Finding the story within the data

by Jini Stolk

It was great to see Buddies in Bad Times throw the question of this season’s soft attendance out to their audience members in such a forthright, open way.  I’m going to be very interested in the response to their overarching question and accompanying survey – and hope that the conversation with their audience is revealing and richly rewarding. (As we know, people do like to be asked what they think.)

I’ve been aware that Creative Trust’s extensive work on Database and Box Office systems – in which we helped companies upgrade their systems, providing a solid basis for learning about their audiences – stopped short of the most intriguing part: learning how to drill down into the figures to uncover information that sparks new ideas about how to reach out and engage people in our work.

What intrigues me these days is the power of data to tell stories. People know that I’m not really a data-analyzing, number-crunching kind of person. But as I said in a recent post I find myself getting quite excited about the untapped value of the information and insights in our databases. It almost makes me want to come back as a marketing or development director, charged by a smart manager with the task of truly understanding the data and using it to craft informed, fact-based strategies to maintain and build audiences and donors.

Amelia Northrup-Simpson, in a recent piece for the National Arts Marketing Project  is emphatic about what we should focus on: “Two decades of arts consumer study is clear. The metrics surrounding loyalty—keeping patrons coming back and increasing their investment—are the ones that really count when it comes to building a sustainable audience (and revenue) base.”

I recently spoke with a highly experienced managing director whose latest analysis of attendance patterns revealed interesting differences between lapsed and current donors. Her company has since developed a whole new strategy on how to reach out to previous attenders, and they think they have the right messages to entice them to return.

Smart Data – the recent Database Workshop Series that Creative Trust helped launch for members of the Neighbourhood Arts Network and CPAMO– included sessions on  “Researching your Data: Advancing Marketing and Fundraising.” This is surely the type of learning that will help companies find  answers to the questions they have about attendance. Not surprisingly, the Smart Data participants expressed a strong desire for consistent training and support in contact management and data strategy.

Chuck Longfield, chief scientist at database giant Blackbaud, was recently interviewed by SOFII (the Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration) for a piece entitled Data is Gold . He says that “at least part of the problem is that, in the art and science of fundraising, data seems to fit mostly in the science bit whereas most fundraisers tend towards the arty side. Fundraisers are creative, imaginative, even intuitive. Data, by contrast, seems solid, complicated, unfashionable, perhaps even a bit unfriendly.”

Perhaps we should think about finding the stories in our data. When it comes to figuring out why audiences who used to come aren’t coming anymore, the answer is not in the water or the air but in the information we have about them. And some of that information can come from simply asking. 

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