Does your organization need a Chief Experience Officer?

Originally posted on ARTSJOURNAL.

A big part of our choice of favorite products and companies comes from the quality of how they engage us. My favorite coffee shop not only has the best coffee in Saint Paul but also the best playlist going in the shop, the best free Internet access, comfy chairs, an entertaining and useful Facebook page, and multiple ways of interacting with writers, visual artists and local food producers. It’s a sole proprietorship that’s curated by its owner in every sense of the word. Apple tries to do this on a global scale (and in my opinion, fails in many ways, but that’s a different blog post). Today’s successful companies not only develop services and products that are pleasing and useful but also curate our experiences with their people and their products to create (what they hope is) a unique brand.

Our larger performing arts organizations have a tough time curating what I’ll call “the total experience.” There’s no one person who has both the authority and the responsibility to curate the multiple ways an organization interacts with its public and to do so in ways that are interesting and unique; in cultural organizations, different aspects of the audience experience are handled by different departments. Artistic directors have their hands full dealing with what’s on stage. Marketing directors are focused on filling houses. So who is focused on the experience? And by this I do mean the total experience – from advertising to social media to how it feels to be in the house to how I am engaged before, during, and after a performance. I mean how I am greeted and treated, how things look from outside and inside, what food you sell me, and whether the program book is engaging or dull as can be.

As commercial enterprises get really imaginative at this, arts organizations are failing their audiences by not taking this curation as seriously as they do the curation of the work itself. What’s more, in an environment where so much engagement – both live and digital —  is smart and fun, a lot of arts organizations are coming off as boring and stuffy, no matter how great the work is once the show begins.

A few recent performances I’ve attended have me thinking about this, experiences where the sum total of my experience didn’t equate or align with the qualities of what was on stage. It’s as though the only thing that matters is the work once I’m seated and after I’ve read my program book – not all the experiences I have leading up to the moment the lights are dimmed or after the performance ends.

Some big corporations have an executive position called Chief Experience Officer (CXO). This is a new-ish (past 6-7 years) position for an executive in charge of the way people experience the company. A lot of what you can read about these positions is written in business-speak, but my take-away is that these people work cross-functionally to ensure that employees, customers, and shareholders receive theexperiential value the company wants to create.

How could we define a position like this in the cultural sector? I imagine a sort of interactive curator or interactive producer, who applies intelligence and imagination to the total experience of a cultural organization. This person would need to work across artistic, marketing, development, and HR functions to help everyone work together and think about how to make total experiences as lively, creative, and engaging as possible.

Couple of questions for you. Do you think about the total experience when you go to an arts event (or exhibition)? Do your experiences fall short of ideal, or not? Are there organizations you know that do pay attention to the total experience? I’d love to hear from you about this.