February 1, 2021 | Publications

Millennials Are Not a Monolith: Experiences from One Group of Performing Arts Organizations’ Audience-Building Efforts

Authors: Francie Ostrower, Ph.D.


​Among the 25 arts organizations participating in Wallace’s Building Audiences for Sustainability initiative, the most frequently chosen demographic target group for audience-building efforts was “millennials.” But as the organizations began to create new programs and marketing strategies geared toward bringing these younger patrons in the door, they almost universally found themselves grappling with a group that was more complex and multifaceted than they’d originally thought.

Some organizations in the effort, which centered on performing arts organizations, determined that millennials contained two distinct groups by age: those just out of college and those in their thirties starting families. This meant a need to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. Other organizations decided that millennials overall liked the same kinds of performances as their patrons in general, leading them to segment audiences by behaviors instead; for instance, targeting a group by its “adventurousness,” as one theater did. Many were forced to question the assumption that millennials are super-users of gadgets and technology, finding that Gen-Xers and boomers “are attached to their iPhones…and purchasing tickets on their phones as well.”

In this brief, arts researcher Francie Ostrower and her team at the University of Texas in Austin capture the organizations’ experiences and lessons learned in their efforts to attract millennials. One finding was that while organizations struggled with this audience group at first, some saw a pay off when they moved beyond the blanket category of millennials and started asking themselves, “Which ones?” With 70 million millennials in the United States, as reported in April 2020 by the Pew Research Institute, this approach made sense to many of the grantee arts organizations.

It is important to note that the initiative research concluded in 2019. That was before the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic shuttered live performances, affecting an already difficult financial landscape for performing arts organizations, and before the movement for a deeper reckoning with racial justice emerged, demanding a response from almost all sectors in U.S., arts included. The authors write that they hope the experiences shared and questions raised in their brief can add to the dialogue brought about by these developments.

​The brief is the third report from Ostrower and her team on the initiative. A 2019 literature review finds little research about the effectiveness of various audience-building strategies, but highlights questions organizations might want to consider in their efforts. Another short brief, Data and Deliberation, focuses on how the initiative arts organizations used data. More reports are expected in 2021.