The importance of evaluation

Who are you talking to? Who do you want to be talking to? How can you talk to the people you want to be talking to?

Evaluation, particularly in the arts, is usually framed as quite a complex science. In fact, it can be simplified into these core questions. The complexity, where it exists, is to communicate, effectively, throughout the whole process.

It’s a tough process for any organisation, especially one that is audience focused, as so many arts organisations are. Free to access and open buildings, designed to create as few thresholds as possible to welcome people inside, publicly funded, providing a voice and platform for people and artists within the local community, it can be hard for an arts organisation to consider they might need to approach these things differently.

We all want to believe we are talking to our audience effectively. We all want to believe we are making ourselves accessible to all. We all want to believe we are doing everything we can to fulfil our obligations to both our audience and funders and are making ourselves sustainable.

The hardest thing is to discover that we might not be.

This is why evaluation is important. In the arts, we work so hard and are pulled in so many different directions simultaneously. To do lists are lengthy and continually added to. It can be easy to assume our audiences stay static. They don’t. The people who live in a city centre can change dramatically within a couple of years, especially if it’s a university location. A new infrastructure or affordable housing can change the character of a town rapidly. A new employer can swell a population. If our local population changes, our audience does too. It makes sense to regularly check in.

Here are my favourite (and what I’ve found to be the most successful) methods of evaluation. Jargon free.

Social media evaluation – Free tools like Twitter Analytics and Facebook Insights can help give a good indication of our digital audience. Setting up regular events and even a small advertising spend can help improve these insights further. Gender, demographics, interests and engagement can help us measure how our digital communications work, who we’re talking to digitally and whether it’s working. Enewsletter analytics fits in here too. How many opens do you get, what do people open? It helps feed into your communication strategy.

Website analytics – Being able to track behaviour across a website, measure where they come from and what pages they read is a valuable tool. What’s your most popular page? How do people arrive at your website? How long do they stay? What’s the last place they visit? What are they searching for? This helps you build a map of your digital audience. It can feed into a digital strategy, and provide an insight into how well your website works. On Google Analytics, demographics and audience insights can help you breakdown the type of audience member you have, digitally.

Event tracking – How many events do you hold? Which are best attended? How do people find your events? How do they buy tickets? Do enewsletters help? Events are not just a great way of engaging with your audience and profiling your work, they’re a great opportunity for evaluation. How people find you is a good way of measuring how effectively you’re talking to your audience. If they don’t come, are you engaging with them successfully.

Surveying, online and offline – understanding your audience means tracking it both digitally and physically. Digitally, a survey can be sent via enewsletters, social media, be hosted on your website and through other channels. Physically you can survey people at events, as they move through the building, if they stop for a cup of tea etc etc. The questions do not need to be the same, but it’s important to be clear about what you’re trying to find out. If you rely on footfall, then postcodes are invaluable. Where is your audience coming from? How are they getting to their venue? What is the purpose of their visit? Are they going elsewhere beforehand or afterwards? Understanding how a visit to your organisations fits in with an audience members life is the most important step in understanding how you can attract more.

Talking to people – Sitting in an office can be a good way to get your work done, but it’s often not a great way of engaging with your audience. Spending some time front of house helps you understand how people move through your building or organisation. Front of house staff talk to your audience every day. Do you ask them to tell you what audience members say, not just when there’s a complaint. Regular feedback sessions help to track audience behaviour and mood. Are they happy? Content? Frustrated? Audience reaction can be the canary in the coalmine for any problems that might be arising in an organisation.

Data analysis – Reports are vital for funders, but they should also be part and parcel of the work you’re doing on a regular basis. Comparing responses year on year, quarter on quarter, helps you measure efficacy  and if you are meeting your goals and objectives. If you’re working project to project it can be difficult to take a moment to stop and see if what you’re doing is working. Analysing the data your evaluation is generating is an important step to tracking what you’re doing.

Engaging everyone – it isn’t just front of house, or the responsibility of marketing or development teams. Everyone should be involved in evaluation. Whether it’s talking to artists, stakeholders, funders, partners, audience members, friends, family, staff, all of these provide an insight into how well we’re doing. Empowering everyone to be part of the process means everyone is invested.

What’s the opportunity – we’re used to setting goals, but are they reasonable, and what’s the route to them? Once we understand our audience we need to start thinking about who we want, or need, to be talking to. Are we using the right channels, the right tone? Do we look right, have we got the right team to help us do it? Yeah, tough questions but vital if there’s a disconnect between the audience we know we have and the one we want. Data is power, but it’s about understanding what that data is telling us, and being honest about what it says and what it means, that is the most important part of evaluation.

We always want to think we’ve succeeded at every step. Chances are, we always could fit in a little improvement. Evaluation helps us to monitor and track our progress but also to understand if we’re talking to the audience in the way they want us to do so.

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