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In the risk business
Animated, Autumn 1997. Anne Roberts reveals what makes audiences take risks
Eighteen months ago I was asked by Warwick Arts Centre, a mixed programme presenting house in the Midlands, to examine ways of encouraging their very loyal audiences to take more risks with their choice of programme. Classic drama, pre - 1900 music, ballet and films without sub-titles were not a problem for their audiences who attended regularly and enthusiastically. But people stayed away in droves from new plays, contemporary dance, 20th Century music and subtitled films. Sound familiar?

We talked to customers directly to find out why they did what they did in a series of focus groups comprising between four and twelve participants. Firstly we spoke to groups of people who weren't afraid of the 'difficult' bits of the programme to find out what kind of 'kick' they were getting from it. Then we approached people who had tried 'challenging' work once or twice but weren't coming back for more, and lastly we talked to people who had only been to the 'safe' elements of the programme. (After much consultation with all kinds of experts and text-books, in the end we decided the definitions of 'safe' and 'dangerous' had to be subjective and were therefore determined by the marketing department who were most in touch with the behaviour of the audiences.)

A number of interesting findings emerged, some of which are outlined here. One of the most important factors in persuading people to try something new was word of mouth. Well, we all know that! But what was surprising was that it didn't really matter who the 'mouth' was as long as people could relate to it. The press would do, friends would do, so would other audience members, and even the programmer or marketing department! What people were asking for was honesty: 'I'd give it a go if there was something personal written by the person who had selected it. I mean, someone must put this programme together, but we never see or hear from who it was or what their rationale was.'

Our participants (by no means all middle-class and educated) were utterly aware of sales techniques and were highly critical of the 'hard-sell' copy in the brochure (which, to be honest, I thought was excellent). Comments included: 'What on earth does it all mean?' 'Meaningless, irritating and pretentious.'' Who's he acclaimed by - I've never heard of him.'

And time and time again they said: 'Why has this been programmed? If they knew why a challenging event was in the programme, and what the programmer really thought of it (warts and all), then they said, they might give it a go.

Price was important too not in itself, but in what it signified. Our groups' perception of the risk of new and contemporary work was directly related to the amount of money they were required to pay for an event (regardless of individuals' own income level). Of course, as we all know, people will pay a great deal for something they really want to see and some tickets we can't give away, but as a general principle the more money you pay, the more sure you need to be that the experience will satisfy your expectations. All participants stated that targeted lower pricing would tempt them to take more risks with 'dangerous' work provided that there were clear and honest artistic and emotional reasons for them doing so. One participant summarised: 'People just want honesty - if you just say that this is not a popular film but we think it's good and worth seeing, people will respond - especially if there is a price incentive too.'

Most of my recommendations in the end focused on this need for a relationship - bond, treaty, contract, covenant whatever we want to call it - of honesty and trust between the programmer or marketer and the audience member. If we are honest with our audiences we demonstrate two things: that we respect them enough to make their own minds up, and that we are confident in our choice of programme. They in return learn to trust our reasons for programming and get to know the programmer's personality. I think they call this relationship marketing!

Participants had strong ideas on direct mail (bad - it can't be selling if they're having to write to me about it), education events (good, as long as they didn't have to take part!), information required (straight from the horse's mouth) and money-back guarantees (yes please as a way of demonstrating the venue's confidence in the programme - it's the bond again), all of which were taken into consideration in the recommendations.

The Arts Centre has recently implemented many of the report's recommendations in their new brochure which looks spectacular, colourful and - best of all - quite personal. I am fascinated to hear how they will monitor the effectiveness of each element of the brochure - which is quite unlike anything anyone else is doing. Other venues and companies have selected elements of the report's 'shopping list' of recommendations and are piloting them to good effect. As with all qualitative research, it is vital to test each recommendation before full implementation but early signs are that with a little help, even the most reluctant customer can be encouraged to broaden their vision.

Anne Roberts, Arts Management Services and a marketing and market research specialist who manages a wide variety of projects in the arts. She is also a member of the board of the Arts Marketing Association. For further information contact 01223 578077.

In the risk business is a summary of a paper given during the Arts Marketing Association's strand of Three Dimensions - the international meeting of producers, artists, marketers and art educators which took place in Cambridge in August 1997.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001