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Talking to people directly is vital in forming and strengthening relationships. For arts organisations, capturing information about their audiences is the key to understanding who they are and developing ongoing, meaningful conversations with them.

As producing companies, NoFit State Circus (NFS) and National Theatre Wales (NTW), and many others like them, are frustrated with the limited audience information they hold in one single, accessible place.

Patchy and fragmented data is often tied up across multiple venue ticketing systems and bound by data protection. For producing and touring companies, developing a clear understanding of audiences and talking to them, is a significant challenge.

In a bid to find a creative solution to this problem NFS and NTW joined forces with technical partner Joylab, a Bristol-based digital consultancy with expertise in creating digital dialogue between organisations and customers.

They set out to explore playful and creative ways to capture and hold audience data, while building and strengthening audience relationships through creative dialogue.

The project

In a co-design partnership with Joylab, NoFit State Circus and National Theatre Wales set out to explore the concept of ‘value exchange’ as an approach for collecting data.

Would audiences exchange their personal information for creative and engaging content that added value to their experience? And could a web-based system facilitate this approach?

Answering these questions relied on linking the technology with a live audience as early as possible. A ‘lean project approach’ – a flexible developmental design process that produces a basic product, adapting and honing it via a repetitive cycle of user-testing and redesign – could achieve this.

A research phase gathered information to design a basic prototype. Research findings prioritised ‘unknown ticketholders’ (who hadn’t supplied data by purchasing a ticket) as target audience members. ‘Dialogue’ was defined as the way people could continue engaging with the work outside the constraints of the show, sharing their responses and developing a relationship further.

The concept of a ‘data key’ outlined the data the system needed to capture: name, mobile number, email, Facebook and Twitter details. Having these would enable reconciliation with existing data records elsewhere, as well as broadening the reach of the ‘dialogue’ across multiple communication platforms.

The design phase that followed produced the concept of a system using ‘sweet spots’: identified moments in and around a show where the audience are at their most emotionally open and engaged. These moments were highlighted as opportunities for creative and playful interactions provided in exchange for data, with a mobile phone as a delivery mechanism to initiate the interaction via SMS.

The results

The process produced Torf: a piece of web-based software consisting of two versions; Torf Live, the prototype system and Torf Alpha, a first phase towards a commercial product. Torf uses SMS to initiate a series of interactions with audiences, building a dialogue to deepen engagement, with each interaction capturing additional data for the ‘data key’.

Over six months Torf Live was tested to a total of 3,800 people at live performances. Engagement levels varied, and were dependent on a number of unique factors per show, including positioning within a show context and the communication about its part in the show. 53% engagement was

achieved during a test with Torf integrated into a performance, while 16-41% engagement was achieved during tests that interacted with audiences before or after performances. Two events achieved less than 10% engagement; in both cases this was seen to be a result of ineffective communication.

These levels of engagement, although varied, have exceeded the partners’ expectations and proven that when employed in the right way, Torf is an effective approach to data capture.

Results show that crafted messaging is key to establishing audience awareness and understanding about the incentives to engage through Torf. Also, a cross-organisational creative approach needs to be at its heart in order to reap rewards.

Torf testing continues, with the partners remaining committed to its development. New funding streams are being explored, as well as opportunities for other arts organisations to trial the system and provide feedback to inform its progress.

Insights

Key insights from the process include:

  • Focus on the show and the audience, not the data: Meaningful, playful and creative interactions result in high levels of engagement, with data collection as a happy outcome.
  • Torf as a ‘Canary tool’: Torf requires creative, marketing, and front of house teams to work together to develop audiences’ engagement with it. As a result, it can be a vital stress test for internal communications.
  • The audience knows what you are up to: Audiences are savvy to data capture, but when they’re engaged in a creative way they don’t mind it being part of the process. Openness and transparency helps build relationships.
  • They won’t come just because you build it: Torf needs to be branded as a key creative element of the show with its incentives clearly communicated.
  • The human touch will start the dialogue: Having dedicated people encouraging the audience to engage produced the highest levels of response and data capture in the live tests.
  • Key environmental factors: Poor network signal strength poses a risk while Torf’s delivery system is via SMS.