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3 Feb 2023

A Journey Of Developing Audiences

By Sasha McLaren

Looking back I can see that when I began the new role as Audience Development Specialist, like many of us, I didn’t have a very thorough understanding of what audience development actually was. Like a lot of people, I thought audience development was Marketing’s younger hipper sibling. And it kind of is, but it is so much more, so much richer than that.

What I love about an audience development approach is that it encourages you in the first instance to get very clear about what your uniqueness is and your vision – because how can you even begin to engage and inspire your audience if you are unsure of who you are and where you want to go?
Once you are crystal clear on this, everyone you work with will know and be onboard with the vision – you will all be on the waka together, all paddling in the same direction.

I love this collective nature. Even the audience is included in this – the audience isn’t seen as ‘other’. Rather, you tell them who you are and where you are going in a compelling way, and you invite them to get on board and paddle with you.
You encourage them to fall in love with your vision and want to follow you, to be a part of your community.

An audience development approach means you lead from your vision. You lead from your values. And it’s not just you, your team and your audience paddling together, you’ll also look around and align yourself with others. You’ll collaborate and look for synergies. Who else is going in the same direction? Who else is navigating with the same values?
They might look completely different from you – their vessel may be a luxury yacht or a blow up donut – but they’re navigating with the same stars, they also want what you want.

Audience development-led mahi means you will begin a conversation with your audience. What does this mean? As the introductory resource says:

It’s about having an authentic two way conversation with your audience, listening to what they want, their arts experiences, their attendance obstacles, and creating greater access, trust and loyalty so that they will support and grow with you.

It was clear from the start that although the term ‘audience development’ has a buzz around it, there are very limited resources available, even less with relevance for us in Aotearoa – and less again for us here in the Waikato.

The vision for this Toolkit of resources was to change that.

But rewind for a moment to January of 2022 when I was on a mission to find out what ‘audience development’ actually means, and how it connects to us in the Waikato.
I didn’t just seek answers in the research from elsewhere, I wanted to know what our own unique and wonderful Waikato creative sector needed, and wanted to create practical accessible resources that would speak directly to our needs.

And we all know we have unique needs here in the Waikato.

  • We are a region with Aotearoa’s fourth largest city, multiple small towns, and vast remote areas where the Internet can be sketchy.
  • Volunteers are the power and engine room of our creative sector.
  • We very often operate in ‘silos’, separate from each other, working hard to reinvent the wheel in our own corner, not aware that someone down the road has the same vision as we do, and that they also want to get a similar project off the ground.
  • We are often unsure who our audience is, or what sort of audience we want.
  • The audience can seem abstract, and at times, we can feel misunderstood by them. We’re working hard to create these great events and venues, yet why aren’t they coming?

It made sense from the start to have an audience development approach to the research – to talk directly to the audience (the Waikato creative sector) and ask them: What do you want? What obstacles do you see? What do you think are our strengths here in the Waikato? What issues are specific to you and what sort of resources will best address these?

And so it began. Initially through community consultation in the development of the Waikato Performing Arts Strategy, I started talking to a wide range of creatives – from independent artists to creative organisations, in the towns and in remote areas, to dancers, tohunga whakairo, visual artists, poets, writers, theatre practitioners, curators, musicians, kapa haka practitioners. This meant talking to those who feel marginalised, misunderstood, and unseen, as well as to those that feel embraced, supported and loved by their audiences. In the end I spoke to close to 100 people and organisations across the Waikato.

After a period of research, information and data gathering, it was possible to then focus on a synthesis of the research, consultations, discussion and deep listening.

Once the first drafts of the resources were ready, focus groups were held.
What did people think of the 10 Toolkit topics? What about the tone? What was valuable, what was missing?
I’m very grateful to the focus groups in particular who gave their time and energy to reading the resources and coming back with thoughtful, honest and constructive feedback. There is no doubt they made these resources better for everyone.

Some of the most valuable feedback was around the very structure and presentation of the resources.
You (the audience) told me not to just focus on long written documents.
‘What about time-poor people and organisations you asked? Give them a 1-2 page summary of the main points. If they want to explore the more dense resources later, they will’.
So we did.

‘What about the people for whom reading isn’t their strength’ you asked?
‘Give them video content, it’s a much more engaging way to absorb information for some people.’
Hence we created short clips summarising each of the 10 resources.
So if reading ain’t your thing, don’t worry, we got you!

‘What about showing us examples of what audience development approaches look like, of how audience development can work here in the Waikato?.’
So we produced three ‘Champion’ videos, showcasing people/organisations who are smashing it with their audience development approaches.
These champions may not have always consciously called what they do ‘audience development’, but they all prioritise manaakitanga / people and connection in their mahi, they are in conversation with their audiences, and they lead from their vision – they clearly know who they are and who they are for.

All these things make up the Audience Development Toolkit. And the toolkit is now freely and easily available to everyone on the Creative Waikato website (find here).
It includes 10 comprehensive written resources, to align with 10 specific and relevant areas of an audience development approach.
These are:

  • What is Audience Development?
  • Know Your Audience.
  • How to Measure Your Audience.
  • Audience Segmentation.
  • How to Deepen Your Relationship with Your Audience.
  • Collaboration.
  • Accessibility, Diversity and Inclusion.
  • Volunteers.
  • Programming and Curating.
  • Alternative Pricing Models, Memberships and Subscriptions.

These resources offer not just an understanding of what audience development is, but practical tools to help embed it as an approach in your work, detailing ways to support deeper connection with audiences, innovative practices to stretch and grow your creative practice and audiences, and ultimately, ways to be sustainable well into the future.

There is also a dedicated Developing Audiences workshop available upon request.

The Toolkit is for you dear reader. I have tried to make this an audience-centred suite of resources, with something for everyone.
Hopefully you will find that this Toolkit can offer up a new way of understanding, connecting, collaborating and engaging with audiences, one that reflects the reality of our Waikato creative sector.

And for the future I hope this: that there will be a greater number of individuals and organisations in the Waikato operating from their clearly communicated vision and values. If you operate from this place, you will be operating from a powerful place. If you have a genuine commitment to engage with your audiences, they will see it and they will appreciate and respect it.

I hope that in the future there will be less individuals and organisations operating in silos, not just because collaborating with others is a surefire way to expand and grow networks and audiences, but because there is value in diversity itself.
And I know this attitude will result in greater access and inclusion for both co-creators and audiences.
Through an audience development approach you will know what obstacles exist for your audiences, and have strategies in place to break down these barriers, increasing access.
And ultimately, greater access, diversity and collaboration will also increase wellbeing benefits, strengthen our social cohesion, and empower our storytelling in regards to identity, belonging and place.

While the future vision can seem large, the most important thing to remember is that at its core, audience development is about people. It’s about manaakitanga. It’s about engaging from your vision, seeking genuine connection, and listening to your audience and your creative community by talking directly to them.
That’s it. People connecting with people. Just do this and you will reap richer rewards.
And if this isn’t your bag, find and work with people who can help you with this.

And lastly, to all those in our diverse and unique creative community – thank you.
Keep doing the wonderful work you do, and remember that what you do has value. With your help, together we will all contribute to and continue to grow a healthy, thriving, innovative and supportive creative sector.