Lester Balajadia/shutterstock

Lester Balajadia/shutterstock

In 2015, the Wallace Foundation launched its six-year Building Audiences for Sustainability initiative. The grant program selected 26 regional arts organizations across the country and awarded them a total of $52 million with the goal of engaging, developing and retaining new audiences.

This is complicated stuff. Funders universally recognize the importance of “engagement,” but few can agree on what the term truly means. (In my chat with the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Susie Medak, she went so far as to call engagement the “most overused word in culture right now.”) The Wallace Foundation acknowledges these challenges, noting that the term can involve diversifying the current audience mix, converting people who are inclined to attend, but don’t, into attendees, and getting current audience members to attend more often.

Given the term’s ubiquity across arts philanthropy, and its inherent subjectivity, we’ve been keeping tabs on some of Wallace’s profiled organizations, including Ballet Austin’s efforts to expand audiences for unfamiliar works, Seattle Symphony’s initiative to engage new residents, and the Denver Center Theatre Company’s data-driven recruitment of millennials.

A new piece by T.J. Acena in American Theatre profiled the work of another grantee, Portland Center Stage (PCS), which used funding to experiment with its marketing and engagement programs for new theatergoers. I encourage you to read the entire piece. In the meantime, here are some key takeaways.

Trust, But Verify

Organizations looking to identify audiences they hope to engage should heed the warnings of the Grail Knight at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade“choose wisely.” Stakeholders often have a hunch about which demographic is ripe for engagement, but a closer look at the data may tell them something entirely different.

“Our initial idea was to target audience racial and ethnic diversity,” said Cynthia Fuhrman, PCS’s managing director. But after combing through the demographic data pertaining to the city, “it became clearer and clearer to me that we should target age.” Like Seattle to the north, Portland had seen a huge influx of transplants between the ages of 25 and 45, and, as it turned out, this population was now the most diverse age group in the city.

PCS benefited from the fact that it had the resources to conduct robust market research in the first place. As Fuhrman noted, “nonprofits never have research and development money. We budget to the minimum we need to be fiscally responsible and to break even, so we can never test things.”

Flush with a two-year, $770,000 grant from the Wallace Foundation, PCS earmarked the funding for four initiatives: an audience research project, an increase-in-audience-engagement program, a series of commissioned plays set in the Pacific Northwest, and an audience loyalty program.

Surprising Findings

For the audience research project, PCS hired two local firms who surveyed three groups of 25- to 45-year-olds: current audience members, lapsed audience members, and “inclined community members,” defined as people interested in arts and culture events who’d never been to a PCS show. The surveys revealed some surprising findings.

For example, according to Acena, all those surveyed mentioned that “if they can’t avoid advertising, they tend to pay attention.” Yet rather than invest in social media ads, PCS launched a billboard campaign using outside funding. Ads appeared on the outsides of buses and elsewhere around town.

PCS adopted some of the tactics employed by “highbrow” arts organizations looking to make the arts experience more casual and accessible, such as happy hours, interviews with actors, audience Q&As, and a youth subscription pass, in which 700 patrons 35 and younger signed up in its first year, 2017. “The theory was that the value-add would deepen people’s commitment to return,” says Fuhrman.

That being said, PCS’s audience loyalty program, which would allow members to earn rewards by attending shows and interacting with PCS online, didn’t catch on. While its launch attracted 3,500 sign-ups, PCS put the portal on hiatus, as the program did not integrate with its ticketing platform. Fuhrman said integration may be possible in the future.

Another interesting finding was that when it came to audience engagement efforts in the grant’s second year, less was more. “We thought we had to do something every night,” says Furhman, which proved “exhausting on staff. But when we pulled back on programming, the numbers actually went up. It was deeper engagement. Quality of the program was more important than quantity.”

Lastly, market research revealed that audiences in Portland were not more interested in plays set in the Northwest or written by Northwest playwrights, despite the fact that they brought in larger audiences. PCS theorized that the greater turnout had to do with better marketing rather than the local focus of the plays.

Market Research is Key

This isn’t to say PCS wasn’t interested in supporting local artists and playwrights. Quite the opposite, in fact. Support from the Wallace Foundation enabled PCS’ Kelsey Tyler, education & community programs director, to hire “4-5 artists every week to create programming, be a host, or engage with our work,” which was itself a kind of community engagement effort, as it meant that “a lot of money was going to artists in our community.”

A Wallace Foundation cost-benefit analysis found that PCS’ investment in audience engagement paid off. The 2016-17 season community events brought in $60,289 in ticket revenue while community events attracted new and bigger donations. The catch? Costs have gone up and when the second, and final cycle of the grant ends this year, PCS will be looking at a budget drop-off of around $300,000. Furhman and her team will have to make some tough choices. “Thankfully we got some local equity access grants to keep paying to local artists for our engagement program,” she said.

In the meantime, PCS’s audience has grown every year of the grant and it’s been doing better with highly coveted younger audiences. The key for PCS—as with all of the Wallace grantees—had been stakeholders’ ability to leverage comprehensive market research analysis to inform marketing campaigns and community programming.

Of course, only 26 performing arts organizations are receiving market research support through Building Audiences for Sustainability initiative. Fortunately, the Wallace Foundation also provides help to everyone else. Check out “Taking Out the Guesswork: A Guide to Using Research to Build Arts Audiences,” written by New York City-based market research expert Bob Harlow, which provides practical insights and strategies into how arts organizations can use market research to strengthen audience-building efforts.

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