Audience Engagement Is All the Rage Among Arts Funders. But What Is It, Really?

As foundations and Silicon Valley billionaires increasingly rely on metrics and benchmarking to guide their grantmaking activities, arts organizations are taking a closer look at how they measure audience engagement.

Turns out it's a lot more difficult than you'd think.

That's because "engagement" is a relative term. It all depends on who you ask. To a museum, it can simply mean a visitor walking through the doors, whereas to a dance company, it can mean a visitor who attends a performance and subsequently joins the mailing list. In other words, there are various layers of engagement. It can be shallow or it can be deep. And the way in which organizations choose to refine their idea of engagement can affect their interactions with data-hungry foundations.

Audience engagement, as many readers know, is a big deal right now in the arts funding world. Last year, for example, we reported on a $40 million initiative by the Wallace Foundation to better understand and drive audience engagement in the arts. A range of funders have also given to advance audience engagment in specific arts niches such as classical music, dance, and visual arts. Some of that funding is flowing from big national foundations, but this issue is very much of interest to local funders, too. In short, not only do we live in a more metrics-focused philanthropic age, but a lot of funders and nonprofits are hot on the trail of rigorous ways to get people more connected to the arts. If your arts organization hasn't engaged this issue yet, you better get on it.

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With all that in mind, we encourage you to check out this thoughtful piece, courtesy of the National Center for Arts Research (NCAR) at Southern Methodist University, examining audience engagement and all its nuances. But before you read the whole thing, we'd like to run through some of the most pertinent takeaways.

NCAR's top-level finding is that the average arts and culture organization in the U.S. engaged with 13.4 percent of its local population either in person or online in 2013. Counting only live engagement, the average arts organization engaged with 5 percent of its local population in person.

What to make of this figure? Well, given our musings on the true depth of "engagement," we're obligated to note that NCAR's metric for engagement — dubbed "total touch points" — casts a wide net to capture all stakeholder interaction (e.g. staff, artists, volunteers, donors) as reported by arts nonprofits via the DataArts/Cultural Data Profile (CDP).

Is this broad metric a truly accurate measurement of audience engagement? Well, it depends.

NCAR notes that this expansive definition of engagement "combines traditional, passive activities like watching a show or walking through an exhibition with art-making activities like hands-on workshops that might be for adults or children." That's nice, but would it be more instructive to segregate the passive from the non-passive activities? Of course it would. We imagine that quite soon, researchers will able to make such a distinction using the data, but we're not there yet.

What's more, NCAR readily acknowledges that "total touch points" does not reveal the duration, depth, or quality of engagement each person has with the organization. That's slightly problematic. After all, what's more meaningful? Knowing that 20 people were emailed about an upcoming program — never mind that the message was immediately deleted — or knowing that three people read a Facebook post about a performance and two decided to attend?

Using this definition, the latter form of "virtual" engagement, quantitatively speaking, engaged less people. But it was more impactful.

Lastly, this expansive definition includes volunteering and donations. Some people will fault this approach; after all, a volunteer is different from a walk-in visitor, right? True, but at the same time, it's also worth tracking the discrete number of individual who engage with your organization, regardless of their role. In addition, one mustn't forget that volunteers can drive an organization's wider public engagement strategy.

Don't get us wrong here. We're not trying to cast aspersions on the NCAR's broad definition, nor are we calling it the Rosetta Stone. Rather, the pros and cons of their approach—and it's just one out of many — underscores the fact that "engagement" is a relative, fluid concept. (In fact, a cynic would go a step further and say that "engagement" means whatever the foundation cutting the check says it is. It's their money, after all.)

Bottom line? This new reality of rigorous performance measurement is here to stay. Breadth is good—casting a wide net to get an idea of all the players in one's respective ecosystem is a useful exercise—but arts organizations would also be wise to hone their measurement efforts on depth and precision, where engagement acts as a means to a more discrete, action-oriented end.

In related analysis, check out a recent post looking at other ways — besides measuring engagement — in which arts organizations can articulate their benefit to society and funders.