Why did you ask me that?

There are substantial dangers to asking the wrong question at the wrong time, and I’m not just talking about proposing here. Developing audiences is like a courtship, a finely tuned ballet in which stages are involved, stages of trust and engagement. You wouldn’t propose on the first date, you might never tell your partner your pin number, some information is dear, but its also valuable. Building the relationships possible to earn this information, and the trust needed to illicit it, is one of the primary roles of arts marketing.

Each arts proposition is essentially a new product launch, and we have limited ways of knowing where best to appeal to find an audience. We need our audiences to tell us, before they know anything about it, whether they are going to enjoy what we have to offer. This is like asking someone a question without being able to tell them why you want the answer, and not being able to ask the question in the first place. It’s tough. But there are ways to meet this challenge.

How did you hear about this event?

I once saw this question asked on a questionnaire. It is not, of essence a bad question, and may yield useful intelligence about penetration of varying channels into different segments. It might tell you where to put your limited ad money in the future. The problem with the question though was that it was proceeded by a list of 26 different options. This is truly terrible – but it teaches us a lesson, and highlights a potential tool.

The results for the answer were mixed. There is some evidence to suggest that people interpreted it slightly differently. Some people imagined it meant “How did you first hear about this event” and ticked only one option. Others obviously read it as inquiring about every channel they had been exposed to.

But lets leave alone the issue of false memory and recall inaccuracy and the slightly ambiguous wording. The 26 item list killed this question. It was the first one on the questionnaire, took up an entire page on its own and I think left those being asked it bewildered, strained and tired. Even reading the list was an effort, let alone scanning the memory to try and remember any possible exposure. And this is where we hit upon the useful lesson.

There is a problem with all research, that the act of observation will prejudice the results. This is most serious in longtitudinal studies where we’re hoping for impartiality, we want accuracy and don’t want what we’re doing to throw our results out. But that’s when we’re just researchers. Researchers are annoyed when if after asking people at the start of a study period if they’ve heard of the UN, this very question sensitises them to the existence of the UN. Now it becomes difficult to accurately judge when any changes to the UN’s PR strategy has had an impact on public perception. But as marketers we’re cock-a-hoop at this. Just by asking people a well structured question we can sensitize them to our messages. Don’t think of blue. Don’t look for something blue in the room in which you’re currently sitting. Don’t sit up straight. If any of that made you think for just one second of the thing I wasn’t even telling you to do, then imagine what we can achieve when we start to think more carefully of what impact we can achieve from even traditionally non-impact marketing techniques such as researching.

We have to know what questions to ask, we want to know what answers we might get, and we need to imagine what else we could achieve in the asking.

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