But here, it's our fault. There hasn't been a hub to help people make those connections," Chavers said.

If your organization is struggling to connect with the new breed of consumer, don't panic. Check out IndyHub.org, or view a summary of Next Generation's Indianapolis arts study at Indyarts.org (check out research reports under the news and info pulldown). Learn what the young crowd wants, prepare to give it to them, and spread the word.



Harton is editor of IBJ. His column appears monthly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tharton@ibj.com.
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