When Instincts Aren’t Enough
When seasons and tours resume, presenters and ensembles will need to work strategically to get back on their feet. Audience research can help ensure their decisions are the right ones.
If you work in the small ensemble music field, you’re likely accustomed to operating by instinct. You can recognize intuitively if a performance lands, if a composition has succeeded, or if an ensemble will fit naturally into your season or series. You’ve spent your career honing your sensibilities, and they form the foundation on which you’ve built your unique standing in the field.
Unfortunately, more and more artists and presenters are finding that instincts alone are not enough. The same strategies that may have worked reliably to build audiences fifteen years ago now often fail to make an impact; markets, demographics, and the competition are changing too rapidly, and too diversely, to respond to a strategy built on experience alone.
Consider a familiar scene: facing declining subscriptions and ticket sales, the staff and board of a small presenter convene to discuss possible solutions. The room is filled with smart and committed individuals, comprising a variety of backgrounds in music and business. After a distressing presentation on the financial picture, a board member chimes in, suggesting cutting subscription prices; another proposes rethinking the organization’s social media strategy. A staff member thinks the programming needs more youth appeal; another thinks drifting from the tried and true big-sellers is what got them into this mess in the first place. Options are debated, a vote is held, and plan is put into action. The next year, the process repeats.
There’s only one problem: the plan doesn’t work—at least not well enough to balance the budget. Six months later, the same debate resumes, options are discussed, and a new plan is made. It works a little better than the first one, but no one is quite sure why.
Uninformed experiments, despite the best of intentions, are often a perilous waste of resources—resources that may already be in short supply. Many presenters and ensembles have precious few chances to course-correct on unsuccessful strategies, and the stakes are high: for your staff or collaborators, your community, and the art form itself.
That’s where data comes in. The safest, smartest, and most cost-effective way to build an audience development strategy is to collect data about your potential audience’s preferences and perceptions and listen to it. And while such a methodology might seem out of reach for an organization or ensemble with an already-tight budget, it can in fact be done in simple, low-cost ways, well within the reach of even the smallest organization or cash-strapped ensemble.
What do you stand to gain?
Audience research has three main benefits. The first, and most obvious, is that it will help you learn concrete information about your audiences. Research can pinpoint why a particular audience segment might not be coming, and in turn lead you toward strategies for attracting that segment.
Second, audience research is a powerful tool for enhancing promotions. By going directly to potential audience bases, it allows you to see how various demographics respond to your marketing materials, providing valuable insights with which to craft future initiatives.
Finally, audience research allows you to track your progress over time. In the performing arts, any new initiative is an experiment. After you devise a strategy, you can track how well it works, and adjust accordingly.
So, how do you do it? While audience research can be a sophisticated operation, it doesn’t have to be. You need only to be willing to take a hard look at your ensemble or organization’s work, put in the time, and follow a set of well-tested steps.
Before you commit to doing audience research, it’s important to understand that, while this work can be done at minimal cost, it does require a considerable time commitment.
In the Wallace Foundation’s case studies on audience research, participants described the workload as at least equivalent to an additional part-time job, spread across several weeks. For many in the performing arts, time is already at a premium, so getting started can be a challenge. However, the benefits of this temporary allocation of resources can have a profound impact on your ensemble or organization’s success for years to come.
1. Identify what you want to change.
The first step in any successful audience research project is to establish a set of clear goals. It’s important that you start here, rather than by developing a list of questions, as this will ensure that your research design is effectively oriented toward accomplishing the changes you need to make.
“I get the phone call at least once a month,” says Bob Harlow, a market researcher and the lead author of Taking Out the Guesswork, the Wallace Foundation’s deep-dive into audience research. “’I want to do audience research, here’s what I want to find out, I want to know this, this, and this.’ What are [they] going to do with the information? They don’t know.”
To quote from Taking Out the Guesswork: “Research has an impact only when it helps staff members make decisions that improve their work. Finding things out about an audience without having a way to act on that information wastes time and money.”
It’s also important that your goals are as focused as possible. “Successful initiatives are targeted,” says Harlow. For most organizations and ensembles, the goal will be to target a particular audience—say, people in a certain age bracket (i.e., millennials), or from a particular community or area. You may also want to know how to turn one-time visitors into returning patrons, or to learn what caused a decline in attendance among a certain demographic.
2. Start asking questions.
Once you know what you want to accomplish, you should begin to have a sense of the questions that need answering. If you’re looking to attract a particular audience, for example, you might need to know, among other things: Is the group aware of us? Are our promotions reaching them? How do they prefer to spend their leisure time, and does that line up with how they perceive our offerings?
The kinds of questions you ask will be determined in large part by how your target audience fits into three categories: disinclined, inclined, or current.
Disinclined audiences are those who have no current interest in your performances and/or the artform more generally. “You can put the performance on for free in their lobby and they still won’t come,” jokes Harlow. For these audiences, you’ll need to address the perceptual issues that underlie their lack of interest—in other words, your promotions. Show them your marketing materials and ask what they see. Odds are, it’s not what you and your existing patrons see.
Inclined audiences are those that may have once attended your events, but no longer do. This segment often includes young parents and others facing newfound logistical hurdles. For these audiences, you’ll want to train your focus on practical barriers: schedules, cost, and format.
It may also be that your goal is not to attract new audiences but to increase the rate of attendance among existing ones. For these audiences, you’ll want to focus on the experience itself. Is it compelling? Is it comfortable?
Remember: what you’re hoping to elucidate here are the barriers stopping your target audiences from coming to your performances, not to change your programming itself. Audience research will identify those barriers; it’s then up to you devise a strategy to remove them.
3. Pick your research design.
The kind of questions you need answered will determine how you go about conducting your research. There are two broad categories of research: qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative research deals with data in the form of ideas and concepts, and is collected via interviews of various kinds; quantitative research meanwhile deals with numerical data, and is generally gathered via surveys.
Though surveys are often the first thing people think of when they think of audience research, they are rarely the best choice for presenters and ensembles seeking to build audiences.
“I can’t tell you how many times I have seen an organization say: ‘we want to get young people, let’s do a survey,’” says Harlow. “Then, time and time again, they say, ‘that was a waste of money, and a waste or our precious time.’”
Still, surveys—online or in-person—occasionally have their place. If you’re seeking an objective measure—the number or percentage of your current audience that’s above or below a certain age, or the number of first-time attendees, for example—they’re the logical choice. They are also the best means of tracking the impact of any changes you make. But to gain practical, direct insight into the interests and preferences of new audiences, interviews are far more effective.
What do interviews look like, practically speaking? Ideally, they take the form of focus groups, in which several participants are gathered together for a 1-2-hour moderated conversation. (See sidebar for details.) This might take place in a conference room after a workday, with pizza and soft drinks on hand, or it might occur at an outside location, such as a bar or restaurant—ideally, somewhere the target audience feels comfortable and at home. In this era of social distancing, Zoom and other video conferencing services are a workable alternative, and a highly cost-effective one at that.
If a focus group is out of the question—and for a touring ensemble, it very well could be—arranging a series of one-on-one interviews is also an option. In this case, it’s best to work in your target market(s), arranging conversations in the hours before or after a performance or on a day off.
4. Analyze your research findings.
Analyzing qualitative research comes down to identifying the broad themes that pop up in your interviews. The broader your sample—the more people you interview—the more you can trust that the themes you identify are representative of the views of your target audience overall, and the less likely you’ll be swayed by outliers. If you’re conducting focus groups, experts recommend running a minimum of three (or three per audience segment, if you’re targeting multiple groups), if possible.
If multiple staff members are present at your focus group or interviews, run through first impressions as soon as you’re finished. You can then refer back to recordings or notes to catch things you may have missed or to revisit certain themes.
5. Take action.
Picture that same hypothetical presenter from the introduction to this article. Her predicament is the same, but, this time, instead of guessing at a solution, she decides to run a few focus groups. One staff member takes the lead, gathering contacts from colleagues and board members that fit their target demographic. Over the next few weeks, she locates 20 or so participants and refines a discussion guide based on the organization’s key goals and questions. The organization holds three focus groups the following month, which she and one other staff member attend.
It turns out: the majority of the participants have no idea many of the organization’s events are even happening. When looking over their marketing materials—posters, mailers, their website, and social media—participants use the words “amateur” and “DIY”–words completely at odds with the award-winning, nationally-renowned programming on offer. Moreover, even though many of the organization’s events are billed as family-friendly, discussion reveals that start times are just slightly too late for most young parents to attend.
Armed with this new information, the organization lays out a concrete 6-month plan to change the downward trend in attendance and make new inroads into communities long considered out of reach. Within a year, they are beginning to see real results.
For real-life success stories of audience research undertaken by organizations in our field, plus more detailed guides to performing and utilizing research of your own, visit chamber-music.org/extras or wallacefoundation.org.
DIY Focus Groups: The Basics
Hire a researcher for initial consultations if you can afford it. Plan on a 3-4-week runway, with considerable time investment throughout.
Recruit Your Participants: Ask staff or board members to search their contacts for people in your target demographic (e.g. young people age 20-25 who have not attended a previous event). Use social media to expand reach as necessary.
Find a Location: Looking to get started right away? Use Zoom or another video conferencing service. Otherwise, plan to set up in a conference room if you have one, or at a local bar or restaurant.
Offer Incentives: Food and refreshments are a good start. Look for ways to deepen the sense of involvement in the organization (i.e. “join our family steering committee”).
Create—and Stick to—Your Discussion Guide: Create a list of questions and divide up the allotted time accordingly.
Check In: Contact your recruits in the days before meeting to ensure they’re still planning on coming.
Interested in running focus groups or performing audience interviews yourself?
The full text of Taking Out the Guesswork, plus many other case studies and resources, are available for free download at wallacefoundation.org. Visit chamber-music.org/extras for quick links to these and more.