Audience Development: The Road to Success

The Long Read

I was recently invited by Jazz North to talk to the new crop of artists selected for Northern Line – a subsidised touring scheme – about growing their audience through social media. As I’ve also done similar workshops for jazz promoters, I know it’s a great way to join the dots and tackle audience development on all fronts. However, artists and small independent promoters don’t have access to much data – so tools like the Audience Agency’s Audience Spectrum are not very helpful for their needs. For that type of public, I usually explain audience development in terms of distance, with existing audiences as the core circle, and other audience groups to be reached as being gradually further away: the more in common they have with the music, band, venue, club…, the closer they are, and therefore the easier and less costly they are to reach. It’s not a very sophisticated approach, and I felt that it was time to revise it a notch. Luckily, I came across the New York-based Wallace Foundation via a mention on France Musique of their current 6-year $40m investment in audience development, supporting and analysing the activities of 26 performing arts organisations. This funding programme is based on previous initiatives that are well documented on their website, so I started digging into their resources.

 

The Behavioural Model: The New Framework for Building Participation in the Arts

One of their landmark research pieces is the The New Framework for Building Participation in the Arts, commissioned from research agency RAND Corporation (which stands for R&D, not the Fountainhead author) in 2001. Based on 13 site visits and over 100 in depth-interviews with funded institutions, the report proposes a behavioural model to help arts organisations identify the main decision-making factors that lead to participation in the arts.

The model is based on four decision-making stages, each affected by specific sets of factors, that link background factors to attitudes, attitudes to intentions, intentions to actual behaviour, and past behaviour to future behaviour (p. 23):  

  • The Background Stage consists of the individual’s general attitudes toward the arts, a general consideration of whether to consider the arts as a potential leisure activity;
    • Influencing factors: the individual’s background characteristics: socio-demographics, personality traits, prior arts experience, and socio-cultural factors.
  • The Perceptual Stage (stage 1) is the individual’s formation of an inclination toward the arts based on an assessment of the benefits and costs of participation and where to obtain those benefits;
    • Influencing factors: perceptual factors, such as personal beliefs about the benefits and costs of arts participation and perceptions of how reference groups view the arts
  • The Practical Stage (stage 2) is their an evaluation of specific opportunities to participate;
    • Influencing factors: practical factors, such as available information on the arts, the costs involved in participation, and convenience
  • and the Experience Stage (stage 3) is the actual arts participation experience followed by a reassessment of the benefits and costs of the arts and assessment of their inclination to participate.
    • Influencing factors: the individual’s reaction to the actual experience

 

Type of Audience Development Activity

The report starts by defining three broad ways to increase participation in the arts – three types of activities that arts organisations can pursue, each with their own engagement strategy, and each responding to different organisational mission and values.

When setting out to build participation in the arts and develop audiences (both terms are used interchangeably in the report), organisations can either aim to:

  • broaden audiences (increase their size);
  • deepen them (enrich the experience of current participants);
  • diversify them (bring new groups into the fold).

Whilst all three types of direction could in theory be led concurrently, in practice only one or two at a time are likely to be both aligned with the organisation’s mission and achievable within its resources.

Audience Targeting

To build a targeted strategy, the next steps is to gather the right information about audiences, in line with the behavioural model:

  1. Background: Determine the target population’s inclinations toward the arts (eg. distinguishing between participants and non-participants, but also between non-participants who are inclined to participate and those who are not).
  2. Perceptual: Gather information about their motivations (e.g., whether they are looking for entertainment or enrichment, and whether they are more likely to prefer self-focused or social activities).
  3. Practical: Understand specific information about the lifestyles, specific programme interests and leisure activities of potential participants and how these groups stay informed about their leisure activities. This will help to adapt the programming, scheduling, pricing, and marketing efforts to the specific needs of the potential audiences.

The report recommends adopting an integrated approach to create an effective audience development strategy (p. 42):

  • Begin by considering how the organization’s participation-building activities align with its core values and purpose by choosing participation goals that support its purpose.
  • Identify clear target populations and base its tactics on good information about those groups.
  • Understand what internal and external resources can be committed to building participation.
  • Establish a process for feedback and self-evaluation (using both quantitative and qualitative methods).

 

15 Year Later: The Road To Success

Between 2006 and 2012, Wallace funded 54 organizations to develop and test approaches for expanding audiences informed by RAND’s guidance, and commissioned market researcher Bob Harlow to write case study evaluations for 10 of these organisations, presented in The Road to Results: Effective Practices for Building Arts Audiences (2014).

Across 10 very different institutions – a young people’s choir, theatre, ballet and opera companies, museums, galleries and art workshop providers – Harlow identified 9 practices that contributed to the success of their participation-building strategy:

  1. Recognizing When Change Is Needed
  2. Identifying the Target Audience that Fits
  3. Determining What Kinds of Barriers Need to Be Removed
  4. Taking Out the Guesswork: Audience Research to Clarify the Approach
  5. Thinking Through the Relationship
  6. Providing Multiple Ways In
  7. Aligning the Organization Around the Strategy
  8. Building in Learning
  9. Preparing for Success

Road-To-Results-Infographic-page-001

 

Each practice is illustrated in detail with examples from the case studies, and further reports into specific points provide even more learning opportunities to understand and adapt these principles – for example, Taking Out the Guesswork: A Guide to Using Research to Build Arts Audiences, published a year later, includes very practical tips on facilitating focus groups, including budget and timeline, guidelines on designing, conducting and analysing surveys and advice on working with market researchers.  

The key factor for success throughout these examples is the desire to learn from audiences and adapt accordingly, which implies a complex change management process that can transform an organisation from within. It doesn’t mean changing the programming offer or artistic vision, on the contrary: as these case studies evidence, the road to success starts by being confident that what you do is valuable and being proud to offer it to your audiences, but humble enough to ask them what they really think. Perceptual and practical barriers can be difficult to see or take seriously for staff who are immersed in the daily life of their organisation, and removing them requires more often than not a new collaborative effort between departments or levels, a change in organisational behaviour, a renewed sense of purpose. Across all 54 organisations that received Wallace’s multi-year funding to test and apply the RAND behavioural participation-building model, and specifically out of the 46 with reliable data, results were “surprisingly positive”:

over three years, the 11 organizations seeking to boost their overall audiences saw median gains of 27 percent. Results for the 35 organizations targeting specific audience segments were even higher—60 percent—though it’s important to note that in some cases organizations were starting from a small base.

 

The following table summarises the achievements of 10 case studies highlighted in Road to Success.

Case Studies Results-page-001

Planning Steps for Participation-Building

Without additional funding or detailed data, what can be taken from these studies to help small organisations and individual artists grow their audience? My next audience development workshop might look a bit more like this:

 

  1. Determine the direction of growth (broaden, deepen and/or diversify). Who do you wish to see at your next gig: more of the same people, the same people more often or completely different people?
  2. Understand the target audience, and specifically their levers of behaviour change: what makes them tick and what puts them off. What would they do more if they could? What are the barriers that hold them back? Observe, listen, analyse, be ready to be challenged and to change your ways.
  3. Start by applying small-step tactics that don’t cause a strain on resources, and monitor results carefully. This is a pilot phase to try new things out, which can include internal collaboration, new partnerships, modifying existing practices or implementing new initiatives. Lack of result doesn’t mean that the whole idea is wrong: it might just need to be presented or executed differently.
  4. Assess the internal changes (resource levels, processes, systems…) required to scale up successful strategies. This is an essential step to be able to deliver in a sustainable manner; this can also be a catalyst for change, as it will require long-term planning and full-organisation thinking.  
  5. Turn your mission and actions towards your audience: they should always be firmly in the picture, not an afterthought or – worse – a nuisance. This is where change can become motivational and lead to a higher level of emotional truth, a renewed sense of purpose, a more challenging – and more rewarding – way of working.