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Audience Experience Innovation in the Performing Arts, Part 1: Start with Empathy

Understanding the people for whom you are creating before you create

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

This is an expansion on some ideas I wrote about last year in a post called What orchestras need to learn from Airbnb and Apple. Since then, I’ve studied the innovation strategies of several successful companies and talked with people who are implementing such strategies, both in the for-profit and non-profit sectors. This is the first post in a series on the topic of innovating audience experience.

For context: according to statistics provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, live audiences for the performing arts in the United States have been shrinking for a while. This topic often creates anxiety and uncertainty among the performing arts field — what can we actually do about it? Clearly, this is an urgent issue for the future of the field, but it also can negatively impact our economy as a whole. Above all, art matters because of its capacity to positively impact the quality of human life.

Many organizations in the performing arts who are trying new things are calling themselves “innovative,” but how do we know if we’re actually innovating at all, not to mention in a way that serves the needs of our audiences? I’d like to propose that we look far outside of our field to go about understanding what that might look like.

Stepping into another’s shoes

To start, think of the last time you had a bad restaurant experience. Was the problem that the wait staff ignored you for 45 minutes after you sat down? Was the place unclean? Was the food quality lower than what you’d have expected for the price? Will you go back? I hope not! But you should give them a bad review. The restaurant owner evidently did not put in the effort necessary to understand what it’s like to eat at their restaurant and implement an incredible experience for the customer. This person had no empathy for you.

panda has no empathy for you

Now think about the most wonderful restaurant experience of your life. In this case, you most certainly had a savvy restaurant owner behind the scenes. This person understood that the customer’s experience IS the product, and that designing a good customer experience takes understanding how the customer feels along the entire journey by getting as close to being a customer as possible. Perhaps this owner regularly dines at their restaurant to get a feeling for it. Perhaps they talk in depth with customers or observe people’s emotional responses along the whole experience. No matter how they empathize, they continually improve the restaurant experience based on their findings. This work goes far beyond surveys and numbers…they are understanding how the restaurant experience influences people’s moods, days, and lives.

A captive audience

Innovation informed by empathy for customers has been going on in the restaurant business for a long time, and it turns out that the most innovative companies in the world are realizing that their priorities must shift in a similar direction to survive in this century. When asked about becoming a 21st century company in this recent article, Airbnb’s VP of Design was quoted saying:

“20th century companies are structured to benefit shareholders, and make decisions to support that. This served companies well in the last 100 years, but we believe 21st century companies need to broaden their definition of stakeholders. In our case, we’re serving a community of millions of people who we’ve invited in to build this business with us. It’s an entirely new type of organization, with new, community-driven behaviors and values.”

-Alex Schleifer, VP of Design at Airbnb

The pivot that Schleifer is identifying, that Airbnb’s customers are becoming just as important as their investors in the 21st century, is a fact that rings so true in the performing arts. Our donors matter HUGELY, as do our own artistic visions, but if we don’t have audiences for performances, then how will we continue to be the performing arts? Perhaps if we all agree audience development is our principal concern, we will find sustainable ways to align the values of everybody involved.

Art, not just for art’s sake

There are some savvy leaders in the performing arts who are doing work like great restaurant owners––innovating through audience empathy. Sean Waugh, Artistic Planning Manager at San Francisco Opera, has led projects creating opera experiences for new audiences in conjunction with Stanford’s, a hub for innovation. Together, they have created “pop-up” opera experiences for target audiences. Take a look at this Harvard Business Review article that chronicles the journey of creating the very successful “Barely Opera,” subtitled with the cheeky catchphrase “This Isn’t Your Grandmother’s Opera.” This experience was intended to “introduce a younger, hipper audience to opera” by taking the art form out of the normal, stiffer context of an opera house. The day of Barely Opera, there were hundreds of people lined down the street to get in. The San Francisco Symphony created SoundBox with a similar audience in mind, and the performances sell out in one day every time. This kind of demand for opera or instrumental classical music is basically unprecedented in 2018, but by putting audience first, it’s being created. So what’s the process behind it?

SoundBox in action, from SF Symphony

The Opera’s team used design thinking, a creative process for problem solving rooted in audience empathy, to create Barely Opera. To start, their team got to know the target younger, hipper audience through a combination of observation and interviewing before they came up with any ideas for the experience. All ideas were an outgrowth of the empathy they gained for their audience, and true to the design thinking approach, the team designed prototypes that they tested on the audience before bringing the full production to life (check out the HBR article above for more details on exactly how this was done). Although the Symphony did not explicitly use design thinking, they were certainly thinking about their audience in creating their innovative experience. Watch this keynote from Tessitura’s Innovator Series to hear a bit about the process behind creating SoundBox. I’d also like to point out that neither the Opera nor the Symphony sacrificed programming––they performed music that would have been appropriate for a traditional concert in their home venues.

Airbnb (which, not coincidentally, was founded by two designers and an engineer) came to life using design thinking. In taking an approach focused entirely on customers, the company has completely revolutionized the lodging industry for travelers seeking affordable, personal experiences. In the cases of both Airbnb and SF Opera, a repeatable process rooted in empathy has led to innovations that successfully engage the target customers/audiences.

To be clear: this is not to suggest we create art tailored for audiences. A prized chef’s menu is not influenced by the request of the customer. The restaurant owner supports the chef’s artistry while crafting an experience around it that meets the needs and desires of the customer. The experience elevates the food in a way that makes the customer feel inspired by the chef’s work.

Shouldn’t be anybody’s guess

but actully idk

IDEO is the design and innovation firm that essentially created design thinking (they grew out of Stanford’s To get an idea of their process, check out their famous “deep dive” marathon design challenge to create a new grocery store shopping cart in this video.

One of the biggest lessons I have taken from IDEO is that there should be as little guesswork as possible in the beginning of the creation process. In this video, the team talks to and observes many people who use shopping carts in REAL settings before they even discuss ideas for product improvements. Like savvy restaurant owners, they get a sense of the experience of using a grocery cart through the eyes of other people other. These insights inform all of their work. If they don’t know the needs of the person for whom they’re endeavoring to create, there’s no way of knowing if anybody will find the product valuable.

A couple months ago, I visited a class on Stanford’s campus called LaunchPad. After watching teams of grad students present compelling pitches for companies they were building as part of the course, I had a moment to speak with one of the teachers. I told him that it’s sometimes hard to know what the purpose of art is in the world, even for artists, so it can be tough to create a compelling “pitch” for it. He told me, “You have to think like an entrepreneur…find the pain.” He further explained that entrepreneurs who start and build successful companies are the ones who find a problem for a particular group of people and solve it. Their entire endeavor is to understand and create things that people need.

Let’s say an artistic team is tasked to come up with a new concert idea within two hours, without any sort of preparation beforehand. I’m the meeting, they individually think of their best ideas and share with the group. By the end, the create the opportunity statement: College students like to go out late, so we should create a late night concert. Not so bad, and might even lead to a success! However, they arrived at this statement without gaining any empathy for their target audience.

Real college students, not the stereotypical college student the team is imagining, may not benefit from a concert of any kind, but would from a musical event of a different nature that has never before been created. A good start to gaining empathy in this project could look like talking to five college students and going to an event college students already like. This minimal investment could have provided the team insights that could direct their work to a surer success by providing a starting point informed by the target audience member. It also diffuses tension among the team––you can’t argue with the needs of the customer. The team may find that the resources spent on gathering audience data through methods of interviewing and observation would be less than the resources wasted producing an event based on a guess.

You’re a life-changer. You change people’s lives.


When I was studying at Juilliard, a wise woman once told me that we artists are “in the business of changing people’s lives.” Isn’t this true? We don’t just dance, sing, play, or act. We endeavor to inspire people to see themselves and the world differently through art. If we want to sustain and develop audiences, then we should be only be creating life-changing experiences for those audiences, informed by their needs.

We are competing with everybody

Some companies don’t understand why they should worry about customer experience. Others collect and quantify data on it but don’t circulate the findings. Still others do the measuring and distributing but fail to make anyone responsible for putting the information to use.

… But the need is urgent: Consumers have a greater number of choices today than ever before, more complex choices, and more channels through which to pursue them. In such an environment, simple, integrated solutions to problems — not fragmented, burdensome ones — will win the allegiance of the time-pressed consumer.

-Christopher Meyer & Andre Schwager, Understanding Customer Experience, Harvard Business Review, Feb. 2007

In reading through my post a year ago, I saw that my research still supports this observation––performing arts organizations are businesses competing for the time, money, and attention of people who are becoming increasingly accustomed to incredible experiences tailored for them. So let’s start a dialogue about empathy and create a beautiful world where the performing arts thrive.

This is the first of a multi-post series. When I get to writing the others, I’ll post links here. As always, please comment or email me (on my website) with thoughts or questions. Thanks for reading!


Zach Manzi is the clarinetist and co-artistic director of Conduit. He trained at Vanderbilt, Juilliard, and New World Symphony. Zach’s work surrounds innovation in the performing arts, with a particular focus on audience experience. He recently gave a TEDx talk about the experience of live classical music.

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Zach Manzi

Zach Manzi

classically-trained, future-oriented | Service Designer at GoDaddy | former Knight Foundation fellow | alum of Juilliard and New World Symphony

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