Bigger, Better, Faster, More: Audience Development Tools for the 21st Century

By Clay Lord

September 1, 2010, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

THERE’S A REVOLUTION BREWING in audience development, that amorphous and all-encompassing term that describes the tools we use to lure and keep patrons in our seats. A slew of new tools is being developed simultaneously by arts organizations, foundations and for-profit vendors that, in the next year or two, may drastically improve the specificity and frequency of how theatre companies can interact with patrons and potential patrons. Here are quick takes on some of the products coming down the pike:

Community-Level Tools
These tools are being developed for use by community-level organizations (i.e., those that don’t produce, but instead serve the ecosystem at large).

This software, funded by the Mellon Foundation and created as an open-source product by a community of over 200 arts organizations across the country, will eventually provide a series of modules to make the buying experience better for arts goers who don’t have a particular show in mind. At its core, this product will eventually provide an advanced calendaring functionality, the ability to track and discover preferences, linkages out to new media platforms like Twitter and Facebook and more.
Timeline: In development; beta projected to be completed in 2011.
Creators: A group of nonprofit arts organizations, of which Theatre Bay Area is one.
More information:

This work is less a new piece of software and more a continued evolution of the Big List, a shared marketing database currently in existence that allows companies to send snail mail to arts patrons based on demographics and attendance history. In Los Angeles, the Arts Census, developed by LA Stage Alliance in conjunction with the Target Resource Group, will allow for substantial research opportunities on over 2 million unique households. CulturePass, which Theatre Bay Area is currently investigating, would incorporate email and potentially other communication platforms, a multi-organization subscription option and a research functionality into the Big List.
Timeline: Arts Census: Launching summer 2010. CulturePass: Unknown, possibly 2012.
Creators: Arts Census: LA Stage Alliance and Target Resource Group. CulturePass: Theatre Bay Area.
More information: No information on CulturePass yet

Douglas McLennan, the founder of, is the mind behind the Arts Genome. This ambitious project, which aims to create a centralized, standardized database of arts listings across the country that could then be drawn from by listing organizations (the Chronicle, etc.) and by companies. Ultimately, the Arts Genome will probably form the backbone of much of this new technology, providing a common “language,” so to speak, for presenting, writing about and tracking arts events across platforms.
Timeline: Very slow rollout; beta test, possibly including the Bay Area, in 2011.
Creator: Douglas McLennan.
More information:

The Hewlett Foundation has contracted Fractured Atlas, the national service organization for individual artists and technology, in partnership with Theatre Bay Area and Dancers’ Group, to develop a pilot project to develop “an online, interactive visualization of all the performing arts organizations, venues…, artists” and arts goers in the Bay Area, according to Hewlett program officer Ron Ragin. This map will eventually pinpoint rental venues, performance venues, theatre companies and anonymized, aggregated attendance information, with multiple applications possible including centralizing venue rentals, researching trends in attendance, illustrating the effectiveness of funders’ grants and advocating for the arts.
Timeline: Variable, depending on funding.
Creator: Hewlett Foundation, Fractured Atlas, Gemini SBS (developer).
More information:

Company/Artist-Level Tools
These tools are being developed particularly for use by companies and individual artists.

Misnomer Dance Company in New York is the only individual arts organization on this list as a developer. They are building the company- and artist-oriented Audience Engagement Platform. Reportedly funded somewhere in the realm of $2 million from a variety of foundations, this platform is meant to drastically simplify a company or individual’s ability to create, track and maintain new media. With plug-ins that will allow easy video creation, centralized dissemination to new media platforms and more, this software will be offered in a limited free version or for a nominal fee to get more features.
Timeline: Scheduled to beta in June 2010; probably rolling out in 2011.
Creator: Misnomer Dance Company.
More information:

The mission of Kickstarter is to provide small companies and individual artists with a disciplined, results-oriented, super-easy way to raise money for specific projects. Based in New York, Kickstarter walks people with modest-size projects through the process of setting a budget, creating appeals and rewards, setting up a profile with supplemental materials about the project and distributing that information via many new media platforms in order to solicit donations.
Timeline: Currently available.
Creator: Independent programmers.
More information:

Ticketing/CRM Tools
There are also two products being developed to aid in ticketing and constituent management, particularly for small and midsize companies.

ATHENA is more than a ticketing system; it is envisioned as a suite of open-source modules being developed by Fractured Atlas to revolutionize the way small and midsize arts organizations function internally. This first module, ATHENA Tix, like the PatronManager CRM system below, will provide low-cost-to-free ticketing services to small and midsize arts organizations. It will eventually be paired with other modules for constituent relationship management, bookkeeping, venue management and more. Ultimately, the ATHENA Suite, which is being funded by the Mellon, Duke and Kresge Foundations, should provide a seamlessly integrated, practically free administrative system for arts organizations. Because of the sweeping functionality of this product and the open-source nature of the technology, Theatre Bay Area is partnering with Fractured Atlas to develop and distribute ATHENA to performing arts companies throughout the Bay Area.
Timeline: In development now; version 1 of Tix and a customer management system available by March 2011.
Creator: Fractured Atlas, with Theatre Bay Area sitting on the steering committee.
More information:

PatronManager CRM is a ticketing, constituent relationship management (CRM) and donor management system. Developed by Patron Technology and built on the platform, PatronManager CRM is particularly for small and midsize arts organizations. Like ATHENA Tix, PatronManager CRM is angling to provide a practically free ticketing and CRM platform for its clients. It will also integrate with PatronMail to track email effectiveness.
Timeline: Rolling out nationally through 2010.
Creator: Patron Technology.
More information:

So, what do all of these new tools mean? Well, here’s a hypothetical of how an audience interaction could work five years from now (keep in mind that all of this should be available at almost no cost to the company): Jane, a moderately frequent arts goer, is interested in seeing a show this weekend, but she doesn’t really have a particular interest. She visits and logs in, and once she does, Project Audience, running in the background, identifies her attendance record in the past three years through CulturePass and produces a series of recommendations (drawn down from the Arts Genome) for Jane of performances going on in the area. Jane is able to rate the offerings provided, and each time she gives a rating to a show (à la Netflix), that rating is factored via Project Audience into her overall profile, making the discovery of her preferences more accurate.

Once Jane settles on an offering, say a world premiere from ODC Dance, she is seamlessly transferred to a set of interactive pages built by ODC using the Audience Engagement Platform. Within those pages, she can see videos, chat with performers, read choreographer notes, etc. Satisfied, she clicks to purchase a ticket and is directed to ATHENA, which processes her purchase and shunts the data straight into the accompanying CRM system, which in turn redirects that data instantly into CulturePass, completing the circle. Her purchase is potentially also broadcast to her social networks via Project Audience or Audience Engagement Platform, and Project Audience could potentially automatically create an event in her Outlook calendar with all the pertinent information and encourage her to invite friends.

All of this, every last bit, is automated, as are follow-up emails asking Jane to rate her experience, recommending other performances and asking her if she’d like to be reminded when the company/choreographer/dancer of choice has a new production entered into the Arts Genome. Reminders would be automatically generated in the company’s CRM to send mailings or emails around topics that seem to particularly interest Jane, and her past behavior could also be easily used to craft personalized donation solicitations.

In an ideal world, then, a small or midsize organization would be able to use this suite of tools to have the smooth, high-touch (personalized) interactions of a large organization. Community-level organizations, like Dancers’ Group, would be able to more effectively entice, direct, engage and track patrons, relying on constantly updating data to produce recommendations that would match with tastes. And the entire arts ecosystem, which already functions as a complex and interwoven tapestry of many connected individuals, would have a powerful new virtual counterpart floating above it, speeding engagement and improving experiences for all.

This article appeared in the September 2010 issue of In Dance.