There has been a lot of talk in the arts and culture field about the importance of data and its role in making decisions. Data has the power to help us benchmark and more fully understand what is going on within an organization. It supports gut instincts and dispels myths. Yet the capacity restraints of time, resources, and staffing can make this process incredibly daunting.

This can be especially true for small organizations. Our findings at the National Center for Arts Research (NCAR) have shown that the average music organization only has one employee, yet they are making great strides in increasing in-person as well as overall engagement, which includes online. These figures were up 29.8 and 19 percent, respectively, from 2010 to 2013, and, in addition, the music sector offered 6.8 percent more programs and concerts in 2013 than it did in 2010.

Given the current landscape, exactly how can data be helpful? Data is a tool that can be used to tell the story of an organization. It can provide information to inform strategy. It can give benchmarks of fiscal health and audience engagement. It can help an organization be more proactive. Data can help unlock answers to your questions. But where should you start?

First, take a step back and think: “What do I want to know?” If the data doesn’t directly answer your question, it’s just a heap of numbers.

Second, ask yourself what kind of information you need to answer your question or questions. This part may be a bit intimidating, so feel free to start small. Most organizations—even the smallest ones—already have data on their hands, but they don’t think of it as data. An easy way to begin is by building on box office and ticket sales information. For example, collect names, email addresses, ages, and mailing addresses. It’s a great way to understand your audiences and patrons—and their purchasing habits. Without this kind of information, you can’t accurately identify who buys your tickets. Yet, with the data, it’s much easier to understand who you are reaching.

According to a report released by the Cultural Data Project (see sidebar), “Bridging the Capacity Gap: Cultural Practitioners’ Perspectives on Data,” participants voiced a concern that:

Data is a tool that can be used to tell the story of an organization. It can provide information to inform strategy. It can give benchmarks of fiscal health and audience engagement. It can help an organization be more proactive.

Many organizations, who want to ensure a positive experience and are grateful for their audiences, make this mistake. However, it is a missed opportunity to understand exactly who you are reaching. If you know this, you can make a plan for reaching others like them or to change course and call out to those from a different demographic. And if your patrons question why you want the information, you can reassure them about your intentions. Something as simple as: “We are trying to understand who attends our performances and how to better serve them,” may be enough to put their fears at rest.

Audience Engagement Research from the Wallace Foundation

The Wallace Foundation has published a market research guide as part of its initiative to help arts organizations to build audience participation. The report, Taking Out the Guesswork: Using Research to Build Arts Audiences, focuses on how research into audience attendance can help arts organizations deepen their relationships with current audiences or introduce themselves to new ones. It does this by looking at three key areas: learning about audiences, creating more effective promotional materials, and tracking and assessing results.

The guide also draws on the feedback Wallace received from arts organizations on the collection and use of data: they wanted practical help and clear guidelines. Taking Out the Guesswork, as a result, offers step-by-step instructions on the three key areas mentioned above. It includes detailed case studies from organizations which have successfully engaged with their audiences, and a collection of templates that organizations can use and personalize, for example audience survey templates, focus group recruitment questionnaires, and group discussion guides.

The first part of the report concentrates on the use of focus groups to discover more about audiences, and here we present a brief summary of some of that advice. You can read the full report at

Identify your research objectives

What do you want to know about your target audience? Is there any existing data available?

Setting up your focus group

Select the “right” participants—do you want to attract a new audience or boost your existing one? Knowing this will help you determine how to select people to invite.

Develop a discussion guide

Outline topic areas and specific questions to keep the focus group on track.

Consider group dynamics

Keep groups small. Conversation will follow more easily for groups made up of members from similar backgrounds and experiences. Hold a minimum of three focus groups to gather a range of opinions.

Analyze the data

During the discussions, make notes about what you see and hear. Afterwards, identify the broad themes you heard during the groups, summarize the findings, and highlight the differences between your audience types to make recommendations on what you have learned.

Our data from the music sector suggests that small organizations—those with a budget of $154,000 or less—are primed for deeper engagement with their audiences as they tend to cover more of their expenses with revenue from subscribers than medium or large music organizations do. By their very nature, subscriptions encourage multiple touch points for patrons and can be used to incentivize loyalty, leading to deeper engagement. It is common to hear rumblings from within the arts and culture field that the subscription model is dying. And while that may be true for other sectors or larger organizations, don’t under invest in an area because of hearsay. You can use the data you have from your subscribers to decide how to engage with your audience.

Once you have your questions and the data to answer them, it may be helpful to see how others in the field are thinking about the same issues. One suggestion is to review the benchmarks that we, at the National Center for Arts Research, explore to help you start thinking about your own organization’s performance. Alongside other thought leaders, we identified over 184 performance indices that give insight into the financial, operational, and engagement health of an organization. We focus on 27 of the 184, which fall into one of nine general categories: contributed revenue, earned revenue, expenses, marketing impact, bottom line, balance sheet, community engagement, program activity, and staffing.

Once you’ve chosen one of these areas to focus on, the next step is to again ask questions about your data. For example, under marketing impact you could ask what the marketing return on investment is. To answer this particular question, you divide your total program revenue by in-person attendance. (Our website provides the equations used to calculate the findings of all of the indices we report). The music sector had the second lowest return on marketing at $3.62. Only the general performing arts sector was lower.

At the National Center for Arts Research, we provide ways to benchmark your performance using the data you may already have. If you take part in the Cultural Data Project, we can tell you which survey lines we used for each calculation so you can go back to your survey and do your own math. But it is important to note that our measures are not prescriptive. If you see a measure that interests you and you run it for your organization, it is important to ask yourself: “Is this where we want to be?” If it is, great. If it isn’t, then use evidence-based insight to help you create strategy that will get you to where you do want to be.

Of course, not all organizations have the capacity or resources to run these kinds of measures. So, in the fall, we will be providing an online dashboard which all organizations can use to benchmark their organizational health against the nine general areas listed above, free of charge. (See sidebar.)

We love data, not for data’s sake but for the power it has to unlock critical questions facing our field. Our hope is your data will become like a trusted friend, one that you consult while making the big and small strategic decisions for your organization. Sometimes it might shed light on issues you have hunches about, showing that your intuition was spot on. Other times, it may show you that you were way off. Either way, we hope you will use it to help make decisions for your organization.

About the Author
Marla Teyolia is the associate director and Dr. Zannie Voss is the director of the National Center for Arts Research.