Most businesses understand the role that demographics play in marketing, allowing them to effectively target different segments of their community, whether regionally or in cyberspace. But what happens when a core demographic is right under your nose and you don’t see it?

Case in point: a funny thing happened at the Washington Center for the Performing Arts this year.  

After Executive Director Jill Barnes booked country star Clint Black for a show, the lobby was flooded with patrons the staff had never seen before. When they ran a list search by zip code, they discovered that most of the new audience was located outside of Olympia. 

“It made us much more aware that our potential patrons are not just in Lacey, Olympia, and Tumwater,” said Marketing Director Matthew Cordier. “They’re also in Yelm, and all the way down to Centralia.”

The Center discovered the gap by surveying their regular patrons, a common practice after shows. 

“After any performance, a patron sees, we send them a survey,” said Cordier. “Most of the questions have to do with their experience with that show, but some of them are about future programming. The answers we got surprised us in terms of country and bluegrass. People wanted to see more of that.” 

Such surveys can provide critical information, said George Sharp of Sharp Strategies and Solutions, a business consulting firm in Olympia. 

“It’s important to do some kind of surveying with your customers once or twice a year,” he says. “Start small, with just one or two questions.” 

He also recommends having a mechanism in place for capturing information. It’s a simple thing, but many businesses just simply forget to solicit that kind of feedback.

“Have a process so that when someone comes through the door, they’re signing up,” he said. At the Center, patrons have the option to say that don’t want to be contacted, but most are willing to receive emails and newsletters, Cordier said.

At Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Washington, a change in strategy came about through necessity. 

“We had a little financial crisis with some of our grants and that required us to take a closer look at our donor base,” said Amy Evans, the group’s president. “We realized that in Olympia, a lot of our seasoned donors are already engaged with other nonprofits.” 

With its own board of directors skewing younger, Big Brothers Big Sisters started looking at potential donors in their 40s and 50s that hadn’t necessarily grown up with philanthropy. “We discovered that the younger crowd is less seasoned when it comes to things like paddle calls at our auction,” said Evans. “They want things that can be more of an exchange.” 

In recent years, their regular auction items have generated more revenue than the ‘Fund a Match’ paddle call. 

“We’ve focused on what is going to make it an event that’s fun for this demographic, with live entertainment and auction items that push the envelope,” she said. “Four years ago, our auction brought in about $65,000 and last year we brought in $352,000. That’s our real success story.” 

And, she adds, “Our audience is significantly younger that at any other event around town.” 

Sharp recommends stepping back once a year to re-examine your target audience. 

“It’s important to ask yourself, ‘Are we paying attention to trends? What are we doing well? What could we be doing better?’” he said. “Ask your customers how they found out about you.” 

The answers may lead to surprising discoveries. 

“Recently, one local hotelier noticed that a lot of people were coming from Grays Harbor to go to Capitol Mall,” he said. “They advertised a special deal aimed at that group.” 

The campaign was successful.

Aaron Rodriguez of ACR Business Consulting in Olympia points out that when things are going well, most organizations don’t necessarily make it a point to stop and ask what can be done better. 

“The question about what demographics are missing allows for reflection on the existing approach, which leads to some ideas on how to adapt strategies in a measurable and trackable way,” he said. 

Rodriguez also recommends creating a profile of current clients to identify sub-demographics that aren’t represented. 

“Use your network to find people who fit those profiles,” he said.  “Find out what they know about your business and encourage them to be honest with you about why they do not engage your services. There may be some demographic trends that allow you to decide if you want to adapt your business strategy to attract these groups.”  

 Another important factor has to do with potential community partners. 

“Make sure that you’re sharing the customer,” said Sharp. “Especially in smaller communities, businesses need to be looking for who we can pass people along to.” 

Washington Center has already adopted that strategy, working with regional performance centers to share booking and travel expenses for the acts they feature. 

“The country market has given us the opportunity to say, ‘We want to have these performances here at our venue. Let’s make sure our patron base also knows about other performances in other locations,’” said Cordier. “We’re starting to think more in terms of what the greater South Sound has to offer and how we can fit into that niche.”

This year, the Center also found another niche it had been missing for seasonal reasons: snowbirds. 

“When Joan Baez came, we had our normal crowd but we also had faces we hadn’t seen in years, some of whom had even founded the Center,” said Cordier. “We’ve discovered that they’re snowbirding, so they’re not here for our regular programming.” 

As a result, Cordier and the Center’s staff are considering adding shows during the summer. 

“We’re trying to have a few more options there,” he said. 

In January, they’ll be hosting country musician Travis Tritt, and plan to have at least one country act every year, if not more. 

“Country music and bluegrass really weren’t in our register before, but now they are,” says Cordier. “We want to make sure that we’re providing a little bit of flavor for everybody.”