Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Get Some In! The Hunt for an Audience

I've been hearing for a while now that a lot of companies and organisations are feeling a lot of pressure to justify their existence in terms of audience numbers. A pressue manifesting inself under the rubric of Audience Development.

I'm a great believer in audiences: one of those people who feel that the work is almost pointless without an audience. However, can any of the organistaions currently feeling this pressure actually develop the audience, actually make it bigger?

If you look at the audience statistics for live theatre in Ireland, the UK, the US, Canada and Europe (in general) a remarkable pattern emerges. On average, accross all these territories, the theatre audience comes in at about 20% of the population. There are of course highs and lows but the standard deviation is not particularly significant. More importantly this rate has been fairly consistent over time.

When you see a pattern like that you realise that what you're looking at is a "base rate". There are a couple of important things about a base rate: there may be variations in any given time period but the tendency is for the figure to return to that rate. In other words about 20% of the population attends theatre and that's it. No ammount of marketing strategies or audience development programmes will boost that in any significant way. True, an effective marketing campaign or development programme may boost a particular organisations market share (they get more of the 20% than another organisation, which means of course that the other organisation loses market share) but all the shows are fighting each other for a share of that market.

What we can do is shift our focus from increasing the audience to increasing repeat business. We can have very little impact on the base rate but we can influence and affect the number of times an audience member comes back to us. Repeat business is about the quality of the experience; and quality of experience is only partly about "how good" the show is. Its about how a person is welcomed into the theatre, its about the atmosphere once they're in, about the facilities, its about the quality and quantity of the communication with them, and its about what happens when the show is over. Its about inclusion and belonging. By all means lets have a small audience so long as we have a good relationship with them and so long as they come back again and again. As Anne Bogart says, we must tend the audience.

Can the base rate be shifted upwards. Probably, if we knew what was driving it. It's not been driven by marketing or by outreach or by development programmes. Common sense would suggest that the base rate is driven by education, by accessibility, social class, and income levels. If you want to make the base rate grow then you need to address these areas across the whole of government - and that is out of the hands of the individual organisations.

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