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Festivals Toolkit

A band of four musicians play on asphalt in a parking lot as a standing crowd encircles them
Florence Night Out, Photo: Julian Parker-Burns.


In August 2019 Mass Cultural Council, in partnership with ArtsBoston, invited 10 festivals to participate in a pilot program, Festivals Audience Lab. This year-long program was modeled on ArtsBoston’s original Audience Lab Program, a cohort-based model intended to help organizations build diverse audiences in the arts and culture sector through disruptive innovations in marketing practices, using collaborative and data-informed experimentation.

Specifically, Audience Lab builds a community of knowledge and practice around marketing and audience development, using data-informed experimentation to test new strategies intended to build and deepen more diverse audiences.

The Festivals Audience Lab built upon the learning from the first Audience Lab cohort and was informed by exploratory interviews conducted grantees of Mass Cultural’s Festivals program.

The Festivals Audience Lab was designed to support the cohort from August 2019 to August 2020 with:

  • Peer learning opportunities through a yearlong, cohort-based experience
  • Training in arts marketing practices
  • Financial support to implement a cohort-wide experiment and increase marketing capacity
  • Demographic analysis of existing audience data
  • Technical assistance from ArtsBoston, an arts service organization with deep expertise in audience data and audience building practices

The Festivals Audience Lab cohort was composed of festivals that were typically held in the spring or summer. Unfortunately, none of the festivals in the cohort were able to produce an in-person gathering in 2020 due to the impact of COVID-19. In response, many elements of the program shifted to accommodate the needs and address the impact of world events on the local and community-based gatherings. Additional content about shifting to virtual programming, how to communicate cancellations, and general support was also provided by ArtsBoston.

This toolkit is a summary of this pilot program and is meant to share major insights of the Festivals Audience Lab with the larger festival producing community, especially in those in Massachusetts and supported by Mass Cultural Council. Festival producers can use this as a resource to increase their marketing knowledge, specifically focusing on audience development efforts; improving audience data collection practices; experimenting with social media; and supporting decision making in unusual circumstances.

The Audience Lab program was developed by ArtsBoston with the support of Third Eye Cultural Collaborative, Clarity Campaign Labs, and the Mass Voter Table with support from the Barr Foundation.

How To Use This Toolkit

Watch: An Intro to the Audience Lab Festivals Toolkit

Who is this toolkit for?

This toolkit is a summary of the Festivals Audience Lab pilot program, which took place August 2019 to August 2020. The program was specifically designed for grantees of the Mass Cultural Council Festivals program. These are typically community-based events that free or low cost. Most festivals are heavily dependent on volunteers and many are entirely volunteer-run.

Does this sound like your type of organization? Are you interested in improving your audience development practices? Then this toolkit is for you! This toolkit might also be for you if you are:

  • New to marketing, social media management, audience development, and/or audience research
  • Interested in learning how to test social media marketing strategies
  • A non-arts organization that produces community-based events and wants to improve their audience development practices

We strongly recommend that you go through the discussion questions and activities in this toolkit as a team that includes the people who make strategic marketing decisions for your festival. These are the people who make decisions about how much money to spend, what the advertising and promotions look like, where to place advertising, etc. Working as a team allows for discussion and also makes it more likely that decisions will be implemented successfully.

Where do I start?

Everyone should start by going through the Marketing and Data and Identify Your Audiences discussion exercises found on Understanding Your Needs. We encourage to set aside about an hour to go through and discuss these questions. For the Identify Your Audience exercise, we recommend that you spend at least two sessions on this if you want to develop an actionable strategy.

The toolkit is designed to mirror the Festivals Audience Lab experience and each section is intended to build on each other. You may choose to go through each section in order, similarly to how the program was structured, or in a way that best suits your festival’s needs.

A few possible options:
I am most interested in learning more about a specific topic.
As a part of the program we offered webinars on three topics:

I’m really interested in learning how to test marketing ideas on social media.
Take a look at the audience development experiment.

I need to make major changes to my festival because of unforeseen events.
Several Audience Lab sessions pivoted to provide festivals with support in 2020 as the impact of COVID-19 shut down public gatherings. The sections below provide case studies and examples for how to manage when unforeseen events require significant and sudden changes to your work.

After going through Understanding Your Needs, you may decide that your festival’s need to improve its marketing is outside the scope of this toolkit. That’s ok! The purpose of those exercises is to provoke discussion, gain an understanding of your marketing strategy and needs, and identify areas to improve. Not all the resources or information you might need can be provided here.

Clarifying Terminology

One last note before you jump into the toolkit, it might help to quickly clarify terminology. The terms audience development, audience engagement, and community engagement are sometimes mixed together and used interchangeably. In this toolkit we use the definitions provided here, as articulated by Doug Borwick and explored in this Zocalo Public Square article.

Audience Development
Activities undertaken by an arts organization as part of a marketing strategy designed to produce immediate results that benefit the organization: sales, donations, etc. Principal beneficiary of direct, intended outcomes: arts organization.

Audience Engagement
Activities undertaken by an arts organization as part of a marketing strategy designed to deepen relationships with current stakeholders. The purpose is, over time, to improve retention, increase frequency, and expand reach through stakeholder networks. Principal beneficiary of direct, intended outcomes: arts organization.

Community Engagement
Activities undertaken by an arts organization as part of a mission strategy designed to build deep relationships between the organization and the communities in which it operates for the purpose of achieving mutual benefit. It is accomplished by developing trust and understanding through which reach can be expanded. This results, over the long term in increased ticket sales and financial support as well as more arts-friendly public policy. Principal beneficiary of direct, intended outcomes: community and arts organization.

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