As some of the readers of this blog know, I have an ongoing professional relationship with the University Musical Society (UMS)—a top-notch performing arts presenter in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Over the past 18 months, we completed a four-stage study aimed at uncovering how arts organizations can better engage audiences through educational programming.  Our leading research questions included:

•    How effective are public educational events in their role as primers for performances?

•    What role do UMS educational programs play in recruiting and retaining ticket buyers?

•    What kind of engagement practices inspire life-long arts advocates?

The end results of this work are still forthcoming, but will likely include a list of best practices, along with ten “Rules of Engagement” for presenters and performers to keep in mind as they plan their productions. UMS has already begun to incorporate these findings into the design of their educational offerings.  For instance, we recently launched an online “tour” in conjunction with ONCE. MORE., a 50th anniversary festival celebrating the avant-garde art scene so prevelant in 1960s Ann Arbor.  You can check out the tour and its full explanation here, but the general gist was to provide patrons with a virtual means of revisiting and remembering some of the historic venues that housed ONCE-related performances and get-togethers, many of which no longer exist.  UMS posted this tour as an entry on their dedicated audience site, the UMS Lobby, with the hope that audience members would take the tour and share their own experiences and commentary with other members of the community.

Based on an analysis of site traffic, we can deduce that the tour was effective at engaging UMS patrons before the corresponding performances. However, we do not yet know how effective these types of efforts are at recruiting ticket buyers, and thus generating revenue.  The next step, then, is to design an interface that can track how potential ticket buyers are influenced by supplementary educational programs like this tour.  This could be done in any number of ways, such as polling potential ticket buyers or tracing how patrons make the jump from “event recognition” to purchasing a ticket or engaging in a transaction.  Regardless, these types of “experiments” in audience development are a critical component of any artist’s toolkit—or at least they should be.  They provide a low barrier to entry for new listeners, and offer arts organizations an opportunity to transform potential ticket buyers into life-long investors.