Stuff To Ponder: Familiarity As A Proxy For Certainty

Two years into a six year research project, Ballet Austin has started learning things about their audiences that run contrary to their assumptions. While the audiences in every community are different, what they have learned provides a lesson that you may not know your audiences as well as you think you do.

One of the biggest assumptions Ballet Austin made was that audiences became more open to new works as they became more familiar with them and thus followed a roughly linear progression of attendance. What they learned was that people were open to a cross-section of genres and the biggest determinant was how confident people were that they would enjoy the experience.

In other words, the market research suggested that encouraging people to attend the ballet more often was less about increasing their familiarity with productions and more about bridging an uncertainty gap. “Familiarity is about information,” notes Martin, “whereas uncertainty about how an experience will feel is much more personal. You can give somebody a lot of information but that’s not necessarily going to reassure them that they’re going to belong in that audience.”


Audience uncertainty partly grew out of how Ballet Austin was presenting information about its productions. The research showed that images as well as the language used in promotional pieces, ads and even program titles, often created a disconnect. “What we thought we were saying was not what people were hearing,” Martin says.

The problem was especially glaring for abstract productions. Based on the promotional materials in some cases, prospective audience members simply couldn’t fathom what they would be seeing. An ad for a recent program, “To China With Love,” featured an image of two dancers seeming to float among clouds, which many found ambiguous. One person mistook it for a mattress ad. The confusion made Loignon wonder if Ballet Austin should consider cutting back on print ads for abstract ballets and investing more in online videos that show the work itself.

The fact they were considering focusing more of their resources on having video representations and eschewing print was interesting to me. If you have ever read Trevor O’Donnell’s thoughts on the imagery used in print marketing by arts organizations, you know that he is pretty solidly against depictions like that of the two dancers floating in the clouds for the very reason Ballet Austin discovered.

Ultimately though, I was encouraged by the recognition that familiarity was a proxy for certainty. Audiences can be open to adventure if they receive help in feeling confident about their choices.

If you read the whole piece you can learn about the various tactics Ballet Austin has employed in an attempt to close the uncertainty gap for audiences.

Another process I was interested to read about was how they created social interaction experiences. There is often a lot of talk about the need to create social situations to attract millennials. Ballet Austin’s experience doing this really illustrates the importance of constantly tweaking and perhaps defining success by quality of experience rather than quantity.

Though it has taken various forms, an event known as Ballet Bash! is meant to facilitate social gatherings before a performance and during intermission. One time, Bash! included a DJ for a pre-performance party with refreshments. The cost outweighed the benefits, however, so Ballet Austin cut the DJ and instead offered carefully selected music in an area at the Long Center with spectacular views of Austin’s expanding skyline. That iteration was modestly attended. For a later production, Ballet Bash! was replaced by a social lounge in a smaller, more intimate wing of the Long Center’s mezzanine. At recent performances, around 15 people were sitting in small groups during the hour before the performance and intermission, which Ballet Austin considered a promising start.

There are other imaginative social and interactive experiences Ballet Austin created for their audiences that attracted larger numbers. I wanted to include the paragraph above in order to ask the obvious question about whether your organization would consider the participation of 15 people a promising start. From the context of the paragraph, I would assume this approach balanced their goals for cost with desired outcomes.

As a cross-reference to this research, you can also check out California Symphony’s Orchestra X blog and this post in particular about what their research discovered. In short, it was nearly every other element of the experience except the programming that was an impediment to audience enjoyment. Ceci Dadisman provides some perspective on this on ArtHacker today.

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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