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Data Panel Q&A with Robin Fenwick

Data Panel Q&A with Robin Fenwick

As Director of Communications and Audience Services at Mercury Theatre, Robin Fenwick has lots of opinions when it comes to how we share data in the arts and has embraced data decision making at the Mercury in a big way.

Robin spoke as part of our data panel at the Spektrix Conference in November which generated a lot of passionate discussions and as we didn’t have time to get around to all of the questions, we followed up with Robin to continue the discussion on this important topic.

If the sector is able to come to agreement about how venues, touring companies and producers can share audience data over the next 12 months, what might the future look like in an environment where all the players involved share audience information?

The argument, which I've encountered often, that venues are excellent guardians of data while touring companies “can't be trusted”, is deeply patronising to our colleagues in the touring sector. When it comes to working with audience data, there are organisations with strengths and weaknesses in all parts of the arts.

If we were inventing the theatre industry from scratch today, it wouldn't be designed with a major bias towards venues when it comes to holding and using audience data. Yes, venues almost exclusively carry the cost of processing the sale, but even when looked at through the narrow prism of commercial self interest it’s in all our interests to partner up, using data to grow arts audiences audiences overall.

In an increasingly transactional world, audience members crave value for money. If you add value for the audience, they will respect you for doing so. If an audience member enjoys a production and you offer them the informed chance to stay in touch with the producer as well as yourself, I'd argue this is a great way of adding value, and is a risk worth taking even in highly competitive urban markets.

There is an onus on touring companies to then use that data to build a relationship through segmented, targeted and relevant communications that are not always about directly pushing sales. Content and relationship marketing is king here but in the event that a company were daft enough to spam their lists with frequent untargeted sales messages, the customer always has the option to simply click unsubscribe. If they see high unsubscribe rates, the touring company will soon learn, and stop burning their bridges.

The choice to opt-in to marketing materials from the producer should be provided both pre-show as part of the booking process, but sometimes a post-show email is also appropriate, particularly if that email has value added content in it as well as the opportunity to sign up to a mailing list.

It's all about giving audiences a clear choice to control what they receive, within the law. People aren't afraid of signing up to mailing lists if they can see the value, after all, they signed up to yours, didn't they?

Who do you feel is responsible for making the process of reporting and benchmarking across the entire cultural sector easier? Is it audience development bodies, technology providers or the funders?

We need a carefully thought out best practice data sharing model, tiered to suit different scales of work, around which the industry can coalesce. A small cross industry working group would be best placed to create this model, sharing an initial version for wider comment, before publishing a recommended standard through established channels like CultureHive.

I'm currently involved in an Association for Cultural Enterprises project, funded by Arts Council England, to create a benchmarking system for retail operations in the heritage sector (that's museum shops to the likes of you and me). The early signs are that this model, led by a non-profit agency with an early track record in this area, is going to work well. Many of the lessons learned from this project will be transferable to other sectors, including the arts.

Any new system must be built in consultation with, if not led by, organisations such as UK Theatre or SOLT, who are already running national profiling and benchmarking programmes.

Most arts organisations have a database of customer information. Often the quality of historical data isn't up to scratch, and some arts organisations often don't have access to the right technology to collect, interpret and then share this data effectively. Are we running before we can walk?

The world is not going to stop while we all clean our databases. Start building relationships today.

While professional data cleansing services do exist, they can be expensive. They will often argue that you will (for example) make a saving on postage which will recoup the cost of cleansing your database. Examine these claims carefully and check they are specific to your data.

If you can't afford professional data cleansing, make use of Spektrix's “potential duplicate” segmentation, and ensure your customers have a clear and easy route to update their data. In previous years, we’ve run a phone campaign during dark periods to “reactivate” lapsed customers. We have a conversation with them to find out if there's anything we can offer to entice them back. This is as much as anything an opportunity to check if we still have current contact details.

You don't need to treat your database like you'd treat your car when you're giving someone a lift; it doesn't need to be 100% clean (just me with the clean car paranoia?). You can use segmentation to target expensive activities on the areas which are clearly active (e.g. postal mailings), and be canny about how you try to reactivate customers who don't appear to be active (e.g. through emails, or Facebook custom audience campaigns which are much cheaper than post).

What are the skills we need to be bringing into our boards and leadership teams if we’re to maximise the use of data at the highest level of our cultural organisations?

Strong boards ask good questions so you may need to educate your boards on the questions your ticketing system is capable of answering. Can your Spektrix reports help your Board answer these questions:

  • Are we providing value to audiences?
  • Are we reaching the sectors of the public we aim to?
  • Are we building audience loyalty?
  • Are we financially resilient now and in the future?
  • Is what we are providing relevant? Are there opportunities to move into new areas?

I'd argue you can use Spektrix data to at least inform a conversation on all of these areas. With the help of people like the Audience Agency and the fundraising agency, Prospecting For Gold, you can also look at questions such as:

  • What are the key demographic factors of our audience?
  • Is our audience sufficiently diverse?
  • Do our audiences have access to alternative sources of what we provide?
  • Are there areas we aren't reaching?
  • Are there potential donors and supporters in our audience?
  • Is our pricing competitive?

These are just some of the questions a Board should be asking. They're not particularly digital questions, but you can provide information that will enable your Board to come to clearly informed and evidence based answers.