The thinking behind what we do

Understanding Your Audience

The music ain’t worth nothing if you can’t lay it on the public. The main thing is to live for that audience, ’cause what you’re there for is to please the people.
— Louis Armstrong

The most successful public exhibitions and festivals work when the brand or campaign is strong and accessible but layered for the needs of the different audiences. Part of our job as designers is to understand, interpret and define audiences, and to do this we use different models.

People are social beings

When we buy into something it is often not just because we like it, but also because it satisfies our intense social, cultural and psychological needs and values. Most of us are unconscious of the way these factors affect our decisions. Deep down we are influenced by stuff around us in society, whether it be our friends or subtle nudges from our social and psychological environments. We are fundamentally social creatures by nature and we often don’t act in isolation. These pressures of influence were first noted in the 19th century by French sociologists and German anthropologists.

In the 1960s, Everett Rogers developed these ideas into the Diffusion Innovations Theory in an attempt to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread through cultures.

He represented the rate of adoption as a classic bell curve. It became a popular model in marketing and was reinforced in Malcolm Gladwell’s 1960’s book The Tipping Point.

The model is divided into five segments: innovators who are interested in the new and visionary; early adopters who want the edge over others (the ‘I found it first’ person); the early majority (the critical mass) who are interested if it works and is safe, accessible and convenient; the late majority who need things to be normalised; and we don’t even need to mention the laggards

As disruptions to the social norm, culture and art more often than not attract the innovators and early adopters first. The early majority, which makes up about 34% of the population, look to the response of early adopters to a product or new idea before they will consider it. Case in point is when Prince first performed as back up to the Rolling Stones in 1981: he was booed off stage. He has since produced 10 platinum albums and 30 Top 40 singles during his career. Or think of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring: it caused a riot when first performed but has since been recognised as one of the 20th century’s most important classical works. So what does this mean for arts and cultural organisations? It means we need to target the right audience at the right time.

The marketing strategies of cultural organisations often attempt to sell to the critical mass, which means appealing to the most people or, in more colloquial terms, getting maximum bums on seats. Success is measured in quantifiable numbers. The irony is that the early and late majority are more likely to buy if they have had a recommendation from an early adopter, someone they trust and believe and who has similar value systems. It’s tricky to encourage a late majority type to attend an event if they haven’t first received a recommendation from early adopters or the early majority. They just won’t see the value. It’s only when the well-connected, influential people adopt new behaviours and practice them that they endorse them to others, hence Gladwell’s tipping point notion, whereby the new behaviours get established and embraced as the norm. By getting the innovators and early adopters on board we are more likely to get the critical mass. We’ve seen this time and time again with Apple. Samsung, in contrast, skip the early adopters and innovators and pretty much offer the same Apple innovation, just a cheaper cost. They ride on the back of Apple’s risk-taking and innovation.

To be strategic, we need to respond progressively to the needs of each type of audience in the bell curve.

The problem we see in many cultural campaigns across Australia is that they all look the same and are attempting to attract the broadest audience. We would love a dollar for every time a client responds to the question ‘Who is your audience?’ with ‘Everyone’. In this day and age of fragmented audiences this just doesn’t cut it any longer.

The shifting Australian cultural landscape

Whether or not it’s the result of marketing pressure for sponsorship or funding, many Australian festival campaigns of late have dumbed down and gone for the broadest audience; in other words, they’ve ‘done a Samsung’. They look overseas for inspiration without carefully considering what audiences on our own turf actually value and need. Sure, they might achieve critical mass for a time, but success will be brief. Sydney Festival was an event that traditionally sparked a buying frenzy in the city when tickets were released. The Festival’s servers would crash due to vast numbers of people trying to be a part of the action and the city would be abuzz with FOMO. But more nimble companies are now bringing in new work throughout the year and the pace in the lead up to the Sydney Festival has slowed right down. Likewise, Sydney Biennale competition is emerging from all over the place: check out MOFO or look at the cool factor of anything Kaldor curates and presents.

When we worked on the Sydney Film Festival (SFF) we teased and cajoled the early adopters to rethink the Festival, which at the time was in crisis due to decreasing audience numbers. SFF was facing new competition from a saturation of smaller, more discrete film festivals and a big push from Foxtel to keep people at home in front of their television. We carefully considered the different audience behaviours and created a layered campaign, making sure we didn’t disenfranchise the film buff and patron audiences. We took SFF branding to a new level and, in four years, increased audiences by over 40%. We believe, however, that the current campaign will reach saturation point and SFF will need to once again reinvigorate the brand to encourage the innovators and early adopters to take another look.

Cultural organisations can’t rest on their ‘branding laurels’; audiences are fragmented and fickle and we are seeing more short-lived and passing trends. To remain robust and relevant, organisations have to keep up to date with, and then satisfy, the needs of their changing audiences.

Related case study

Sydney Film Festival: Rekindling a passion for one of Australia's oldest festivals

suzanne boccalatte