by Fiona Bell – Client Relationships Director at Audiences NI

I enjoy a good conference. What’s not to like? You hear from different perspectives, learn things, and meet new people.

The latest notch on my conference bedpost was the All Ireland Performing Arts Conference, held this year in Cork.  My ANI colleague Claire Rose has already written a blog on some of the content and speakers, which gives me free reign to concentrate on my hobby horse. Punters. Please substitute audiences, customers, patrons, clients or whatever term doesn’t make you cringe.

Heather Maitland, audience development guru, presented the findings of “Audiences for the Performing Arts”, a benchmark project which is now in its 12th year. The project analysed audiences for ticketed events taking place across 55 festivals, theatres, and arts centres in 2016.

But brace yourselves folks – the news wasn’t good. In 2016, 76% of households only came once a year – the highest percentage since the benchmark began. Only 14% of households bought tickets for 2 events.  10% of households bought tickets for at least 3 events.

When you look at these findings along with the fact that theatre is the art form people would be least likely to recommend to a friend – we have to ask ourselves some difficult questions.

Heather suggested 3 things which might have an impact on punters coming back:

1. Choice – the old “they would buy more tickets if there were more events?” question.

Well, looks like they won’t. Not for children’s theatre, dance, or drama anyway.  One venue did get a slightly higher attendance rate at music events (2.2 visits per year), but they had 183 shows during the year.

What punters appear to like is a choice of different things. Probably why festivals buck the old re-attendance trends. This all goes against how we normally market to potential punters. If they go to a contemporary dance show, we tell them about more contemporary dance shows. Sound familiar?

2. Boring things work.

It doesn’t all have to be shiny and new marketing campaigns. Nottingham Playhouse send out a flyer to people about 3 months after their first visit. It lists everything coming up and talks about it in ‘non-arts’ speak. Then offers 20% off. And for them, it is really effective. Not because prices are a barrier – but because it is a call to action for their customers which makes them actually go and book.

3. It’s just not about them.

Heather produced a raft of flyers she had lifted from her hotel in Cork – shopping trips, family fun days, heritage tours.  And every one of them featured its target market on the front. When do our audiences see themselves reflected in our marketing? Rarely. Because it’s not always about them, is it? It’s about the work.

So maybe we all have a bit of work persuading them to come at all before we ask them to pick a show.

I’ll leave that one with you…

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