We’re bounding into the New Year with the launch of our report about the iBeholder project. So what did we get up to during the pilot?
We have worked with the visual arts sector in NI for a couple of years on one big issue - data gathering. Visual art spaces have it tough when it comes to learning about their audiences in comparison to the rest of the sector. In NI, visitors to visual art spaces do not pay to enter. They generally do not book tickets, so they leave no trace of their visit. Without a ticketing system, it is more difficult to know who your audiences are. Additionally, there is rarely a staff member in NI visual arts venues whose role is solely dedicated to marketing or audience development so data gathering is often far down the priority list.
Understanding your audiences through rock-solid data is the bedrock of a good audience development plan. Understanding what your audiences are like in comparison to other spaces similar to your own is also valuable knowledge. They say that comparison is the thief of joy, but this isn’t true for audience data! The more you know about your audiences in the landscape of the wider sector, the easier it is to benchmark against other venues on what you’re doing well and what could be improved. With that said, it’s clear that visual arts spaces have it harder than other art forms on this front.
We had already been working with the visual art sector for over 10 years to find out more about their audiences. We have carried out population research into attitudes to visual arts, and in-venue research to provide galleries with the detail on who visits, when and how often. This data was all useful, but more work needed to be done to find ways to gather data more regularly and easily for galleries. The sector is small and lacks capacity, so any data-gathering solutions needed to reflect this. A solution with an element of automation that used digital means rather than people to capture data could be one of the alternatives, as it would save time and capacity for small teams. We thought that giving the audience something in return for their data could work well too. Everyone likes to get something back for their time, and data gathering is no exception to this rule.
An earlier pilot version of the platform called ART (Audience Response Tool) had been tested in g39, Wales’ largest artist-run gallery, in 2017, in collaboration with Golant Media Ventures (now The Audience Agency). This pilot showed promise for further development for the NI landscape as it used digital means to gather audience data with additional content as an incentive to use the platform. Thrive, The Audience Agency and g39 set out with the help of funding distributed from the Creative Seed Fund from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Future Screens NI and the Belfast Visual Arts Forum to begin work on a new iteration of the pilot - iBeholder.
Four galleries throughout NI joined us for the project:
We decided to make some changes to the original Wales ART pilot and adapt our focus. For this version of the pilot, we wanted to give audiences the right content in exchange for their data.
We wanted to:
• Find a new digital way to gather data easily and consistently
• Give galleries useful data on their audiences
• Produce audience-focused content to enrich the user experience
• Broaden the sector’s understanding of audiences
How did it work?
The online platform, created with Wordpress by our developer Octophin, worked by collecting audience data in a series of 7 questions. The questions were sandwiched between a variety of different pieces of content, each created by the gallery, especially for their own iBeholder platform. The content for each platform included a mix of formats. There were videos about the gallery, animations, gifs, and images along with interesting facts or pieces of trivia about each venue.
This image is taken from the CCA Derry~Londonderry iBeholder platform.
The text states: ‘CCA Introducing is a series of 24-hour takeovers by emerging artists across our Instagram and Twitter. Each artist has been nominated to participate and you can follow their activity and visit the archives at @CCADLD’
Audience members could access the platform by scanning a QR code on posters or leaflets set out in prominent sections of the gallery spaces or access the link online after they had visited.
The team carefully considered the questions we wanted to ask audience members and worked in tandem with the participating galleries during two workshops to find out more about their needs and what audience data would be useful to them in the long term. Previous research had focused mainly on demographics and behavioural data. This time, we decided to build upon existing research and create questions that would help us better understand the value of visual art in people’s lives and the impact it has on them.
We decided upon the following questions:
1. Why are you visiting today?
2. I went to [insert gallery name] and I felt ….?
3. We’d love to know where you were before you came?
4. Have you been here before?
5. What other kinds of culture are you into?
6. We’re hoping to learn more about our visitors. Do you identify as disabled?
7. When you leave where will you be going to?
iBeholder was available for audiences to use for 8 weeks between April to June 2022 and gathered 101 responses.
What did we find out?
We had fascinating responses during the fieldwork of iBeholder. We found out that:
- The majority of respondents were new to the galleries
- Top reasons for visiting were to ‘broaden my mind’ and ‘be stimulated’
- 13% of respondents identified as disabled
- Visiting the gallery formed a part of their day
- Respondents are interested in a wide range of art forms
- Audiences most commonly felt relaxed, inspired and peaceful after visiting the galleries
iBeholder was successful in gathering data for non-ticketed venues. All the participant galleries felt they learnt something new about their audiences with the new data they were able to collect through the platform. They also said they will use this data in the future, either as feedback for funders or to enact change within their own organisation.
We tested audience-focused content as a way to enrich the user experience on the platform and used digital means to help us capture this data - and found that it worked. This approach has merit for future development.
What were the challenges?
Covid threw a huge spanner in the works into the delivery of this project. The world shut down, venues closed, and priorities shifted - iBeholder being one of them. Capacity had never been a bigger issue in the visual arts sector in NI and the small teams involved in the project had a lot on their plates to contend with! The project was forced to stop and start repeatedly throughout 2020 and 2021. We were finally able to launch in April 2022.
Content creation was difficult for the galleries due to a lot of factors. It was difficult for the venues to find the time and space to develop ideas and create their content. Further technical assistance and a fully fleshed design brief would have helped at this phase of the project.
Time had a factor to play in the challenges we faced with this project too. More time would have been useful at the relaunch phase of the project in early 2022 and would have helped to give more opportunities for learning and reflection ahead of the launch.
What did we learn?
Finally, the project helped us to broaden the sector’s understanding of their audiences, while they got something into the bargain with behind-the-scenes content of the participating venues. This mutual exchange approach is a great learning from the project, as we now know that it adds something extra to traditional surveying methods for audiences. We surveyed a selection of iBeholder audiences in a user testing survey after the pilot ended to find out what they thought about the platform. Most respondents (85%) found out something interesting in using iBeholder. 90% thought the information they learnt through the platform was worth the effort of engaging with it and the majority of respondents were likely to use the platform again. These results reflect the value of sharing content with audiences in return for their data – everyone wins in this scenario!
We had some really interesting discussions with our partners and participants about what research is valuable to them, and what they would like to know going forward. Debriefs with galleries after the fieldwork allowed us to catch up on what results they found the most interesting, and what they found useful. This will help to steer our future research projects in the sector.
Finally, our experience with iBeholder have shown us the potential of exploring new ways to gather data on audiences, not just for visual arts organisations but also for the wider cultural sector. There is so much scope for further research and development in this area across the arts, culture and heritage sectors, and we hope to continue to test out new ways of doing this as the opportunity arises - funders take note!
For a full explanation of everything we got up to during the iBeholder pilot - download the report.