June 1, 2020 | Publications

Data and Deliberation: How Some Arts Organizations are Using Data to Understand Their Audiences

Authors: Francie Ostrower, Ph.D.


National statistics continue to show stagnant or declining attendance across many forms in the nonprofit arts. Less understood, however, is how arts organizations might use data and market research to cultivate new audiences and strengthen bonds with current attendees.

Based on the experiences of 25 performing arts audiences in Wallace’s Building Audiences for Sustainability (BAS) initiative, this report may offer some helpful insights for arts organizations looking to use data and market research in their audience-building efforts. All of the organizations in the multiyear BAS initiative, which recently came to a close, sought to enlarge and engage their audiences. While their specific projects were different, they all made use of data collection and market research, generally through a mix of focus groups, ticketing database analyses and post-performance audience surveys.

The evaluation by Francie Ostrower, Ph.D., and her team at the University of Texas in Austin finds that data was not a magic bullet for the BAS organizations. But those that used data and market research as part of a continuous learning approach—an iterative process of design, implementation, analysis and determination of changes needed for improvement—were able to surmount the challenges inherent in the process and reap rewards. All organizations ultimately found the process beneficial.

In fact, the researchers found, that data and being open to what it says about what is working and what isn’t prompted the organizations to confront their own insularity and their misperceptions about their audiences in a fruitful way. As one BAS participant says of the process of engaging with data and market research: “It’s changing the way we interact. We have a thing we say here all the time. Like do we know it or do we really know it? And with audiences you always have to ask yourself that.”

Further examples and experiences from the grantee organizations are presented in the report along with key findings:

  • Engaging with data appears to be most productive when embedded in a larger deliberative process. The report shows how organizations benefitted from using data and market research as an input into a broader process of reflection and assessment about whether mission-driven goals are being pursued.

  • Data can yield useful insights beyond organizations’ immediate and planned purposes. The researchers find numerous instances where engaging with data helped prompt organizations to become aware of unexamined assumptions they held about their intended audience(s).

  • Productive data engagement can be complex and costly. While organizations expressed enthusiasm for taking a data-based approach, they also said that they rarely have adequate funds to do so.

  • Recognizing the rewards and challenges in advance can help organizations more effectively plan for data engagement. Key issues to consider are what type of data are most relevant and what resources will be needed to support data collection and analysis.

  • Effectively using data requires organizations to frankly acknowledge what the data say about what is working and what is not, in a fruitful rather than punitive fashion. Productive data engagement is not just about the data—but about how data are approached, what are questions asked and a willingness to revise preconceptions. 

The report is the second from Ostrower and her team on the BAS initiative. A literature review published in 2019 found slim evidence for what strategies to build audiences were effective and even less on the cost-effectiveness of such efforts. Future reports are expected soon.