Cover Story: The 10 Percent Solution

Finding and connecting with the real influentials

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Jon Berry



Who would've thought that you and I are as influential in the Cincinnati arts scene as Ed Stern or Procter & Gamble or City Councilman Jim Tarbell?

That's one of the key findings of a new look at how Americans regard arts and culture by the Roper Reports, which has been studying U.S. societal trends for 30 years. The new study furthers Roper's theory that 10 percent of the adult population influences buying and lifestyle decisions for the rest of Americans, mainly through word-of-mouth recommendations.

That theory was first put forth in a 2003 book, The Influentials, by Jon Berry and Ed Keller. Commissioned by the Assocation of Alternative Newsweeklies — CityBeat is a member — Berry then took a closer look at how this 10-percent group impacts attitudes toward and patronage of arts and culture.

"It used to be that the traditional arts sought out an educated audience, because that's what set arts patrons apart from the rest of the population," Berry says in a telephone interview from his office in New York. "But now the arts are having more of a conversation with their communities and are more connected with everyday life. People are more open to change now, and the larger population is more educated, more confident in their opinions and has a creative approach to things."

Berry's ideas are both easy to grasp and difficult to digest. It makes sense that certain people are sought out for recommendations on movies, restaurants, bands, plays, museums and such.

Who would've thought that you and I are as influential in the Cincinnati arts scene as Ed Stern or Procter & Gamble or City Councilman Jim Tarbell?

That's one of the key findings of a new look at how Americans regard arts and culture by the Roper Reports, which has been studying U.S. societal trends for 30 years. The new study furthers Roper's theory that 10 percent of the adult population influences buying and lifestyle decisions for the rest of Americans, mainly through word-of-mouth recommendations.

That theory was first put forth in a 2003 book, The Influentials, by Jon Berry and Ed Keller. Commissioned by the Assocation of Alternative Newsweeklies — CityBeat is a member — Berry then took a closer look at how this 10-percent group impacts attitudes toward and patronage of arts and culture.

"It used to be that the traditional arts sought out an educated audience, because that's what set arts patrons apart from the rest of the population," Berry says in a telephone interview from his office in New York. "But now the arts are having more of a conversation with their communities and are more connected with everyday life. ... People are more open to change now, and the larger population is more educated, more confident in their opinions and has a creative approach to things."

Berry's ideas are both easy to grasp and difficult to digest. It makes sense that certain people are sought out for recommendations on movies, restaurants, bands, plays, museums and such. We all know them — the people who just seem to hit all the opening nights and sneak previews and have an informed opinion about everything.

But they're also nearly impossible to categorize. They don't fit into a neat demographic of 25-34, single, high income, etc.

And they're not necessarily the folks CityBeat has been profiling over the past eight years in our State of the Arts issues' "Most Influential People in the Arts" (see page 27). Last year's list of "The Next Influentials" came closer to the Roper concept than any other.

Times are changing, Berry explains, and the arts — as well as any company offering a product or service to the public — need to change, too.

"There's an ingrained tendency in the United States to 'expertise' everything," he says. "We think that only people at the top have influence. Like if a product succeeds it's because of the CEO. That's just not the way things really work."

'Twice as many connections'
The Roper Reports identifies "influentials" as Americans who participate in three or more of these activities: attend a meeting; write or call a politician; serve on a committee; serve as an officer of a club or organization; write a letter to the editor; attend a rally or speech; belong to a group influencing policy; make a speech; write an article; and hold or run for public office. Sadly, that's only 10 percent of us.

Meanwhile, The Influentials uncovered a new trend toward trusting word-of-mouth recommendations. In 1973, 53 percent of Roper survey respondents said advertising and 67 percent said word-of-mouth were among the best sources for new ideas and information on consumer decisions. A 2003 survey liked advertising about the same (50 percent) but absolutely loved word-of-mouth (92 percent).

Put those two concepts together, and you have a core group of people that consumer product companies are dying to connect with — people who like to try new things and whose opinions others trust.

The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies contacted Berry to see if he'd study how the "influentials" regard arts and culture and how much they utilize alternative papers. (Inside Information Alert: A large number of influentials are alt weekly readers, and those readers are even more involved in local arts and culture than the non-reader influentials — and significantly more involved than the general public.)

Among the findings Berry came up with via interviews earlier this year with "influentials":

· Influentials, more than the general public, think live performances are more meaningful and exciting than watching performances on TV;

· They think cultural activities are as important for a community as parks;

· They think the government isn't spending enough to promote culture;

· They think enjoying cultural activities is a necessity, not a luxury;

· They choose where to live based on access to culture;

· They're among the first to go to a cultural event;

· And they like being on the cutting edge of cultural trends.

Berry also crunched the numbers to find out the attitudes of "young influentials" — ages 18-34 — toward arts and culture. He divided his findings into "expected" and "unexpected."

Not surprisingly, young influentials are experimental and like to challenge convention; are into nightlife, TV, movies and music; and keep up with and are the first to know about what's new.

Unexpectedly, Berry found, they generally place a high value on culture, with half saying culture "plays a major role in my life;" have an interest in traditional culture, including a higher interest than older influentials in art, dance and comedic theater; and like culture to be wrapped into other experiences such as restaurants and retailers.

Berry agrees that the findings on influentials — they like live performances, experimental culture and living near cultural activities — fly in the face of the feeling that Americans are becoming more isolated. Perhaps we're not bowling alone so much now.

"Something changed 10 to 12 years ago to make us more social," he says. "Civic engagement has changed. We don't have many of the traditional support systems anymore, like neighborhood clubs and such, but we're reaching out to each other. People want to have a sense of place."

The real support system now, Berry says, is the Internet, which has made information sharing quick and easy.

"Decisions on buying a product or attending an arts event are very much conversations now," he says. "Technology makes it easier because you can connect so easily. ... We found that people are influential not just because they're know-it-alls but because they also like to talk and be with each other. They build networks. Influentials in our studies have twice as many connections as the average adult."

More complaints, more influence
A native of Indiana, Berry says he's familiar with the limitations and opportunities inherent in a Midwestern city like Cincinnati. With the much-publicized brain drain of young, creative people from here, you wonder if the area's influentials aren't less than 10 percent of the adult population — which would only make it more difficult for them to have an impact.

On the other hand, Cincinnati's strong arts and culture tradition might actually be a major drawing card for young influentials — a position many have been advocating for some time. And maybe those young influentials are slowly pushing the general population here toward being more experimental and less stodgy.

"People are seeking out more challenging arts," Berry says. "The influentials like non-clear endings and not having everything tied up in a bow, so they can talk about it later."

Asked how local arts institutions can find and communicate with the influentials, Berry says an attitude adjustment might be needed.

"Skepticism of authority runs throughout our culture these days," he says. "The influentials, in particular, are more savvy, more confident to ask questions and in their own opinions. They don't like to be 'sold.' So arts groups need to look at their audiences not as recipients but as partners."

Berry mentions an unusual avenue to the influentials — complaints.

"Influentials are more likely to complain or write to an arts group with suggestions," he says. "Take care of the complaint, then engage them. They could become a sounding board and eventually your best allies."

Another unusual avenue to the influentials, Berry argues, is the soccer field.

"Think about where people gather," he says. "It could be a physical place, it could be the Web. Go to the kids' soccer leagues. Go where people are and things are happening. That's where people are giving opinions and sharing information.

"And once you find the influentials, stay in touch." ©

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