Through the looking glass

Some of you may know that I’ve been taking some time away from Audiences NI recently. It’s not a big secret but before Easter I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’ve no doubt many of you reading this will have had experience of this or another type of cancer, personally or via friends and family. So the good news is thanks to the NHS and wonderful support from friends and family not to mention the team at ANI, I am on the mend and hope to be back full-time later in the summer. One thing being away from the daily grind has done is given me the opportunity to think about some stuff that is relevant to what ANI does and will shape some of what I do when I’m back at the wheel.

So here are some thoughts and to help create the scene – here is my view.

WindowLanguage isn’t always a help when trying to talk to new or even current audiences!

I’m a QUB English graduate so I can’t believe I’m slagging off language. What’s worst is I lead an audience development agency but less and less I dislike the term audience development. So to avoid an existentialist crisis (and let’s face it there’s a few of those going about just now), I and we need to find some new ways of describing what we mean when we say audience development. Some folks have started to talk about the audience experience i.e. how every time someone comes into contact with your cultural organisation you are delivering, or not, on a good or bad experience. So from the flyer to the online booking, the interval happening to the show and the post show feedback – do you really think about each part of these and how it could turn an attender into a champion or a regular into an occasional? See The Experience Business and the wonderful @_LisaBaxter for more on this.

But even audience experience sounds a bit alienating and off-putting. I worked in marketing for 25 years, to quote a Daragh Carville play “I lie for a living”. Now I don’t subscribe to that notion but it does seem that in the creative and cultural sector, marketing has a bad press. Creative directors and artists seem to distrust the idea of finding out what people want and then making it in any colour but black. I experienced this same wariness when working in the BBC. Producers, editors and journalists are all very creative and their content is full of their creativity and passion – so what could the marketing people tell them? Well the answer is less of what to do and more who to think about. All creators want people to respond to what they create and if you can think about who might respond as part of the creation content it’s more likely you’ll get the adoration, passion, debate, emotion, reaction, even ratings – that you’re aiming for.

But we who work in the marketing team often ask these highly talented people to talk about persona, segmentation, targeting, brand essence and all manner of jargon that frankly puts them off. It’s the same with audience development – it has jargon too – experiential, data, insight, engagement, CRM and the mot de jour ‘impact’.  It’s not helping us form a good relationship with those that produce the work and it’s certainly not helping us to work as a sector to talk to the very people we need to talk to – the audiences/attenders/participants (see what I mean?).

So here’s a plea- tell me what words you use to talk about audiences and describe the things you are doing to help get more of them to come more often and those that don’t come to come for the first time. I’m up for anything that’s simple and to the point…

When not looking out of the window, I have been watching Euro 2016 on the TV. I’m not alone in going to live theatre and live sport (not always at the same time) and for 3 years I worked in BBC Sport marketing. At that time the big discussion was how can we, the BBC, enhance the live sport experience for those who are watching at home. In many ways a similar discussion to the one about how streaming live theatre does or does not match up to the experience of being in the venue and does that really matter? Sport is one part of culture that I think has got at least some of its language around audiences right. Sport talks about fans, fanzones and fan clubs. People get very emotional watching a football game and will spend a lot of money to see their team cf.GAWA.

So can we convert our audiences to fans? Can we have them waving scarfs and cheering when an orchestra plays? Can we create fanzines or the artistic equivalent and how can we use digital and social media to add to the experience whether in the stadium/venue or at home?

I’d like us to talk more to our cultural cousins in sport and exchange ideas and thoughts so let’s see if we can make that happen through ANI’s training and skills programme?

Any comments or views on any of the above please let me know. I’m back to looking out the window for some sun!

Margaret Henry is CEO of Audiences NI, the audience development agency for the cultural sector across Northern Ireland.

4 thoughts on “Through the looking glass

  1. Hi Mags.
    Not sure I have any new words but it’s been very interesting moving from sport to children’s media and understanding more about what brings kids to back to our website more frequently.
    One thing that really worked which I wonder if offers some transferable clues for you, is mystery storytelling.
    Looking for clues, unlocking the puzzle, discussing the plotlines – created very high engagement from those kids following the online story.

    I hadn’t heard about your illness – so am very very very glad to hear you’re on the mend. X


  2. Great to her you are on the mend Margaret and that you have been taking advantage of your healing time to think. Thanks for the name check in your latest blog post too. Thought I’d share what your thoughts brought to mind.

    Whilst I agree that ‘audience experience’ is a potentially alienating term in the arts, I believe it has less to do with ‘jargon’ per-se and more to do with what I frequently encounter as institutional resistance to developing empathy with and pro-activity designing for optimal audience experiences.

    Such is the belief in the intrinsic value of the art that the audience perspective rarely comes into play … and yet, isn’t the experience (artistic experience, brand experience, participation and engagement experience, customer experience) what audiences are buying into with their time, attention and money? Audience experience – in its most holistic and multi-dimensional gorgeousness – is in fact our core product offer, and we resist a strategic approach to it at our peril.

    What this experiential myopia has brought to bear is a ‘language’ that does not convincingly communicate the rich experiences and impacts of our art (you know, the stuff audiences want). Working with (jargon alert!) personas is a valuable tool in tailoring experiential messages, designing experiences and curating programmes with specific audience types in mind. All that is required is that we seek to understand how our audiences experience our work, and then use their own words to develop a rich emotional, descriptive and experientially-orientated language with which to communicate our offer. Our audiences are our thesaurus.


  3. I liked that mags. I love great theatre and am just not fussed on sport so can’t really draw many parallels tbf, however, I saw a show recently by Pickled Image, it was bloody brilliant. Transformative theatre. That’s what brings audience in my opinion. But, that’s a) easier said than done and b) doesn’t even scratch the surface of the subject, just my gut feelings :)) x


  4. Thank you for the comments received so far on the blog. Via Facebook I’ve also had some good input. Some of my former colleagues who work across entertainment and visitor experiences have talked about referring to their audiences as guests and the ethos is around treating people as you would like to be treated if you were a guest in someone’s home. Which sounds good to me. Another colleague said that in talking to audiences the sense of wanting to feel welcome and to belongs was very important. Do we think about that when we are training and developing our front of house teams? Even before that stage do we make our publicity alienating by using in-jokes, theatre references or an artist’s statement that makes it feel like we have to be very knowledgeable to go to see the work?
    Lisa Baxter’s points talks about using personas and I’ve seen how this can work with some of the Creative & Cultural Belfast projects who worked with ANI and Lisa. Terra Nova who gave us the brilliant Tempest at T13 really took this idea on. They thought alot about who their different audiences might be and what experience they would want right from the brilliant video on how to get to the venue through to follow-up sessions for the participants around What Next? for the project.
    We will leave this blog open for comments a bit longer and as I’m doing a bit of Olympics watching I am struck by the empty seats for the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ Have the Rio organisers got that experience right?


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