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Targeting the Unusual Suspects: a paradigm shift

I’ve been working with cultural organisations since 2005 as an audience development specialist, supporting clients to reach, understand, develop and hold onto audiences. I have always had a particular interest in how digital fits into this mission and so have been observing with interest the progress and outcomes of the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts. This fund was administered by Nesta (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) in partnership with Arts Council England and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

£7 million was made available for projects between 2012-2015 up to a value of £125,000. The fund was for projects which involved collaboration between the arts, digital technology providers and the research community in order to undertake experiments from which the wider arts sector can learn. 52 projects were funded and the learning recorded and made available on the fund website

One of the key learning themes of the initiative was Data, and a particularly interesting project was undertaken in Newcastle and Gateshead which may impact the way that arts organisations develop new audiences all over the UK and beyond.

The Unusual Suspects was a collaborative project between Newcastle Gateshead Cultural Venues (NGCV) ten of the major cultural institutions in Newcastle and Gateshead and it had a radical intention to challenge seven of the most deeply held assumptions around arts attendance and data sharing:

  • That cultural organisations should concentrate their efforts on the existing core audience of high-frequency usual suspects
  • That past attendance behaviour is the best guide to future behaviour and that these behaviour patterns are largely immutable
  • That past attendance is a reliable basis for segmentation
  • That each cultural organisation should build and defend its own market share
  • That sharing data would undermine attendance and income
  • That we should see audiences as customers
  • That this relationship is best sustained through a sales-focused approach of serial transactions and discount incentives

Instead, the group set out to test an alternative approach, based on an alternative set of seven principles:

  1. That effort should be focused on the high-potential audience of infrequent, lapsed and would-be attenders – the unusual suspects
  2. That past behaviour is a very poor guide to future behaviour and these patterns can change
  3. That the most effective basis for segmentation is deep-seated beliefs, values, motivations and needs
  4. That rather than pursue individual market share, cultural organisations should recognise that they operate in a shared market
  5. That sharing data and curating the audience will grow the market for everyone
  6. That we are seeking deeper emotional relationships with audiences, building brand equity through a sense of belonging and a desire to support
  7. That this relationship is best sustained through rich, personalised interactions based on audience profiling and insight.

To test this approach, NGCV members shared, profiled and augmented their data to create a Data Commonwealth (or shared audience database) and undertook a series of carefully designed and fully-evaluated experimental campaigns to test the efficacy of new approaches to audience segmentation to change people’s default patterns of venue and art form attendance.

Specifically, they sought to re-activate lapsed attenders, improve levels of retention, increase rates of frequency and encourage people to trail new venues and new art forms.

The full report on the project is available here but the headline is that the project provides proof of concept for the benefits of city-wide (potentially region-wide) sharing of data for cultural organisations. The project shows a way to overcome some of the thorny political, legal and technical barriers towards data sharing. Fundamentally, the project moves beyond old-fashioned orthodox arts marketing into a new, post-marketing era where digital technology enables a new kind of audience engagement which is more personalised, and reaches the unusual suspects just as effectively as the usual ones.

The Data Commonwealth created during the project now has a legacy in the form of The Insider – a curated email database which provides NGCV with segmentation options for targeted messaging. A carefully designed sign-up questionnaire provides data-crunchers with a myriad of options for picking email recipients based on attitudinal as well as behavioural factors.

The value of this project for digital agencies like Indigo, is that it provides invaluable intelligence into how to build a shared database for digital marketing. The trials and tribulations, the how-to and how-not-to information is incredibly valuable and potentially project-saving. And this is just one of the 52 projects made public through the Nesta Digital R&D Fund. With the rich learning resource of these experimental research projects, I and other audience development specialists working in digital are armed with a whole host of new advice, guidance and inspirational ideas which we can pass on to clients.

Targeting Unusual Suspects therefore earns its place as a key concept in Indigo’s ever-evolving Transmedia Engagement Toolkit.

Caroline Greener

Marketing and Social Media Specialist

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