Selling the unknown and unknowable
How do you "sell" an arts experience when its value cannot be known in advance?
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
T.S. Eliot, from “The Four Quartets”
One of the challenges of closing a sale on an arts experience is that its value, quality, or utility can’t usually be known in advance. Sure, you can sell the promise of something wonderful and worthwhile. But it’s only in or after the moment of actual experience that anyone can determine if that promise was fulfilled.
Economists offer useful categories of goods and services based on this issue – how much the consumer can know about them before or even after experience (Nelson 1970, Ekelund et al 1995, Wieneke 2019). These categories of search goods, experience goods, and credence goods can be invaluable to arts marketers seeking to sell their mysterious wares into the world.
Search Goods include commodities such as rice, flour, or gasoline, where the buyer has a clear perception of what they want and a high degree of certainty it will be useful in a predictable way. Here, consumers can search for and compare multiple options, often deciding based on price or convenience or terms of sale.
Experience Goods have attributes that aren’t known until they are experienced – quality, benefit, value, utility (think wine or hotels or restaurants). This leads to high uncertainty before purchase and therefore a more costly discovery process. After the experience, the participant can readily evaluate their satisfaction or the utility/quality of the experience. Which is why word of mouth, audience testimonials, and other forms of social evidence are powerful resources for marketing.
Credence Goods have unknown qualities prior to the experience, but also after. Because the outcomes are difficult to observe directly – think here about auto repair, medical services, multivitamins – evaluation is costly before and after the experience. Here, consumers may look to expert opinion, evidence-based inquiry, or even symbolic elements like price (if it’s more expensive, it must be better).
Arts experiences can live in any of the three categories – and even a single arts experience can occupy different categories for different potential audiences. The trick is knowing how to “manage evidence,” as my colleague Neill Archer Roan taught me, to help potential audience members reduce their uncertainty about your arts experience, or about you.
What evidence is available to manage? Critical and customer reviews, word-of-mouth referrals, video or audio or images from the experience, backstage or behind-the-scenes glimpses of the creative production, credentials and previous credits of the creative team, invocations of past experiences, emphasis on the context of the experience (social, spacial, special qualities of the venue or its environment), among many others.
And since many arts experiences are credence goods – where participants still don’t know if it was good after they attended – smart arts marketers keep this information flowing to cast the experience in the best possible light.
p.s. For more on this topic, watch this ArtsManaged video.
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From the ArtsManaged Field Guide
Function of the Week: Sales
Sales involves designing, deriving, and capturing inbound revenue from goods, services, or access.
Framework of the Week: Calibrating Uncertainty
Informing your decision-making and evidence-gathering by measuring the chance of being wrong and the cost of being wrong.
Nelson, Phillip. “Information and Consumer Behavior.” The Journal of Political Economy 78, no. 2 (1970): 311–29. https://doi.org/10.1086/259630.
Darby, Michael R., and Edi Karni. “Free Competition and the Optimal Amount of Fraud.” The Journal of Law & Economics 16, no. 1 (1973): 67–88. https://doi.org/10.1086/466756.
Ekelund, Robert B., Franklin G. Mixon, and Rand W. Ressler. “Advertising and Information: An Empirical Study of Search, Experience and Credence Goods.” Journal of Economic Studies 22, no. 2 (1995): 33. https://doi.org/10.1108/01443589510086970.
Wieneke, Dave. “Customer Strategy Foundation: Search, Experience and Credence (SEC) Analysis Determines How Customers Buy.” Rutgers Business School-Newark and New Brunswick, January 29, 2019. https://www.business.rutgers.edu/business-insights/customer-strategy-foundation-search-experience-and-credence-sec-analysis.
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