Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Should audience data inform programming decisions?

A couple of weeks ago the UK's Stage Newspaper asked a question - Should theatres make more use of audience ticketing data when deciding what shows to stage? Here’s my take on it.

The question was asked in a poll on The Stage website following a column by Mark Shenton entitled Is the future of theatre all in the data? The column was written in response to the release of a report by Ticketmaster entitled State of Play: Theatre, outlining audience buying habits and demographics.

65% of the 124 respondents to The Stage poll agreed that theatres should make more use of audience ticketing data to decide what shows to stage. In the following days there was an interesting debate on Twitter about the issue, with most respondents arguing that we should be looking at audience data but that relying on data to make programming decisions was problematic.

When Arts Centre Melbourne introduced a “market-led” programming model it created more problems than it solved, including numerous disagreements with the marketing team over programming choices and in the end the concept was shelved.

It goes without saying that if you purely base programming decisions on audience data then the baseline could be just to program more of the same kind of work that sold well. That doesn’t make a very diverse or engaging program.

One of the smartest uses of audience data I’ve seen is the Audience Builder model from consultants Morris Hargreaves McIntyre (Lateral Thinkers). This model is essentially an audience climbing frame. It ranks work in order of difficulty and aims to support audiences to “climb” up the ladder by attending shows which diversify their arts experience.  Whilst it relies heavily on audience data to create the framework, it also respects the programming aspirations of an organisation.

I believe it is essential to understand more about our audiences, but the real challenge for performing arts organisations is to utilise the data regularly as one tool in the complex decision making process.


  1. Hi Valentina, agree with you about this, definitely. Looking forward to discussion on this topic at the VAPAC Warrnambool meeting, Wed 13 November, in my workshop on Developing Program Plans...

  2. Hi Merryn, great to hear you are talking about programming with the VAPAC managers. Looking forward to more engaging conversation on the topic at the Victorian Touring Workshop in December!