Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Law of the Few (and the Future of the Many)

About a year ago, I began designing a graduate certificate program for American University focused on technology issues in arts management, and this past summer, I taught my first course focused on the intersection of technology and marketing. To open the course, I asked students to read Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, which if you haven't read it, describes how social epidemics evolve, providing a great platform to discuss word-of-mouth marketing and how technology can be used to ignite a movement.

Early in the book, Gladwell discusses "The Law of the Few," which boiled down is a riff on the 80/20 principle - 20% of the people are responsible for 80% of the work. As marketers, we latch onto this principle, as it correctly argues that if we can identify and cultivate relationships with a select group of influential people called "connectors," then our returns can be maximized. One connector can be worth his weight in gold, and easily as valuable as ten non-connectors.

As I was giving my lecture, it struck me that most non-profit arts organizations have designed their business models on the "Law of the Few" principle, not just in their approaches to marketing, but in how we program, fundraise and communicate. A previous supervisor of mine used to say that a grassroots movement begins with the grasstops. But if we are all focused on the few, are we ignoring the many?

I ask this question, because as society shifted away from a one way, web 1.0 world towards an interactive, web 2.0 one, the ways in which we do business and view the world radically changed. Previously companies had much more control of their brands as they could carefully craft messaging, but today, brands have a life of their own in the virtual universe. We used to seek out experts when we needed information, now we rely upon the collective of Wikipedia or Google (when was the last time you consulted an encyclopedia?). At one time knowledge was proprietary, but presently, a growing number of us look to the commons (and companies trying to maintain business models built upon charging for knowledge are struggling). We used to rely on authority figures to inform us, but now in moments of crisis, millions flock to Twitter, where we learned an hour before President Obama confirmed it that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.

I believe that many of us used to defer to the knowledge and experience of a small few, placing trust in their expertise to guide the rest of us. But when a handful of very powerful and experienced bankers plunged the world into a global economic crisis resulting in the loss of 40% of the world's wealth, the masses started to wonder if the few could be trusted to lead. In the web 1.0 world, most were passive recipients, willing to receive content as delivered. Today, the least among us now demands a seat at the table, and via web 2.0 technologies, an even playing field has begun to emerge.

So how will this affect the non-profit arts? Here are just a couple of examples:

The Citizen Critic (and the Future of Arts Journalism)
A couple of weeks ago, Barry Hessenius, former director of the California Arts Council, issued his annual list of the most influential people in the arts. On the list were a handful of notable bloggers, including Ian David Moss, Diane Ragsdale, Clay LordDoug McLennan and Thomas Cott, however not a single traditional journalist was mentioned as there wasn't a category for journalists. Was this an oversight, or a trend? Nielsen recently reported that 92% of consumers trusted word-of-mouth from friends and family, while only 58% trusted editorial content such as newspaper articles. Harvard University recently published a study that contended that average reader reviews on were just as trustworthy as book reviews from professional critics. Even Maura Judkis, a writer for the Washington Post, in her article for the NEA's blog ArtWorks states "readers of my generation, the Millennials, are more likely to want to see a movie or play because their friends like it than because a critic does." Word of mouth has always been powerful, but advances in technology have allowed connectors to broadcast their thoughts to followers instantaneously, and others, the opportunity to feed into social networking, user review sites like So where does that leave us? Ask yourself - if you were visiting New York, and thousands of patrons had described a Broadway play positively in online reviews, would it have more of an impact on you than negative reviews by professional critics? [could this explain the mysterious success of Spiderman?]

Crowdfunding and Microfinancing
In her article "It is Broke, We Should Probably Fix It," Alexis Clements argues that many non-profit organizations chase a few, large foundations, whose money would have been public via taxation but is now controlled privately. She goes on to say that via grants from private foundations, wealthy individuals can "funnel money to organizations that will uphold their personal beliefs." That is a pretty charged statement, but I do wonder how often arts organizations manipulate their missions in order to receive a large grant or donation from a private funding source? How many arts organizations are alive today primarily due to the generosity of one or two major donors, and for those, do the donors in question wield too much influence? In 2008, President Obama demonstrated the power of the collective when he raised unprecedented amounts of money from small donations. As of August, the crowd funding website Kickstarter has raised $275 million in funding for projects, and has grown exponentially since its founding in 2009. And we aren't just talking about tiny amounts of funding either. The top 10 projects funded on Kickstarter all raised more than $1 million. And Microfinance website Kiva has leveraged $346 million in funds from 823,474 lenders to launch projects aimed at combating poverty in 63 different countries.

Crowdsourcing Curation and Programming
When I was at the Smithsonian, an internal debate was occurring about the "Art of Video Games" exhibit at the American Art Museum. The Smithsonian invited the public to help curate which video games would be featured in the exhibit, and in doing so, more than 3.7 million votes were cast by 119,000 people in 175 countries. Pretty impressive. However, questions began to arise about the role of the curator. For the most part, non-profit arts organizations are lead by artists with extensive training and sometimes decades of experience. As the resident experts in their fields, they are regularly called upon to make value judgements on what art to present, and how to present it. In the past, the public has remained a passive receiver of said art, but a growing number of patrons today would like to play a more active role. Technology has changed what used to be a one way conversation into a dialogue, and in turn, many community stakeholders now expect to be able to exercise their voice. I believe this phenomenon prompted Arts Journal editor Doug McLennan to host the "Lead or Follow" debate early this year. If you didn't catch it, here is a good recap.

Understandably, non-profit arts organizations have built models based on the "Law of the Few," and I am not advocating for the abandonment of those models. I am however suggesting that there is wisdom, money and resources to be found in the collective as well. This isn't an either/or proposition between the few and the many; it's a both/and situation. There is a significant role to play for the few and the many. But to tap into the collective, I believe we must become vital and essential to our communities again. I fear that for many non-profit arts organizations, if they were to disappear, we'd barely hear a whimper, when there should be protests in the streets.


kimmc said...

Nice article. I follow what you post because I’m also in marketing – but my experience is in CPG, Shoppers and B2B. I’ve never done Event/Arts Marketing and am fascinated by the dynamic.

That is to say: in what I’ve marketed the product goes TO the consumer through distributors to retail outlets. In E/A marketing – the consumer has to come TO the product: there’s a seat to be filled.

Plus, most CPG are essential – E/A take discretionary income: so NOT a mandatory: I NEED bread, yogurt, razor-blades, I don’t need (in the same way) a concert or a play. (unless, being uninformed, these things are not considerations for E/A marketers?)

Still, fascinating. And Thanks! And I look forward to reading more about E/A marketing from you.

Unknown said...

I think that crowdsourced curating is just a place on a spectrum and is not a new wave.

There has always been a wide variety of choices from fine art accessible to a limited audience versed in the vocabulary of that art, through popular entertainment.

And there will always be a place for the introduction of more challenging work from the non-mainstream by curators who use tools to give non-experts access to experience and appreciate it.

In theater, we do have an old school way of presenting popular entertainment, and that's the blockbuster touring shows. Contemporary methods of figuring out what shows people want to see might change how those shows are chosen, but it's the same principle.

There remains a need for audiences who are more interested, but not actually in the field, to find an accessible curated way to learn about and have access to less mainstream work.

It's a kind of slippery slope to always follow the audience demand - one will necessarily end up with the most watered down work.

I think the following of "friends", though, is another form of curation. Somewhere two or three degrees away from you, is someone who does have more expertise and does try more challenging work, and does the work of the critic for you. But it remains an influential few - whether the critic with a readership, or the friend of a friend, who has a "readership" of hundreds through the circles of their social networks.

In the corporate world, Apple is an example of a heavily curated product, where Jobs made clear and limiting choices about product design and function. No consumer feedback or choices went into shaping his products, as they do with Microsoft or Android products for example. But that doesn't seem to stop customer demand.