Minimum Viable Anything Is An Oxymoron

Since launching UpStageCRM, the concept of Minimum Viable Product (MVP) has been paramount on my mind for the last two years. If you aren’t already familiar with the concept, Minimum Viability is a version of something, like a product, with enough features to be functional and provide value to users.

Going from an idea to a clear list of MVP features is far easier than it sounds; in fact, the entire phase is an oxymoron. MVPs are rarely minimal from the perspective of generating less work and defining viability always ends with caveats about the initial user group.

In another ironic twist, one of the best ways to reach MVP balance is to fail and fail hard. Those lessons shave off weeks of time from what would otherwise be spent conducting user studies that most businesses don’t have the luxury to implement at a scale needed to produce viable feedback. But the other side of that coin is you need to have resources to mitigate any negative feedback that would otherwise produce customer churn.

Joe Patti published a fascinating blog this week that applies the MVP concept to audiences. Inspired by a post from Seth Godin, Patti gets right to the heart of the matter by acknowledging the viability conundrum.

The keyword “viable” is the slippery element in this. It is pretty widely acknowledged that catering to the traditional audiences isn’t sustainable so there does need to be some expansion.  But there is also an implication in “viable” that you would stop once the audience was large enough to sustain operations. Or perhaps that you maintain a program focused on renewing people lost to whatever factors are contributing to churn in audiences.

The problem is, there really doesn’t seem to be anyone who has discovered the secret of attracting and maintaining a core sustainable audience. Not to mention that economic factors are constantly expanding the boundaries of what is required to be sustainable.

Everything Patti acknowledges becomes the foundation for a fascinating exercise when you apply some of the basic questions from the MVP process as applied to the tech sector.

Can we reduce manual labor time spent on data management through automation?
My team encountered this when designing UpStage in the form of making business intelligence results actionable. For example, designing a reporting process that lets admins create an audience segment then push that directly into the email marketing platform with all the associated tags. This automates what would otherwise be a time-consuming process of creating the list, exporting, doing some manual cleanup work in the spreadsheet, then importing into the email marketing platform manually.

For arts and culture orgs, they’ve already applied this concept to the marketing performance aspect of audience development in the form of traditional subscriptions. Automate renewals for full season buys and you get a handsome return on that investment. But even before the pandemic, that model was on the decline, the question moving forward is how to increase marketing performance by way of contemporary retention options. The start-up approach here would focus on selling singles and flexible packages that reward buying habits that no longer value traditional subscription benefits. The easier those systems are to use and communicate the right message at the right time to the right buyer will produce marketing performance rates on par with traditional auto-renew subscriptions.

How much will design impact the product’s success?
In the field of ticketing CRMs, traditional providers simply didn’t care and/or designed user interfaces for both admins and patrons to mimic the days of print. Moving forward, that just doesn’t cut it and software design must make the buying and redemption process not simply tolerable, but rewarding. Critical to this is including a UX/UI specialist at the project onset.

When applied to audience development, think of the overall user experience as “design.” These are the aspects the ticket buyer interacts with from the moment they visit your website through the point where the leave the venue. Which of these elements can you control and what will an experience designer recommend to maximize patron enjoyment? Using this as a starting point for resource allocation stands a far better change at producing substantive results than doubling down on traditional approaches.

Does this feature make sense to our customers?
Software developers fall victim to some pg the same bear traps as arts and culture organizations in that they can allow small groups of core users dictate priority. For Ticketing CRMs, theatres have events with a few dozen occurrences while orchestras have one to four occurrences for the same event. Their respective feature needs are diverse but do you provide features that satisfy neither user group or focus more on one group then plan to expand? Spoiler: neither. Acknowledging limitations (think, “coming soon”) has a long history of success because it projects empathy and understanding. A publicly accessible development road map solidifies commitment to meeting those needs in a timely fashion.

For arts and culture orgs, think of all the time and resources spent on offering and processing subscription renewals providing reserved seats that roll over from one season to the next. Granted, it’s a valuable feature but how many other ticket buying features are you not offering, and have no plans or capability to implement, because that one traditional feature is such a resource hog?

In the end, MVPs or MVAs are anything but small-scale and uncomplicated. What the field of nonprofit arts and culture could benefit from is a renewed process for resource allocation to maximize marketing and box office performance.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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