BLOG 9th March 2023

How to re-engage your lapsed audiences

As arts organisations continue to recover from the challenges of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis, it’s important to look into the audiences who may have once been a part of your ecosystem and have yet to return. Recent investigations into lapsed audiences show that they tend to be larger than potential, completely new, audiences. It is easier to build upon a relationship with those who already know you and your work than it is to court those who would be first-time visitors. Here is some insight that may help you in beginning to welcome some familiar faces back.

Old favourites new viewings

Audiences miss specifics, not generalities. So, organisations need to identify programming which is seen as exciting and ‘worth it’ for people to come back. For organisations which have year-round programming, this is particularly true. There may be something you can renew or allow people to re-familiarise themselves with in a celebratory and welcoming way. As an option, this is easier for those finding challenges with resources as it doesn’t require you to source new material. For example, if you have a permanent collection – remind people that it’s there! Visiting arts venues can be more than about taking in the new: there is a great deal of value in seeing your favourite piece, or returning to a collection after a gap in time. What theatre or music productions have you had good experiences with before that could bring people back? Highlight that the experience of this is unique to the individual, and that re-experiencing art can offer a different, internal experience. Alternatively, there may be new ways to display a collection to highlight different ways of taking it in. It’s Women’s History Month, and last month was LGBTQ+ History Month – are there objects in your collection or artworks in your gallery which are related to these histories which may resonate with people? There are exciting ways to engage with work that you already know, particularly if there is a new perspective to be gained from it. This return is valuable, as it reminds audiences that they already have a good relationship with you, and that you are part of the wider cultural sphere, too. Relating what you do, rightfully, to its wider cultural context also reaffirms the importance of what you do.

Relevance and barriers

People may use barriers as reasoning as to why they have yet to return to arts venues. When people cite this, it means that they aren’t being provided with the appropriate accommodations for their needs and wants. These could be things such as: price, parking, transportation, or time scarcity.

Consider what you have control over and what it may be worth putting time into to change. For example, if you offer family tickets but have a lack of (varied) kids food at your café, or no baby-changing facilities, there is an imbalance of priorities here. In a situation like that, you are telling people that you appreciate their money, but not their circumstances. This is also the case for things like accessibility tickets – do you have accommodations for wheelchair access, or ASD-friendly times or events? Can people be relaxed in your venue, or is there an expectation of etiquette for them to follow?

Remember, that as much as the cultural landscape has changed over the past few years, so have people. Audiences who may have once visited your venue may now have children, or now find themselves in circumstances where they require more suitable accommodation than has been provided to them before.

Concerning the communications of what you have currently, it is best to be honest and open so that audiences can set their expectations accordingly. Obviously, arts venues are currently not experiencing the kind of financial freedom which allows you to overhaul your layout. Nor do venues have the ability to change everything that people may require, such as parking or local transport. It can be effective to add a page to your website which sets out what you have in terms of accessibility, family provisions, space, nearby parking and its distance from your organisation, and public transport links. You can also mention places around you (restaurants, parks) if you don’t have elements such as a café or an outdoor area – or if your spaces are designed to accommodate people for something like quick drinks, rather than a group meal. Don’t be afraid of scaring people off if you don’t have as much available as you’d like. Clear, thorough information can make revisiting a much easier experience than if people aren’t sure what to expect or what will be provided. It also removes the step of people reaching out to you – which may be uncomfortable for them – and allows them to see that you really want them there. For those with tickets that can be purchased online, this information can also be provided in a pre-event email directly.

Remember that once people have returned, maintaining a relationship with them is crucial. Keep your communication channels up-to-date and easily accessible. Make sure you are consistent and thorough with updates on your programming, to avoid your audience having to put in the work of coming to you. In your communications, people might not grasp why something might be right for them just from a title or picture – so make sure you include a description of what it’s like and why people should go.

Building on what’s there

Lapsed audiences are generally open to returning. Often, lapsing can be down to something outside of their control, or loss of a habit due to circumstances such as moving away. Mostly, lapsed audiences have positive feelings about their formerly regular venues. There is inherent value in that, regardless of circumstance. Building upon this feeling – reminding them of what you do and why – can lead them to make recommendations to friends, donate to you, or be sure to visit you next time they’re in town. You can make those who haven’t been able to come back yet feel valued by offering them a discount link that they can use within the next six months upon their return, or send them a ‘welcome back’ message when they book. However, think on a long-term basis, and know that one-time offers are a way to reach out to people, but that keeping them may require more thinking on your venue and what it gives them.

Lapsing can also be down to the venue. How does your programming now compare to your programming a few years ago? Are there elements of your former programming – more niche ones – that you might not have catered to since your reopened? Though some audiences are smaller, they are still important and interested in what you do. An obvious way of getting an audience to return is to make sure your programming is catering to their interests as it did previously. Reaching out to people isn’t about casting the net as wide as possible, but understanding what different sects of people want and the value it has to them.

Two trends that we see point towards the idea that people want to be more in control of their experiences. In museums, this manifests as less casual, social, ‘passing’ visitors and more people visiting who have pre-booked and pre-planned what they’d like to see. In performing arts, last-minute bookings are increasingly the norm, meaning that people want to wait to see for certain whether they can attend, rather than planning around the event. Front of house teams – as always – are extremely useful in pointing people towards comment cards, or having face-to-face conversations to assess why people may feel the way they do and how you can anticipate their new habits.

There is further research that can be conducted here. To look into doing your own, you can offer incentives for people completing survey responses or for participating in focus groups for those who have yet to return. Find out what has value to people, and what they’d like to see more of. For what we know already, let’s reiterate some insight:

  • Understand that what you have already is important and invite people to re-experience it through a new lens, or to see a familiar favourite.
  • Be open, thorough, and honest with your communications on both your venue’s amenities and what’s on.
  • Make sure your programming is reflective of the audiences you know you had previously.
  • Don’t be afraid of making amends, accommodating new behaviours, and learning more about the people who support you.

If you need help with co-ordinating audience research, book one of our Audience Appointments in which we can advise you on the steps to take.

Alternatively, if you'd like support in identifying your own lapsed audiences, get in touch with our Sector Programme Coordinator, Eve.

Eve Murtagh

Sector Programme Coordinator

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