BLOG 19th May 2020

The Real Steps to Developing your Audience

What is Audience Development? Yes, we’ve been asking you this question for many years but let’s go back to square one to refresh our memories and restart on solid ground.

Right before Covid-19 closed down our organisations and caused us to re-think our offer, we conducted a survey to find out how arts, culture and heritage organisations in Northern Ireland understand audience development and how people working in the sector, across all levels, use it as part of their daily, weekly, monthly and yearly workload.

Looking at what you told us lead us to some conclusions and shaped our delivery plan for the year ahead.

People are using the theory of audience development, but not really getting into the detail of what that really means to their practice.

  • 66% of respondents collected data on where people live, 63% gathered data on audience demographics and 53% asked what audiences generally think of the organisation.
  • However, only 13-31% of respondents actually use this audience data often.
  • Of the different types of data used, audience demographics were used most often. Although that information is useful in some contexts, and particularly for marketing, it won’t help to create or strengthen a relationship with their audience. If all you know about a person is where they live and what age they are, how does that help you make that person become a loyal customer?

We have to make it about relationships.

That is the essence of audience development. Whether you are talking about new customers or increasing attendance within your existing audience base, all of your audience development actions should be about deepening connections and understanding of how you can better relate to people’s lives.

  • The majority of respondents said they respect their audiences’ opinions and tastes. 75% said they do so very/extremely often.
  • However, only 29% said they ask audiences about their wants and even less (11%) about their lives.
  • We have even less information on why people choose us, and why some people don’t.
    • 77% don’t have data on audience barriers to attendance/engagement
    • 62% don’t have data on audience motivations
    • 49% don’t have data on audience behaviour

These results show there is a large discrepancy between what people working in the sector think audience development is and what it actually is. They say they respect their audiences, but if you don’t ask your audiences about their lives (including needs/wants, motivations and barriers), you’re missing a big piece of the puzzle.

What can a better relationship with your audience do for you and why should you bother?

Audiences are arts and culture organisations’ bread and butter. They are the reason why they exist and often the reason why they can survive, through attendance, donations and membership schemes. The current crisis is a reminder that without audiences, it is extremely difficult for venues to stand up straight on both feet.

When we ask the question “what makes a good relationship?”, the answers we hear the most are communication, respect and trust. And this has to be from both sides. It is up to you to learn more about your audiences so you can develop a stronger relationship with them.

How can you know more about your audiences?

Audience demographics is often the easiest information to get your hands on and this is why most of our survey respondents already collected this data. But there is so much more you can discover about your audiences with very little effort.

Today, all online platforms come with free, built-in analytics that only ask to be noticed. However, these analytics tools are not always the most user-friendly and it takes time to learn how to use them correctly and how to track the right things. But it is incredibly worthwhile!

Now is the most suitable time to start using these tools as we switch to online-only content more. Footfall is not something you can monitor for the time being so how can you tell that your online offering is doing well? Is it something your online audiences like? If not, what does prevent them from enjoying or accessing it?

How can you change?

The next step is to revisit what you want to achieve as an organisation. What are you about, what do you want to change and why? Then, ask yourself: What are your most exciting dreams for your organisation’s future and how will you get there? Looking at the data you already have will guide you in the right direction, such as knowing what content engages your audience the most and what doesn’t.

Sustain improvements and strengthen your relationship with your audiences

This brings us back to communication, respect and trust. These refer to the way you talk to your audience online and offline, what information you share with them – the more, the better – and how you treat them. If you tick all the boxes, your audiences will be more likely to become more loyal to your organisation because they will feel right at home.

Evaluation time

It’s important to check regularly on how you perform, whether it’s for an event, a webinar, a specific campaign or your organisation as a whole. We’re often driven to use the good old survey – and do not get us wrong, it has its perks – but there’s a heap of other research methods that are as useful and sometimes more fitting to what you’re trying to find out.

It is great to ask your audiences for feedback about your organisation, but position those questions carefully. What you are trying to work out is how your work has fitted into their lives and expectations. It should not only be about how good various aspects of your experience are.

What now?

So this is what audience development is, in a nutshell. And it’s never going to be more important than over the next 12-18 months.

This is what we are going to be focusing on to support you in 2020, supported by our annual funding from Arts Council NI. Every couple of months, we will shift the focus to a different area and share with you useful resources, toolkits, DIY tips, insights and online events to help you build up your relationship with your audiences: Here’s the order that we will be rolling things out.

  • Why you should invest in strengthening your current relationship especially in light of immense challenges ahead.
  • The importance of data - how to use your existing platforms’ analytics and what are the best items to track to measure your impact and success.
  • How to use the information you collected for the better and stay on purpose based on your findings.
  • What you need to maintain this relationship, such as the use of easy and simple language, accessibility, reciprocating loyalty with love and care, and more.
  • And finally, how to evaluate your strategies and the different research methods you will need to identify what worked and what didn’t so you can improve.

We want to keep supporting you to build those relationships, so keep an eye on out social media for information on what’s available and sign up to our newsletter.

And remember, we always want to showcase great local examples. So if you think you are knocking it out of the park in any area, please get in touch. We would love to share your story. Meanwhile, if you need some guidance, we are always available for a chat and you can book one of our audience appointments through our event page.


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