In the past 10 years, audience research has become an essential tool for arts managers.
If you want to reach new people, develop audiences and deepen engagement, then research is part of your core business.
Why we care
Even though we make a living from consulting, I firmly believe that every arts officer, manager and director should have the ability to run their own research processes in-house.
When I first started working in the arts, after seven years in finance and economics, I was amazed at all the powerful, high quality work taking place; programs literally changing people’s lives for the better. But I was also horrified at a dearth of evidence.
Compared to other sectors, the arts has not embraced evidence-based practices (for reasons I recently discussed on LinkedIn) and in 2016 I established Patternmakers with a mission to help build a strong, vibrant, creative ‘data culture’ in the Australian creative industries.
I believed then (and still do) that we need to become proficient in use of data analysis, research and evaluation - and do it in a way that aligns with our values. Research, if done well, should support the creative process, not undermine it. It should be ethical and responsible - and creative!
Which is why, in 2016, that I was thrilled to be the successful tenderer to work with Creative Victoria to develop an Audience Research Toolkit for the small to medium creative arts sector in Victoria.
How it worked
From the outset, it was an ambitious project. Over the following two years, we would undertake a multi-stage development process that included:
Research with stakeholders in the creative arts sector, including a series of interviews and a survey of 225 representatives from the small to medium sector
Co-design workshops with representatives from regional Victorian galleries, festivals, producers, presenters, Creative Victoria staff and digital agency Thirst Creative
Development of tools, templates and guidelines (i.e. long hours workshopping, drafting, editing, proofing)
Testing of the tools with eight creative arts organisations from regional Victoria.
Once the tools had been reviewed, revised and signed-off, Creative Victoria worked with Thirst Creative and its own in-house marketing and communications teams to upload all the content online. And, voila!
What we learned
We found through the process that many creative arts organisations want to conduct research, but lack either the time, money, or specialist skills to actually deliver it.
The co-design process showed that the toolkit needed to be accessible, engaging, and dynamic - helping people on their journey. For some, it might be their first ever experience of research, while others would need help to improve the quality of their research activity.
Anecdotally, we had observed that many organisations were already using Survey Monkey to send out surveys. But very few were getting meaningful results. We worked backwards to identify the issues and built tools and guidance to help people do it well, even on a tight budget.
We learned that technical talk would instantly put people off. We had to find ways to talk about technical issues without the jargon. It was a great exercise in simplifying things down to key principles.
How to use the toolkit
My advice for anyone planning audience research is to:
Start small. Select an achievable goal (e.g. running a single focus group or a one-off survey) and do it well. You don’t need to survey after every workshop or performance, you just don’t.
Incentivise participation. Use a carefully designed cash-equivalent incentive to make sure you get a good response rate. If your results aren’t reliable, it can be a time-waster.
Apply insights. Set aside time to analyse, interpret, report and action the results. If you think it’s about collecting data, you’ve missed the point.
Communicate. Share your plans with your community. Say thank you to those who participated, and make sure you share what you’ve learned and actioned before you embark on the next thing. People get tired of doing surveys if they don’t see it being actioned.
I’m looking forward to seeing how the toolkit is used throughout the sector.
One of my favourite features of the toolkit is the feedback functionality, which allows you to mark helpful and unhelpful tools, and ask questions.
If we can work together to continue refining the tools, the result will be a valuable asset that will benefit us all.
We firmly believe that creative arts organisations that build a strong, creative, vibrant ‘data culture’ are those that will change the world for the better. And we’re already well on the way!
About the Author
Tandi Palmer Williams
Patternmakers’ Founder and Managing Director Tandi Palmer Williams is an experienced consultant and arts and culture research specialist.
Between 2013 and 2015, she was Research Manager for the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, based at Nesta in London.
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