Audience development: more questions than answers

Audience development: more questions than answers

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As a fundraiser, audiences are a key part of any request for funding. All funders will want to know who you are going to reach – and how – before they agree to fund activities. But audience development is also a broad umbrella term for lots of things, and can raise more questions. How can we communicate with confidence about who is coming, how long are they staying, why they come, will they come back and how much did they engage with us?

And even if we can answer all those questions without getting lost in a sea of conflicting statistics, we are still only tangling with half of the question. We also need to consider potential audiences. Who didn’t come, why not and how can we get them to come along next time?

This latter point is one that particularly resonates with our new Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, Sajid Javid. In his first speech at St George’s Bristol he spoke about ensuring that everyone in the UK has the opportunity to engage with our artists and actors, our history and heritage, and giving everyone a chance to develop their own cultural tastes.

I think that most people would agree that it is right that public funds bring with them the responsibility to reach the widest audience. But doing so can be a real challenge.

All areas of an organisation – commissioning, programming, education, fundraising and marketing to name a few – need to be thinking about audiences all the time. A key part of developing an audience strategy is questioning; why did people come, how many told us they were coming, how many just showed up, how does that compare with what we thought would happen and what can we learn when things are over- or under-subscribed?

And just in case you thought I was finished asking questions for today, I have another set of questions that query the implications of attendance versus engagement – which applies both to people who come to venues and those who are our online friends – which opens the issue up even more.

What I am getting at with this blog is that there are numerous questions that need to be asked and we need to understand which are the most important, and to find ways to answer them. This often means grappling with a plethora of data whilst keeping a focus on what you want to know.

At the Whitechapel Gallery we have a strong track record of gathering and interpreting audience insight, and have recently included an audience segmentation system, enabling us to gain a deeper understanding of motivations and seek opportunities to develop audiences outside the highly engaged groups. Mr. Javid will be pleased to hear that young people and BME audiences rose at the Gallery over the last year. Our Education programme remains core to reaching diverse audiences, and engaging with minority groups. In order to capture this information we are looking at new ways to gather data and evaluate audience feedback.

I know though that I still can’t answer all the questions that I have posed here, but hopefully they will give others food for thought. In the same way that the current climate is compelling fundraisers to be more creative, we must also exercise creativity in reaching audiences – and this will mean different things for different arts organisations.

On the bright side, calling for more creativity shouldn’t be such a stretch in the creative sector. Every aspect of an organisation needs to embrace innovation and to work in new and different ways. And although we can all get fatigued when we are continually being asked to do more with less, in the end having arts organisations brimming with creativity for all aspects of the business can surely only be a good thing.

What is your organisation doing to make the most of audience data?  We’d love to hear.