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When it comes to audience data, Michael Nabarro says technology should be helping return us to our roots and emphasise what makes our sector special.

crowd at a performance
Derby Assembly Rooms - Derby LIVE is reaching audiences of over 400k annually by using targeted email marketing.

Graham Whitmore

There's no denying that customer relationships are important in the arts. Unlike other sectors, our ‘product’ is a unique experience that resonates on a deeply personal level. And that product extends beyond the event itself to the full spectrum of contacts an audience has with an organisation. How well we build and maintain those relationships is crucial to the long-term success of the arts. That's why it's so important to understand how data can help anticipate customer needs and make sure we are always communicating with audiences in ways they feel are relevant and timely. Connections, relationships, the deeply personal – these are values that seem miles away from a cold topic like data. But the truth is, technology should be helping us get back to basics and emphasise what makes our sector special.

Arts organisations typically hold a wealth of audience data, but box office technology can be frustratingly awkward when it comes to deriving insights.

Arts Council England caused a stir recently with its new data directive for NPO funding. The idea is to spur the sector to share audience data and therefore be better able to spot local and national trends. A worthy idea – but I’d say it’s a little premature. There is so much more that can and needs to be done first with the data captured by individual organisations. Arts organisations typically hold a wealth of audience data, but box office technology can be frustratingly awkward when it comes to deriving insights. Even where solid customer relationship management (CRM) systems are in place, organisations tend to be uncomfortable with data-driven decision making, which consequently is  often lacking in sophistication.

A common approach is to data analysis is to look at what people have attended in the past, look at what might be similar in the current season, and then start e-mailing. What we need to do is build relationships that are less transactional and instead focus on understanding customer needs. The large numbers of people in our audiences mean we could never adopt a truly personal approach to each individual customer, but what we can do is segment our audiences into groups that have similar needs. There are numerous segmentation models out there– from psychographic approaches like Culture Segments from MHM, to models based on booking data such as the Total Audience Model from Indigo. Or you could come up with your own.

The output should be a content strategy that works for each segment, drilling right down to details like how to personalise email content, what time of day to send it, and more. A colleague shared a great example of this with me recently. He (a man in his early-30s) received an email from Virgin Media with the subject line “Ooh…. Would you take a gander at that!”, while his mother received the same email but with the subject line “Mrs Griffiths, we’ve got some special offers for you”. Whilst each email contained the same essential messages, they were tuned to the language and expectations of their respective segments.

The other data-related benefit of emails is in measuring open rates and clickthroughs. We need to pay close attention to these stats; if customers aren’t opening our emails, something about the approach needs to change. Perhaps we’re getting the subject line wrong, sending too often or simply sending the wrong thing. Once a customer starts ignoring your emails it is hard to turn them around.

Kym Bartlett, a consultant who works across the UK, told me: “The analysis and insight venues are able to provide varies wildly. Some are able to employ in-house data experts and sophisticated approaches, whereas many others don't have these options due to resources and therefore are using their data in the same way they did a decade ago. The ideal scenario would be for a singular data intelligence training scheme to be made available nationally. This way, venues could get much improved ROI, touring companies could report like-for-like information on audiences from town to town and tour to tour, and national benchmarking can truly become a possibility.”

Advances in box office technology will have a major part to play. Cloud-based software that takes big IT capabilities and scales them to meet the needs of small budgets have made their way to the arts sector. With better analysis and marketing tools available at lower cost, arts marketers will be able to do so much more. Consider what Derby LIVE is doing right now. A large-scale, local authority-run arts organisation, it is reaching audiences of over 400,000 annually by using targeted email marketing to reduce direct mail costs and increase re-attendance. By analysing data and carefully segmenting audiences, Derby LIVE has been able to target the right people with news and offers that customers want to hear about. Ed Green, Audience Engagement Manager at Derby LIVE told me: “It’s great that people are talking about data and highlighting the importance of technology and marketing in the arts. As a sector we need to be more strategic about how we use the information in our systems. Used properly it is helping us get the most compelling message to the most targeted audience.”

While there has rightly been a trend to push as many ticket sales as possible online to keep costs down, we must make sure we engage with audiences in traditional ways whenever we get the chance. A customer phoning or visiting in-person has handed us an ideal opportunity to build a relationship with them, and front-line staff should be encouraged to see their roles as far beyond just selling tickets. Data can be used to empower staff – even just knowing what a customer last attended and when could be of great help in building that relationship.

Art is personal and unique. People have a connection to the arts which fuses the emotional and intellectual. Audience data should be helping us maximise such an immensely important point of difference.

Michael Nabarro is Co-Founder and Managing Director of Spektrix.

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