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Introduction to Audience Research

Audience research is the process of gathering information about the people who visit you or see your work, use your services, or engage with your organisation. This information can be used to inform or measure the success of your strategy, evaluate your current performance, and grow your audience. Ideally, the result would be some actionable insight that you can put into practice.

This article is intended as a brief overview – for more in-depth discussion of these topics, please see our other resources. At the end of this article, we have a useful case study from the British Museum to illustrate these concepts.

Most creative and cultural organisations will collect some forms of data about their audience, often through surveys. This is a great opportunity to collect not just required information for funders, but to start thinking about a few other data points that will help you evaluate your audience in ways that are really useful and insightful. Even if you are not required to submit audience research data, conducting some simple audience research can make a huge difference.

Some organisations choose to bring in external consultants, research agencies and fieldwork suppliers to assist them. This can be useful if you are unsure about research, lack internal time and resources, or need an outside perspective and help with interpreting the data into insight. However, it can also be expensive; and relies on the suppliers you bring in having a good understanding of the context of your organisation and your sector at large.

Many organisations and individuals (across all sectors) are using better and more accessible digital tools and platforms, democratised training, and sharing of sector knowledge to take a DIY approach and do all or part of the research process themselves.

The Digital Culture Network is on hand to provide resources and free 1:1 guidance to creative and cultural organisations and individuals based in England. We can help to support and guide you through your research journey from developing your research objectives, helping you design and conduct data collection, providing training to you and your colleagues, empowering you to analyse or interpret your findings, or finding and engaging external research suppliers. Don’t hesitate to take it step by step, and reach out to us if you need help.

Design

Firstly, you need to plan and design your research. You should think about the main goals and strategic objectives that you have, and the types of data and insight that would be most important and useful for evaluating these.

Keeping it tightly focused means shorter and more engaging surveys and data collection for your audience, while asking too many questions can result in flagging engagement for respondents, leading to poorer data quality. It also helps to avoid you having to wade through too much data that may not all be useful and doesn’t relate to your strategy. If you aren’t going to use data, then many researchers feel that it’s not ethical to ask people to spend time providing it.

If you think your organisation’s (or your own) strategy is out of date or needs work, then it’s important to focus on this first before designing any long-term evaluations or research tools. Or perhaps your first piece of research could be an exercise to help you find directions for your strategy.

If you’re working in an organisation, you might first want to have some conversations and workshops with colleagues from different departments and disciplines to distil your vision and cause, and the strategic objectives and deliverables that will accomplish it. It’s not just about marketing or how people rate your events or work; all your colleagues have an important role to play in delivering your organisation’s work. Involving them in your strategy and understanding what success looks like to them will break down barriers and lead to much more useful and productive evaluations.

Data Collection

There are two main types of audience research: qualitative and quantitative.

  • Qualitative research involves gathering in-depth information about your audience’s motivations, needs, and behaviours. This type of research is often conducted through vox pops, depth interviews, focus groups or activities and exercises. It’s typically conducted with smaller numbers of people, but by talking to each person for a longer period or in a more free-form way. 
  • Quantitative research involves gathering statistical data from many people, such as demographics, ratings, expectations and outcomes, and interests and visiting habits. This type of research is often conducted through surveys, observations or website analytics. You may also be able to pull some data from your Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platform, mailing list service, and box office/ticketing system.

Picking the right approaches for different objectives is important. Qualitative research can be helpful to identify key themes or trends, and deep dive into topics or the needs and motivations of different audience groups. Quantitative data can be more useful to build up an accurate picture of an audience, measure key performance indicators (KPIs) and monitor them over time, or to estimate potential demand or audience sizes for future work.

Many successful research projects combine both qualitative and quantitative approaches, with the results of one approach informing the research goals and questions that are asked using the other approach.

Whichever methods you employ, it’s important to recognise and thank those who participate in your research, as well as colleagues who help to deliver it (for example, front-of-house staff who might be conducting surveys with visitors). Use warm and friendly language, show that you are grateful for their time and efforts, and communicate how important and helpful the research is to you. As much as possible, take the time to share and discuss findings with everyone who works with you to empower them in their roles as well as motivate them to help with data collection.

Data Quality

It is important to make sure your research is done as scientifically as possible. There are a few factors to consider here:

  • A sampling methodology that accurately reflects the makeup of your audience – e.g. event types, time of day, weekday vs weekend 
  • Randomised selection of respondents to avoid self-selection or bias for or against certain respondent types – e.g. families, most engaged audiences, demographics 
  • Using neutral, unbiased language to avoid leading respondents to answer in a certain way 
  • Data quality checking and removal of any test or poor-quality responses

If you’re unsure about any of these, we’ll be happy to discuss and guide you through best practice.

Analysis and Insight

Once you have gathered your audience research data, it needs to be analysed to identify key insights. This can be done by looking for patterns in the data, comparing different groups of your audience, and identifying areas where things are going well or there is room for improvement. There are lots of ways of working with data, from simple dashboards showing the topline results built into survey platforms, to producing data tables that break down how different groups of your survey sample answered each question and employing advanced statistical analysis techniques.

Data visualisations can help to make your data more engaging and easier to understand. They can be helpful for exploring the data to identify useful findings, and for communicating your audience research findings to others. This webinar from Tech Champion James Akers will help you explore this area.

The goal of audience research is to gain insights that can be used to improve your marketing strategy, evaluate your performance, or grow your audience. These insights can help you to better understand your audience’s needs and motivations, so that you can create content and experiences that they will find valuable. It might be that you need to bring in an external consultant to help with this or, if you have the key metrics that relate to your strategic objectives, you can look for areas of success or requiring improvement and identify from the data what factors might be behind these trends.

The British Museum Case Study

The British Museum conducts formative and summative research for each of its paid exhibitions, combining Quantitative and Qualitative approaches to help identify key audiences, tailor the marketing story to their needs, and then evaluate the success of the exhibition and its campaigns. One interesting highlight is the 2019 Manga exhibition which successfully attracted a wildly different (younger, and more diverse) audience profile than more traditional exhibitions at the Museum. You can view the full research reports for several exhibitions and see the kind of data metrics used and how these informed the analysis and insight here: 

https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/projects/visitor-research-and-evaluation

Further Support

The Digital Culture Network is here to support you. Please get in touch if you’d like to arrange 1-2-1 with a Tech Champion. Sign up for our newsletter below and follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn for the latest updates.

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