Editor's Note: The full presentation of this research is available to AAO members in the Resources section of the website. For information about becoming a member, please visit the Membership page.
Submiited by Patrick Miner
Research and Media Planner
Chicago Architecture Foundaton
For many nonprofits, the primary goals of audience research are to know who an organization’s audiences are, who they could be, and how to plan experiences for them. Yet Audience research can be a difficult subject at nonprofit organizations where competing budget priorities often edge out investments in evaluation and research.
In 2011, I was fortunate to start working at the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) as part of the team establishing our first Open House Chicago festival. It was a large enough, public enough program that some audience research was certain to be included in the project scope. But what started out primarily as a need to illustrate programmatic impact to supporters eventually opened the door for CAF to ask more questions about audience needs. The organization had not engaged in comprehensive audience research since a firm was hired in 2008 to survey existing audiences and explore areas for growth. So with the Open House Chicago findings in mind, we developed a comprehensive audience research plan for 2013. The plan included goals for what to research—i.e. which audiences and offerings—as well as a schedule, list of involved staff members, and the tools needed to complete the plan.
Over the course of the year we conducted a series of surveys using online survey tools and our regular mass email communications. Some were broadly conceived, others were more targeted (such as testing the popularity of specific exhibition topics). Additionally, we organized two focus groups, conducted observational research, and collected zip code data for geo-analysis. The plan took just a few weeks to put together with most aspects guided by asking one question: “what do we need to know about our audience to achieve our learning, fundraising, and marketing goals?”
By November 2013, CAF had received upwards of 7,000 survey responses from the year’s research efforts. We understand considerably more about who our audiences are and what they’re looking for. Some of the non-proprietary learnings from these surveys are highlighted in the infographic below. A 20-slide presentation with more detail is available to AAO members here.
Starting an Audience Research Plan?
The above infographic highlights just a small percentage of the information Chicago Architecture Foundation was able to learn from low-cost audience research. If you’re interested in starting an audience research effort at your organization, here are a few first steps as a guide:
1. Refine programmatic goals: What are the learning or educational goals of your organization's offerings? How do those goals connect directly with your mission?
2. Identify fundraising and marketing goals: What impact do you need to show to funders and supporters? Which programs might tell a great story? What marketing channels are available to you?
3. Select priority programs: Based on the first two steps, what are the priority programs that you need to test? What do you urgently need to know more about?
4. Align audiences: How can you survey, observe, or interview individuals who have participated in these priority programs? Does your organization have a perceived "main audience"? If so, can you email them with an online survey?
5. Write surveys or discussion guides: With a specific delivery method in mind—and with learning, fundraising, and marketing goals identified—begin drafting surveys and/or discussion guides for focus groups or interviews. The questions should be written such that, when answered, they provide your organization with insights on your specific learning and impact measurement objectives.
6. Select a survey system: This step can take place concurrently with the above tasks. Paid survey services such as Qualtrics or Cvent are highly customizable to allow for intricate analysis of audiences; free tools like SurveyMonkey and KwikSurveys also provide some sorting tools.
7. Distribute surveys: Which delivery method is best for you? Common ways of distributing surveys include emailing a link to constituents, introducing a pop-up survey on your website, and giving program participants a paper or tablet survey.
8. Tabulation and analysis: Once your first survey has been distributed or your first focus group has taken place, assessment is set to begin. Start with the basics: What are the demographics of your audience? (age, gender, ethnicity, residency, income, education level, etc.) What are their interests? What publications or websites do they read regularly? How did they hear about your organization? After tabulating these basic facts, you can start to look at answers to questions about learning and impact.