Here's my #1 rule when it comes to market research:
Never ask a question if you aren't willing to accept AND act upon the answer. This is a particularly relevant set of criteria for those of us in the arts. Let me explain why through a recent conversation. A few details have been changed:
Organization: We want to know what our audience thinks about our work.
Me: What if they come back and say they loved that big, splashy, expensive performance of Swan Lake you did? What if they want to see more of that?
Organization: We can't afford to do more of that, plus it would go against our mission.
Me: So don't ask.
A good artist or arts organization can not and should not always give an audience what they want. That is what puts tension into the research process.
Research implies that you should just find out what people want and give it to them. In some cases that is true. In others, it isn't. It makes a lot of sense, for example, for you to ask your audience how they hear about your work and then consider adjusting your marketing plan.
It may make less sense to ask what people think about a particular artist. What if they hate him or her? Are you going to fire them?
If you aren't willing to accept and act, don't ask.
Here's another way of gathering information that can be particularly efficient and effective:
Even the most savvy researcher or pollster understands that what people tell you can be inaccurate. Think about how much money and time went into a getting an exact answer to a binary question like: Who are you voting for to be President?
People can tell you anything, but what they do is the truth.
Some of the best information can be gathered by learning to watch people. This is not a natural skill. It can be very easy to go through life in your own head and not pay attention to what others do. It takes some practice to really start noticing things.
Example: I know an organization that actually managed to pull some sponsorship money out of a luxury car dealership. This dealership had no formal giving program and had never given money to an arts nonprofit.
How did it happened?
A staff member was taking a smoke break in the parking lot and noticed a high number of luxury cars in the lot. This pattern kept up over a few nights. One day they took a photo of the lot and walked over to a friend who worked at a dealership.
They showed the photos and basically said "you want to promote your cars to luxury car buyers, here are a bunch of them, sponsor us and you'll get access to them"
They noticed something. They didn't make it happened. They just noticed what was happening and tried to take advantage of it.
That's so much of what marketing is. It's noticing the 100 interesting things that are happening around you and then trying to figure out how to tap into those things. This is also why box office staff, ushers and volunteers are so important. They can be key observation points as long as they know that is a HUGE part of their job and that their observations will be taken seriously.
You want to be a more effective marketer? Pay attention. Observe. It can lead to magical things.
Reminder: The Gift Sessions, a live arts marketing workshop, is coming to Chicago on April 20. Details here. Early Bird deadline is midnight on Monday. Use the promo code Paradox to save $5.
Very special things happen when a group of committed people come together to consider how to marketing can be used to connect art and audience. I don't do this often. Don't miss it.