Two years ago, we kicked off our BAS (Building Audiences for Sustainability) Stories Project with a written and video account of Ballet Austin’s effort to expand audiences for unfamiliar works. To see how the work has been progressing, we asked the company’s executive director Cookie Ruiz to jot down some thoughts. The following is an edited version of our email exchange.
In the original story, the author notes that Ballet Austin was “not considering altering programming to meet audience tastes, but they hoped to understand how audiences were viewing and responding to what the ballet company produced.” Why is it so important to you not to change who you are for the sake of growing your audience, and how do you strike a balance between what audiences expect and what Ballet Austin wants to deliver.
While we value and respect the restaging of wonderful works that reflect the history of ballet and great classic stories, we cherish the process of bringing new works to the stage. There is simply nothing like it. Today’s artists have much to say and we believe that art is an effective way to share different perspectives.
So we wonder…why are people so reluctant to try something new when it comes to their entertainment? What is the source of the reluctance? Knowing now that there is an “uncertainty gap,” what does it take to close that gap and trigger a sale for work with which people are less familiar?
If all we needed to do was change the programming, we would never have needed to ask this question, and we would have missed out on the most fascinating three years of learning.
Based on market research findings, Ballet Austin adjusted many activities surrounding the performances to help audiences feel more comfortable about attending the ballet. Have you continued growing these programs, and do you have any new findings to share?
One of the most valuable disciplines coming from BAS is the importance of the “not to do” list. Many arts organizations offer a veritable plethora of audience engagement opportunities. We all do them because, let’s face it, people keep coming and it’s probably not hurting anything.
No more. Even the safe “legacy” strategies we’ve all been doing for years–such as the pre-curtain lecture and the post-performance talk-back–take time and planning that could be used elsewhere, if these strategies are deemed to be ineffective.
In Round One of BAS we learned that our audience seeks two major connections through the work: 1) a social connection and/or 2) an emotional/intellectual connection. We used this information to design an array of pre-sale to post-performance experience paths.
Last season we had the opportunity to sit down with six groups of audience members; one of those groups was comprised of adult dance students selected from the 35% of our audience that self-reports that they are currently taking dance classes.
When showed sample digital video content that was used to promote ticket sales to a recent “less familiar work,” this one group skewed dramatically away from the other five groups in their response to the content. What emerged from this research engagement was the realization that we have a third connection…a “kinesthetic connection.” These audience members experience the work through their own bodies, with a focus on the choreography itself. Through data mining we learned the happy news that those taking a dance class prior to purchasing their first ticket are more than twice as likely to buy a ticket.
How does Ballet Austin make decisions on what to continue and what to abandon? Can you give an example of something you stopped doing, because the research told you the costs outweighed the benefits?
When we design a prototype, it has a clearly articulated goal and specific measureable expectations. The Wallace method requires routine evaluation of the prototype. During this process we discuss if there is a variable we might change, followed by a retest. When we realize that the prototype completely failed to meet its goals, then it is out and the prototype is retired.
An example of this came in year one when we piloted a livestream studio rehearsal, “Ballet Austin Live.” Our team became quite adept at delivering a series of well-produced episodes, but the livestream did not meet its key benchmarks. In fact, during a series of focus groups we learned that we were actually confusing some members of the audience who had no understanding of where the livestream was taking place, or why the dancers weren’t in costume. We made the assumption that viewers would understand the rehearsal process.
Ultimately by freeing up the time and considerable dollars, we learned that these “social connectors” preferred for us to send them a “movie trailer” style video with all the pertinent information, helping them to quickly forward to their friends as a suggestion to join them.
What advice can you offer to organizations who seek to learn from Ballet Austin’s experiences?
- Listen to your audience. We often assume we know what our audiences want, without ever actually asking. At Ballet Austin, we implemented a “Listening Tour” where we conducted calls and in-person sessions to listen to our customers. We found this information essential to help us understand where to focus our efforts.
- You don’t need expensive tools to gather information. The phone calls and in-person sessions were a low-cost way to receive feedback, and Survey Monkey is an easy tool, available to anyone.
- When developing new strategies, articulate and write down a specific goal so that you’re able to accurately measure the outcome. This is important because it reminds you to end a prototype if it is not successful. This also helps prevent “legacy strategies” that remain year after year, without being able to point to the specific outputs that justify the time and budget support.
In the 2017 video you said, “We’re asking ourselves what we know and what do we need to know?” What do you know now that you didn’t know two years ago?
We thought we were dealing with an issue of familiarity, a lack of information. If that had been true we could have solved this by simply providing information. We now know we are dealing with something far more nuanced, an “uncertainty gap” that must be closed in order to trigger a sale. We also found that from time to time we were actually inadvertently “widening” the gap rather than closing it.
Titles matter, too. If the title of the work does not resonate, we can lose potential audience members, and we don’t get them back. Related, we’ve retired the term “non-narrative.” The attraction and need for a narrative arc is strong among most audience members, but there is room to differentiate between story, plot and inspiration. Audiences are not homogeneous. If we fail to approach our audience members in a highly-segmented way, they simply won’t hear us.
Young does not necessarily equal open-minded. Our research shows us that while 70 percent of our audience is under the age of 51, and while our city is filled with young technology-focused professionals, younger audience members tend to select the most familiar work. The audience for less familiar/new work currently relates to educational attainment (the average educational attainment of these audience members is a Master’s degree) and life experience. Also, nearly 60% of our audience members were involved in our art form (dance) as a child; 34% of our audience is taking dance today and 35% of their children are currently taking dance.
Finally, the magic of number three: we’ve learned that once an audience member attends their third performance, they are more likely to repurchase, becoming our repeat customer with whom we can develop a long relationship.