Anne Torreggiani

The Audience Agency: open for business

Anne Torreggiani, 25.07.2012
England's new national audience development body is a mix of supermarket and vintage boutique, says CEO Anne Torreggiani
Well this is it. The doors of the Audience Agency are now open for business and we get to find out what people think of what's in store. If I feel nearly as much trepidation as excitement, I guess it's to be expected.

We're anxious to please – we've invested much in fashioning this new organisation out of established agencies All About Audiences and Audiences London to respond effectively to the clear and present challenges facing the cultural sector.

It seems there has never been a greater need for us to track how people engage with culture and to apply it to the way we create experiences, run institutions, and form policy.

It's a no-brainer in austere times that we need to work much harder to evidence the value of public investment, maximise income opportunities and garner public support in all its forms.

Beyond financial pragmatism, engagement is of course also about mission and creativity. The good news is: "engagement is no longer heresy" – I agree with Andy McKim from Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille (at the AMA conference) that artists, curators and producers are increasingly inspired by audience encounter.

Meanwhile, public expectations are becoming more and more demanding as consumers expect their every need to be met and met instantly.

All the evidence suggests that we have something society very much wants – meaning, connectedness, learning. But the evidence also says that people need more help navigating their way into these rich but complex offers.

Running a successful cultural organisation is then about managing the fine balance between creative, social and financial objectives, the off-touted "triple bottom line" – greater audience focus must be part of the solution as the balancing act gets tougher.

We are frequently told that data is the key to managing audience and stakeholder relationships. But I'm not sure I agree; data in its raw form is meaningless.

Many cultural organisations have told us they have neither the resources nor inclination to fiddle around with data. This is the need the Audience Agency seeks to meet – turning data into insight, and insight into audiences for hard-pressed cultural practitioners.

What we offer is about much more than number-crunching. It's about contextualisation and application, connecting the stats to qualitative feedback, anecdote, experience and bright ideas. In short, we're committed to making insight accessible and useful.

Tapping into that resource is accessible too. The model looks a bit like a supermarket chain on a human scale – clearly-labelled, quality products centrally selected and distributed to local stores, shelves well-stocked with trusted essentials.

At the same time, think more quirky boutique – a mix of vintage stuff that has stood the test of time and deserves to be back in service, and innovative bespoke pieces that are sensitive to different shapes and sizes, and designed in dialogue.

For those who came to love working with their regional audience development agency, they'll recognise some of the things they cherished.

The Audience Agency is a national organisation structured to work well at a local level; a network of regional directors, respected for the depth and range of their experience and steeped in local knowledge, will work closely with the sector.

Others new to our work – and that might include arts organisations, libraries, heritage attractions, festivals or museums – will be able to stock up on a comprehensive range of affordable but (as we see them) 'Finest' products and services.

These include quality audience intelligence, reliable primary research, advice and support on all things audiences, from CRM and marketing planning, to community consultation and volunteering.

By moving to a bigger scale, we can be more ambitious, forging audience-focused co-operation across the country and internationally, building a huge body of evidence.

We can also challenge the status quo, questioning established practice, and promoting more effective ways of doing – from new models for programming or fundraising to new ways of engaging digitally, or at the grass-roots with unengaged communities.

Arts Council England has endorsed our new role by giving us the investment we need to realise it. We recently received a £3.5m commission under the ACE Audience Focus fund to build an infrastructure for gathering, using and sharing knowledge.

There are two strands:

1) Understanding Audiences is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to harvest information about audiences across the subsidised arts and use it to grow them for the future. It will create a unique and sustainable infrastructure for capturing and comparing intelligence in a hassle-free way.

The emphasis, however, will be on using intelligence – to increase impact and income, while saving time and effort. A range of tools will make it easy to "read" information in dashboard form, and easy to apply.

Our aspiration is that it will liberate practitioners to be more creative and confident in engaging the public in new and imaginative ways. Talk to us about getting involved.

2) Best Practice, delivered in partnership with the Arts Marketing Association, aligns decades of knowledge and experience to make an accessible, navigable one-stop shop for everything you need to know about audience development. It will help us to put our work in Understanding Audiences into context, and ensure maximum learning from this and all our work.

And if the shopping metaphors sound a bit commercial, be reassured that the Audience Agency is a mission-led charity, true to its not-for-profit roots. We will indeed be more entrepreneurial, working independently of core funding in a distinctively cooperative way, but surplus will be ploughed back to ensure that learning and knowledge are disseminated and debated as widely as possible.

So back to those pre-opening butterflies. We really want to know if we're getting it right – please tell us. We want to hear what you need to engage better with the public in a changing world. I invite you to come to one of nine regional launches this autumn or get in touch and talk to us now.

I want to know what we can do to give people the confidence and inspiration to put creative ideas into practice, to reach bigger audiences, get more resources and make a bigger impact. Happy shopping.

Anne Torreggiani is joint CEO with Ivan Wadeson of the Audience Agency – follow the agency on Twitter @audienceagents

By Anne Torreggiani for Guardian Culture Professionals Network


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25.07.2012, 13:44
Must be a bit daunting launching something new in this economic climate but good luck to you. Look forward to the autumn launch sessions. The medium and longer term impact of audience development has not been assessed as yet, and we're at least 12 years on from when it first became flavour of the month. Do children who've experienced this cultural contact continue to attend events? Likewise, do young adults from non-white/middle class backgrounds? I see still a sea of white faces at classical concerts, art exhibitions, NT historic houses but was heartened to see lots of non-white faces at the RSC's African "Julius Caesar". How do you ensure audience development is for life, not just for Christmas?