Engaging Student Audiences As University Arts Presenters
Written by Catherine Radbill on Nov. 17th 2017
Building and strengthening audience relationships - particularly student audiences - was a top priority for me when I was a university arts presenter. Today, competition for students' attention has become even more intense. In this post, I am going to explain how conducting audience research with both current and prospective students will jump-start your audience development efforts.

Audience research can support these three important audience-building tasks:
1. Learning first-hand about potential audiences,
2. Designing relevant and effective promotional efforts for potential audiences, and
3. Tracking and assessing progress toward your audience-building goals.

Let's get the tough part out of the way first: prepare yourself to hear what potential audience members truly think about your organization. They may not even know you exist. It could be a bumpy ride for you, your university administration, and your board. But remember: the only way you can fail at building and strengthening your student audiences is if you take no action at all. So put the ego aside. Serving student audiences is part of your mission as a university arts presenter. 

Five Key Steps In Building Student Audiences

1. Ask your board or dean to help you engage a professional audience research team to guide your process. 

This is a crucial first step. You want buy-in and excitement from these two important stakeholders. Your arts presenting program is a crown jewel for your college or university. Help the stakeholders understand how the success of your arts program can help solve their problems of recruitment and retention. 

2. Know the pros and cons of quantitative and qualitative research. 
Quantitative: produces numerical data; confirms what researchers are looking for; uses closed-ended questions ('How many...How often...'); requires many survey participants to produce reliable results; surveys are typical quantitative methods.
Qualitative: produces verbal, conceptual data; is an exploration tool - researchers are not sure what they're looking for; uses open ended questions ('What...Why...'); requires small number of participants for in-depth conversations; focus groups and in-depth interviews are typical qualitative methods.

3. Work with your professional research team to find young people who are culturally active. 

Your current audience database will not be much help now. University arts presenters will need to work with the administration for permission to contact students. Two additional prospecting pools to consider: local high school students, and new university students in their first month on campus. Note: parental permission is required before recruiting minors (under 18) for a focus group. 

4. Review and discuss research results. 

Here are three areas that your arts presenting organization will likely need to address: challenging students' stereotypes about the arts; using digital media to reach potential students; and finding digital marketing influencers to promote your events.

5. Act on the results.

 Arts presenting organization leaders and stakeholders now need to push forward with specific actions that will track and assess progress toward your audience-building goals. Strategic planning and careful implementation will ensure that your hard work bears fruit. Remember: the only way you can fail at building and strengthening your student audiences is if you take no action at all.


Catherine Radbill

I help nonprofit visionaries deliver their organization’s mission without burning out or wasting time and energy. If you want to lead a vital, efficient nonprofit, I can help you transform your work through energized community partnerships, a strong Board, and members and donors who are raving fans. 

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