BLOG 28th August 2023

Audience Development: Does one size fit all? (Yes, it does! Oh no, it doesn’t!)

With ACNI’s five year strategy well under way, we felt it was a good time to better understand the current challenges around building audience relationships for different parts of the sector and see if there are any common issues that applied across the board. So, between June and August, we chatted with thirty people from various fields (festivals, producers, galleries, and venues.) Our goal was simple: to try to understand how the barriers to developing long term relationships with audiences for the people creating and presenting the work.

We know about the barriers that prevent people in Northern Ireland from engaging in the arts. These include health issues, lack of transport, feeling uncomfortable about visiting certain venues, or even requiring additional support from a companion to attend. Post pandemic, there has been a significant drop in attendance at events, with most people only engaging once or twice a year. This number is lowered further by factors related to social class. Engagement with culture also tends to decrease with age. However, there are ways to improve and respond to these issues; look no further than our Sector Programme Coordinator Eve’s blog on this very subject.

But what are the challenges on the other side:


  • The main issue was the difficulty in getting their work in front of audiences – particularly, Northern Irish ones. There has been reduction in bookings from local venues over the past number of years, with many only having 1 NI date on a tour.
  • Touring has also become increasingly expensive with particular issues in finding suitable and affordable accommodation.
  • There remain some issues around data sharing between venues and producers.
  • No producer we spoke to had any full time or trained marketing staff; this work simply becomes an extension of an existing staff member’s job.
  • With smaller budgets and rising costs, marketing budgets are often slashed to cover other costs. These has resulted in only about 1% of production budgets going into marketing.


  • Venues face individual challenges. Each one we spoke to had a different programme or focus. Some were concerned with social activism or community engagement, while others focused on artistic development. There was no “one size fits all.”
  • Audience behaviours have changed post Covid making it even harder to predict box office targets and income. Late bookings and lack of walk ups have become commonplace for venues, along with a new trend of tickets being sold, but not used.
  • Responsibility for growing audiences has to be a shared activity.
  • Venues are also poorly resourced around marketing. No one had audience development staff and some did not have full time marketing resource. Marketing is therefore reactive and sporadic rather than planned and consistent.


  • Festivals are unique in that they have the potential to attract very high numbers over an extremely short period.
  • While surveys show high levels of loyalty for festivals, this does not show up in their ticketing systems - which suggests an issue with data entry.
  • While audience numbers are down, as are donations, accommodation and freight costs are on the rise.
  • It seems easier to get audiences for local, rather than international work.
  • Some have used outdoor spaces to stage events, but a rise in anti-social behaviour in Belfast threatens this option.
  • All agreed that there is a need for increased emphasis on marketing strategy.
  • They all bring in support for marketing. That was not replicated for box office staff, which was reliant often on volunteers.


  • Galleries tend to see themselves as colleagues, rather than competitors.
  • They were interested in audience development, but in the sense of building and maintaining relationships with different people and relating to the people around them.
  • Audience engagement is hugely important to them, much more so than marketing.
  • There was a feeling that- even if they knew more about their audiences - they do not have the current financial means to make significant changes.

The outstanding message from these meetings: different parts of the sector have different challenges regarding audience development. However, there are common issues that affect each group. There is an obvious need for greater marketing activity across all sectors – both in capacity and in resources. We also need to move the focus away from simple audience numbers to an increased sense of audience engagement. The issue of collecting ticket data also popped up in all our sessions. This is an area we can help with; we have our fantastic Sector Programme Coordinator Eve, who can provide help with analysing ticketing data. If interested in booking a (free) appointment with her, click here. Finally, with so many shared issues, organisations need to collaborate and share their knowledge with each other, so they can all benefit together. To quote the icon Amy Poehler,

“Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life forever.”

Sarah Blake Knox

Client Programme Coordinator

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