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Can We Really Tell Whose Butts Are In Our Seats?

As a grant writer, I fill out more than a dozen final reports for funders each season. Theatre companies are often asked in these reports to provide data on the age, gender, and ethnic composition of our audiences. But the hard truth is, the data we’re providing are almost certainly unreliable.

Let’s be realistic: theatres can’t force self-identification on our audience members. Most people want to come to the theatre, see a show, then leave with their friends. They aren’t interested in meeting our nonprofit funders’ reporting requirements. Still, arts administrators have to come up with estimates, because we have to complete those final reports. And unfortunately, any estimation method we select has problems.

In quantifying and reducing our audiences in these ways, without their permission, we’re avoiding signs that many people are increasingly concerned about revealing personal information or having it tracked in patron databases.

The simplest approach to estimating your theatre’s audience demographics is:

  1. Google the most recent census data for your local area.
  2. Write down the percentages of people by age, gender, and ethnicity.
  3. Break up your total annual attendance number to mirror the percentages of people in your area.

Done, right? Except that accurate audience research means not assuming we’re already mirroring our local population. This approach, despite its advantages of being inexpensive and fairly quick, obviously pre-empts learning anything about the people we’re actually serving in the seats. And it may hide populations that we are not reaching at all, hindering inclusivity work.

The second most common approach is to measure audience demographics through surveys. However, most surveys just don't get responses from the vast majority of theatre attendees. People are bombarded with survey requests everywhere from the grocery store to the mall to their online banker, so the result is survey exhaustion. Whether offered on-site, over the phone, by email, or through social media post-show, typically only a small portion of any overall audience responds to surveys, regardless of the incentives offered to participate. The survey respondents, therefore, may or may not be a statistically representative sample of the overall audience.

Social science research demonstrates that more educated, more affluent people are more likely to complete surveys than less educated, less affluent people. Younger people are more likely to participate than older people.  Women are more likely to participate than men. And white people are more likely to participate than non-white people. The survey results we collect are only as accurate as the people who choose to respond. And as a result, survey responses tend to mask a population’s income, age, and ethnic diversity. This problem is known as non-response bias, when the population that takes a survey skews the results compared to what they would be if the survey included non-respondents. Thus, audience survey approaches, though more precise and resource-intensive than census extrapolation, still don’t guarantee accuracy in demographic reporting, because of the large number of audience members who opt out.


The third category of alternate sampling methods, while the most resource-intensive and potentially the most accurate, introduces new problems. Like people who research crowds at protests and political events, do we really want to photograph or videotape every night’s audience, and count and classify attendees who might be people of color? Or use expensive facial recognition software at our box office to guess audience members’ ethnicity, gender, or age by their appearance, without their consent? Such invasive, expensive approaches seem the opposite of the kind of authentic personal relationships theatres want to build with our audience members.

Meanwhile, our marketing departments just can’t get enough patron data. Take Opera Philadelphia, recently held up as an exemplar in Opera News:

With the financial support of several blue-chip foundations, Opera Philadelphia has engaged top-tier consumer product marketing firms to measure all manner of audience behavior—retention, churn, demographics, psychographics, probabilities, preferences and (the holy grail) the Net Promoter Score, a measure of a consumer’s willingness to recommend the product to another… Drilling down by age, gender, education level, potential of attendance, consumption patterns and likelihood of return, one encounters increasingly exotic species of operagoers who may or may not be fruitful and multiply.

Analyzing audience composition in these ways can also be invasive of privacy. In the United Kingdom, regulations have been passed that require arts organizations to get explicit consent for any patron data that they hold. These regulations ensure a “right to be forgotten” by companies with whom people do business. In the US, audiences don’t have such privacy protections. Gathering patron information for future audience “conversion” and donor “targeting” is a theatre industry standard. The marketing jargon evokes religious fervor and military violence at the same time: is our mission really to be converting people to theatrical attendance? or acquiring them like targets?

In quantifying and reducing our audiences in these ways, without their permission, we’re avoiding signs that many people are increasingly concerned about revealing personal information or having it tracked in patron databases. Repeated requests for demographic information can drive some privacy-seekers away from the theatre altogether. Need evidence? Look at how many people unsubscribe from your email list within forty-eight hours of the next time you send out a patron survey.

One of two things is true. Perhaps theatres need more ethical approaches for accurately measuring audience composition along various demographic lines. Such approaches would require audience consent up front, address known problems with survey bias, and include sufficient funding and training for the staff needed to conduct audience research ethically and transparently.

Or, a more radical proposal: we should stop attempting to measure audience composition altogether, since it cannot be done accurately when there’s no mandate for audiences to self-report, without significant resource investment and invasion of privacy.

Theatres can and should focus our diversity and equity efforts on hiring practices onstage and backstage, where self-reporting can be made a condition of employment. We can feature stories by diverse playwrights, cast inclusively, and select design teams with an eye to equity, because these are areas over which artists and arts administrators have direct responsibility and control over decision-making.

When it comes to audiences, however, the best way to be inclusive may actually be to stop trying to gather so much information about who’s coming through our doors. Instead of tracking, or rather imprecisely guessing at, our audience’s identity data, we should respect the privacy rights and personal identities of our audience members. It’s their right to choose when and how to self-identify, not our funders’ right to know. And we must challenge our funders to stop demanding patron data that requires invasive, unethical, and inaccurate data collection.


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Take a look at how Mixed Blood Theatre Company handles this. Educate the audience on why the survey is important to them and their community, and then conduct a whole audience survey before a limited number of performances during each run.

Thank you, Heather, for this piece! As a grantwriter, I also am frustrated by our limited tools to reflect who we serve. However, my organization has begun to use is the zip code method, and I think this offers an approximation that doesn't offend our audience members' privacy. By using census data from www.city-data.com, we compare zip codes' demographic population make-up with that of ticket holders for an event (since patrons are required to provide an address when purchasing tickets or making a reservation). This method is far from perfect, but we are honest with our funders about how we come up with these estimates, and they do seem to reflect who we see in our audience.

Sara, I think a key element from your response is honesty with funders about how estimates are reached. Zip-code extrapolation can definitely help address privacy concerns under some circumstances. It can help theatres and funders understand what a typical audience breakout might look like, if the theatre's audience mirrored the general population.

One problem with a zip-code or other census-extrapolation approach is that it can't really help measure the success of outreach and engagement efforts that target underserved or minority groups. (I assume you've seen the studies by the NEA and others that suggest theatre audiences are generally older, whiter, and wealthier than the general U.S. population.)

For example, let's say a theatre receives funding specifically to reach out to a minority group that's less than 10% of the local population, to try to bring a new audience into the theatre.
If in the final report a theatre uses zip-code or census extrapolation as its basis for analyzing audience data, the results will automatically mirror the local population breakout, so success will be assumed where it may not have been achieved. Alternately, if a theatre is serving a minority group with disproportionate success, extrapolating from zip-code or census data won't show that.

So there's a conversation that needs to be had with funders interested in funding a changing audience demographic, around how best to measure which approaches are effective.

This essay raise some interesting questions about methodology; we know that the ways theaters acquire information are subject to certain biases. Further, the basic question raised about *why* we want that information is worth asking. But I don't, in the end, find the argument compelling. While our data collection is subject to bias, that is true for every kind of data collection, and statisticians have tools for taking that into account. Just because data collection is hard doesn't mean we should give up. Privacy is important, of course, but most forms of data collection are anonymous, or at least can (and generally should) be made anonymous.

As for the *why*, some granting organizations support theater for the basic joy of giving money to this art form that we all love. But most are doing social work - they give money to theaters so that the theaters can, in turn, *serve their community,* and it is reasonable for them to want to know *who* they are helping. If your audience is almost entirely making over $100,000/year, funders who are trying to serve poorer constituencies have a right to know that your theater just isn't doing that.

Richard, thanks for your comment. I agree that data collection is subject to a host of biases, and theatre patron data isn't unique in this regard. I'd argue that funders aren't entitled to know the incomes of our individual audience members (or in aggregate), whether their data is made anonymous or not.

If a funder's goal is to fund low-income people to attend theatre, there are other ways for theatres to demonstrate they're using their money toward that goal that don't rely on individual data collection, for example giving tickets away through social service organizations and then measuring how many of those tickets are used.

A theatre can serve a vast majority of patrons that don't qualify as low-income, but still be using a funder's grant dollars appropriately. The funder does have a right to ask for verification that a theatre is using the funds for the purposes for which it was funded, but they don't have a right to know any more than that about the rest of the theatre's patrons.

Kudos! I agree one hundred percent with the author's concerns and conclusion (that we should respect the privacy rights and personal identities of our audience members, and challenge grant makers and other funders to stop requiring invasive, unethical, and inaccurate data collection).