Our guide to Creating an Effective Audience Development Plan remains the most searched for and downloaded item on our site. A sign, perhaps, of the enduring challenges organisations face in trying to build and broaden their audiences over time. But working to address these challenges with organisations, places and policymakers has recently led me to question the standard approaches that we ourselves have helped to establish.

Bigger, wider, deeper

It doesn’t help that audience development is still misunderstood. In the guide, I ignored the past 23 years of debate, ambiguity, misinterpretation, appropriation, demonisation and confusion to breezily sum up TAA’s definition of audience development as:

“A planned, organisation-wide approach to extending the range and nature of relationships with the public, it helps a cultural organisation to achieve its mission, balancing social purpose, financial sustainability and creative ambitions.”

This definition is now widely recognised, particularly in Europe. It embraces the global understanding of a process for “bigger, wider, deeper”:

  • increasing numbers
  • reaching out to new and more demographically diverse audiences
  • raising the frequency of existing audiences’ engagement
  • extending their range of experiences.

But it also side-steps a long-running rivalry between different schools of thought about what audience development is, and – by implication – the proper public purpose of a state-supported cultural organisation. In one school, ‘audience = market’ and audience development aids financial resilience. In the other, audience development is more concerned with social justice and the right of citizens to access state-supported culture. Our definition dares to suggest that organisations may need to mix these different traditions, working consciously to strike the right balance between a range of potential functions, including:

  • democratising the country’s cultural treasures
  • creating social impact
  • generating income through sales and donations.

It could also embrace the role an organisation can play in bringing about cultural democracy – working ‘with, not for’ communities.

A pragmatic approach

It is a pragmatist’s definition that will disappoint the purists. In our view, it’s unhelpful to demonise some types of audience development as “coercion and persuasion” as Mark Robinson does in his (excellent) recent publication for Creative People and Places, Multiplying Leadership. But it’s not wrong to encourage the adoption of more democratic, inclusive approaches that enable people to determine the future of the cultural opportunities near them.

The reality for most organisations is that their value and survival increasingly demand competence – and coherence – across all audience development. Many next-generation cultural organisations are developing as ingenious social enterprises, learning to manage this cultural triple bottom line. Of necessity, they have to do well to do good. What matters is that an organisation is clear about its public purpose and priorities, and that it knows how to achieve them. Our guide is a useful starting point, acknowledging organisations’ broad sweep of legitimate public purposes, and suggesting that they need to draw on a variety of disciplines and techniques to achieve these.

But we have to acknowledge that success at a sectoral level is uneven. The net effect of 23 years of ‘audience development’ across the whole sector is a significant increase in the engagement of more privileged, arts-interested audiences and in the revenue generated from them. But while individual organisations and some types of cultural experiences show that things could be different, the attempt to serve society equally has largely failed. Indeed, the fact that we understand our core fan base and cater to its needs better than ever before may even be creating a major blockage to more democratic audiences.

What works?

I’ve come to the conclusion that the technocratic, old-school approach is contributing to the overall failure of the sector to find resonance beyond its traditional heartlands. At TAA we evaluate and help design many excellent and successful projects to engage less represented audiences – but most fail to make a significant, long-term impact on their host organisation. This is not because organisations are uncaring, lazy or incompetent – so what is happening? And what do organisations who do manage to create and sustain relationships with less privileged audiences get right?

This is the question we asked two years ago as the basis for two new international audience development programmes: one a training course and the other an Organisational Development programme with the Adeste+ audience development network. When we looked at the behaviour of the organisations who have really inclusive, representative audiences, a common thread emerged. Most were adopting some – if not all – of the habits of human-centred design.

Design thinking

Since the 1990s the way services are designed has become increasingly focused on their users, in an approach known as ‘service design’. In 2004 Morton Smyth applied this thinking to arts organisations in ground-breaking research that identified the behaviours of highly inclusive organisations: Not for the Likes of You: How to Broaden Your Audiences. The researchers observed that these organisations were instinctively adopting many service design techniques, and devised an organisational development programme based on some of its central precepts. But frustratingly the potentially game-changing insights of this research have not made a wholesale, lasting impact in the sector.

My curiosity about how such approaches could be embedded more widely has informed the development of TAA initiatives like the Adeste+ pilot programme. We have also looked at Creative People and Places (CPP) – the most successful initiative ever in terms of sustaining relationships with people who have not historically engaged with arts and culture. CPP practitioners, with their reflex for listening and ‘working with’, began applying participatory design thinking as an instinct but many are now consciously adopting the discipline of ‘human-centred design’ (HCD).

HCD is an approach to creating products, services, experiences, spaces – anything in fact – based on a deep, empathetic understanding of the user and the rapid development and testing of prototype concepts. It is comprised of overlapping phases rather than orderly steps. Unlike traditional ‘expert-led’ design, empathy is queen and design seeks to optimise for how users can, want, or need to use something – rather than forcing them to adapt to the design. It is grounded in the belief that people who face the challenges are the ones who hold the key to their solution. It is transforming the way The Audience Agency supports organisations to develop audiences.

Human-centred design pilot

For example, we are working with five cultural institutions across Europe – including the Mercury theatre in Colchester – to adapt those overlapping stages to create new ways of working with key audience groups over time in an arts and heritage context. We’re calling this Audience-Centred Experience Design, and crucial elements are:

  • bringing together quantitative and qualitative data to build real empathy
  • working in multi-disciplinary teams to involve all staff in innovation
  • bringing playfulness into planning
  • prototyping as part of everyday practice
  • developing and refining distinctive visitor journeys for different audiences
  • embedding it into routines so it becomes ‘the way we do things round here’.

The project is being rigorously tested in the lab of five very different organisations, but results so far are extremely encouraging. The challenge now is to see how far it can become a central part of everyday working in each organisation.

Long live Audience-Centred Experience Design?

Of course, audience development isn’t really dead. There is a crying need for organisations to have sound, evidence-based aims for long-term change and audience growth of the right kind. But if we genuinely want to support social justice and develop more meaningful audience relationships, then we need the courage to go on an experimental journey with our communities. The way forward is to develop the habits and culture of human-centred design.

This article first appeared in Arts Professional on 12 March 2020 as part of The Audience Agency's series sharing insights into the audiences for arts and culture.