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A New Study, A New Approach to Crowdsourcing Market Research

Today, I’m pleased to share the product of WolfBrown’s fruitful collaboration over the past year with Capacity Interactive, the digital marketing consulting firm. The Performing Arts Ticket Buyer Media Usage Study, available for free download, provides a current snapshot of the digital and print media consumption patterns of performing arts patrons, showing a massive trend toward digital consumption.


Not wholly unexpected, the study of almost 27,000 arts ticket buyers provides strong evidence of the transformed landscape of arts marketing and patron engagement. As experts in digital marketing, our partners at Capacity Interactive have done a wonderful job of contextualizing the results and reflecting on their implications for arts organizations.


Current and former WolfBrown and Capacity Interactive clients were invited to participate in the study at no cost. In the end, 58 organizations across the fields of theatre, dance, classical music and multi-disciplinary presenters cooperated. The aggregate responses yield a nuanced picture of consumers’ preferences and behavior. Although we can’t be sure that the data is representative of all ticket buyers across North America, the large sample size allows for the exploration of trends across subpopulations to a degree that is rarely achieved in arts research.


Beyond the results, the Media Usage Study is notable for another reason, and hopefully a harbinger of things to come.


For many years, I’ve wondered if there’s a better way to make high quality market research available at a low cost to a broader and more diverse array of arts organizations. As a service provider to foundations and arts organizations who are willing and able to commission professional quality market research, my WolfBrown colleagues and I have an inside view of how applied market research gets bought and paid for, and, to be honest, it’s often an unsettling picture.


More often than not, big-ticket audience research gets funded by philanthropic foundations in the context of grants to build audiences or deepen community service. Most grant programs are competitive by design – there are winners and losers. The winners get all the resources, and the losers lack both the incentive and ability to access the learning process. While there are real benefits for the winners, I’m much more interested in the “losers” – by which I mean all the fantastic organizations who are unsuccessful in getting foundation grants that bring access to research.


Notwithstanding the good efforts of foundations to diversify their grantee pools, we are still looking at a system that offers privileged access to information to those who write really good grant applications.1


In many cases, funded research is proprietary in nature and never disclosed to a broader audience. Assumptions are made about the need to hold the results confidential, regardless of whether there is sensitive information. Of course some research needs to be proprietary. And some foundations make a point of sharing research results in the form of distilled summaries or case studies. Still, the collateral damage to the field as measured in the opportunity cost of existing knowledge that never travels is incalculable. Studies get repeated over and over again at enormous cost to organizations and funders because there’s no system for distributing the learning process more widely, compounded by inefficiencies in the way knowledge is exchanged across organizations and sectors.


Consultants like WolfBrown are often complicit in perpetuating these inefficiencies. We make money by doing similar studies over and over again. There is little incentive to tell inquiring organizations that “you really don’t need to do this study because another organization just did it, and here’s who you should call.” And so, the merry-go-round of privileged access to research goes round and round.


It’s time for a new approach to applied market research – one that breaks down historical barriers to learning. And that’s why the Media Usage Study released this week is important to me – because it sows the seeds of a new approach to field learning.


At our insistence, the organizations that opted into the Media Usage Study all agreed to full transparency – everyone could see everyone else’s results aggregated at the organizational level. Everyone had a chance to comment on the protocol design, and many helpful suggestions were incorporated into the final version. Each organization emailed the survey to a sample of their recent ticket buyers and data was collected in a week’s time. The resulting data was immediately reflected back to the study partners via an online dashboard.


This is not as simple as figuring out how to scale up research using technology. That’s half the battle, but the larger and far more difficult challenge is figuring out how to crowdsource the learning that happens after data is collected. I envision a time when arts organizations can opt into multi-site studies at a very low cost, with or without funder support, and help each other interpret the results with minimal support from consultants.


Over the months and years to come, I invite you to follow us as we embark on this necessary adventure towards more equitable access to research and learning.


1Some foundations aim to make research more accessible to a broader cross-section of organizations. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for example, supported the Audience Research Collaborative, a multi-year program of research support for 40 of its grantees, large and small, on an opt-in basis. Many of the savviest consumers of research were managers and board members of small organizations.

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One Response to A New Study, A New Approach to Crowdsourcing Market Research

  1. Jerry Yoshitomi says:

    Bravo to Alan and his many colleagues at Capacity Interactive and WolfBrown who participated and pioneered in this collaborative venture.

    Several years ago, in her pioneering research “investing in creativity”, Maria Rosario Jackson suggested that “environmental approaches” to supporting artists might have greater overall results than selecting a few “winners” each year. And then the work of Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC) embedded this as a core value in its remarkable ten years of success.

    I am wondering if “environmental approaches” might serve research similarly. I’d be pleased to help in any way I can to make research methodologies available to those who “lose out” in the competition for the research project grants that you describe.

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