Case study: Apples and Snakes – developing audiences for the future
Janet Alderman, Digital and Marketing Manager at the spoken word trailblazers Apples and Snakes shares how they developed new frameworks and audience plans as part of their time on the change management programme, Shared Ambition.
Image courtesy Apples and Snakes
Following a review of the spoken word landscape, Apples and Snakes developed a new strategy focused on working nationally in new ways and with the ambition to create big and bold work. As part of this we restructured to become more agile, minimise overheads and maximise delivery. This was in late 2019/early 2020 just before Covid.
As Covid-19 closed our office doors, we transitioned to a remote environment both with our staff and our programme. Adapting to a new staff structure alongside moving to online delivery and working environment meant we had to look quite honestly at who we were as an organisation, who we served and re-examine how to connect with audiences and artists. We wanted to seriously understand:
- what our offer was,
- who our audiences and stakeholders were and
- how to position ourselves in this new landscape.
We joined Shared Ambition so we could review our audience strategy to match it to this new way of working. Doing what we did before or always have done wasn’t going to cut it, and we lacked the closeness that a physical office space gave us to bounce around ideas. It became obvious that to ensure we were working effectively we needed to really understand who we were, who we wanted to work with, and how to define success. Reviewing our values and goals was a key part of this. We started by writing a value proposition - something that took us quite a while to settle upon, but the exercise helped to focus on the project as a whole.
Why Shared Ambition?
Being asked to explicitly explain who your audience is can be challenging, especially if your programming is fractured (as in non-episodic) and you lack a venue that people can identify with. We very quickly realised that our audiences weren’t just people that attended our live events , it was much wider than that. We see ourselves as at the centre of a spoken word community but how do we put that into a formal strategy. Shared Ambition offered us the chance to take part in a structured process and it gave us the discipline and focus to explore some important questions. With the use of established frameworks around audience engagement we were able to understand:
- Values – as an organisation approaching our 40th anniversary having space and time to review our values was a really important process. A lot has changed for spoken word in the last forty years but our values essentially remain the same
- Stakeholders – having time to think about stakeholders and how they connect to our audiences really helped us shape our new audience plan
- The process - AMA provided really useful frameworks which helped us map everything out and begin to create a strategic plan.
- Adapting - we realised the new ways of working had benefits and challenges and Shared Ambition helped us to identify the additional technology and formalise new working from home practices. We want to continue with live elements with a blended model but we realise that digital works for us, and it’s here to stay.
We were then able to identify three key audiences that we felt we could have the most impact on and benefit for. This built on previous audience research which looked primarily at demographic information and existing audience segments but Shared Ambition helped us think outside the box. We started to think of our audience as not just a passive group who attend events but as active stakeholders, the artists we support, the funders who invest in us, the participants that attend our workshops and also new cross-over audiences who may be aware of high profile spoken word artists or activists aligned to the causes we explore in our creative commissions and campaigns. Our future vision then became clearer.
Photo: Suzi Corker
Moving away from the idea that a key audience meant just the folks that came to our events, our next step was to figure out a way to understand what people wanted from us and how we would deliver this so we conducted artists and participant surveys. We also overhauled our equality, diversity and inclusion policies, partly in response to Black Lives Matter, but also to be true to our historic mission This has been a year long process in the making and difficult at times, but has meant we are now able to ensure this is part of all our work in a meaningful, sustained way, and ensures we are committed to an ongoing process of review.
The process of Shared Ambition was quite challenging for us. Being a small organisation, we did struggle to commit to the workload. We already knew our mission (to champion spoken word!) but we wanted to go a bit deeper so we rewrote our value statement and mapped our values against our audiences. From there it became clearer which areas we were meeting and making a difference in, and what we needed to do next to fully realise our goals.
Working in the format of online workshops with others was useful, the show and tell experience meant similar organisations could share their strengths/weaknesses and sharing knowledge is always useful. It is always really helpful to realise other people are facing similar challenges!
Did it work?
One of the key things Shared Ambition did for us was help focus our programming against our audience needs. For example, we offer Red Sky Sessions - an online free development programme that has a regular audience of 300 people - we removed the upper age limit and made a lot of noise about ‘emerging happens at any age’ in response to feedback from audiences identified in our strategic planning. As mentioned above, diversity is essential to our work, and we have a dedicated podcast centring on Black British poets. It has received a lot of positive feedback and remains one of the most significant pieces of work we have created recently.
This is something we wouldn't have committed to if we hadn’t seen our digital communities as a cross over audience (from those who listen to podcasts and merging it with spoken word).
We know we need to work closer together to keep delivering high quality work in a fluid manner. We are investing in a new CRM and slowly but surely, we are becoming a more connected organisation, even though we will only ever meet once a week going forward. Wellbeing is important to us so that one day a week is there to ensure we get the assistance from others we need, and not meant as a management tool.
Perhaps an unintended benefit from Shared Ambition has been the framework tools mentioned previously. As an NPO we are going into the next round of bidding and know very well how overwhelming the process can be. Having a clear framework to look back on has been both a huge time saver for us, but also a bit of a headache soother! With this new way of articulating our audience strategy, it’s now easier to generate reports to our funders, but also to show clear evidence to ACE of our impact and help with future planning.
Image: Suzi Corker
What next for Apples and Snakes?
We have a long way to go before we have fully developed and implemented this new framework and audience plan. But we are getting there and having the confidence to say that is a weird relief - we know what we are aiming for and we will keep reviewing. Going forward we feel digital is going to be significant in our offering, especially when it comes to geographical reach and ease of communication with partners. Digital has allowed us to bring in international talent to our events, something that has become normalised after the pandemic started. The benefits of this are clear, and we will keep this up.
We have our 40th anniversary coming up, and through our artists' feedback and insights gained directly from them as both our audience and stakeholders, we feel we have something in line that is beyond just a few sparklers and champagne. We’re here for the spoken word community, and our birthday will be a chance for them to celebrate. It will be a collective celebration which centres the development of the spoken word sector over the last forty years and the incredible journey of artists we have supported, showcasing them whilst also demonstrating the central role we have had in supporting the sector and bringing people together
Being part of Shared Ambition has brought us closer together. All staff now understand what it is we’re trying to achieve and, more importantly, buy into it. It would be false to say that Shared Ambition is a breeze. It’s not. The classic saying does apply here: anything worth having doesn’t come easy. Nailing that audience plan, being really critical about who you are, and being honest about whether you are meeting your audiences’ needs, is hard. But it’s very rewarding and the process and work you do for this will feed you going forward. Find the time to do this - with the current global uncertainty you can’t afford not to. If you don’t discover anything new about yourselves through Shared Ambition, at the very least you will find the review process and structure invaluable in formalising future plans - this is probably the strongest takeaway we have found useful to pass on to others.
Janet Alderman, Digital and Marketing Manager, Apples and Snakes
Apples and Snakes: we are spoken word trailblazers, with artists at our heart. By bringing together important voices in interesting ways, we create inspiring experiences for audiences. We champion the development of extraordinary artists.
www.applesandsnakes.org | @applesandsnakes
About Shared Ambition