In Search of Audiences

New resource challenges myths on absent markets


I would like you to close your eyes and picture a dark room, it’s quite cold there and the seats are uncomfortable. It’s full of strangers who are the same age as your great grandmother and speak a totally different language you don’t quite understand. You want to meet the other people, but they are all there together. They are watching something you think is terrible because you don’t understand it, and you can’t ask any questions because they will call you stupid. That which you are watching seems very serious as are the rest of the audience. There is no one you know there. You are alone taking a leap into the abyss only to be deposited into the car park the moment it ends without so much as a dry sherry. And for this privilege of this night you will pay $40. Why didn’t you go?

The latest results from the audience development project are changing the way we think about why people attend and why they don’t attend a performance.

The oft held assumption in audience development that most people who don’t attend simply don’t like many performing arts genres remains robust. Yes, it is true that as for rugby league, pumpkin and ugg boots, some people will always hate your category. The question remains, is dislike of the genre the only reason some audiences chose not to come to your venue?

CircuitWest regional research over 12 towns and cities has shown very clearly that it is often people, product and place issues that stop people attending. The research showed far more people like performing arts genres such as theatre or classical music than ever attend. In some areas the number of people who like theatre are triple the number that attend.

However, in the safety of the church hall , with a free sherry and a cheese sanga in hand, surrounded by neighbours, they will pay $25 to watch their dentist torture every line of Sherlock Holmes and come back season after season.

 The study The Search For Audiences provided some of the main reasons that these people never attend performing arts despite having a liking for the genre.

This story started with a scenario that encapsulates many of the barriers that stop people attending. This is an exaggerated version of how many people view an experience at a venue, uncomfortable, lonely, confusing, dark, incomprehensible with an overall poor experience that costs more than other experiences. At least, that’s sometimes the sort of perceptions your non-audiences , those who never come, have despite this being utter bunkum.

One of the key barriers that stood out was that people simply believed (without having attended) the experience they would have in a performing arts venue was not worthy of their leisure time. Dr Bob Harlow, USA performing arts researcher who has turned around the fates of a number of major companies said, if you want potential audiences to know they will have a good time in your venue, show people having a good time.  Debunk the myth that performing arts venues are no fun for the disinclined because they are serious places where smart people talk about ‘genre’ and call each other ‘daaa-ling’.

Breath taking images of artists performing are an essential and beautiful aspect of our industry communications. We also need to add all the positive aspects of attending or  non-audiences will stay away, oblivious to  all of the fantastic experiences being had inside performing arts venues daily capped off by first class performances.

The research highlighted 10 factors that influenced non audiences.  Here are some things the research showed presenters should consider when trying to build audiences.

“It’s a venue where rich old people watch opera” (focus group quote) Test the value of your premises over the value of your programming. A major reason for non-attendance is the reputation of buildings themselves over performance, that they are uncomfortable, unfashionable, unfathomable and unenjoyable. These are brand issues that can be addressed. Don’t let the fact that someone doesn’t like your bakery means they never try your cake. You can change perceptions, but first find out what they are. If there are negative perceptions of the performing space that are wrong, target those perceptions.

“We don’t even exist in the venue”  (focus group quote) If you haven’t done some groundwork, building audiences for specific cultural audiences is a giant challenge. The research indicated that people whose culture is largely ignored by a venue, and who are  not represented in venue teams, artwork, historical information, activities or anywhere else are  unlikely to turn up to that venue simply because it programs some work specifically from that culture. Cultural connections need to be built over time and this is why one-off cultural programming sometimes fails to draw audiences.

“We never get anything back from the venue” (focus group quote) Many presenters have loyal bases of attendees, but few researched really connect fully with these or have strategy to retain or deepen relationships. Asking for donations is not deepening a relationship. Research with loyal customers saw the majority report they were rarely engaged by presenters and sometimes asked to pay to join membership programs. Some research says it cost 20 times more to get a new customer than it does retain an older one. Venues that see slippage in loyal customers need to urgently find out how to turn this around.

Next month, CircuitWest will publish The Search For Audiences, a summary of the research conducted in 12 towns and cities and the key findings consistent across many regions.

This resource will deliver the findings and provide sample research questions and strategies for presenters looking to build audiences.

It was collated with guidance from Dr Bob Harlow, US statistician and researcher leader who has been consultant on many projects across Western Australia and the USA.

So, watch this space for The Search For Audiences coming September if you need to build audiences