Marriage guidance for the arts

Too often on the subject of touring I hear: “If only they would send us decent copy on time” or “We send them leaflets but they never use them.” Venues complain that touring companies don’t ‘get’ the audience. Companies complain the venue doesn’t ‘get’ the production.

 

Marketers understand the best results come when they know in depth both their audience and their production, so can find the perfect way to introduce one to the other. But in touring different elements of that knowledge are held by the different sides. And to hear them, you would think they never, ever talked. So in my course for the Independent Theatre Council, I try to mediate.

 

Why hook up?

The answers range from the sublime (“it fits our programming strategy for a particular audience”; “we like how the venue uses our education work”) to the not-so-much (“someone else dropped out”; “it was a good place to break our journey”). It’s much more productive to know exactly why you are approaching a venue to take your show – and so present convincing arguments why it is likely to succeed there. Or to give full consideration to the show on offer – if possible going to see it – before deciding if it matched your venue and audience.

 

A match made in heaven

It ought not surprise, but success looks similar for both: good audience numbers, returning audiences, repeat booking of a company into a venue, good press and artistic reviews, high audience satisfaction, meeting financial targets. Given the shared goals, isn’t it logical to view the touring company-venue relationship as a partnership, each having an agreed part to play in achieving this success? Acknowledging this would help you decide how to balance the marketing resources.

 

Keep talking

The best way of persuading someone to do something is ‘personalised’ recommendation – someone who knows the person’s interests, enthusiasms and barriers can give a tailored message with great effect. Marketing’s goal is to achieve that immediacy of communication in a more manageable, affordable ‘mass’ way. But for that, you need to know the audience and the product really well – and that’s all about research. Here are a few topics:

       What kind of people and how many have come to the venue before? Or seen this production or company anywhere before? How satisfied (inspired, uplifted, challenged) were they? How often do they return? What do they spend?

       How far and from where will people come? What type of people live or work in the catchment area? How much interest do they have in arts? What disposable income do they have? What are the transport corridors? What are you competing against for their time and attention?

       What makes the production stand out from all others? What additions, such as education, does it offer? What themes may appeal to different interests?

       Does the venue have a programming style or policy? Are they working to attract certain types of people? Does this show compete with or complement others in this season?

       What networks does each partner already tap into? What other groups might be interested in the themes explored in the production?

 

Sharing household chores

Some of this information is held by one or other partner but c(sh)ould be shared. Other aspects may need researching, but the workload could be divided between the partners and the results shared.

 

The venue may already use its box office data for Mosaic or Acorn analyses of past audiences. It may have commissioned profiles of the catchment area1. Or it might do these as a basis for all its future marketing decisions. It may have conducted qualitative audience surveys in the past. Similarly, the touring company may be allowed to profile postcode or other data from its audiences in a number venues, to get a rounded picture of them – and then supplement this by post-show surveys in collaboration with venues. Both partners will have mailing lists of people with whom they could get into conversation – and both have access to the Internet’s research sources, from newspaper online archives to local authority websites, competitors’ publicity to attitude surveys by MORI, newspapers or the Government. Plus a wealth of research and advice from arts organisations2.

 

The pre-nup

Best practice is to agree (in writing if possible) what each partner will provide towards the overall picture, and when; and then agree an effective communications campaign that takes into account shared and individual objectives and the time, skill, contacts and finances each can put in.

 

And there’s the rub – the conversations that lead to any touring contract happen well before most marketers get involved. By the time they are told what they have to get an audience for, the moment for agreeing essential groundwork in relation to the audience match has passed. To create a stronger, more successful touring experience, artistic directors, tour bookers and venue programmers need to also understand the importance of this partnership approach to audience development – so they can have that conversation right at the start.

This article was first published in Arts Professional Issue 249, 27 February 2012

I’m currently drawing up guidelines for touring companies and venues to collaborate more closely to share audience insights and audiences development actions – for Audiences London on an Arts Council England-funded project. I’ll let you know when they’re ready.

And if you’re looking for help with applications to ACE’s Touring Strategic Funds or a place on the upcoming surgery, contact Audiences London Plus at touring@audienceslondon.org