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The Form and Function of Audience Research

Most arts administrators understand that audience data is important. Yet, why don’t more organizations collect audience data on a regular basis? Many point to staff capacity as the reason for this disconnect, and certainly arts administrators are often stretched too thin. However, if organizations know data collection and analysis is important, the issue may be that they don’t feel the resulting insights are as useful to them as the products of the other tasks they manage to complete.

Frank Lloyd Wright famously said, “form and function are one.” This 20th century architectural philosophy dictated that shape should reflect purpose and that each element must work towards a larger goal. This is just as true in research. While every company can garner great benefit from audience research, if they don’t know why they’re surveying in the first place, they invariably ask the wrong questions.

WolfBrown’s Intrinsic Impact program builds on the premise that the data we collect should help organizations understand if they are achieving their goals. That only works when organizations have clearly articulated those goals, which can be harder than it sounds. Michael DeWhatley wrote in HowlRound about how theaters are often faced with the challenge of defining success for themselves because it differs from organization to organization. Surveys need to be customized to measure indicators of clearly articulated impact goals. Function dictates form and knowing why a survey is being deployed gives vital shape and focus to its design.

To be fully functional, data has to be actionable. This action can take many shapes, from adjusting the patron experience to better communicating the impact of programs. Whatever the potential action, the most useful conversations I have with clients revolve around the question of what they’ll do differently when they see results from their survey. This helps organizations keep the intended uses for the data front of mind, which, in turn leads to fuller organizational investment in the research.

For example, we have partnered with Asimetrica to bring the Intrinsic Impact program to arts organizations in Spain. In a recent case study on the Intrinsic Impact blog, director Raul Ramos showed how the Spanish National Orchestra was able to increase first-time attendance, particularly for young and diverse audiences, using the results of longitudinal surveying. By identifying their goals from the beginning, they were able to craft a survey that collected responses detailing what worked for their audiences. They made adjustments based on these responses, and the survey then tracked how well those adjustments worked. Using this iterative surveying process, the Orchestra has already used data to increase subscriptions and audience engagement.

Strong audience research requires relevance in both the collection and the implementation of data. Data is a tool and implementing surveys without looking at how you’ll use them is like using a screwdriver to install a nail. You end up putting both aside and not discovering the full potential of either. More than a lack of capacity, I think it is having the wrong toolbox that has prevented many arts organizations from more fully realizing the value of audience data.


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