Taking out the guesswork: a guide to using research to build arts audiences

Taking out the guesswork: a guide to using research to build arts audiences

By The Wallace Foundation


This publication by Bob Harlow, published by The Wallace Foundation, provides guidelines to help you design and manage your own audience research. It explores how research can help you learn about potential audiences, create more effective promotional materials and track progress towards your audience-building goals.


Audience building often means venturing into uncharted territory. You may have no idea what potential audience members think about your art form or organisation, or even if they know you exist. You may also not know what they're looking for in terms of cultural activities or how your programming can fit into their time-pressed lives. Despite the unknowns, a surprisingly large number of audience-building initiatives move forward with little input from the very people organisations are looking to attract. That's like inviting guests to dinner without first finding out what they like to eat or what food allergies they may have, says Magda Martinez, director of programs at Fleisher Art Memorial. On a practical level, it can mean committing resources to initiatives that may prove unsuccessful.

This work doesn't have to require such a leap of faith. Strategically designed audience research can remove a lot of the guesswork that comes with creating and fine-tuning programs to attract new visitors. It can stimulate ideas about how to make an institution and its art more accessible to newcomers, identify obstacles that are getting in the way of engagement, and suggest strategies for overcoming them. As an initiative unfolds, research can illuminate what's working, what's not, and why. It can also sharpen marketing efforts, boosting the effectiveness of even a small budget. In short, strategically and judiciously used research can help organisations win audiences.

This guidebook is intended to help organisations take their first steps. It is based on a belief that high-quality strategic research is within reach for most institutions. Audience research does not have to be complex or costly — a modest budget is sufficient in many cases. Special skills aren't necessarily required, but thoughtfulness, careful planning, and execution according to plan are needed to obtain accurate information about an audience — and improve decision-making.

Just ask the San Francisco Girls Chorus and The Clay Studio, two of the ten arts institutions whose research efforts informed this guidebook. Accounts of their experiences bring audience research to life throughout the report, showing how to translate questions about a potential audience into a research project able to deliver valuable insights that will help you make inroads with that audience. To help readers accomplish the same in their own organisations, the guidebook also explains how to conduct audience research step by step by drawing upon the experiences of the ten institutions and the market research literature. This report is organised around three activities that were integral to their success:

  1. Learning about audiences. Research gave organisations a clearer idea of what different target audience thought of them and their art, and how those perceptions influenced the decision to visit or not. It also helped identify lifestyle and other factors that kept certain audiences from visiting or from visiting more often. Arts groups used this knowledge to create programs that made their art more accessible and visits more rewarding for newcomers and existing audiences alike.
  2. Creating effective promotional materials. As part of their efforts to build audiences, several institutions explored how new audiences reacted to their websites, brochures, and other marketing materials. Many were initially surprised by the negligible (and occasionally negative) impact some of their marketing materials had among those not already in the know, but once they understood the perspective of the new audience, they used the feedback to more effectively communicate who they were and what they could bring to people's lives. Many also determined which advertising channels and materials were most effective and were able to save tens of thousands of dollars by jettisoning efforts that were not delivering value.
  3. Tracking and assessing results. The organisations featured in this report did more than cross their fingers after launching their initiatives. They turned to audience research to get an ongoing and accurate read on who was visiting and why. In many cases, the research design was basic but effective, such as having staff and volunteers administer an exit survey of just a few relevant questions. By gathering this type of information, arts managers could ensure that a program was on track — or troubleshoot when it was not.

Download the full report to read on:
Taking out the guesswork (PDF)

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Resource type: Guide/tools | Published: 2017