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.

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Audience Insight