Lies, Damn Lies and Are We Ever Going To Use These Survey Results?

My Google Alerts informed me that the phrase butts in the seats was used recently in what turned out to be a reprint of a 2008 article on MinnesotaPlaylist. The topic of the December 2008 issue was “Know Your Audience.” In addition to the original piece that brought me there, a couple others caught my attention as well.

The first article, Joseph Scrimshaw’s “Humans With Pulses,” addresses the idea that everyone will enjoy a quality artistic product if only they are aware of it.

“I’m beginning to think that failing to be specific about who you want in the audience presents a risk to both the profit and enjoyment of theater. There is a tendency for artists to believe that any cross section of people will enjoy their work. After all, theater is good. Theater reaches out to people. It’s easy to reason, “This piece of theater I have created is good, so why shouldn’t any human with a pulse enjoy it?” Music is good, too. When I was fifteen years old my two favorite musical acts were Frank Sinatra and Guns N’ Roses. I chatted with my Grandma about one and with my friends about the other. Unfortunately, there was no chance in hell of any crossover.”

Scrimshaw talks about being aware of the specific segments of the community who might be interested in a performance and why. Granted, the venues he seems to work in sound like they are at the smaller end of the spectrum and thus can serve very narrow segments of the population–like knitters. His description of the audience at his knitting-based, murder mystery comedy sounds like the diverse group everyone yearns for-

“We had knitters from 18 to 82, multiple ethnicities, sexual orientations, and genders. The knitting demographic trumped all because they had an investment in the show: They wanted to see if this Scrimshaw guy (who’s supposed to be funny) had anything interesting to say about this craft that is their hobby and their passion.”

Using the topic of demographics as a segue, John Middleton provides an amusing look at the whole idea of scrutinizing demographics in “They, the People”

She and her husband—let’s call him David—went to Mexico last year and have been thinking about a trip to Europe. However, they’ve both lost a lot of money from their 401(k) accounts and what with Nancy’s allergies and recent weight gain and David’s high cholesterol and occasional erectile dysfunction, that romantic trip to the moors of England might have to wait.

“Whoa!” you’re saying. “This is creepy. Does he really know this stuff or is he just making it up?”

I know this stuff. Visit the raw data (PDF) and draw your own conclusions. Remember, demographers don’t lie.

I actually checked out the raw data, and believe it or not the survey actually asked about all these aspects of the participants’ lives. Here is the real stuff to remember:

It’s true demographers don’t lie. But remember, these numbers are simply a tool. They are descriptive. They do not tell us what plays to do or how to do them. They simply allow us to think about Nancy and her life. They remind us that we’re not just asking Nancy to plunk down twenty bucks to see a show; we’re asking for an investment of her time. She has to find out about our production, decide to go, come up with a night she and David are both free, leave work in time to dress, figure out where our theater is, find parking, and so on. Are we making this process as easy for Nancy as possible?

You see, demographers are not soulless, art-killing philistines. We’re here to help.

However, if you still have doubts about the usefulness of demography, let me tell you something: You are not alone. There is a tiny checkbox labeled “terror” in the heart of every demographer. The system of gathering respondent data is filled with imperfections from start to finish. One flawed remembrance here, one inflated self-aggrandizement there—each insignificant on its own, but they start to add up. Then as we extrapolate the data, every imperfection becomes multiplied many times over until we have nothing left but a spider’s web of half-truths and sweat-soaked guesses. We crush this seething mess into solid-seeming charts, tables and graphs in order to give it the look of Truth, but we know: Demographers lie! And if you think this is only true of demographics, you’re kidding yourself.

Filling out the theme of surveying and data is Sara Stevenson Scrimshaw piece, “Doing Data.” What was immediately interesting to me was her story about studying in London and wanting to do her Master’s thesis on whether theatre and dance organizations used the data they collected. Her advisor couldn’t understand why.

“His response was of course all organizations use data, that wasn’t interesting, I should focus on what they were doing with the data or whether they were satisfied instead. He had worked for years with Theatrical Management Association, a service organization for theaters in the UK, and he had started an audience data collection and dissemination program in 1990—fifteen years before I was coming to him with this topic. So he thought my concerns were old news.”

But Sara knew this wasn’t how it was in the US where data was collected, but rarely acted upon. Part of the reason she felt was because people don’t know how to effectively use the information that passes through their hands. This is what she found in the course of her research:

“I was also surprised that less than 50 percent of organizations collected demographic information, as that is frequently needed for grant reporting. The results also showed that over 50 percent of organizations did not consistently have access to their own box office data—meaning that they had to rely on other methods to collect data about their audiences.

Do I have any recommendations? I think using data is simple and complex at once. The most important things are fairly easy: looking at the data, analyzing it for trends, inspecting to see if there are any obvious gaps. However, the key is really using the data to understand your audience—asking who they are, where they are, why they come to you, then using that data to help inform your future decisions. Do you want to compare yourself to other organizations? Do you want to reach people you currently aren’t reaching? Is your audience who you thought they were? Audience data can help to answer all of these questions more honestly.


…I don’t believe that there is a magic formula or a correct answer. Instead, I think it’s a process of using little pieces of information to help create an overall picture.”

I have to agree that it is both simple and complex to use data. For me it is as much about the suspected dearth of information from certain segments of our audience as trying to accurately process the information I do have. I know our audience surveys aren’t being filled out by a representative portion of our audience because we barely get any completed by people in the 20s and 30s, but we see a lot of them passing through the doors.

Likewise, so many people purchase tickets at the door where we don’t have the time to collect information not directly related to the ticket purchase that the only data I have is from the lesser percentage that plan ahead. I could send reminder postcards to people who make their decisions last minute and perhaps improve my relationship with them. My software tells me exactly what time they made their purchase–if only I knew where they live or who they are!

I don’t want to be making decisions about how to serve all of my audience based on what I know about 20% of them. I figure that is a formula for retaining slightly more than that 20% but that is all I have to work with at the moment. Though that isn’t to say we can’t ask audience members to help us serve them by making note of their account numbers so we can better track simple things like attendance preferences. We may still miss a large segment of the audience, but we will narrow the gap a little and let people know their presence is important to us.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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