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Anne Torreggiani asks whether belt-tightening is driving us to think more strategically about how we communicate with audiences.

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Joel Chester Fildes

How is austerity affecting the ways in which we communicate with audiences? At The Audience Agency we have been thinking about this and how we need to adapt to meet the sector’s changing needs. The combined view of my colleagues who work with cultural organisations across England and Wales offers an interesting snapshot.

All agree that the picture is mixed. The inevitable rise of digital communication has changed the landscape, but not always to good effect. Pressure on staffing levels is acute in some areas and this is having a negative impact on long-term relationship development, especially with less engaged communities. Elsewhere, though, things look less bleak as necessity drives smarter, more considered practice. We have seen strong evidence of more personalisation, better targeting and practical co-operation between organisations.

People need different information through different channels to help them make different decisions

It is a no-brainer, isn’t it? Digital channels make it easy to transport the right messages to the right people at the right time at no (or low) cost. Making the switchover must be the top choice for any economy drive, mustn’t it? Some organisations, like Watershed in Bristol, have made the move to 100% digital communications to good effect, while others have done it with equal conviction but with less evidence. Our concern is that any negative effect will be hard to identify, as audiences lapse without trace.

What we do know is that many audiences, actual and potential, still prefer print. We carried out a study last year to help us understand differences in digital habits between the ten segments in our Audience Spectrum, our segmentation tool which splits the population into ten locatable groups by their preferences and attitudes towards culture. It came as a surprise that 99% of people go online once a week, especially as the study included a representative sample of the least privileged people in society. But having online access and choosing to use it are not the same thing. 65% of people said that they prefer to browse the menu of cultural options online (good news for those tempted to do a wholesale switchover), but 30% said they still prefer their information served up in the traditional way. Significantly, this preference is more marked among older, less culturally engaged people.

And the danger of excluding those people already on the periphery is not all. Our recent qualitative research suggests that people need different information through different channels to help them make different decisions. We know of at least one organisation that went fully digital but soon picked up on these nuances, and so reversed the decision. Now they are using their considerable tech knowhow to ‘micro-segment’ their audiences, emailing them just the right messages, about the right offer, at the right time.

Assessing cost benefit is getting more complicated, as my colleague Katie Moffat, Head of Digital says: “Using platforms like Facebook effectively now requires some paid advertising. Even arts organisations that use Facebook well organically (and they are in the minority) will need to accept that over the next 12 months paid advertising will have to become part of their strategy to reach the Facebook audience.” Another colleague reminded me: “Something that often gets overlooked are good, old-fashioned email campaigns. This showed very strongly in recent focus groups.”

On the other hand, lots of organisations are using new channels to build relationships in radically different ways. Carol Jones, our Director for Wales and leader of the AMA’s Digital Academy, says: “Cardiff-based dance company TaikaBox used Twitter and Instagram to build a community, deepen engagement and create loyalty. You tweet them a short story and they email you back a short dance video telling your story. I tweeted: ‘Realising that removing a seagull from the car is probably a specialist job and not one I'm any good at.’ Have a look at what they sent back.”

Smart organisations are finding smarter ways of assessing the returns on their marketing investment by introducing simple systems for measuring (or estimating) bang for buck. A vital consideration is the hidden cost of digital communication, especially having the time and knowhow to do online and social media well. Katie Moffat says: “There are a lot of tools out there for measuring online and social media effectively. The more organisations take the time to understand what works for them online, the more success they will have.” See Tricycle Theatre’s blog on its experience entitled Maximum power on facebook.

Access to bigger, better, faster and more mediated audience data is prompting a sea change, with many more organisations using audience research to personalise their offers and target communications more efficiently. There is an up-front investment of time if not money, but the net gains are convincing. This trend may have been accelerated by the audience data and tools made available through Arts Council England’s investment in initiatives like our tools Audience Finder and Visitor Finder, and Aim’s Visitor Verdict. These tools make whole-market data available for the first time as a free or heavily subsidised service. Arts organisations are using these tools in a range of ways including:

  • Tracking the efficacy of different channels: Media advertising, print distribution and digital promotion companies report how much more demanding clients are in terms of measuring impact. Organisations that are adept at tracking social media and online traffic are complementing this with on-site and e-surveys to ensure that they really understand what channels work best for different audiences and offers.
  • Segmenting audiences to tailor messages: We have seen an increase in organisations commissioning their own segmentation systems and an explosion in organisations using off-the-shelf population segmentations (like Audience Spectrum, Mosaic and Morris Hargreaves McIntyre’s Culture Segments). But the holy grail for us has been to find a way of integrating segmentation of online and live visitors. We are currently experimenting with the Hitwise profiling product and are piloting its use with organisations in Audience Finder.
  • Using mapping and profiling to locate prospective audiences: Mapping can accurately target messages through all sorts of channels, from door-drops and direct mail, to media advertising and email campaigns.

My colleagues also report a real strain on practitioners’ time, with people working long hours, posts not being replaced and high levels of staff turnover. We might take some comfort from the signs that austerity may be forcing us to work smarter, ushering in an age of enlightened, data-driven communication. These are the factors shaping our new projects and services.

Anne Torreggiani is Executive Director of The Audience Agency.

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