Photo courtesy of Dance Canvas 2015, by Richard Calmes

For Atlanta’s nonprofit arts organizations, the metro area is bursting with more than 410,000 adults who want to attend but never get to the show. These are people attracted to the arts. But they get derailed along the way to engagement. Plenty more get a taste of the arts but miss the personal connection that would bring them back.

More than 50 arts organizations have come together to change the game. Launched by the Blank Family Foundation and led by a steering committee of peers, the Audience Building Roundtable is poised to accelerate audience building innovations. Through the Roundtable, groups are testing ways to build relationships with those elusive adults– the interested, non-attenders – and to deepen relationships with customers who have sampled programming but not returned for more.

In just a short amount of time the Audience Building Roundtable has had a significant and meaningful impact on the Children’s Museum of Atlanta. It has encouraged us to rethink ‘business as usual’ and has provided a roadmap needed to guide us towards adopting best practices across the organization. ABR is poised to make a significant impact on Atlanta’s arts and cultural landscape as it provides arts leaders with invaluable knowledge and the tools needed to build thriving organizations.
— Stacey Lucas, Director of Marketing, Children’s Museum of Atlanta

As a peer network, the Roundtable fosters learning across organizations and challenges arts groups to listen and respond to audience desires. Only then can arts groups align their priorities with audience interests. Network gatherings are customized so members can tap into the right experts at the moment it matters most. Members pursue audience building solutions and case studies that will benefit their own organizations and their peers. Through blogs, newsletters and podcasts, members stay in touch. Members are eligible for scholarships to attend training and professional development programs and may be considered for grants. In all cases, members share experiences through the Roundtable gatherings.

For philanthropy, the Roundtable represents a shift away from marketing tactics that require a heavy lift but never lead to enduring relationships with audiences. Instead, the Roundtable recognizes that the recipe for building arts audiences requires an all-hands-on-deck commitment, with equal measures of marketing skill and organizational will. By creating personalized experiences that gratify audiences, arts groups can tend to customer relationships that last a lifetime. The payoff can be a win-win-win, with increasing demand for tickets, more donors and a stronger case for public support.

Never have I experienced such a meaningful day where so many representatives are gathered and actively working together to better our individual organizations as well as collaborate and learn from one another to provide a greater overall patron experience for our guests.
— Stephanie Smith, High Museum

Attracting and Retaining Audiences

The Challenge

Arts and culture organizations face an ongoing challenge: increasing the size of – and diversifying – their audiences. Organizations are challenged to understand who their existing audiences are, who their potential audiences are, what those audiences want from the experience, and how to cultivate those new and existing audiences into longer-term supporters and champions. The challenges include:

I am thrilled to be a part of the Audience Building Roundtable. As a small arts organization, the support that I am receiving in the way of professional development, education and networking is so valuable. I am able to be in the room networking and learning not only from my counterparts but from experts that are brought in. The fact that my organization is small and outside of the Atlanta city limits makes no difference. We are all equal in our desire and commitment to promoting the arts in Metro Atlanta and our communities.
— Shelli Siebert, Conyers Rockdale Council for the Arts
  • 13% of the adult population are “interested non-attenders” of arts and culture programming; a 2015 study from the National Endowment for the Arts provides a list of real and perceived barriers keeping these adults from attending the show, the exhibit, or the experience 
  • 80% of ticket buyers/visitors sample arts and culture programming once and do not return, trapping organizations in a cycle of over-prospecting and under-retaining: spending lots to get new customers over and over while not investing in smart ways to retain and grow customers through relationships
  • organizational culture and funding realities inhibit innovation and risk taking


The Opportunity

Thanks to the Roundtable, arts organizations get the chance to test ways to find and engage new and existing audiences. When the arts groups pursue innovation through the peer network, they push and pull one another through experiments that create more robust cultural experiences for audiences across the region.

What is Audience Building?
Audience building is the identification, engagement and cultivation of new and expanded audiences.  An “audience” is a potential or existing group of ticket buyers, customers, patrons, donors and/or supporters.

What is the Audience Building Roundtable?
A member-governed peer network that fosters learning across metro Atlanta’s arts and cultural organizations that are finding new ways to listen and respond to audiences. Roundtable members believe that by changing the nature of their engagement with existing and new audiences, they will build and maintain deeper, more meaningful ties between the audiences and the organizations. 

Who is a part of the Audience Building Roundtable?
Arts and culture organizations of various sizes are involved – from theatre companies to festivals, dance companies to photography exhibitors, all types of music productions, and many others.  Roundtable members develop a variety of strategies to reach their audiences; two examples are summarized here:

  • Synchronicity Theatre’s Strategy: Create an organization-wide process for better gathering and applying micro data to build loyal customers and more effectively move patrons through the cycle of first-time attendees to loyal season ticket buyers. A key component of this is the transition of the theatre’s ticketing and donor management system to a new system that offers tools to streamline communications and to more deeply understand, engage with and support our patrons.  
  • The Michael O’Neal Singers’ Strategy: Develop an app to improve alignment of public relations and social media communications and offer livestreaming of performances. This alignment will engage younger adult audience members outside of concert events, enhancing their knowledge of and advocacy for the organization and its mission. The organization also anticipates gathering better, cleaner audience data through an enhanced and more interactive front-of-house purchasing system and setup that is connected to the app. 

What are the Roundtable’s goals?
The Atlanta metro area is bursting with more than 410,000 adults who want to attend but never get to the show – the Roundtable seeks new and innovative ways to reach these potential audience members.

The Roundtable identifies strategies for growing audiences that can be adopted by multiple arts and culture organizations, provides a forum for sharing research from peers and outside experts on audience building; and leans on experts to provide technical assistance that supports arts and culture organizations in building their audiences.

The Audience Building Roundtable brings together talented leaders poised to re-invigorate their organizations by sharing new ideas from the Roundtable sessions. Members use skills acquired through Roundtable training sessions to take measured risks, nurture audience relationships and make mid-course corrections. Throughout, members seek feedback from their own audiences and from peers.


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