Research with the Great Unwashed


Getting a real reaction from your disinclined audiences

Two months into the audience development arts project we have learnt a valuable lesson – that you can’t judge what is unimaginable to you.

So if I ask someone who does not even see contemporary dance what they might think of contemporary dance I should not be surprised about the blank looks I will see from my research subjects.

Audience Development is obviously the effort of developing new people to attend performances or making existing audiences increase their commitment to attending. Research has been examining potential new people and asking them about their views – and getting some pretty blank looks.

Research shows that potential new people can provide endless information about the experience in the venue, dining, ambience, price, timing, venue likes and dislikes, and much more and this is exteremly useful in product development.

What is missing is what you will be some proof of the eternal conundrum…if you build it (the ballet set) they will come (even if they have not got the foggiest about ballet)? It’s like asking people 20 years ago if someone invented a smart phone – would they have one? – you would have seen blank looks because you are asking for an opinion on the unknown. That has been the challenge of audience development research for performing arts – asking for feedback from people without performing arts experience.

When looking at the high level segments it seems there are 4 macro groups to consider in research:

• Lovers – that minority of people who will always love performing arts and attend almost anything offered to them
• Haters– the people who by experience or by nature do not like the performing arts in any way and would rather watch grass grow.
• On the fencers – the people who have never been or maybe have been a long time ago and think they don’t like performing arts – probably .
• Blank slaters – the middle ground of people who will look blankly if you ask they about drama, opera, ballet and shrug and say I don’t know. These people could be the best targets for new audience development, you just have to examine how they tick.

So, how do I ask you to tell me about that which you do not know? There is a possible solution to testing the water before researching people to decide on what to program by copying a model that advertisers use in ad testing. This would mean giving research subjects a sample of what they might see and then asking them – how did you/would you feel about that experience? This would mean having something like video to approximate the experience.

By using advertising concept testing approach for your blank slate and on the fence customers you can find out people’s reactions to proposed programming. The research will show respondents the ideas for what you might programme and explore their reactions live. You will get to observe perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and desires about your ideas for those who have no experience of certain genres.

The Local Region Arts Engagement Dashboard from the Australian Council For The Arts in 2017 showed 32% of all Australians would attend at least one performing arts event year which means a performing art lover is born every day. Some of these simply won’t know they like performing arts until they have had that first exposure.

This method allows researchers to test programming ideas before you spend much time and money programming and marketing,

The only issue is getting your sampling to work – if you can find true blank slaters and on the fencers you have every chance of getting a real reaction to what would happen with certain types of programming.