BLOG 10th October 2023

What's the Difference Between Audience Development and Marketing?

The concept of audience development has been around for a long time. Since the late 1980’s in fact. But it probably didn’t become a “thing” in Northern Ireland until the early 2000’s with the creation of Audiences NI and the introduction of box office systems into our venues.

At that time, I happened to be in charge of the box office at the Old Museum Arts Centre and was not thrilled to be losing my paper bookings (you could tell who had made a booking by the handwriting!) I didn’t understand how this system was going to make things better – what could it tell us that we didn’t know?

We were told that the benefits lay in marketing – you could see what audiences had been to before and then send them information on other things they might (or might not) like.

And it is those conversations that sounded the death knell for audience development. We were saying the words, but the actions we talked about were marketing.

Does it really matter? Well, yes. It matters a lot – especially in this place. Why – because audience development is about changing things. Changing audience behaviour to foster lifelong patterns of engagement. Changing how they feel about you, and about the art they see. Changing perceptions- of art, of society, of themselves.

So, what is the difference?

First up, this is a personal opinion formed through lots of reading, chatting and thinking. I’m not presenting it as gospel, but it makes sense to me.

Marketing is about the presentation of your product to the marketplace – here’s the thing we have made – come and buy it. It tends to be a transactional thing. Once the ticket has been booked or the exhibition visited, job done. That’s not to say we don’t care about the experience or want our audiences to be delighted, but the conversations are about how we help people to see our information and what will persuade them to purchase.

Audience development is about what happens after that. How do you get them to come back, how you get them to come more often, how you get them to join your membership scheme or donate? Its about (as we keep on saying) building relationships and changing behaviour.

If we were focused on audience development, we wouldn’t have a major issue with loyalty. Over 70% of audiences who come, don’t come back the next year. Even if we are sending them emails or they see our stuff on social media.

Not the same for everyone.

Over the summer months, I spent some time chatting to people from different parts of the sector about their current audience development practice and challenges. And I had a light bulb moment. Each had a very different relationship with audiences, because their offer was very different and therefore audience behaviour is different. If we talk to year-round venues about working on getting people to come more often during the year, how does that sit with Festivals who might only have a 10-day window? We know that people don’t attend very often so is it realistic for festivals to get audiences to come more often?

And for galleries who aren’t looking to sell tickets – where should their focus (and resources) be? Getting them through the door, or really getting to know them?

It’s just hard.

Audience development is hard because it must be long term. And we exist in the short term – because of funding cycles, because there aren’t enough people to do all the work so everyone gets pulled into the operational delivery and because it really requires change.

We are also pushed towards marketing by the need to evidence audience numbers and not audience engagement – it’s the number that come through the door that matters, not the depth of the relationship.

But if we really want things to be different in this place, we must do the work. And thrive are here to help with that. Interested in changing? We would be only too happy to help.

Fiona Bell

Chief Executive

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