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What is “Audience Development”?

What do you think of when you hear the words “audience development”?

In the performing arts, the term “audience development” usually refers to any activity that is intended to capture or grow an audience. It is often associated with an array of activities, ranging from traditional marketing to outreach activities, education, and social events; the aim being, to engage existing eventgoers, and to appeal to potential new eventgoers.

The various approaches to audience development usually belong to two categories.

  1. Promoting an artistic/cultural message by increasing the depth and frequency of contact with a potential audience. Outreach, education, and social events are examples of this.

  2. Focusing on business objectives to make an event or concert sustainable. This business-oriented approach uses both time-tested and innovative marketing and campaigning techniques to bring in and retain an audience. Word of mouth, posters, direct mail, emails, and social media marketing are examples. Social events may also fall into this category, especially if there is a fundraising element.

There are a myriad examples for either approach. And an artistic enterprise with cultural influence will probably need to have a blend of both.

To frame a concise and manageable discussion for this blog article, I’d like to highlight two relatively recent articles.

One is an article from January 18 of this year in the New York Times titled, “Can Philippe Jaroussky Help Fix Classical Music’s Diversity Problem?”

Another is a blog article dated February 1 of this year from Spektrix titled “3 KPIs You Should Care About: 1. Customer Retention.”
(Companies such as Spektrix and Patron Technology specialize in cloud-based CRM (i.e., Customer Relationship Management) for the performing arts, with systems for ticketing and interfacing with patrons.)
Both articles are well worth reading in full as they also present data from documented sources.

The New York Times article reports on the classical music outreach and education initiative led by the French superstar countertenor Philippe Jaroussky. Citing data that, “Half of those who attend classical music concerts in France are executives or managers, and their average age is 54, according to a 2015 study commissioned by the French Association of Orchestras,” it outlines the hopes that the Académie Musicale Philippe Jaroussky will succeed in its mission to ‘democratize access to classical music’ by extending classical music education to working class and immigrant youths.

The Spektrix blog article states that, “Industry trends and data suggest that the not-for-profit sector funding model is changing, and the focus is now shifting to encourage organizations to build a resilient business model…” The article goes on to reference data claiming that it costs up to 5 times more to acquire new customers than it does to try to retain them, and suggests marketing methods. The refrain is familiar to marketers in the for-profit space: use personalized emails with dynamic content; incentivize repeat visits with offers; and program shows according to popular demand (i.e., perform concerts that are sure to please). This last suggestion, which is probably the touchiest one for artists because it can impinge on artistic direction, unfortunately has the unclearest advice. The author of the blog, Kate Mroczkowski, writes: “Think about what show to advertise to [eventgoers] for their second visit. Ideally, you’ll work with your programming team to achieve this. And if you can, program another hit event within 6 – 12 months so you have a great offer for your new customers.”

Both articles promote approaches to audience development that are meaningful, important, and effective. Outreach and education develops that person to person connection that is essential to building any cultural understanding. Meanwhile, modern CRM, with its array of database management, ticketing, eventgoer-facing communications, and advertising tools, helps reach out to audiences, and is more efficient than ever. These CRM tools, however, may collect private information of the concertgoer (i.e., you) and communicate with a feverish frequency and intensity that some may find to be creepy, or ironically, off-putting.

However, just as the Spektrix article says, “if you can, program another hit event,” this raises some important questions that can be hard to answer – like, what’s a hit event? Here are some more such questions that many may have a hard time answering:

  • How do you identify cultural aspects that are truly meaningful to a particular social group? And how can empathy paired with such knowledge help resonate a specific message beyond a classroom or lecture?

  • How can supporters of a certain artist create a community that is ‘deep and complex’ but still approachable to outsiders who are just curious?

  • How can art strive to be intrepid while acknowledging what’s ‘comfortable’ for a particular audience?

  • As a presenter or artist, how do you stay attuned to what is truly meaningful to your target audience, but also challenge their boundaries?

  • As an artist, how do you gauge what kinds of artistic risks can be conducive to building a vibrant culture, for your community?

  • And to return to the issue of ‘hit events,’ what information helps you decide, plan, and prepare a genuinely meaningful ‘hit’ for your target audience (i.e., an event that could stand on its own artistic merits without added incentives, like free food, etc.)?

The common approaches to audience development drive in one direction: from presenters and artists toward the eventgoer. One hypothesis for why this is, is that our tools and methods have developed through commercial necessity. After all, regardless of profit or non-profit, disseminating information and drawing an audience by whatever means necessary, is usually a critical step.

But what about audience development focused on the ‘other direction’? Do we really have an effective means for the presenter and artist to listen to the honest opinions of the eventgoer? Could such information help toward answering the types of questions listed above?

Surveys and social media may seem like the solution, but we find that surveys are invasive and often invite only the extreme opinions. Social media meanwhile is a curated veneer, with untruths and exaggerations in every corner. Also, engaging through social media can be overwhelming for many artists, as it becomes unwieldy to deal with strangers who seek an ongoing conversation. It’s subsequently a huge drain on the emotional and psychological energy that could be going into producing more, and more profound, art.

It is therefore time to close the gap between the presenter, artist, and eventgoer.
We need a channel to listen to the eventgoer.
We need a real-time connection beyond the stage between the presenter and eventgoer so that cultural contexts can be more accurately communicated.
We need to allow artists to listen to their fans, but also be free to concentrate and invest their souls in what they are dedicating their lives to – creating art.
There’s a way to do this with the technology we have today.

Do you believe that such audience development is possible?

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