Great Study. But What's It For?
June 18, 2009
Arts organizations are forever commissioning research papers to test the validity of their various endeavors. Quite often though, the time, money and effort that goes into producing a study fails to be put to good use. The research is published, journalists sometimes write articles about the findings and then, the organization which funded the research might use the results in grant applications. But then, more often than not, the information quietly gathers dust in a filing cabinet or on a hard-drive somewhere.
When I heard about Theatre Bay Area's new study aimed at measuring the impact of the Free Night of Theater (FNOT) -- a now-national, annual event offering free theatre tickets to many shows in the region between designated dates in October and which the Bay Area was the first metropolitan area to pilot several years ago -- I was anxious to find out why TBA had commissioned the research and what the local performing arts umbrella organization hoped to gain by it.
Commissioned by TBA, the "Assessing the Intrinsic Impacts of the Bay Area Free Night of Theatre Program" study results, which were released on June 9, sets out an ambitious goal -- to "measure and demonstrate the inherent value of the arts."
Based on the study results, TBA concludes:
1. Regardless of ticket price, patrons who make it through the doors of the theatre and are captivated by the live performance do exhibit measurable signs of intrinsic impact from that art. The most notable of these signs include increased intellectual and emotional engagement, social bonding and aesthetic growth.
2. The FNOT program serves to create social accessibility by providing an opportunity for theatergoers with unsupportive social networks to attend the theatre. The data reveals that the lack of a social network can be a major barrier to theater attendance. However, by lowering the perceived cost (offering performances for free), theatre companies can generate large numbers of new patrons and foster new social networks - with a high number of patrons promising to return and pay due to the inherent and social impacts of the experience.
All well and good. The study results backing up these claims are published on TBA's website here. But what does TBA hope to gain by all this work? I asked the organization's marketing director, Clay Lord, for his thoughts:
"This first round was really just a pilot study to refine the survey and develop what we're calling the "dashboard," which is a dissemination device designed to be read by non-researcher-types. We're now in the last few days of writing a proposal for phase 2, which would run over the next 2 years in 5 cities across the country and would be used to both gather more data and build the infrastructure for us at Theatre Bay Area to take the data processing and analysis out of the hands of our consultants and make it accessible for a much cheaper price to just about any theatre company in the country. This scaling up is vital to the data actually being useful. We've gotten interest from a variety of foundations both locally and nationally, and assuming the funding comes through, Round 2 would kick off in the Bay Area, LA, Chicago, New York and one other city TBD this fall.
In a larger sense (which you may have been actually asking about), the question "What is this data good for?" is foremost in our minds. We do not believe this is just data for data's sake. As part of phase 2, we'll also be developing with our consultants a pre- and post-survey discussion process with the participating companies to help them understand the usefulness of the information, set goals and expectations on the work, and then look at where the goals and reality matched up (and didn't) post-study. As part of this, we'll be developing a series of potential strategies (and small test projects) to address what we think are going to be some of the issues that emerge from the results based on our consultant's prior work - issues like how to increase captivation/involvement of audiences following the show, which seems to be pretty correlated to audience retention rates, or how to minimize the number of impediments to captivation in the theatre (everything from ushers being friendly to making sure there aren't lights glaring in audiences' eyes to giving out a free glass of wine). By taking these intrinsic impact measurements and beginning to pair them with certain concrete actions, we move from abstract data into actionable steps.
Over time (following this study period), we hope to use a centralized database (to be built as part of this proposal) to be able to see trends, thereby hypothetically helping companies anticipate what types of shows will have what types of impacts (and of course, what outside-theatre impacts are the most affecting on audience engagement).
From my perspective as a marketing director, I can't wait for this data to be more widely gathered and used. To be able to actually see on paper if marketing materials are increasing anticipation, or if certain perks instituted in the venue are actually helping captivation - it would be a whole new way of working with audiences."
Like any study, it will be a while before the research can actually be put to positive use. At least Clay and his colleagues are thinking beyond the limits of the the data.