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What does working smarter in the arts sector mean? Julie Tait describes a project exploring staffing, technology and audience data.

Let’s face it, no one gets up in the morning without wanting to get as much work done in the most efficient way possible. The motivation might be to rise early to steal some extra time, to forge through tedious work quickly and move on to something more inspiring, or simply to feel the lip-smacking satisfaction of ticking everything off the list. I am a fan of doing things right the first time. Not because I am any paragon of virtue, rather that I hate repeating the same work twice. It is not smart. In fast-moving environments where decisions come in a torrent, I have learned that the key to getting the job done is in assembling the right resources, in the right proportions, around the right task – and being ready and willing to react intelligently when things need to change.

The Source data shows that strategies focusing on selling the first experience of a venue or artform risk ignoring the opportunity to sell the second or the third

So, whether the task is to get the family out of the door in the morning, or to grow audiences, stage a show or raise half a million pound of investment, I usually take Stephen Covey’s mantra to heart: “Begin with the End in Mind means to begin each day, task, or project with a clear vision of your desired direction and destination, and then continue by flexing your proactive muscles to make things happen.”1

In 2009, we (the Federation of Scottish Theatre, Culture Sparks and The Audience Business) set ourselves the task of exploring all aspects of building audiences for the Scottish theatre sector through a project called ‘The Source’2. We began by defining some of the questions we needed to answer: If the vision for the sector was to grow audiences and revenues, then what goal should we reasonably aim for? In today’s interconnected world, is the shortest route to new audiences always a straight line between the art itself and the general public? Is the diverse digital world now a proxy for new forms of accelerated audience engagement and if so, which issues should we attend to first?

In the light of these questions the project was not just about audience data: we needed to take a wider view about what kinds of resources on the frontline are marshalled towards increased engagement. To address this, we distributed training needs analysis questionnaires to staff in box office, marketing and front of house roles, and undertook an independent assessment of the box office and ticketing systems that underpin effective sales and customer service and harbour the ‘institutional memory’ about audiences. Using software advances and proprietary cloud-based computer solutions, we aggregated audience data extracted from millions of sales transactions through venue box office and ticketing systems over the last five years to create a strategic overview of actual attendance.

We found opportunities for smarter working in almost every aspect of our enquiry and soon realised that if the sector is to grow audiences in future, it will need to develop in terms of technology and skills, and will need a much more cohesive base of support.

Staff in box office, marketing and front of house roles, though highly accomplished (with more than half holding a bachelor’s degree or equivalent), are subject to such high rates of turnover that high levels of organisational knowledge about audiences, programmes or technical systems are often held by only a minority of staff. Some teams were working with sales and marketing technology that was up to ten years old.

Factors such as these have a significant (though often hidden) impact on customer experience, organisational productivity and the financial bottom line. Frequent staff recruitment or working around outmoded ticketing systems can both lead to loss of time and money, whether through additional training and team development or through compensating for technological shortcomings.

The most common causes of high staff turnover may relate to wage rates and flat staffing structures with limited opportunities for progression. Its effects can be arguably even more significant, as it can lead to the delivery of a customer experience that fails to keep the audience coming back for more. Breaking this damaging pattern may require nothing more than a revision of the responsibilities and accountabilities of staff directly involved in managing customer information, supporting them with the tools and training necessary to cope with advances in ticketing and digital technology and integrating their detailed knowledge of audiences into the forward planning process. It is not that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys, it is that smart monkeys are capable of delivering so much more.

If we are losing front-line staff as frequently as we are replacing them, is the same true of audiences? And, can we be more productive in an instant?

Data from over 200,000 performances, 700,000 households and over £24m tickets sold reveal a very clear pattern among attender households, in terms of when and how often they attend. The Source database allowed us to aggregate booking data from all participating venues to create a detailed booking history for each attender household, year-on-year. On average, over half of the households that attended an arts performance or event, did so only once. This pattern is consistent each year. If managed sensitively so that some of these households were encouraged to attend even just one or two more performances each year, the multiplier effect could bring in hundreds of new audience members. Short-term marketing promotions can fill theatres quickly, but only through understanding people’s journey into the arts, recognising loyalty, building repeat business and channelling advocacy can we build new audiences and more reliable revenue streams. The Source data shows that strategies focusing on selling the first experience of a venue or artform risk ignoring the opportunity to sell the second or the third. Evaluating how frequently people attend the arts, or comparing the extents to which new audiences are retained or are lost, gives a much clearer indication as to how to prevent loss and encourage audience growth. To succeed, an organisation needs more detail on its audiences; a system to gather and syndicate such information; and strategies for how to act on the insight this data offers in a way that is personally meaningful to audiences.

If an organisation’s programme balance is inconsistent and its marketing approach remains the same or spread too thinly towards every audience group all the time, then by law of diminishing returns, it will experience only marginal changes in the scale, diversity and loyalty of the audience attending and the revenues achieved. Without a strategy aimed at relationship-building, retaining and nurturing attenders, rather than selling tickets, resources will always be stretched by the never-ending task to replace ‘lost’ audience members, and any organisation will continually feel the effects of running at full pelt, simply to stand still.

Organisations that reflect on their entire programme mix, type of sales and marketing activity and levels of customer service in the light of these findings will be better able to determine where and how best to focus their combined, hard-pressed resources to greatest effect.

Smart steps to future audience-building
1.  ‘Begin with the end in mind’: What is your objective for audience growth and how will you describe and measure it? Where are you now? What do you need to know?’
2. Be prepared to group your audiences into a type, based on their characteristics, specific needs or past buying behaviour.
3. Identify the information you need to help you establish and build a picture of the groups. Usually a matrix is helpful. Gather the information and check out the clusters. How accurate are they? How frequently and recently did they attend? Focus on them.
4. Be prepared to adopt a different approach to welcoming different groups in different ways according to their needs. Are all staff aligned with the responsibility for customer satisfaction? What is my role in the customer experience? How do I ensure the experience is the best it can be?
5. What are the right tools for the job and do you have them?
6. Who has clear responsibility for leading, reporting and servicing the customer journey?
7. Where are the regular and frequent lines of communication and feedback?
8. How are you doing?
9. Review and go back to 1.

Julie Tait is Director of Culture Sparks


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