Why is the concept of audience development important in the first place? Research and surveys show that our audience is aging, its average age is growing. It is becoming more difficult to attract people aged between 25 and 55 for various reasons – they are busy with their careers, creating families, as a result we might not see them at our cultural events.
Moreover, the level of cultural education in schools is falling. There is also competition with other sectors – we are competing with the entertainment industry and other ways in which to spend one’s free time. The latest technologies also have an impact on us: patterns of culture consumption are changing.
In addition, we must consider whom we provide cultural services to, who pays for them and who receives them. In the context of audience development, we need to apply an over-arching approach and the EU’s priority is to reach the largest possible audience in Europe, give it greater access to culture, especially for underrepresented groups and help cultural organisations to understand what exactly an audience development is and how to make it a core strategy of organisation.
The main objectives of audience development are, of course, to retain the existing audience, expand it, find new audiences, in addition to diversifying our audiences and reaching unrepresented groups. Another aspect is the need to change the nature of relations so that the audience is not a passive observer but an active participant of our projects.
There is a principle in Europe: culture should be accessible to all. However, in practice we see that not all groups have equal access to it. There are also vulnerable social groups such as the homeless, children, youth, prisoners, people with disabilities, etc. These are separate target audiences, who we need to remember and involve in our projects.
Now there are new digital possibilities: to watch opera or a theatrical production on the Internet is much cheaper and access much better. Thus, for instance, people in remote towns and villages can be part of culture.
Another traditional method of building an audience is partnership with universities, schools and kindergartens. You can organise lectures, meetings, and seminars in partnership with different organisations.
There is an example of a successful initiative called “Young Critics”, which is active in various European countries. The idea behind it is to give young people the opportunity to be critics of an organisation or a festival. They are invited to examine a performance and after they write a critical review. Over time it is observed that these young people become friends of organisations, so everybody wins.
Collaboration with other sectors is also very important. You should think about how you can work with enterprises, with the tourism sector.
There is a good example: Society “DABAS KONCERTZĀLE” together with scientists solve environmental problems. They did not want to use posters and other traditional methods, and instead decided to work with a music concert company and organise an annual festival “Nature Concerthall” that would raise environmental concerns. The festival is dedicated to different environmental issues every year, they are combining education programmes, live performances and interestingly, the festival is going on exactly where the problem is present. This is an example of how different sectors can collaborate to resolve problems.
Another area is school and youth programmes. We probably all remember ourselves at the age of 15-16 when we wanted to spend time with our friends and not our parents and teachers. There are examples of programmes where, say, performances are given exclusively for young people.
On attracting audiences
Attracting audiences takes place at different stages: at the stage of creation, presentation, and analysis following the event. You can attract an audience that would decide how a film or a show would end. For example, a theatre “Zuidplein“ in Rotterdam had a challenge relating to changes in the neighbourhood where they were located and it was surrounded by a migrant community. It realised that it would have to change to survive, and turned to the community: it asked them what they would like to see and which topics where relevant to them, thereby adapting its programme.
You can also attract people by rewarding them for their active participation in the activities of your project. The following is an example from the world of opera. The opera audience is usually elderly people. They were asked to bring to the opera two or three friends, for that they would receive a ticket to the next performance, or other bonuses from the theatre. Other theatres plan their programmes for the coming year and open their repertoire for the upcoming season for public discussion. It may seem challenging because we might lose quality of the programme in certain cases, but dialogue itself and its openness are very important factors and can really improve the programme and increase the audience.
There is also a good example at the Latvian National Opera, which has introduced an educational programme for children where children can create opera productions themselves. This is also a way of enlisting a young audience, which would later remain loyal.
Or take, for instance, the Victoria and Albert in London Museum. It has introduced hands-on exhibits in the galleries. Another example of a creative way to attract audiences that I really like is BigPit in Wales. The mining industry was developed in the Wales, but later it collapsed. It was decided that a museum of mining culture should be created in one of the pits and mine workers were asked to take come back to work, but as a tour guides, not as miners. Their personal approach to the place and touching stories make experience at the museum very memorable and sensitive.
There is also a Lithuanian project called “To be a Jew”. Everyone is familiar with the tragic story of extermination of the Jews during World War II. This project did not want to exacerbate political tensions, but rather simply wanted to give Lithuanians the possibility of spending a day in the Jewish community, which still exists in Vilnius. Here they learn to dance, sing Jewish songs, and go on tours to the place where the ghetto was located and the cemetery. Quite traditional forms of activities, but in such a context even one day spent with people you had not known till then provides a lot of insight and often becomes the start of a friendship and of course, it is a huge impact on remembering the history and learning from mistakes.
Another good example is the Hungarian Philharmonic where visitors are allowed to go on stage and backstage. People are interested in seeing how the Philharmonic works from within, how the museum or library archives look like, etc. One can use such strategy in all kind of organisations.
Some say that audience segmentation in culture is very different from audience segmentation in business. Yes, it might be not easy to do. You should remember that the audience does not see itself as the audience. These are different people, each one of whom has his or her own needs, and we need to think about what we could offer each one of them. And then to group them again in certain categories and offer them the best we have.
On pricing policy
It is also worth thinking about the pricing policy, which determines the audience. Of course, there are strategies that are introduced at national level, but there is a lot you can do on your own. Think, how much do your services and products cost? Is it affordable? Can a price be an obstacle to come to or not? Make a small research and see how you can improve accessibility in terms of pricing.
An interesting example is a programme created by Caritas. Private donors pay for the cost of tickets for groups which are at social risk visiting cultural institutions.
On the geographical factor
A separate problem when organising cultural events and attracting audiences is transport. In Lithuania (and probably in Ukraine) it is easy to have access to culture in big cities, but smaller towns and villages have an opposite challenge – how to attract people and what to offer them? How can these problems be used as an opportunity? Create mobile events, touring, work on the road, cooperate with other organisations and etc. You can also organise free trips to certain events, either yourself or with the help of municipalities.
Although we live in an information age, it might be still difficult for people to know about an event or institution. How do you solve this problem? By using various communication channels and social networks. In Lithuania this communication tool works in the cultural field no worse than traditional media. Next, mobile phones and applications. For example, the National Gallery of Art in Lithuania has its own app where you can learn about its history and the significance of each work – so digital technologies are used to deliver creative and cultural content as well, not only for direct advertising.
Social media have also changed how we consume culture and take part in cultural events. In the past, only cultural critics would say what was bad and what was good. Now, everybody has the chance to criticise, discuss, and share cultural experiences or cultural services through Internet platforms. Culture sector should change its approach as well and think, how to use this situation to its own benefits.
Websites might still be important communication channel too. Where the Victoria and Albert Museum has two million visitors a year, its website has traffic of 20 million – that’s a big difference. And this potential should be used.
On the importance of research and data
When the EU raised the issue of building audiences in the cultural sphere, we realised that in reality we do not have a specific person that would be responsible for audience building. We had marketing, advertising, but we did not have a person to think about our audience. So where do we start?
It is important to understand not only those who come to your events, but also those who do not and why. It may be difficult for small organisations to conduct studies and understand the reasons, but you can work in partnership with local universities that can help to carry out such surveys. In the UK there is even the Audience Development Agency financed by the state, which helps organisations to set out an audience development strategy and suggest tools for working with them. And do not forget about the simplest but most effective data collection method: just ask visitors what they liked and disliked, and why.
Talking about the tactical level, I would like to share some methods and techniques.
1. First of all,it’s not necessary to change everything at once. Try different strategies and tactics, and see what works and what doesn’t. Think about the reasons as well. Work with the media, especially those that are already support you. In addition, don’t forget about the people who come to your cultural events.
2. Start with yourself. If you want to change how you interact and your relations with the audience, you should first change yourself. The main factors are the possibility to change, the ability to change and motivation. If you are the head of an organisation and want to build an audience and set a strategy, you need to determine how to motivate and empower your employees to achieve that. It is important to enlist cultural and creative people to make decisions on audience building, as they often have interesting creative ideas.
3. Always analyse your programme with the eyes of visitors. When we work on any project, it is sometimes difficult to accept criticism or understand that the audience may perceive it differently. You must try to see the situation from the outside. It is also necessary to establish an emotional connection with the audience and not simply a consumer one: talk to them, listen to them, write to them and read their feedback. Audience development is important because people don’t just want art; they want to take part, feel a connection with your organisation and know that this is really relevant and interesting to them. Then they’ll be with you.
4. Pay attention not only to those who demand it. This is not simple and doesn’t always work right away. There’s a wonderful formula which I have heard from Emina Višnic (Croatia): “unconventional events in unconventional places with an unconventional public using unconventional communication means and etc…”. Of course, it does not have to be all in one, but it might help to step outside the box.
5. Neighbourhood. The audience wants to know that you care for the people that live around you. Always try to be in context so as to understand the needs and problems of your neighbours.
6. Share experience, listen. We all love to listen and tell stories – use that.
7.Take the initiative. For example, organise dinner with the artist. You can say: “We do this all the time.” No, I don’t mean VIP dinners for the selected few, but an event with the broad public. Whole community could put out tables on the street and people dine together, inviting some cultural figures, and raise certain cultural issues. You can initiate a similar event and join the community this way.
8. Use your employees. Workers can actively interact with visitors: teach them how to do that.