Baby Boomers: probably the most exciting audience ever

13 Jan 2013

I read an interesting piece last week that got me thinking about the degree to which we ‘know’ our audiences. Take the ‘older audience’ for example. According to NESTA’s predictions for 2013, we are entering a year where Baby Boomers are now reaching their 50s and 60s, taking us to ‘the cusp of a shake-up of aging equivalent to the post-war explosion of youth culture’. Now ask yourself honestly, do you know what that means, and are you ready?

According to an increasing amount of research, column inches and digital whirrings on the subject, Baby Boomers today are happier, healthier, more active, more curious and more open-minded than their predecessors. Baby Boomers also do not perceive themselves as old, so why should we?

Pew Research Center found, in 2009,  that "the older people get, the younger they feel – relatively speaking - with nearly half of all survey respondents aged 50 and older say they feel at least 10 years younger than their chronological age."

So, rather than ‘going out to pasture’ the world really is ‘their oyster’.

This prompted me to reflect on some of the research I have conducted with this demographic and the degrees to which the findings chime with this social phenomenon

Talking with over 55s and ‘newly retireds’ about their leisure activities revealed that the prospect of retiring or down-scaling work can be an exciting one as they seek to bring new experiences into their lives or do the things they’ve never had a chance to before. It can also be daunting dependent on the degree to which they had a ‘life’ outside work. Sometimes there is a void to be filled. For the museums service I was working with, this signaled a sea change in their thinking away from ‘Why aren’t they coming?’ to ‘How can we meet the adventurous needs and specific fears of this life stage?’ 

Recent research with middle-aged, middle-class, white female empty-nesters in Runcorn last year backs this up. They had all taken part in a community choir, singing alongside a professional company as part of a professional production in a professional venue. These women were intelligent, articulate and largely purposeless since their children left home. Their reasons for taking the plunge into something completely out of their comfort zone included meeting new people, trying something new, pushing past their limits, proving something to themselves and reclaiming their sense of self after years of raising a family.

“I suppose I’ve spent my adult life training, getting married, working and when I had young children life was just a treadmill to get from one day to the next. Now my youngest is 20 and the world is my oyster really and I’ve got the opportunity now to go out and do stuff I couldn’t do before.”

The impact of the project on all the women was transformational:

“I’ve realised I’ve got more to myself than being the mother of four children or my job.”

“It gave me a goal in my personal social life. My head was filled with things I wanted to do other than family and mundane things.”

“This is one of the best things I have done personally for myself because I did it for myself, not for anyone else in the family.”

“… it’s given me my own interest that’s mine, that people can share but they can’t take it away from me.”

I’ve also noticed an increasing appetite for risk and new experiences within mainstream older audiences who want to push the boundaries of their taste: transitioning from classic drama to new and devised work (Warwick Arts Centre), from classical ballet to other more expressive dance forms (Northern Ballet Theatre), and from classical concerts to contemporary music (Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival). What epitomizes these shifts is ‘tiredness’ with a familiar artform combined with the need for the new, the different, the stimulating. How fantastic is that?

And yet … to what degree are we consigning older audiences to out-dated stereotypes?

Rather than exhibiting an entrenched conservatism of taste, the Baby Boomer generation is really ‘up for it’. They are potentially the most exciting audiences we’ve ever had: whether they are coming into the arts for the first time, or expanding their repertoire of cultural experiences, or seeking new experiences to fulfill specific needs that the arts is perfectly placed to meet … we can and must deliver. And let’s not forget the value of spending quality time with grand children … this generation could be the arbiters of a whole new young audience.

So, lets throw away the old stereotypes and seek to understand, engage and shape experiences that directly appeal to this generation. And let us not forget, they are a HUGE market. In a hyper-competitive market, we need to be planning for it right now.






Empathy can deliver more value than market segmentation ever will

27 Mar 2012

I’ve been talking with a lot of people recently about audiences. Every single one of them admits they don’t know them as well as they’d like to.

So today I'd like to invite you to think about one element of your existing or potential audiences to see how well you know them ... the over 55s. Forget demographics, postcodes and reductive segmentation systems. Focus on the human factor. What is it like being an over 55? What are their choices, life challenges and opportunities? What might their current and latent needs be?

The first qualitative research project I ever conducted was with people aged 55 and over who had retired, or were about to retire. They were all recruited through local branches of trade unions and had worked long and hard as miners, nurses, pharmacists, shopkeepers etc. We talked about what it was like being them, about their quality of life, aspirations and fears, and the place and value of arts/culture in their lives up to now and into the future.

My assumptions (and yes, I know researchers aren’t supposed to have them, but hey, I’m human) were blasted out of the water. What might yours be?

Through the conversations we learnt that that an important distinguishing factor between those about to retire was the balance between social and solitary leisure activity in their lives: from community activism and team sports to knitting and reading. 

Socially active people already had a cornucopia of 'action plans' for their retirement based on existing activity and revealed they would be continually on the look out for more. Their radar was in full swing, seeking opportunities for input, stimulation, enrichment and to be with other people in a meaningful, purposeful, active context. 

Those people who were not socially active felt apprehensive about retirement. Whilst gardening, crosswords, craft and reading provided pleasurable, solitary antidotes to the hustle and bustle of work, retirement presented the prospect of isolation. Most felt at a loss as to how to fill the social void because they were not, by nature, gregarious people. What they wanted was something 'less-in-your-face', opportunities to pursue focused, relaxing activites, but perhaps in company.

Many of the people I spoke with were not culturally active (as an audience or visitor that is) and hadn't considered arts/cultural engagement as a retirement activity … but once they got talking about their needs the arts seemed perfectly placed to deliver on them. They were ripe for meaningful arts engagement, they just hadn't realised it ... and if I had asked what they needed they would not have mentioned the arts at all! 

What followed was a process of working with these groups to shape and develop successful entry points into the needs we had uncovered. This (and not the 'art' per se) became the vehicle for meaningful audience development. All it took was a series of conversations and a little empathy ... and the process of talking with them was audience development in action, not just a means to an end.

This research was conducted nearly 20 years ago. A lot has changed. People now live with the prospect of working until they’re older, but they are also living fitter, healthier and longer lives. How will this impact on their needs and priorities when they reach the age of 55, 65, 75? How could the arts occupy a meaningful place in their lives in the lead up to or during retirement? And how are we planning for that NOW?

My point is that empathy can deliver more public and organisational value than market segmentation ever will. Empathy can shape your offer, craft messages, create meaning and enhance quality of life in a way that is hugely people-focused. 

But why the Jane Fonda video? Because in this powerful talk (just over 11 minutes long) she speaks for her age in a way that is eloquent, articulate and profound ... and which might, for some of you, challenge your assumptions about the Third Age. I urge you to watch it. It’s deeply thought provoking. And whilst you watch it, think about empathy and the degree to which your really understand your audiences.

From Lip Service to Love Affair: changing your relationship with audience data

6 Mar 2012

From the ACE Accreditation Scheme for Museums and Galleries to its Audience KPIs for venues and touring companies, audience experience measurement is on the rise. New thinking and practice fresh out from the States, from luminaries such as Alan Brown and Diane Ragsdale, are upping the ante.

This burgeoning demand for audience experience and impact measurement is a wonderful thing, but I wonder how it will be achieved. How are arts organisations going to access high quality audience insights without the funds, capacity or skills to deliver the research required?

During all my years of advocating the value of understanding audiences, arts professionals have generally agreed it’s a good thing. Getting them to agree that it is important enough to invest time, effort and money in is quite a different matter.

Last week, I ran a training session on qualitative evaluation with a small gathering of Local Authority museum professionals. The aim was to prepare them for the ACE Accreditation Scheme. Rather than embrace the concept of investing in understanding the visitor experience, the group wanted to focus on “quick wins”, largely because they couldn’t see the value of the insight to them. It was simply another set of hoops to be got through.

My concern is that we will resign ourselves to the emerging focus on audience experience and impacts from within our dominant ‘culture of compliance’; dishing out data as a means-to-an-end and paying lip service to our funders. What can be done?

The beauty of qualitative data is its ability to demonstrate the degree and depth to which you are delivering on your core Mission as well as connect you with your audiences. Its the kind of data you could fall in love with because it resonates with the ‘why’ of our existence (remember, we exist and are funded to deliver value through the creation and delivery of great experiences) and informs the 'how' of making what we offer better.

So, why not train arts organisations to conduct audience research themselves, making the value they create visible and bringing their mission to life.

Now – I raise my hand here. I am guilty of being one of those who placed their skills on a parapet and denounced the ‘dabblings’ of the unqualified in audience research. But I find myself now, in the current climate, between a rock and a hard place:

The Rock:  who can afford to commission robust qualitative research as a process of ongoing monitoring and evaluation?

The Hard Place: if people resort to doing it themselves without the proper training, will the research or evaluation be robust enough? Will the insights be any good?

To address this I have set up a pioneering training programme for the arts, cultural and heritage sector called Audience Insight. It’s designed to be a cost-efficient programme for beginners that will equip them with the core skills and confidence to deliver qualitative research and evaluation to a high degree of competency.

There are currently two programmes on offer: one on Focus Groups - It's Good To Talk - and the other on Observational Research - The Eyes Have It. Both employ a current ‘live’ scenario specific to the organisation around which we devise, deliver and analyse genuine research value through the training programme.

The point I’m trying to make is that the policy-driven demand for qualitative needs to be accompanied by the means to obtain them. At present, there is an economic and skills vacuum. Hopefully, training like Its Good To Talk and The Eyes Have It will help deliver capacity across the sector, and embed qualitative research and evaluation as a core organisational process that people genuinely buy into and will fall in love with.


Audience Insight

On Keeping Our Audiences at Arms Length

27 Feb 2012

The more I delve into the world of Experience Design, the more convinced I become that the arts and culture sector needs to embrace it as a core competency.

The more I immerse myself in the subject, the more obvious it becomes that we, the arts sector, need to focus more intensely on the audience experiences we are creating, and could create in the future.

When I talk about Audience/Visitor Experience Design in keynotes, workshops and with peers, I see people’s eyes lighting up at this viable strategic approach that can deliver the triple whammy of delivering on mission, growing audiences and generating revenue.

Even better, when I talk to those people whose eyes have lit up, I notice the reason behind this is they have reconnected with their passion. You know what I mean … the one about the arts being a fantastic, valuable thing; how it can enhance our quality of life and help us celebrate, explore, experience and express our humanity.

That’s why most of us have joined the arts profession isn’t it? Because we want an active role in bringing the arts to people and people to the arts.

But how quickly have our belief and passion been dimmed by the stark realities of having to sell tickets, hit targets and meet the specific, changing demands of grant giving bodies? I’ve run countless workshops recently where I’ve invited participants to reflect on their modus operandi at work. From young nubies to long-in-the-tooth die-hards, the majority, I’m sad to say, have become disconnected from their passion by The Bottom Line.

Bizarrely, this focus on The Bottom Line has resulted in us keeping audiences at arms length. We want their time, their attention, their money, their loyalty, their Twitter and Facebook mentions. We want them to engage with our programmes and initiatives, in person and on-line. But actually, in reality, what kind of relationship do we have with them? How well do we really know them? Engage with them? Care about how they experience us?  

Now, there are some out there who perhaps regard me as a little maverick and not in the real world because of my ‘touchie-feelie’ focus on the audience experience. An alternative view is that my perspective is that of a values-driven, business-minded person who understands how to lever an organisation’s value to its audience, and thus the audience’s value to them.

And so, back to Experience Design.

Why is it so super?

In a nutshell, it develops products, processes, services, events and environments with the focus firmly placed on the quality of the customer experience. … and experience is our business. It’s all we have.

What value a performance, an object, an artwork if it is not experienced in the richest possible way? How can we hope to be desirable, relevant, meaningful, important and financially sustainable if we don’t continually focus on, refine and even re-imagine our experience offer so that people will come, engage, adopt?

If we could integrate Experience Design into the DNA of our profession, not only would it connect us to our passion, it would deliver real value for the audience and our business. 

[My thank you to Gregg Fraley for his wonderful illustration above]