Writing + Curating + Projects

Understanding your audience

We are finally getting good research on the arts; how can you use it to develop your audience?

The Australia Council for the Arts released new research in May that showed 95 per cent of Australians had engaged with the arts over the past 12 months. ‘The report provides tangible evidence that the arts are an intrinsically important part of Australian life,’ said CEO Tony Grybowski.

In the wake of this report, SAMAG – the series of seminars for arts professionals – decided to unpack questions around that research: How can we use data? How do we collect it? And, most importantly, how can we better develop our audience through such research?

Panelist Dale Osborne, Deputy Managing Director at Woolcott Research – a company that has worked on audience development studies across the arts sector with clients such as Arts VIC, Sydney Opera House, Bangarra Dance, the Belvoir Theatre and most recently Sydney Writers Festival – put it simply: ‘The principles are the same; it doesn’t matter what you are doing, you have to get to a cross section of people to make it relevant. You have to use every available method to reach audiences and understand them. A lot of it is common sense.’

Martin Barden, who comes to the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia from the TATE London, said: ‘My challenge every day is, “How can we, as an arts organisation, work better and become part of people’s lives so that it is meaningful?”’

He added, ‘Data can give you a lot of the tools that you need to unzip that proposition.’

As the Associate Director Development and Enterprises, Barden explained that his principal responsibilities orbit around revenue generation, citing an project he’d developed at the TATE where an embedded bar chip in a member’s card collected transactional information from the gallery shop to the café, to booking a talk or entry to exhibitions. Through members’ habits they could start to build a profile from the backdoor, and then extend that relationship through the front door.

‘You have to capture as much meaningful data, keep it in one place, and have the tools and intelligence to interrogate it so that it becomes meaningful, purposeful and something you can use,’ said Barden.

He added that while that program was costly to develop, around $300,000, it had paid itself over and over, matching their original motivation to increase retention of members and increase donations.

While most of us don’t have the access to such financial resources – and as Osborne reminded, ‘it is a matter of money a lot of the time’ – there are things you can do to start to understand your audience better.

Osborne’s key advice is to use what you have. ‘All of the different touch points you have with your audiences are opportunities to collect information about those people.’

By touch points we mean any time someone “touches base” or interacts with your organisation, from phone inquiries to online to walking through the door or pre-booking tickets.

These existing touchpoints can be much more useful than designing a survey and asking people to tick the boxes.  Being hit by a survey is a massive turnoff, said chair of the panel, Artistic Director of the Australian Theatre for Young People, Fraser Corfield.

Sitting on the panel was Mark Stapleton, Director Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts at the Australia Council, who said that contact doesn’t always have to be anonymous. ‘Talk to people! For example, you are a subscriber who hasn’t come back for a year. We’d like to talk to you – as a person.’

It was a point echoed by Barden, who, working at the upper tiers of philanthropy, relies on audience intelligence and communication flow. ‘Listen to the audience; ask them questions; learn from their understandings, needs and behaviors, and then start to work with them in-house to keep them there.’

Barden added that it is OK to keep it simple. He subscribes to the Apple theory: ‘They get another product and throw out everything until it stops working. What is it left that makes it work? That’s the kind of approach you want to take.’ Build from the basics that work.

He said the aim is to get a 360-degree view of your customer or audience behavior. ‘You want total customer product connection across your organisation. No one starts from that position but that is certainly the goal,’ said Barden.

And if you are going to lash out on some big-spend research, then Osborne cautioned: ‘First you need to sit down and ask, “Why are you doing this, and how are you going to use this information?” That gives you the framework for the kind of questions to ask, and who you will be approaching.’

Barden touched on the same point, adding that you also need to ask how responsive you are going to be? He said that the attitude of the 1990s and ‘00s was government-led box ticking and the job was done. From his experience at the Tate he has all this “sexy data”, as he called it – ‘here is someone with a red light. They haven’t been in for three months – what are we going to do? Or this person just gave us 10,000 pounds but we didn’t know this person – what are we going to do?’

Similarly, Stapleton used the recent statistic that 92 per cent of Australians think Indigenous arts are an important part of Australian culture, and yet it is clear that they are not accessing those venues and programs. He asked, ‘How do we find these people in this statistic?’

Osborne touched on the same conundrum: ‘The other issue is to not just concentrate on people who love you – that is the easy part – but it is getting to those single ticket buyers and ask what they got out of it; what their barriers were; did they feel it was beyond them, or that it belonged to someone else?

‘I remember doing a study on contemporary art and someone said, “It is just for people who wear black and I wouldn’t feel right there.” These kinds of barriers can stop people looking further.

She added: ‘To get to those other people within the same sphere as your audience, you have to find out where your audience is going. Do they go to the movies, where are they geographically based – use those other venues they might attend’, to identify the barriers of like, potential audiences.

Barden made the point that we in the arts sector are very inclined to look at each other. ‘I always ask “who is your favourite online retailer; who is your favourite David Jones equivalent; where do you find a sense of loyalty, a sense of value?’

Psychographic profiling is just as important as demographics in understanding and developing your audiences.

And their closing thoughts?

Osborne said that data should not necessarily be used to change programming. ‘Just because a certain segment says they don’t like it, if you (take everything on board) you would only be producing things to appeal to the broadest audience’ and that point of difference, story or brand – selling point – is lost.

Stapleton continued that notion of story further. ‘If someone come to me and asked where they could buy Aboriginal poetry I could mention a couple of independent bookshops, but where in that bookshop is another issue. Access points are really important and they are tools of connection.

He continued: ‘Actually the story – “who are you, what kind of gallery space are you?” – is key.  If I don’t know how will my audience know if you are right for me. A lot of Australian arts organisations tend to have a brand and title but not a story.’

At the end of the day audience research is simply about deepening engagement, and if you understand that then it is just a matter of selecting the right tools to deliver that.

The Arts in Daily Life: Australian Participation in the Arts report by the Australia Council can be found here: www.australiacouncil.gov.au/research

This piece was first published on artshub.com.au in July 2014.

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