Many arts organisations will be thinking about drafting audience development plans between now and April, as they are now a condition of funding for many of Arts Council England’s NPOs. Rather than seeing this as another hoop that organisations need to jump through, it can be a major boost – not just to our ability to increase revenue but to address the problem of ‘super-serving’ the most advantaged people in society.
All cultural organisations are expert in audience engagement as it’s an essential part of what they do. But an explicit audience development plan enables us to go further. Ideally, the plan is a route map for change, growing audiences, increasing reach, enriching experience – and doing those things to the best of our abilities and resources. Done well and with conviction, it is a forward-looking statement of intent, a commitment to an organisation’s public purpose, to staying relevant and resilient.
Where we only think about audiences in a short-term, transactional way – as targets of a single campaign, or as potential consumers of our latest offer – it is very difficult to get to know them, anticipate their varied interests and preferences and build lasting relationships.
Even where arts experiences are designed with the specific needs of new audiences in mind, we need to think about the legacy of that work over the years rather than months. Organisations are used to making three- or five-year financial plans for growth, because we understand that growth is incremental and we appreciate that it takes time for investment to bring returns. The same is true of our investment in audience relationships.
The increasingly easy availability of organised data is one driver for the smart move from short-term, supply-driven marketing to long-term, audience-focused development. It’s now possible to build a clear picture of how the needs of our many different audiences are changing over time. But for this new insight to have a durable effect, we need to be able to plan with those diverse and changing needs in mind.
All the evidence is that what we programme – when and where – has a far greater impact on the diversity and loyalty of audiences than how we promote it. Planning in this way often demands radical reorientation, putting public needs closer to the centre of our planning.
At The Audience Agency we can see the positive effect of doing just this through our work supporting organisations to create long-term audience development plans. One example is The Marlowe in Canterbury, which has ambitious plans to become ‘the best regional theatre in the country’, as well as play a leading role in its community. The Marlowe is not an NPO and is not required to create an audience development plan, but John Baker, its Head of Marketing and Communications, believes that having an audience development plan makes sense:
"Since The Marlowe reopened six years ago we have grown our audience base significantly and our marketing campaigns team does a great job in delivering our ticket income targets. But we also felt it was important to develop a strategic audience development plan, to sit above all of our show campaign activity, so that we could identify what our long-term goals were outside selling out individual shows.
“This process really helped us learn about the audiences we do have, and just as crucially, think about the audiences we don't currently attract or engage with. From this, we have developed long-term audience development goals that are now shared across the whole organisation, not just within the marketing department, helping us to think more clearly as a theatre about what we do and why we do it.
“It's tempting to think in a busy marketing department that there is no time for long-term strategic planning, but if you make yourself find the time, in amongst all of that short-term activity, the benefits are huge and the focus it brings will make what you do even more valuable."
Many different approaches
We are working with more and more organisations that are planning such long-term audience development strategies, and one of the things we’ve realised is that there is no single, right way to create one. Every organisation is trying to reach different audiences for different reasons and in different ways. A good plan should reflect the scale, resources, personality and purpose of each organisation.
Although we’ve created a resource offering some simple guidance on creating a plan, the approach suggested is not prescriptive and we would encourage organisations to find tools and techniques that fit the personality of their organisation.
Here are a number of principles that in our experience are common to all strong audience development plans:
- Start with a few top-level audience aims that clearly link to your organisational purpose and are in harmony with other priorities.
- Use data to find out about your current audiences and your wider community – who and where they are and what they need from you. Use this insight as the basis for your aims, but also to suggest the strategies and activities you will employ, and to adapt them over time.
- Recognise that you will have different audiences with different needs. Group or segment them in a way that means you can plan to serve them differently. It helps to have a clear way of organising your data to enrich your understanding of each group over time.
- Ensure you have the resources, capacity and appetite to attract new audiences over an extended period.
- Involve as many people in your organisation as possible in interpreting data and creating the plan. It will make your plans more truthful and build commitment.
We're using our extensive research into online audiences' behaviours, motivations and expectations to work with arts, culture and heritage organisations of all shapes and sizes to help them understand and seize the new opportunities that digital can offer in a post-Covid world.