THINK
about communication in contemporary dance

Audience

table of contents

Audience

Let’s look into the audience, to see who’s there.  In general, according to the Engage Audiences study, commissioned by the EU audiences can be divided into three groups: audiences by habit, by choice and by surprise.   
This chapter invites you to look at the audience in each of these categories, with curiosity.  Who are they?  What motivates them to come and see your work?  What keeps them from coming? Do you know your audience?

Knowing your audience

Knowing your audience is important in building communication strategies.  Becoming aware of the extent your knowledge about your audience is already part of your practice can be helpful.  The questions below are essential to ask yourself throughout your career.  

  • Do you know who your audience is?
  • Do you want to know who your audience is? If not, why not?
  • Do you have a desired audience?
  • Do you consider having an audience part of your responsibility as an artist?
  • Do you think knowing more about your audience is a part of your responsibility?
  • Do you consider your audience while you are creating a new work or a new programme? And if so, how?

If you are able to imagine, in detail, the people most likely to attend and appreciate your work and you begin to see the world through their eyes when you are designing your communication strategy, the more likely it is you will reach them, leading them to actually come and see the work.

Creating such a communication strategy does not challenge the content or form of a work, nor the artistic research. Each act of communication can have a different purpose. For example: when diving into your artistic fingerprint, it is about clarifying your position and your ideas to yourself and your close collaborators, with whom you share the same frame of references. You are in a creation process and your goal is to create art.
When communicating your ideas to others, such as audience, programmers, and curators etc., your goal changes; you want to generate interest.  And as the groups you are reaching out to do not automatically share your frame of reference, they need to be addressed differently to be able to connect to your ideas. You enter a process of Translation.

The artistic work and the communication strategy accompanying it are therefore perhaps best considered as two separate creations, which may both find their source within the professional dialogue around your work but each need to be shaped and studied in their own way, and are created based on their own parameters.

Focusing your efforts: Insiders and Outsiders

To develop your tailor-made communication strategy further, the next step is to define who you want to reach out to. It is important to remember that not every audience is your audience.  This can be hard to accept, as of course we want our work to reach everyone…  But if we start from a targeted and strategic place it makes it more realistic that one day you will expand your reach much further. 
The challenge is to segment your audiences and identify target communities.  
In speaking about insiders and outsiders we use the meaning as explored by Nina Simon in her 2016 book, The Art of Relevance.

Step 1. Who are your insiders and outsiders?

Who are your loyal audiences and (existing) insiders?

The people that already engage with what you are doing are your insiders. Examples of insiders are:

  • People who know who you are, what you do and when and why you do it
  • Regular visitors, cardholders
  • Digital insiders; people who follow your work on social media

It is important to reach out to insiders as they are most likely to come, but also as they are most likely to become ambassadors for you.  However, the risk of only serving insiders is that your work could become elitist or could alienate outsiders.

So, who are your outsiders?

Your outsiders are basically everyone else.  The biggest group.  The group that you have never seen and whom have never heard of you, but whom you would like to see become insiders.

Connecting with outsiders is important, in order to diversify and replenish existing audiences, to reinforce the necessity of dance and to bring dance to as many people as possible.  Looking to include more outsiders could offend or alienate your existing insiders, which is something you need to keep in mind.  Make sure you do not lose time and energy reaching out to general outsiders, but specify or target relevant groups.  This specificity can also help to explain your focus on outsiders to your existing insiders!

Step 2. How might we segment audiences?

You can point out relevant target groups and segment audiences by:

  • Identifying characteristics (e.g. curious, with interest in a specific theme)
  • Identifying demographics (e.g. cultural background, age, gender, income)
  • Geographically/Location
  • Behavioural characteristics (e.g. what do they do – work and in spare time)
  • Attitudinal characteristics (e.g. what do they think – political view, religion)

By being as specific as possible about who you want to reach out to, the next step in developing your communication strategy – thinking about how to communicate and through which channels - becomes much easier.

Barriers to entry

Most people, generally all of your outsiders, have a limited knowledge of dance.  A typical case of “I do not like it because I have not tried it”.
Dance can be difficult for people.  What if I do not understand it?  What if I do not behave correctly?  People generally do not like being confronted with these types of insecurities, especially in the context of entertainment and a social outing.  So, do consider the different barriers to attendance for a potential audience member, and address these barriers as much as possible in your planning if you wish them to come and see (your) dance.

  • Universal barriers

First of all, there are universal barriers that need to be overcome, being:

  • Lack of interest
  • Lack of time
  • Difficulty in getting there
  • Costs
  • Risk and experiment

In dance we tend to use the terms experiment and risk a lot to promote work.  But in general, people tend to respond better to the notion of opportunity, rather than risk.   That means that without changing the actual (perhaps experimental and risky nature of the) work, the way you choose to frame your work to the audience might need reconsideration.

  • ‘I didn’t understand it’

The general public is raised in school, work and cultural systems that place great value on narrative, words, coherent arguments, knowledge and understanding.  Dance, as a non-linear, abstract and non-narrative form goes against this.  However, we need to remember that audiences have the same need to ‘understand’ dance in the same way they understand all other parts of their world.  A general audience member will feel that there is a ‘right way’ or a ‘wrong way’ to look at a dance piece.  This leads to insecurity as to how to respond to dance as an art form.  As dance professionals, we need to consider which tools and strategies we have to offer our audiences to experience work in a freer way.  It is also important to actively study if, and how, the sensations and imagination generated on the stage communicate with an audience as intended.  Examining this can illuminate the difference between the core ideas or source material for the work, and what is perceived by an audience about the performance.

  • I do not recognise myself in the audience

To see yourself is to feel at home.  Dance has a lot of loyal audience members and a lot of professionals who come to see each other’s work.  There is a specificity to this community that for people who do not come to see dance regularly can feel exclusive – as something they do not belong to.  This can be intimidating, and can form an extra barrier to come and see dance for the first time or to come again.  It is interesting to think about how your audience can feel welcome and can be diversified, so that you may reach all audiences for whom your work will resonate, and not just communities for whom the universal barriers are less of a concern.

Overcoming barriers

So how to overcome those barriers? Building a trusting relationship with your audience is the obvious answer here. But of course, the next question is, how? How to turn outsiders into insiders?

Perhaps certain work will resonate specifically with a certain community, such as a work on dementia.  Building relationships with insiders in this specific field is a way to understand how to address this specific audience.  An artist creating a community through their practice by involving the audience in his/her research process through shared movement classes is another example of a possible strategy.  Community driven approaches are wonderfully rich, but need a lot of work.  How sustainable is the relationship that you are starting and how do you intend to continue or stop it once the work is done?  

Engaging in conversation with insiders to understand how they experience and look at your work may also give clues to understanding how to target and approach outsiders.   On top of that, consulting with them in this way may deepen your relationship with your insiders.  It is important to study how the specificity of your work impacts certain people, and whom it resonates with.  What in the work is or might be relevant to them?  What does an audience highlight about your identity and practice?  There are many different conversation formats being used in the field between audiences and artists that you may draw inspiration from.  

When being supported by an institution, use their existing knowledge!  The institution might have a network already in place to make it easy to reach out to your desired audience.  And of course, generating high quality promotion material remains an important strategy to invite people in.  There is a lot of practical advice on preparing this material on this website.

In addition, we gathered some general pointers from communication professionals in the process of this journey for you to take into account when developing your communication strategy further.

Audience research

Knowing the other aspects of your audience’s lives and what other activities they enjoy can be key pieces of information in understanding their decision-making processes, and what ultimately led them to your work.  This information can be of great value to you as an artist, as it informs you about your artistic fingerprint as much as it informs the development of your communication strategy.

Gathering such specifics is usually done through audience research.  Unfortunately, doing audience research in a structured way is near to impossible for any independent artist.  However, in many countries, theatres, festivals and companies are now asked to do this type of research.  When being supported by or in dialogue with an institution, it is therefore always of value to find out what they might already know about their audiences, when you are striving to attract the attention of their insiders.  To explore audience research more for yourself, you can find useful information at engageaudiences.eu.