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In an era of data sharing, Marcus Romer asks who audience data belongs to: touring companies or venues?

Photo of audience

frontiersofinteraction (CC BY 2.0)

“Data, we are told these days, is the new oil. Consumer data – and that is the kind corporate business is excited about – is valuable because, if well used, it can drive real market understanding and customer relationships. Many cultural organisations are rich in data and have been using it with increasing sophistication to deepen and broaden audiences. Nevertheless, as well as ‘data-haves’, there are still plenty of ‘data-have-nots.’” Anne Torreggiani, Executive Director, The Audience Agency

Data sharing is one the most divisive issues in the arts sector, having long been a battleground between venues keen to protect their audience catchment areas and touring companies wanting to build direct relationships with those that come and see their work. The prospects for data sharing seemed good for a while. Arts Council England (ACE)’s announcement in 2013 that National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) must share their data was met very positively by touring organisations. ACE Chair, Peter Bazalgette, enthused about the importance of greater collaboration on data sharing, in particular with touring companies.

The Arts Council had intended to require its NPO venues to pursue an ‘opt out’ approach, which would have meant they were required to share data with visiting companies unless customers requested otherwise. This was in line with industry guidance approved by the Information Commission Officer (ICO) in previous years. However, according to Independent Consultant and data specialist Roger Tomlinson, this guidance was never actually written down and made into a clear legal document by the ICO. It has now become clear that the new Arts Council agreements with NPOs about data sharing between arts organisations have changed from their original outline as pressure from legal teams working with some UK theatre venues has caused the original wording to be revised.

Do venues know what companies need and are they actually allowing companies to make good use of the data?

Philip Cave, Director of Audiences and Engagement at ACE, outlined that the wording had been changed from the default ‘opt out’ clause in the original guidance to one that requires the venue or ticket seller to set up an opt in box for customers at the point of sale. He said that this has been introduced “to increase partnership between organisations and to give more power to customers.” He continued to say that “we believe that customers should be given the opportunity to say who should have access to their contact details.”

I spoke to Roger Tomlinson to get a handle on the history of data and data sharing. The Data Protection Act was created in 1998 in response to a changing technological landscape, with email and web surging towards the mainstream. The Privacy and Electronic Communication Regulation (PECR) became law in 2003, stating that the venue was the primary data controller and would be responsible for holding all information in accordance with the law. Data protection legislation is not concerned with who owns processed data. Instead, it is concerned only with how that data is used. Data control is therefore a matter of contractual agreement between two or more organisations. The organisation recording the data – the Data Controller – has legal obligations to the members of the public whose data they keep, which includes not sharing personal data with third parties without permission.

But in 2005 the ICO changed its position, allowing a flexibility that would enable mailings to customers about events and companies who produced or created ‘similar work’. The problem, however, is that this was never actually committed to in a legal document. It was merely a custom and common practice that the ICO verbally accepted. It was on this basis that ACE put forward their NPO guidance outlines. Challenges came from some of the larger London based national organisations, who brought their legal teams and questioned what ACE was suggesting, challenging the relaxation agreement of the ICO. As a result, ACE have been forced to re-word their agreement outlines. Rachel Tackley - with her ETT and UK theatre caps on - said that “we can try and change that law and we should aim to, venues who are team players will always be helpful and those who aren’t won’t be.” She went on to add an issue she felt strongly about, which was what could be included in venues’ brochures, she felt that “company profiles were being sacrificed at the altar of neat marketing.”

This combination of data hoarding and the exclusion of company information looks like a protectionist move. Those venues that wish to now get to keep their data and customer information for their own use, including for fundraising, personal giving requests and donations. David Brownlee, Executive Director of UK Theatre, told me that there are three things to bear in mind when looking at the topic: “the law as it stands, the agreement between the two parties, and the technical solutions for delivering this.” He continued, “The ICO states there cannot be two data controllers. The data controller is the venue and we need the opt in ability at the point of sale to enable the third party to make a contact and for the data to be shared.” Unless we challenge it, the law stands as it is.

The aim of many touring companies is to be able to access the data held by venues. But do we really know what we want, and more importantly, do we know what we need it for? Do venues know what companies need and are they actually allowing companies to make good use of the data?

One example of how generous intentions can be undermined by the detail comes from Northern Stage, who are to be commended for their work in the field. They do deliver the information you need - useful for the data survey we need to send back - but a question remains: how useful is it for companies? We are treated as a joint first party, which is great, but pay attention to what they state about usage of the data in their small print online: “If the first party is not Northern Stage, then they shall only have permission to make a single contact by post, at which point they must remove your details from their system, unless you specifically ask for your details to be retained…”

This does beg the response - ‘I’m sorry but we’re unable to do that, as we now live in the 21st century...’ When approaching venues for data, we should be asking ourselves what we are wanting to collect. We should be asking why. We should be asking if that data is rooted in an analogue world of postcodes, landlines and annual paper brochures. And most importantly, we should be asking this: Whose audience are they anyway? Well, the breaking news is that audiences don’t belong to any one organisation. So the concept of ‘our audience’ is a nonsense. That ‘audience’ is simply a group of individuals who happen to have bought a ticket to see something that you put on once.

What I can’t abide are the segmentation names for these so called groups based on postcode data. You know, the ‘night-time noodlers’, or ‘bedroom doodlers’ or whatever. What if the piece of data relates to a student living with his aunt in Acacia Avenue who is obsessed with Death Metal and Star Wars? How would you know that about him - or anything specific about him - with as blunt an instrument as postcode data?

Maybe we’re looking for the wrong type of data. Maybe what we’re used to is broken anyway. YouGov, shockingly, still do polling to landlines only. What data do we actually need? Surely it’d be much better to know someone’s Facebook profile, their likes and dislikes, where they go and what they do, than their postal address. We have to remember that these are people, individuals, with their own unique but shared connections. That’s the world we live in now, and that’s the world we need to tap into. Most concerns about data seem to stem from apparent respect for the individual, ‘we don’t want audiences pestered with fundraising requests’. But really, an email or a message is easy to read, delete, ignore or trash. We’re not selling double glazing or PPI.

According to The Audience Agency, audiences on the whole relate more closely to venues than companies. John Holmes, Head of Marketing at English Touring Opera (ETO), believes that audience relationships with venues are a myth and that audiences identify with companies and their work more readily than with a venue. Holmes also reported that ETO only get data from about 10% of the venues they tour to. But from those with whom the company has a good relationship, they benefit from a 50% fundraising email open rate. He suggested that a clause could be added to permit point of sale consent that would ask you to share your details with ‘the presenting company’, which would be a useful default mechanism for venues to put on their websites, rather than having to enter new details for each new production or showing. Where companies have enough resources to manage their own audience relationships, it is surely more beneficial to all for them to build and manage their own mailing lists, through websites, social media and follow-up mailings with the help of venues. Not all touring companies have the skills and systems needed to carry out regular data analysis. It may also be that using other sources of audience insight, like Audience Finder or other secondary research, might yield more useful insight than chasing data from many venues.

Elizabeth Freestone, Artistic Director of Pentabus Theatre, made it clear that the idea of trying to send postal requests out is just not feasible or cost effective. She said that email and messaging are far more practical, and agreed that an ‘arms race’ of protectionism was now evident with venues making it harder for companies to contact people who had been to see her work. She also pointed out that ‘brand loyalty’ as understood in the commercial world doesn’t really exist in the same way in theatre, suggesting a commitment to companies over venues, and affirmed that a broadening of the cultural diet was needed to avoid ending up in an artistic cul-de-sac.

Joint Artistic Director of Paines Plough, James Grieve, is very keen to develop the control of
information for his company and is working with direct selling and data collection for their
roundabout season - but this of course creates conflict when working with a venue for their 8 week run, if they are still in negotiation about the sharing of the data for those people booking to see their work in their own demountable space.

Henny Finch, the Executive Director at Headlong, has taken the control of data a stage further by running with key data players in the field Spektrix. Headlong are now able to sell directly to their customers and followers as they can’t and don’t want to rely on the venues to provide them with the data, nor worry about the associated costs in terms of staff time. Instead, they have a bespoke suite from Spektrix that allows them to be first party holders, giving them a direct relationship with their customers that they can use for fundraising and profiling purposes. Spektrix, by offering no booking fees, direct contact, data collection and the ability for organisations that work with them to mine whatever information they find useful, are presenting some really interesting solutions to data problems for the industry.

ACE are quite rightly concerned that this type of solution will lead to a fracturing of the sorts
of relationships between venues and producing companies that they would rather see nurtured and developed. But if the law remains in place and venues continue to be the first party data holders, what else but a shift towards companies like Spektrix will happen?

In times of diminishing public resources, the fight for territory now encompasses data and information, and this struggle does little to encourage a strategic, collaborative and smart use of public resources in the sector. The law can be challenged and we can bang on the big doors asking to be let in. Or, as creative companies, we can look for the technical and online solutions that can enable us to work more smartly. Then we can ask the questions amongst ourselves about how we can work together to deliver a better service, provide better work, and ultimately have better relationships with our customers, fans, and supporters of our creativity.

We are all in this together. We need to be more connected. We need to not be so protectionist about the individuals who happen to crossover and engage with our shared work and activity. We need to remember who we have the relationships with, and ask ourselves the obvious question: Do audiences have a connection with the work, the art, the building, the company, the artists, the marketing team, or the development department? And if the answer is not the art or the artists, then please ask yourself the question again...

Marcus Romer is a writer and director of theatre and film, and has been the Artistic Director at award-winning National Touring Theatre Company Pilot Theatre for 20 years.

This article, sponsored and contributed by the Twine, is the second in a series exploring the fundraising challenges faced by small touring theatre companies.

Link to Author(s): 
Marcus Romer


We read with interest Marcus Romer’s article titled ‘Whose data is it anyway?’ We agree with some of the points Marcus makes regarding the need to be more connected and less protectionist as a sector with regards to data sharing; something that as an organisation we have always actively promoted, as those recent attendees of our nationwide Audience Finder workshops will no doubt agree. To this end however, we do feel as though we need to challenge the misleading assertion that ‘’According to The Audience Agency, audiences on the whole relate more closely to venues than to touring companies.’’ This seemingly places us on one side of a discussion, which is much more subtle than is attributed in the piece. The full quote from which this is taken is from our guidance on data sharing, the full article can be found here: http://www.theaudienceagency.org/insight/data-sharing The full quote explains that ‘‘Evidence suggests that audiences tend to relate more closely to venues than companies, though not exclusively. In Audiences on Tour, we therefore recommend that companies prioritise sharing contact information with venues with which they have an ongoing and developmental relationship.’’ Our Chief Executive, Anne Torreggiani writes, ‘’At The Audience Agency we are acutely aware of the challenges and frustrations for touring companies on this issue and have consulted widely with a number to ensure that our forthcoming Guidance on Data Sharing is as helpful to companies as it is to venues. I certainly have said that a variety of evidence indicates that audiences appear to associate more consistently with venues than companies (it does), but I have also noted that this varies greatly between companies and venues, and that this is NOT a reason NOT to share data fairly and responsibly. I have always been a strong advocate of the idea that companies and venues should actively share data for the good of audiences.’’ In understanding the position that many touring companies and agencies are in regarding sharing audience data, The Audience Agency is currently building ‘Tour Tracker’ which will enable companies to gain vital audience insight across tours. We look forward to contributing to the ongoing discussions about data sharing as it becomes ever more important for the sector.