Policies and Legislation

What are we counting?

Roger is not going quietly, and here is his latest, originally published by Arts Professional here: https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/magazine/article/what-are-we-counting

This version is updated.  Roger has more questions than answers about the quality metrics system that Arts Council England’s larger NPOs will soon be required to use.  He was surprised to find the Arts Council of England’s only response to the original version of the article was to query his comments about the ACE contractors Culture Counts.  Researchers at Flinders University in Adelaide have now published an article in Cultural Trends ‘Counting culture to death’ severely criticising the Quality Metrics concept.  Liz Hill reports in Arts Professional on that here: https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/only-fool-or-knave-trusts-quality-metrics-say-academics

Counting what counts?

People keep asking me what I think about quality metrics, the audience research system that Arts Council England (ACE) will shortly require its largest National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) to use.

When I try to answer this complex question, many immediately tell me they were asking confidentially and don’t want their own views known. I hear a lot of reservations and many worries, but everyone seems reluctant to say anything during the current NPO application process.

Whilst understandable, this is not helpful. It is surely essential to embark on a proper discussion of whether this will deliver reliable results for NPOs and ACE, and to address people’s concerns.

Uneasy questions

I have been a champion of audience data for a long time. I conducted my first year-long audience survey at the Vic in Stoke on Trent in 1969, supervised by Keele University. I have been commissioning research surveys for over 40 years and the Arts Council published my book ‘Boxing Clever’ on turning data into audiences in 1993. And I have collaborated with them on many audience initiatives, including the drive to place socio-economic profiling tools at their NPOs’ fingertips.

So, I ought to be welcoming the concept of quality metrics and what Culture Counts proposes to deliver for Arts Council England. I can see why Marcus Romer (read his blog from 27 September) would welcome the voice of the audience, as end-recipient of the art, into ACE thinking. But I am left with a lot of uneasy questions, mostly methodological.

Unreliable research

Most people with any knowledge of research methodology are asking the same questions, because this type of research is inherently unreliable, yet a lot of reliance is being placed on the findings.  The recent experience of surveying potential voters in the polls prior to the UK election on 8 June have rather confirmed the unreliability.

The Arts Council’s own former Senior Marketing Officer, Peter Verwey, constantly reminded arts marketers of the inherent unreliability of audience surveys, unless there were controls to manage the sample. Even then, reliability depends on respondents understanding the questions. If you ask a question and the respondent can’t ask for clarification on what the question means, then the answers can’t be relied upon. But if explanations are given, then bias creeps in, depending on what is said to them.

Sadly for Welsh National Opera, the majority who said when and where they had seen an opera, turned out to not actually have attended an opera at all.

At the Arts Council of Wales, we used Beaufort Research to check respondents’ understanding of some simple questions about the arts, including: “When did you last attend an opera?” Sadly for Welsh National Opera, the majority who said when and where they had seen an opera, turned out to not actually have attended an opera at all. The public have a very different understanding of the words we use to discuss the arts, and this can have a significant impact on whether survey questions are completed.

This is an inevitable drawback of quantitative research. Researchers have to decide in advance what precise questions to ask and have to constrain answers to a fixed choice. Qualitative write-in answers can’t produce reliable, comparable results, even though narrative answers can provide the richest source of our understanding of what a specific audience member thought.

Biased responses

Audience surveys have other equally large flaws. Peter Verwey’s joke was that the survey samples usually comprised “anyone who had a working pen/pencil when the survey was handed out”, though that has presumably changed to whether people have an email address and bother to open survey emails.

Surveys conducted in foyers after performances are inherently biased in that they capture only those with time to answer. And even “there is an app for that” only suits the tech savvy.

Analysis over the years shows that completion is biased in favour of the most supportive members of the audience and those keen to make their views known, sometimes complainants. You can overcome some of this by ruthless random sampling – only looking at the feet of the people to be selected to answer the questionnaire, for example – and similar techniques can be applied online. But the bias, of who actually responds when invited to, remains.

These days, when we are capable of creating a socio-economic profile of attenders who book tickets, we ought to, as a minimum, be expecting the quality metrics methodology to include a check for the representativeness of the sample.

Incomparable performances

Perhaps the biggest challenge is that audience surveys are inherently situational. They can only reflect what happened in a particular venue on a specific date and time, and gather the opinions of the people who both attended and chose to respond. If you have ever been a house manager and experienced the difference that a large group booking can make in an audience, you will understand the potential variability.

This makes comparability from one performance – let alone event – to another very difficult. Researchers have known about these issues for decades and therefore attempts to measure or assess impact based on audience surveys are always approached with huge caution, even if conducted for a single venue or a single performance.

Unexplored impact

Arts Council England’s own 2014 literature review by WolfBrown was clear about this: “the literature raises questions as to the plausibility of aggregating survey data across organisations and artforms, due to the highly personal and situational nature of impact, and because of differences across the forms themselves.”

It can be argued that valuing art based primarily on the experiences it produces, in fact devalues the work itself. Can you really tick a box to encompass your opinion? Indeed, post-event surveys primarily measure the ‘experienced impacts’, perhaps within a day or so, and ignore the ‘extended impacts’, probably weeks or even years later (typically assessed through retrospective interviewing and longitudinal tracking studies).

And while we try to understand these impacts on each individual, what role did pre-attendance marketing, the venue, pre-show talks, the people who attended with them, and the rest of the audience, have on the experience? Some researchers have expressed serious concerns about comparing self-reported audience experiences across different artforms and contexts because of the huge range of impossible-to-control variables being measured in these, in effect, crowd-sourced reviews.

Flawed evaluation

I had expected recent reports, commissioned by ACE, to provide the answers. I was surprised to find the final report on the quality metrics national test was assessed and written by two staff from the company that ran the pilot scheme, John Knell and Alison Whitaker. So the researchers were being asked to mark their own homework. Highly unusual, regardless of their integrity.

The Arts Council did commission an independent evaluation, from Nordicity (though the researcher is not named) though this only examined the experience of the organisations participating in the National Test, and not the methodology used in the pilot or the internal processing of the resultant data.

serious concerns raised by participant organisations about the methodology

Nonetheless, that evaluation reported some serious concerns raised by participant organisations about the methodology, saying “the majority of consultees questioned the reliability of the resulting data because of the sample frame, in terms of its representation and size” and commenting that “this aspect evidently impacted the organisations’ use of the data, with organisations unconfident to draw any firm conclusions, unable to ‘convince’ programmers of its value, and unsure of what ‘robust’ would look like in practice.” It went on to say “consultees suggested a number of areas where unintended bias or skewed data had the potential to be introduced. It is evident that these elements contributed to consultees’ overall opinion that the resulting data did not accurately reflect the quality of their work.”

Knell and Whitaker’s report makes no reference to statistical significance or reliability, or the representativeness of audiences; and despite references to “highly sensitive aggregation” there is no explanation of the basis for that data aggregation, except for some crude geo-location, artform, gender-based data-merging. It’s impossible to discern how they have overcome the huge problems of situational audience surveys and event comparability.

There is also no explanation of how audience responses are related to the other elements of the triangulated quality metrics research process, namely peer responses and internal assessments. Neither is there an indication of how respondents were selected. Indeed, the report is more about the findings of the surveys than testing the reliability of the methodology or its underlying fitness-for-purpose and statistical reliability.

Sampling problems

Obviously it is easiest to select survey respondents from ticket bookers with email addresses, and some of the organisations that participated in the pilot research chose people with particular characteristics, or a certain frequency of attendance. Some indicated that they wanted to input the data findings into their CRM systems. Did they select target samples accordingly?

Some added extra questions of their own to the survey, which in themselves might have affected understanding, response rates and completion. There is no explanation of how these additional questions were tested for respondent understanding. Also, only ‘30 responses’ is cited as an acceptable minimum for an event to be evaluated. How does this relate to the total attendance? There is no rationale given for this low number and no indication how an event with 30 survey respondents will be compared with an event with 300.

What’s more, there is no indication of how any of this will be possible under the new General Data Protection Regulation and its specific granular consent regime, which could further reduce the number of attenders available for survey and the use and processing of their responses.

The better news is that over 19,000 surveys were completed in the national test. This is clearly a large sample in UK terms, but size is not enough, especially when the integrity of the sample is unclear. We can’t rely on the national sample size if we need local reliability. We need to understand the reliability of the findings for each individual organisation in their unique catchment area. And we need to know the profile of the survey respondents in the context of both the universe of NPO attenders, and the actual attenders at each individual organisation.

Finally, there are of course other providers of post-attendance survey tools, and arts organisations already carrying out frequent surveys of attenders are worried about wear-out from over-surveying core attenders. All their other surveys are intended to understand audiences better and guide marketing, operational and audience development issues, not inform critical ACE grant award decisions.

ACE has a lot of questions to answer

I write this because I find ACE has a lot of questions to answer if it is to reassure arts organisations about the methodology and the quality of its proposed metrics. Just what is it counting, and exactly how?  The researchers at Flinders University in Adelaide have confirmed the academic concerns about using such research methods.  They write that metrics-based approaches to assessing cultural value “invite political manipulation and demand time, money and attention from cultural organisations without proven benefit”.

Their paper, ‘Counting culture to death’, refutes the “widely held belief” that “a set of numbers can provide vindication, or at least insurance, in the constant struggle to justify public funding”. They conclude that attempts to quantify cultural value are not delivering on their promises, and bring “destructive” unintended consequences.

The paper states that using indicators and benchmarks to assess cultural activities, “which exhibit no obvious capacity for scalar measurement” is a “political act”. The “ostensible neutrality” of this approach is, they say, “a trick of the light trying to launder responsibility for judgment in the competition for scarce resources”.  It is certainly clear to me that relying on an unreliable methodology could have dangerous consequences for the Arts Council.

This article is Rogers personal opinion and does not reflect the views of his colleagues or any other organisations.

Getting ‘permission’ wrong?

Roger is not going quietly…

I am not the right person to discuss the implications of the new General Data Protection Regulation, approved by the EU in May 2016, whose draconian penalties apply from May 2018. I have been frustrated by the attitude evidenced by most arts organisations in how they relate to and engage with their attenders, specifically their ticket purchasers, since the 1990s, when email exploded, having learned nothing from the experiences of the direct ‘snail-mail’ years.

I wrote my first book ‘BOXING CLEVER: Turning data into audiences’ in 1993, published by the then Arts Council of Great Britain. Though it pre-dated the use of terms such as ‘Customer Relationship Management’ and ‘Permission Marketing’, it echoed the likes of Don Peppers’ and Martha Rogers’ The One to One Future: Building Relationships One Customer at a Time (also published 1993) and Seth Godin’s later Permission Marketing (1999). It is worth setting out how this is defined. In 2008, Seth re-described it thus:

Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them. It recognizes the new power of the best consumers to ignore marketing. It realizes that treating people with respect is the best way to earn their attention”.

Putting respect into arts marketing is a key value for me. The direct marketing revolution experienced in the UK from the 1970s into the 1980s relied on getting people to sign up to receive brochures and mailings, which in the days of mostly on-the-phone and over-the-counter bookings meant dialogue was needed to comply with the law and obtain the contact details from people. People gave permission to receive what they hoped would be relevant, personal, appropriate communications posted to them in their homes. Later, the rising volume of credit card payments meant some venues started to ‘capture’ customer addresses without necessarily explaining the contact implications, and this started (or amplified) customer suspicions about direct mail, especially when many mailings weren’t relevant, personal, or appropriate communications.

This was when I found I thought differently to many other arts administrators. Running Theatr Clwyd in North Wales, for example, I thought it seemed essential to have more than enough staff to answer calls and serve purchasers, and indeed to encourage them to extend their dialogue to understand and inform the customers better, perhaps advising them of other events they might be interested in seeing, booking them a table in our restaurant, etc.; what I later found was called “up-selling”. Essentially, customer contact hopefully got permission to add people to our mailing lists and started to create the relationship we wanted. My colleague Mike Grensted was then very sensitive to what we might send out to those people to reflect that relationship; wonderfully he once sent our subscribers a photocopy of the marked-up printer’s proof of our next season brochure to give them priority to renew their subscription!

the sales staffing culture seemed to be to ensure the minimum number of people were on shift at any one time

Elsewhere the sales staffing culture seemed to be to ensure the minimum number of people were on shift at any one time, with Box Office queues and call waiting times almost a badge of success. When as a consultant after 1988 I started delivering customer care training and helping arts organisations optimise their sales processes, the fundamental issue was always the time to enable staff to serve customers properly. Many venues had the same staffing levels and shift patterns all year round, depleted by holidays as staff took them, regardless of pantomime on-sales, brochure releases, etc. Yet it was easy to work out that an extra member of staff in most cases only had to sell one extra ticket per hour for the venue to be better off (even based on margin retention). Without the extra people, the sales staff were under pressure to speed through transactions, and door sales were a missed opportunity for getting permissions. One large concert hall contracted me to help them optimise their sales process to eliminate 19 seconds from transactions, since that was the average time making sales calls too long for the staff complement to get through their typical call volumes…

That pressure meant Data Protection got in the way of speeding through sales, and managers and sales staff were reluctant to spend time seeking permission from purchasers when their contact details were captured during payment. I proved that an extra person on door sales could easily help process all the customers so permission could be asked if a venue really wanted to. Our sector did not cover itself with glory when a number of Theatrical Management Association (TMA) members decided to lobby their MPs in the Parliamentary discussions about the provisions in the 1998 Data Protection Act. They received somewhat quizzical replies, advised by the then equivalent to today’s Information Commissioner, pointing out that these provisions were already law in the 1984 Data Protection Act; more honoured in the breach than the observance.

Given the embarrassment, it was agreed with the Arts Council of England, the TMA, and the Arts Marketing Association (AMA) that I should write a “good practice” guide to the 1998 Act – actually an official status under the Act – which was published with a Foreword welcoming it from the then equivalent to today’s Information Commissioner, Mrs Elizabeth France, whose staff in Wilmslow had been very helpful and supportive during the drafting process. The Guide was published and promulgated with seminars around the country, encouraged by the Arts Council England regions and the AMA. Of course, given the law, my emphasis was on getting the right permissions from the customers.

arts organisations essentially asking how they could avoid complying with the law

I began to have to field lots of questions about interpreting the new law, and I maintained my dialogue with the staff in Wilmslow. They did point out to me that they received quite a few calls from arts organisations essentially asking how they could avoid complying with the law! The Act clearly and unambiguously required arts organisations to say who they were, what they would be doing with their customers’ data, whom they would be sharing it with, and to get permission from the customer for the chosen communication methods. Treating customers with respect should make this easy.

There were ways to make the process easier – large printed notices on display in Box Offices, recorded messages before calls were answered, full details printed in brochures and programmes, but the key fundamental was that the customer’s permission be obtained properly. Wilmslow told me of various complaints that people were being contacted without their permission, and they and I deployed some ‘mystery shopping’ to understand what was happening – permission was simply not being asked for. The irony of course is that most of these venues now had computerised ticketing systems which could easily track the ‘permission’ levels and identify which staff were complying with the law. One large venue trained up a new team of staff to obtain permission and indeed sell a paid-for list membership, and simply fired the old team members who did not comply. But the culture of selling under pressure persisted, as did non-compliance, and therefore lack of respect for customers. This seemed a matter of regret to me.

Why did/do some people in the arts talk about “bums on seats”

Why did/do some people in the arts talk about “bums on seats” (horribly “butts on seats” in the US) and treat valued customers whose “hearts and minds” they need to relate to, as if them purchasing tickets is a necessary evil, and returning customers are a necessary nuisance, de-personalising them in the process? Does that explain the terrible mistake of introducing booking fees and charges on top of the advertised price, instead of putting these inside the price? Do we see people just as income providers and not as customers we need to persuade and retain?

Note that for most marketing purposes the 1998 Act effectively pre-dates email marketing and on-line ticket sales, though many arts organisations were early adopters of websites. As the email explosion happened, the EU introduced new rules on privacy and the UK enacted in 2003 the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations, known to insiders as PECR (pronounced “pecker”). Something odd happened. As computerised ticketing systems had already introduced Internet ticketing engines, they had busily ensured their software complied with the 1998 Data Protection Act, and email was just another communication method. Now PECR had a lot to say about permission regimes for email and SMS, but to my surprise was largely ignored – surprise because it introduced an assumption of consent if there was a transactional relationship i.e. an on-line ticket purchase (with various notifications given to purchasers in the process). Odd and ironic that systems weren’t quickly modified and processes changed to enable this easier permission regime.

Email marketing suddenly made direct marketing an inexpensive method – mostly the time spent crafting the message and selecting the targets from the customer database – and the desire to share customer data for e-marketing campaigns, especially between presenting venues and touring companies and artists increased. By 2005 Arts Council England was unhappy at the frequent complaints from touring companies and artists about venues refusing to share data, and Tim Baker of Baker Richards and I were commissioned to ascertain the state of play. We were clear that the 1998 Act and PECR should be enabling data sharing, provided the appropriate permissions had been obtained. We held the view that purchasers would give permission if they were asked appropriately by venues, and the right respectful dialogue and processes could get those permissions.

Essentially, we quickly confirmed that data was not being shared because the permissions were not being properly obtained, with some venues belatedly discovering that with a stretch PECR could justify them contacting only their own customers. This was an interesting moment, because the Information Commissioner, still being helpful, suggested that arts organisations could jointly notify purchasers that their data would be shared with venue and the touring company or artists performing, and permission be assumed from their ticket purchase (this no longer applies).

Welsh National Opera (WNO), under the enlightened direction of Peter Bellingham, were keen to manage their relationships with their attenders, especially those they realised could be attending in any of a number of venues, chasing their repertoire. They did not want to be over-mailing these people, to manage their communications, and needed to understand their behaviour and frequency, so wanted to know who they were, where they went, what to see – the world of big data! By prolonged negotiations, they secured agreement for the data to be shared and appropriate permission regimes to be in place, at all the venues they toured to. It was somewhat laborious and involved manual interventions but it worked. Why am I telling you this? Because when Arts Council England proposed their data sharing conditions for their National Portfolio Organisations, Peter realised he needed to re-visit their data sharing. Deep analysis by Ed Newsome of the data they had, told them something wasn’t working as it should.

I think we hope that most of the established attenders for the arts are in fact repeat attenders

I think we hope that most of the established attenders for the arts are in fact repeat attenders, so will be coming back to buy more tickets. This ought to mean we want to recognise returning customers on-line as soon as they arrive on the website, so we can serve up tailored content. In practice, most websites are set up not to recognise returning customers until they fill in their details to make payment for a new transaction i.e. at the end of the purchase process. (Some system suppliers boast that their system then adjusts the prices in the shopping cart to reflect their status!). This meant for WNO customers that in most cases the procedure of serving up Data Protection notifications, and asking for permissions where relevant, was repeated every time they booked, at every venue.

When Andrew Thomas of www.TheTicketingInstitute.com investigated, he discovered some systems allowed customers to click past the Data Protection questions (possibly an unintended “feature”), and then the system changed/over-wrote their Data Protection status to effectively a ‘not answered’ status, so no permission recorded for anything. WNO discovered that meant some of their most frequently attending customers, such as their subscribers, were not selected for contact, even for brochure mailings as well as regular email updates. This is when the permission regime and the relationship with the customer is likely to collapse. Some of these customers with high frequency attendance patterns but apparent ‘no permission’ status were phoned, and they made clear that booking for WNO and agreeing to receive communications did not mean being bombarded with (what I call ‘shouting louder’ email) messages about booking for that venues’ pantomime; relevant, personal, appropriate communications?

Unfortunately, not only the customers know that. When ACE, The Audience Agency, and I, met the Information Commissioner’s staff to update our guidance on sharing and the necessary permissions, I was reminded that the staff in Wilmslow are, of course, arts attenders themselves, and able to talk from their own experience about booking with venues. A previous Information Commissioner had served on the board of one Manchester music organisation. Our sector’s unsatisfactory ‘do minimum’ compliance is all too visible. The Information Commissioner’s staff remain very helpful, but perhaps not as friendly as in the past.

How did we ever get here? And why does the General Data Protection Regulation apparently so disturb some people? I go back to first principles, that we need customers to volunteer their permission, freely given, and that is the start of our relationship with them, as a valued customer likely to return; that we need to treat customers with respect, as people in a valued relationship.

We want customers to look forward to our brochures and emails, offering them great going-out opportunities, experiences to enjoy and value. My mantra is ‘stop selling and help people buy’, getting them into a relationship with us.

Mark Hazell at Norwich Theatre Royal has made the point for many years that if they know someone is a “friend” he can write and talk to them differently, because being a “friend” means something about their relationship. That is true for all types of relationship, based on frequency, interests, what is attended, who attends, and so on.   We don’t have to keep asking them for their permission. And ideally we would give them an on-line tool to edit and update their records (less messing about for changes of address or email, chance for self-completed profiles and preferences, and more up-to-date accuracy). We want customers to look forward to our brochures and emails, offering them great going-out opportunities, experiences to enjoy and value. My mantra is ‘stop selling and help people buy’, getting them into a relationship with us.

Now our sector seems to be reducing Box Office hours (while travel agents are re-inventing their High Street stores to “help people buy”) and we are pushing for/hoping for more on-line sales. That means we need to re-think websites, and make them mobile friendly, and understand who we are communicating with. When we email them and they read on their phone or tablet, when they visit our website from those devices, we know precisely who they are – so why aren’t we recognising them and treating them as the valued customers they are? With respect?

Obviously I am the wrong person to talk to about permissions, as I don’t understand our industry.

 

Roger Tomlinson

2 May 2017

If you do want help or advice about the application of the General Data Protection Regulation, I recommend you contact Andrew Thomas andrew@theticketinginstitute.com about system processes and website flows and Leo Sharrock leo.sharrock@theaudienceagency.org about the permissions for data sharing, profiling, research, etc.

Accessible Ticketing Workshops with STAR

A 2014 report by Attitude is Everything revealed the frustration and inequality that customers with disabilities feel when trying to book tickets for entertainment events online.

Very often, venues consider that it’s better to offer a more personal booking service, usually by phone, but this is potentially discriminatory if some customers are and some are not able to book online.

The issues need to be understood and policies and sales processes need to change to meet the needs of customers with disabilities who want to book online.

STAR, along with SOLT, UK Theatre, NAA, Attitude is Everything and other industry organisations, are working to encourage this change.

These workshops are aimed at increasing awareness for everyone involved in ticketing about disability, the law and equality, as well as helping suggest practical solutions and steps for improvement. It’s an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the issues, with a workshop specifically tailored to focus on ticketing. The workshop leader is Martin Austin of Nimbus Disability.

Bristol Hippodrome – Tuesday 25 April 11am-4pm
ACC Liverpool – Thursday 27 April 11am-4pm
SOLT/UK Theatre Offices, London – Friday 28 April 1pm-5pm

The workshops are organised by STAR in association with SOLT, UK Theatre and the National Arenas Association. If you are a member of one or more of these organisations and do not have the code to be able to book at the relevant discounted rate, please contact info@star.org.uk

The STAR Seminars will hit Bristol on 25th, Liverpool on 27th and London the 28th of April
Book Now

 

Donations online – Opt in Please!

As much as I may sometimes appear a bit ‘picky’, there are a few things that really do “get my goat” – mainly when venues fail to abide by some pretty simple and very well publicized regulations, directives or laws.

If you have attended a conference, a briefing, a seminar or user group – or read one of our newsletters, or those of membership organisations or vendors, you cannot have missed the “All inclusive fees” discussion, guidance or compliance.

There are still some venues and systems who are not compliant – some blatantly, by adding fees in at the last possible moment, some who are technically not compliant, as they don’t display them completely ‘pre-contract’

Now, the fee is the fee, or fees. So you would have paid that anyhow, it’s about presentation.

What about items you didn’t ask for / didn’t want? “What do you mean?” I hear you ask.

I’m talking about extra cost items, such as ticket protection, merchandise or more commonly – DONATIONS

It’s the law, and has been for over two years now that you cannot add items into a basket that a customer has not actively chosen to add to their basket.

CONSUMER CONTRACT REGULATIONS (2014)

Pre-ticked boxes

The Regulations make it clear that a trader won’t be able to charge a consumer for an item where it was selected for the consumer as part of that purchasing process, rather than the consumer actively choosing to add it to their basket.

For example, retailers are not allowed to charge for an extended warranty if it was added into your basket as a result of a pre-ticked box.

If a company does charge you in this way, you are entitled to your money back. 

 

To be clear on this, if you ask a question such as “Would you like to give a £2 donation?” and the customer can answer YES and it’s added or NO and it’s not IS compliant, as they are making a clear decision……TO ADD IT.

If you add it into the basket and the emphasis is on them to REMOVE IT, SET AMOUNT TO ZERO or any other way of UNTICKING or DELETING then it is not compliant as THEY did not ADD IT. You did.

Heh, it’s a pain, I have worked with many venues over the last 10 years who collected size-able amounts from this type of auto-donation / round-up or other methods. I  remember one or two possible times a customer had complained about it pre-these regulations.  The simple fact is now, that you are not allowed to operate in this way. Many vendors have been innovative in making a light-box appear, a prompt or some other way of making the opt-in smoother and more appealing, with some even removing the ability to auto-add, a lot, it seems haven’t.

Venues, c’mon, regulations are there for a reason. Play nice, play fair.

 

No! Theatre NEEDS to be MORE like Ryanair!

In my twitter timeline I have seen tweets from BONCulture and Theatre2016 advertising the report of their conference, along with a headline of Samuel West “Theatre is not Ryanair”.  Today I gave it a read.

The “Ryanair” part is actually a very small part, and talks of drinks and programmes at high prices in theatres. Of course, I agree with this. The headline is very weighted to one part and, actually, I firmly believe theatre NEEDS to be more like Ryanair – whoa! I can already hear teeth grinding, so just give me a chance on this one…….

For all that is sometimes portrayed to be bad about Ryanair, some fairly, some unfairly, “Rip off Fees” “Pay-per-use Toilets” “That DAMN Bugle” it has achieved many things that need to be applauded and that theatre could to well to at least strive for.

Price and Location Accessibility

Not twenty years ago, if you wanted to travel to Bucharest, for whatever reason, your choice was not really a choice. It probably started with “Drive to London” – your choice was then Gatwick or Heathrow and a choice of BA or Lufthansa / KLM via Munich or Amsterdam. All for the “bargain” price of perhaps £300 per person.

It’s great you can see them, folks living in London

So for those of you in the deep South-west, North-east England or Scotland, you were basically excluded from easy access for a weekend break by your geographical location. You would have to leave late Thursday/early Friday and and return early Sunday, and you’d spend more time travelling than enjoying the break.

The same is true of many shows that perhaps are born, live and die in London. It’s great you can see them, folks living in London, but those outside the South-east cannot see them, without an overnight and travel, yet more expense on top of a ticket, without even counting another day away from work.

Queue all day schemes are great, but again, if you have time or are geographically advantaged.

Price is a fun subject to talk about in ticketing or theatre. Let’s also face facts that not all, or perhaps ANY seats on Ryanair on FR2005 (yes Stansted is a London Airport!) – actually sell for £4.99 – but there are now examples of at least SOME seats being readily and fairly available to flyers around the country at this price. Theatre ‘queue all day’ schemes are great, but again, if you have time and/or are geographically advantaged.

So, making a range of accessible prices to people at locations across the UK (not just the South East) is a trait of Ryanair I would welcome in Theatre.

Experimentation

I have taken a fair few ‘punts’ on shows before. We all have, most likely at things like the Fringe. I have seen some from the awful, painful to the down right embarrassing. There have been some superb shows, though, not just at festivals. A trip last year to Welsh National Opera kicked me back into seeing Opera and also Symphony Orchestras. Not as a subscriber, but just enough to be engaged.

Looking back at that Bucharest trip – didn’t a lot of us get our first taste of European city breaks from Ryanair, Easyjet, Go!(remember them?) or BMI-Baby? For sure, now we are older, and, hopefully, with a better income, we can spend four days in Rome, then go onto Pisa and Milan.  But in the past, unless you went Inter-railing (or lived in the South-east), it was budget airlines that opened up your mind to travel, to new ideas, architecture, food, drink or fashion.

New audiences come from experimentation

Without that £9.99 fare would we have been willing to experiment with a weekend away? It may seem like I am repeating myself here, but it’s not so much about the price but about the opportunity to experiment.

“Pay what you like”/”what it was worth” or ‘no-quibble’ refunds can be very risky, but the value conscious consumer likes service providers putting their money where their mouths are.

This is not the solution to all of the problems though. I remember talking to my bank manager about WNO and their “£5 Under 25” tickets (yes he was only 23) and he said he was not sure whether he would “risk it” – as it “wasn’t for him”.

New audiences come from experimentation or through recommendations after experimentation, so we need to help people broaden their consumption to new arts forms, just like Ryanair did with getting us to a weekend in Stavanger.

Equality

In the past I have blogged on airline loyalty. I love it and have recently ascended to another tier on my current programme. Board first, extra bag, upgrade, lounge – I’m sure many of you are familiar with the perks; these don’t really have a place in theatre, although some chains have their lounge programmes.

There is a snobbery with loyalty, or even among  regular flyers – looking down on those who are in economy from their lie flat beds, or a snigger at someone not understanding a closed luggage bin means it’s full.

We must make all customers feel equally welcome

Let’s not forget that theatre – or let’s widen the definition to “buildings that show performances” – have rules, ettiquette as well as names and sounds that people don’t understand or appreciate exist.

Budget airlines stepped forward and wiped away a large amount of exclusivity or elitism.  Yes there is “Speedy Boarding” (first to board the bus to the aircraft), but that was mainly used for you to be able to sit together. On board, there is no little curtain  to separate rows 5 and 6, no different toilet etc., etc.

If you’ve flown in the past four years, you’ll be familiar with the announcement “we know many of you have heard this before, but please spare us a few minutes of your time” – frequent flyers may tut, but it is yet another inclusive, welcoming policy or wording that explains things.

We must make all customers feel equally welcome, that they are just as valued in the £15 seat as the £100 ones, just like Ryanair.

Becoming a Common Thing to Do

A week or two ago, I got chatting to a guy who I was fishing next to. He told me he was taking his first flight in September. (he is in his early 50’s).  I was actually shocked, as I have chatted to him before and he did not strike me as a flight virgin. He asked me if I had flown before, so I replied “yes, 43 times this year”; he was equally shocked by my binge flying.

His is perhaps now becoming a harder to find story, just one of not getting round to an experience or wishing to do it.  I am guessing, outside of medical or psychological issues, most of us, our family and friends have flown. A great many people’s first flight  is on budget airlines (or only flights), because of price and accessibility issues.

Theatre must reach out to those who don’t feel this way about going to the theatre.

This has led to flying being a normal thing to do: most people fly, have flown, have views on flying, airlines to compare, stories about great flights they have been on, as well as the odd unhappy ones or plain awful ones. In short, reviews, sharing, recommendations, talking about experiences, what we ALL want people to do about theatre. Share, recommend, encourage, organise group trips and bookings.

For sure Ryanair don’t make people share stories, but by breaking down barriers, they have, along with other airlines, made air travel more and more popular and something we regard as normal activity. Theatre must reach out to those who don’t feel this way about going to the theatre.

Yes on Ryanair the drinks are overpriced and £20 EACH WAY for a suitcase may sound extreme, but this is just like the booking fees of some theatres.  So we need to look at the overall contribution and barriers we need to remove.

Looking for what WORKS

No, we don’t want a bugle for another “On-time curtain up” for sure. It’s not that I am against Samuel West’s comments, but more the headline.  Let’s look at what we can GAIN from other sectors to help ours succeed.

There are enough challenges for us right now, we should all be looking at opportunities.

 

How BAD is your online ticketing experience.

Roger and I are running a repeating  20 minute session at the Arts Marketing Association conference in Birmingham later this July.  It’s a brief introduction on how to use Google Analytics to dissect your customers’ online ticketing journey.

As part of our session we will look at how to identify the pinch points, drop outs and stall sections of the journey.

If it annoys you, it annoys customers, and annoyed customers can easily become just annoyed and not really customers.

As data drugs go, Google Analytics can be pretty addictive and there is nothing more satisfying than watching real time goal conversions and e-Commerce scripts firing in front of your monitor screen.

I spent last night doing just this, whilst logged into a large entertainment venue’s Google Analytics account to configure some new settings in order to collate some data.

To be honest, this session has crept up on me, so I decided to see what Google themselves have to say about online basket abandonment, when I came across this fantastic video.

As much as we can all laugh and appreciate the stupidity, we probably all recognize the symptoms here, and have probably all experienced them, buying anything from an airline ticket to that Christmas gift for Auntie Pat!

find out where and when people dropped out or walked away, even where they went to; what it will not do though is to definitively tell you WHY

The analytics approach is a great method to find out where and when people dropped out or walked away, even where they went to; what it will not do though is to definitively tell you WHY.

So, without naming venues or system providers here’s a quick 5 things to look through on your own journey before settling down to some Analytics.

1. No Seats or Limited Seats

It is amazing how few venues (or systems) actually allow and publish the fact that inventory is running low. There is nothing worse than navigating into a seating plan to find only two seats remain ( one in the stalls and one in the dress circle). With a high demand show, perhaps the potential booker will leave if they cannot purchase a specific performance, but, for trying to find ANY seats in a four week run, basic availability details per perfromances help customers find tickets and avoid frustration or walking away.

Whereas some systems can go down to exact inventory being held, AudienceView for example have a great traffic light system available as part of their standard package.

Simple Traffic Lights Help Customers Avoid Sold Out Performances

Simple Traffic Lights Help Customers Avoid Sold Out Performances

 

2. Ridiculous Data Collection

This is one that does seem to end sessions, not just in ticketing but anything on line: the over zealous data collection.

When does it become intrusive to ask all of this? When does the customer just walk away?

When does it become intrusive to ask all of this? When does the customer just walk away?

Name, Address, Email, Phone Number, Privacy Options – the famous five of online ticketing.

Whereas the example above is not actually a ticketing transaction, it often can be. We all know the power of data, but really, what do we want to do with a customer with tickets in the basket? That’s right, close the sale and take the funds. Data collection needs to be limited to what is required and what will help us stay in touch with and nurture the customer.  How much of this could be obtained much earlier, especially by recognising returning customers through registration.  Data Protection guidance in the UK is that we must recognise the returning customer and not repeat data collection and permissions.

Name, Address, Email, Phone Number, Privacy Options – everything else will only push the customer further away. If you need to ask / collect anything else, explain it and make it easy to do!  We used to send follow-on “preference questionnaires” so we could tailor communications: definitely a better way to engage customers.

3. Payment Worries

So you have your tickets, you’ve selected your delivery, you’ve logged in and you press the pay button – Boom! You are transported to a new site, a new domain, a new ‘look and feel’ that is asking for Credit Card and address details.

I am not against third party payment screens, since a great many ticketing systems and e-commerce providers have to use them. We are all familiar with PayPal, being used to process eBay transactions or groceries from an online store, sometimes, they even have the logo in the corner!  There are a great many on-line payment gateway providers, most of which, give the ticketing system company the chance to customise the page and ensure it is seamless in ‘look and feel’ to maintain the venue’s branding and identity through the purchase process.

But look at this example below: Now, should I be worried? Well I know that Theatre A uses System B and Payment Processor C so when I see the screen below I think I understand who I am dealing with, but what for the general public – jittery? Will they close the browser and plan to call tomorrow?

ACTUAL payment page for a theatre. Only the PSP Brand is blacked out. Note : ZERO Theatre branding or reference.

ACTUAL payment page for a theatre. Only the PSP Brand is blacked out. Note : ZERO Theatre branding or reference.

4. HTTPS Warnings

As per the last point really. You have a great new website where FINALLY you can deep link shows, up-sell, have rich media, and  integrated credit card functionality. Then someone goes and adds unsecured links or resources to your transaction pages. The result? As below

Does this put off worried / vigilant consumers?

Does this put off worried / vigilant consumers?

5. Fees at the ‘Last’ Chance

So despite the changes in legislation (in Europe and the UK) surrounding the presentation of fees PRE-CONTRACT (law since June 2014), there are still organisations who seem insistent on hiding fees from the the consumer until the last possible moment, in the shopping basket.

We would hope that those that are legally bound to show fees will do so, or Trading Standards or the Advertising Standards Authority will be after them.  However, if your venue does not have to comply with such legislation, perhaps you should try?   All fees clearly upfront – “the price you see is the price you pay” – allows customers to have no nasty surprises in their basket.

Removing ‘price shock’ from the basket can allow you to focus on why there are people ditching their basket and try to resolve these issues as opposed to relying on a ‘hunch’ that the fees could have put them off.

What you could be doing today 

Take time to go through and navigate your site, from start to end, from selecting some shows, registering a new account and even getting through to a payment screen.

I challenge anyone not to find ONE thing they could improve: it could be a typo, a font, a colour or layout or something aesthetic. It could be a circular process where you keep being referred back to where you came from – surprisingly common.  Or a Continue button “below the fold” on tablets and laptops.  Perhaps it is a mandatory field that’s not marked as such or not clear, meaning you have to keep putting your credit card and/or CVV number in over and over again.  So there are issues for the web team or system provider to correct.

If it annoys you, it annoys customers, and annoyed customers can easily become just annoyed and not really customers.

I will be around with Roger at Consultant’s Corner on the 21st July in Birmingham at the Rep if you want to discuss your own web ticketing issues.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time for Cooperation? – Barcodes

More and more of my time is now being spent discussing with vendors and venues the subject of bar-codes. I might hasten to add, not how can we get more people to print at home, get them to their seats faster or even monetise the real estate on the piece of paper concerned. No, its all about the ongoing patent discussions.

I know there have been organisations who have paid licence or usage fees, as well as some, that have refused to. I am no patent expert, but I have my views on what is happening and its validity, which perhaps you can guess?

A number of vendors have discussed their conversations and actions with the company affected with me, as well as sharing some arguments put forward by the respective legal representatives. One has suggested, several have agreed that the Ticketing Institute website would be a good place for information to be shared, where it does not breach any legal agreements undertaken. I thought this was a great idea, and have now established a distribution list for this purpose.

This list will

  • be open to persons working for a recognised ticketing system provider for Arts, Sports or Entertainment
  • be used to share artwork or documents (some may be redacted or anonomised)  sent to or discovered by us with other members of the list
  • not, in anyway be endorsing the actions, words or opinions of the documents, their contents or authors.
  • be opened up to venues if we believe it is in the interest of the group to do so
  • not be given advice, opinion or guidance on their own actions

Any questions, please contact us

 

 

 

Why we should end booking fees. (And why we probably won’t)

I recently wrote about why booking fees are important, where I explained how booking fees brought a transparency to ticketing that helped the consumer to make informed purchasing decisions. So it seems a little contradictory to be writing this week that we should end booking fees. But, whilst I stand by what I wrote, I really don’t think that transparency is enough to gain the confidence of the ticket buying public. Although that explanation may help consumers understand why there are booking fees, it won’t convince them that they aren’t being ripped off. As I said, no one likes booking fees – given the choice ticketing companies would get rid of them if they could.  After all why have a policy that so infuriates your customers if there was another way?

There is no need to unnecessarily alienate so many people with outdated policies and unjustifiable charges.

Ticketing never receives positive headlines. It is never going to be a popular industry, and at best it is just a necessary evil in order for fans to access their favourite artists, sports people, shows or events.  And when demand outstrips supply, it is the Ticketing Industry that bears the brunt of the public’s wrath.

The perils of being the gatekeeper are just something the Ticketing Industry will have to put up with, since there is nothing that it can do about that. But it can and should eliminate some of the other practices that make it so unpopular. There is no need to unnecessarily alienate so many people with outdated policies and unjustifiable charges. Ticketing is a service industry and we should always remember that. Whilst the Ticketing Industry is never going to be popular, it would be considered more favourably if we adopted the following:

End the blanket “no exchanges and refunds” policy.

This is a policy formed entirely out of self interest. The theory behind it is that once a ticket is sold, decisions about marketing and pricing as well as operational decisions are made on the basis of that sale. So if an event has sold 1,000 tickets then the organisers will make financial decisions based on that volume of sales. If 500 of those tickets were to be returned, then those decisions may no longer be the correct ones and may cost the organiser money, particularly if those tickets are returned at a time too late to resell them (or after the advertising budget has been spent). This is all well and good and are legitimate concerns but there must be an alternative that can meet those concerns without alienating customers.

Because, for customers, this is a serious issue. In most other areas of retail a customer can return an unused product if they have changed their mind – as a minimum to exchange it for another product or a credit note. The Ticketing Industry is already given protection in the form of exclusion from the Distance Selling legistlation that allows consumers a 14 day window in which to change their mind and get a refund, so the blanket refusal to allow exchanges often leaves consumers with an expensive purchase, when other circumstances may be preventing them from using it.  This has long been deemed an Unfair Term or Condition by the UK’s Office of Fair Trading.

Rather than a blanket ban, if customers are allowed to exchange their tickets for an alternative date, for a fee (recognising that there is an admin. cost) within a set time period (recognising the concerns of the event organiser) then not only is the customer happier, but it might also make them more confident about booking in advance. When there aren’t alternative dates there should be a resale option which offers to resell tickets on behalf of customers (provided that all other tickets are sold etc.).

Be transparent about the secondary market.

Currently the refusal to provide exchanges or refunds only provides fuel for the secondary sites such as Stubhub or Viagogo. By offering official resale channels (at face value with nominal admin. charges) they would eliminate the need for people to go to these secondary sites. This is important because the Secondary Ticketing market is one of the biggest causes of public resentment towards the Ticketing Industry.

A ticket is one of the only products where it is more expensive to purchase online.

In a free market economy people should be free to buy and sell tickets at whatever price they wish to. But there needs to be transparency about who is selling the tickets, particularly if they are coming from event organisers or primary ticketing companies. Those event organisers who do not wish for their tickets to be sold via these sites should stop the supply of them, not punish the customer who bought the tickets by cancelling them.

Make it cheaper online.

Although, as I explained last week, it does cost money to sell tickets, it is undoubtedly cheaper to do so online. A ticket is one of the only products where in practice it is usually more expensive to purchase online. There is no excuse for savings not to be passed on to the consumer

Stop the fees altogether.

One of the bug bears of consumers isn’t the existence of booking fees, per se, but it is the layering of fees (facility fee, booking fee, print-at-home fee, transaction fee). The reason why ticketing companies do this is to make the individual components appear smaller, rather than just having one, bigger fee. They should just bite the bullet and be honest about what they want to charge when people buy tickets. Or rather still, we should just eliminate fees altogether.

Ticketing fees should all be absorbed into the ticket price with ticketing companies buying tickets from event organisers at a negotiated wholesale price and sold at or around an agreed recommended retail price. Ticketing companies can negotiate their margin based on a mixture of volume and distribution opportunities, without it being played out in public – confusing and causing disillusionment in ticket buyers.

This is what the public wants and as a service industry this is what we should give them. However, for the public it will be a question of being careful of what you wish for because there will be two direct consequences.

1. It will make ticket buyers more vulnerable to being ripped off by rogue companies (see my previous post).  The industry will also need to be much clearer about who are legitimate, authorised sellers and what consumers should expect to pay for different tickets.

2. It will put prices up for everyone. By eliminating booking fees it won’t eliminate the charges that sellers want to impose on ticketing. By absorbing these within the ticket price, it will only raise those prices for everybody. This will particularly be felt by those who buy tickets via sales channels that don’t currently incur booking fees now (such as in person sales at the box office). The current face values would likely become wholesale prices with retail prices being 10+% higher.

The higher ticket prices would then mean that a lot of the wrath of the ticket buying public would then move to the event organiser. Which is why, in reality, none of these things will actually happen.

You see, whilst not perfect, the Ticketing Industry is really the fall guy for event organisers. They, rather than the public, are its paymasters. They are the ones for whom the Ticketing Industry provides a service. The Ticketing Industry takes the blame and the public flack for the decisions of the event organisers.

Refunds and exchanges.

It really makes very little difference to the Ticketing Companies whether there are refunds or exchanges. Yes there is are some administration costs to doing so, which can be covered, but actually they pale into insignificance compared to the cost of dealing with the consequences of that policy from handling complaints right through to the reputational damage. A senior executive at a ticketing company told me recently that after a customer had complained so much they decided to refund the customer (at their own cost) in order to resolve the issue. The customer then tweeted that they had received a refund. Having read this, the promoter contacted the ticketing company demanding to know why a refund had been made without his permission. From a ticketing company’s point of view it would make life easier, enable them to have better relations with their customers and gather more data from additional customers (a consequence of reselling tickets), if event organisers allowed refunds / exchanges.

Secondary market.

It is an open secret that some event organisers supply tickets directly to the secondary market in order to boost their income. The cloak of anonymity then allows them to decry the practice in public and lambast the Ticketing Industry that allows this to happen.

Booking fees.

All ticketing companies would choose, if they could, not to have booking fees. It is the event organiser that decides otherwise. They are presented with the costs of ticketing and then choose to pass those costs on to their public (blaming the ticketing industry on the way). Of course, they should view the cost of ticketing as just another cost of putting on the event – they wouldn’t expect the customers to buy a ticket to an event with an additional lighting charge to pay for the costs of lighting that event.

..it is time for us all to engage in some sensible, adult, conversations and to make some changes..

So whilst the Ticketing Industry may wish to better serve the public it will often find that its hands are tied by policies which aren’t theirs but those of the people who have engaged them to sell tickets.

Many event organisers will say that they don’t have any choice and are unable to change the way tickets are sold because they don’t have enough clout on their own to take a stance. That may well be true but if we, as a live entertainment industry, continue to alienate those people who support our businesses by buying tickets, then we risk biting the hand that feeds us. And, if the Ticketing Industry really wanted to make a difference it could take a stance and demand a better service for their customers from event organisers.

Whoever takes the lead, it is time for us all to engage in some sensible, adult, conversations and to make some changes that ensure that it is the events that make the headlines, not the ticketing.

UK Consumer Protection debate in Parliament

Many venues and organisations in the ticketing industry welcomed the November 2014 move by the UK House of Lords to add clauses to current legislation going through Parliament to extend the Consumer Rights Act.  In a defeat for the Coalition Government, a cross-party coalition of Peers passed an amendment to curb the actions of ticket touts and to increase transparency in the event ticket resale market.

The amendments mean secondary market re-sellers and touts selling their tickets through major internet platforms like Seatwave and Viagogo will have to prominently disclose key facts to potential customers, including:

  • Their identity, particularly where they are selling tickets as a business;
  • The original face value of the tickets being sold;
  • The individual characteristics of the tickets being sold, such as the seat number or the booking reference, and;
  • Whether the terms and conditions on the ticket mean that it can be cancelled if the organisers find out it has been resold.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ticket Abuse, which held an inquiry at the beginning of 2014 into the secondary ticketing market, hope that the information being made public will enable event holders to identify the largest ticket touts and prevent them from buying up large quantities of tickets to re-sell, leaving ordinary fans with a better chance of getting tickets at face value, instead of being forced to pay inflated amounts on the secondary market.

It is almost 3 years since Channel 4 Television’s Dispatches programme: The Great Ticket Scandal, exposed how secondary platforms court major ticket touts and take allocations directly from promoters to sell on, above face value, to unsuspecting consumers.

And it is almost 2 years since Operation Podium, the Police unit set up to tackle Olympics-related crime, produced a report calling for legislation to tackle “unscrupulous practices, a lack of transparency and fraud” within the secondary market.

Of course, in this crazy world of ours, there are people in the ticketing industry happy to perpetrate this fraudulent and/or unscrupulous activity, and a UK Coalition Government that prefers to encourage rip-off Britain in the name of market ideology, at the expense of the public.  So there is some dismay at the passage of the amendments, and plans to lobby Parliament against the amendment when the bill returns to the House of Commons.  You might think that if you are honest, not planning fraudulent activity, not intending to rip people off, then you have nothing to fear from this consumer protection.

Representative Audiences?

This article was commissioned by the Arts Marketing Association and published by UK Theatre in November 2014 on the provocations from politicians and the desire for “representative audiences” and culture for all

This June 2014, in a surprising co-incidence, both the new UK Culture Secretary and his Labour Shadow made speeches within days of each other about “cultural exclusion”.

“A lot of people who are paying to support culture through their taxes and lottery tickets seem to think that consuming it is simply not for them. That the work they subsidise is for other, richer people.” That’s Sajid Javid, the UK’s Culture Secretary in his first speech on Friday 6 June, at St George’s in Bristol. https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/culture-for-all

“It is every child’s right to open up and explore their artistic and creative potential which should be a journey which goes on for the rest of their life…How, then, can we accept a situation where some get that opportunity and others do not? How can we tolerate cultural exclusion?” That’s Harriet Harman, the Labour Shadow Culture Secretary the following Monday, at the Roundhouse in London. http://press.labour.org.uk/post/88265413304/speech-on-young-people-and-the-arts-by-harriet-harman

Both of them laced their speeches with personal experience. Like Sajid Javid, Harriet Harman made the point about who the arts was actually reaching: “when I went to the Opera House last week – even from the cheapest seats in the house – I couldn’t see in the audience anyone who wasn’t like myself – white, metropolitan and middle class. For institutions which get public funds, it can’t be like that. To change audiences, there has to be committed, focused intervention.”

Sajid Javid: “Never forget that every penny of taxpayer support and lottery cash that goes to culture has been provided by hard-working people from every community in the UK. Communities like the one I grew up in. My family lived on a road that has been described as “Britain’s most dangerous street”. And for a bus driver’s son in that world, the idea of popping along to the Donmar Warehouse – or even the Bristol Old Vic – to take in a cutting-edge new production was simply not on the agenda. It wasn’t what people like me, people from my background did.

Harriet Harman went on to say “we must have state support through public funds for the arts. It cannot be left to the private market or philanthropy. But there is a democratic imperative for the arts to show why the hard-pressed tax payer – struggling with the cost of living crisis – should fund the arts.” Sajid David pointed out “I want you to make what you do accessible to everyone. That doesn’t mean striving for popularity and aiming for the lowest common denominator. It means ensuring that everyone in the UK has the opportunity to engage with our artists and actors, our history and heritage. It means giving everyone a chance to develop their own cultural tastes.”

Arts Council guidance

 This ought to be the outcome of policy combined with the knowledge and experience of the sector. Current Arts Council England guidance to National Portfolio Organisations (NPO) is that they “will demonstrate how they are sharing their work with as large and wide an audience as possible, including those who are currently least-engaged with arts and culture.” Every NPO must have an audience development plan and priorities could be that:

  • “current audiences are not as representative of the local population as you would expect”

It does seem reasonable for every publicly funded arts organisation to make itself welcoming to the whole community around it, and to seek to engage with as many people as possible in appropriate ways, so that most sectors of society are “represented” in their audiences.

I often ask staff in arts organisations: When you are thinking about your customers, the potential attenders, what’s your perspective? Are you standing inside your venue looking out at them? Or are you standing out there with them, where they live, understanding their circumstances, and looking at your organisation from their perspective?

Not for the likes of you

Standing with them, what do they see in terms of the communications and messages coming at you through all the different media, all the different channels, the print and the advertising? If you were them, how genuinely friendly and welcoming is your organisation; how do your marketing messages and their means of communication relate to their circumstances and lifestyles? In arts marketing this is defined as “positioning”, often complicated by the apparent “ownership” of the arts in the UK by people of particular ages and socio-economic groups, with similar higher education levels.

This is also the ‘Not for the likes of you’ argument, based on extensive action research on 32 different cultural organisations in the UK. Though dating from 2004, it is even more relevant today than then. Their focus was on how a cultural organisation can become accessible to a broad general audience by changing its overall positioning and message, rather than just by implementing targeted audience development schemes or projects (though those of course are entirely necessary). http://culturehive.co.uk/resources/not-for-the-likes-of-you-how-to-reach-a-broader-audience There are many resources in the AMA’s CultureHive to help.

People working in the arts have long recognised that there are not just geographical barriers to attendance, but physical, social and psychological barriers, and the Arts Marketing Association conferences and workshops have regularly addressed the issues. Previous UK Government and Arts Council England policy had been criticized for trying to correct the imbalances in society, described by some as “social engineering”, but, though the emphasis may have shifted subtly, even today NPO guidance defines diversity as encompassing “responding to issues around race, ethnicity, faith, disability, age, gender, sexuality, class and economic disadvantage and any social and institutional barriers that prevent people from creating, participating or enjoying the arts”. ‘Representative audiences’ need to reflect all the communities they come from.

You will still hear criticism that being “more accessible” equates to “dumbing down” and is more “worthy” than realistic, but the practical “experience is that, far from suffering as a consequence of taking access seriously, your product gains new life, vibrancy and meaning. It connects with people in a new way, and so moves them as it was not able to do before” report the Not For The Likes of You researchers. It is do-able.

 Many Voices

 Francois Matarasso in ‘Many Voices’ points out that arts organisations “need to build trust in their good faith as convenors of a cultural discourse that is fair, inclusive and open. There is no reason to expect those who feel marginalised by existing public cultural policy to accept the legitimacy of public actors”. He was speaking in 2006, but this is a particularly interesting question in the changing make-up of UK society today. Though ethnic “minorities” remain such in many parts of Britain, the not-white populations of some of our major cities such as London, Birmingham and Leicester are reaching proportions that could question that “legitimacy”. What should city centre audiences look like in the cultural institutions in those cities? How should cultural institutions reflect the plurality of their surrounding societies? Some arts organisations – the Royal Shakespeare Company is a good example – work hard to ensure that their staff and actors are representative of contemporary society, but the continuing challenge is to achieve representative audiences. http://culturehive.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/24446185-Many-Voices-by-Francois-Matarasso-2006_0.pdf

 Genuine targeting

 It remains the case that, despite the tools for segmentation and customer relationship management, many arts organisations messages are not ‘broadcast’ but ‘narrowcast’:– a single ‘message’, one tone of voice, one vocabulary, often using “insider” jargon and imagery. So while the tools for reaching different ‘target’ communities with appropriate ‘tailored’ messages for them are available, they are just not used as they could be. However, understanding the diversity of the opportunity needs dialogue and understanding, getting closer to people and listening, to find what is relevant to them. Experian reports that “52% of consumers would walk away from a company that tried to sell them something they weren’t interested in”. But where does the lack of interest come from? We can say the problems of arts education in the UK in recent years are not helping, but ‘Not for the likes of you’ action research demonstrated that real change was possible from arts organisations own holistic efforts.

Resources: http://culturehive.co.uk/tags/diversity