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October 16, 2014

Experiments in surveying arts audiences via tablets

Ron Evans, Principal of Group of Minds, talks about his experiments with surveying arts audiences via tablets and puts the call out for arts organizations interested in partnering on additional experimentation in unique spaces.

Finally! A screen the executive director wants to see in the audience! With prices for tablets declining and acceptance of their use increasing, I wondered how they would hold up as survey tools for arts organizations. I’m liking the results! Tablets are not a good fit for all situations, but are a great fit for some.

To get rolling, I knew I would be going with Android-based tablets, as iPads are too expensive for this situation. One of my awesome clients who is always up for a good experiment is The Western Stage, and they were game to try tablets, so I purchased a small fleet and got to outfitting. After a lot of trial and error with survey software, connectivity, and tablet functionalities, I was able to get a system running that I thought would be pretty easy for patrons to use. Here is a shot of one of the tablets in action.

[Image: surveying arts audiences via tablets]

surveying arts audiences via tablets

Traditionally, I’ve run in-venue surveys via paper and pencil, left on randomly selected seats. That’s how I was taught, and it is

still a fantastic method. It is low-tech (so, easy to use for everyone), approachable, holds a lot of questions, and can be implemented with as little as one person per performance. Also, you can put a ton of them out, and patrons can be working on a hundred of them at the same time.

However, paper surveys require a human to translate the markings into survey software (I can’t seem to get the ScanTron survey rocking) and this takes time, so there is a delay in getting actionable data. Also, they have a high materials cost — paper, pencils, printing, etc. — as well as an environmental cost.

Tablet-based surveys fix some challenges, and introduce a few of their own.

Opening night of “West Side Story” at The Western Stage found an assistant and me positioned at either side of the theatre space as the house doors were opened. It was a crowded house, and we got to work approaching people and asking them if they would take an audience survey on our new tablets. The response was very positive. People were attracted to the use of technology to do what is normally a pretty boring thing. A couple of older patrons thought they wouldn’t be able to do the survey, but once I showed them how it worked, they completed it easily.

Interestingly, I also saw that the tablet was sometimes passed to the youngest person in the group, who was fascinated to answer the questions. While this certainly affects the data gathered, perhaps tablets would be a way to get younger audiences interested in answering questions about their experience. (I don’t see a lot of young people interested in paper surveys.) Additionally, the data from the tablets were available instantly, so we were able to use the survey data from opening night to make ad-buy decisions for the rest of the run. This is a very useful benefit.

Where the tablets fell short is in the number we could have out at any one time. We had 10 in circulation in an audience of 250 that night, but I could only easily mentally track which patron had which of 5 of the tablets. Tracking 4 tablets would be safer (forget who has one when you’re running around in a packed audience, and it may go in someone’s coat). The tablets allowed great face-to-face interactions, but the number of surveys we got back was limited by: the number of tablets, the amount of time it took to do the survey (6 minutes on average), and the amount of time available from when the patron entered the hall to the start of the show. Ten tablets x 6 minutes per survey x 30 minutes preshow = 50 surveys possible in 30 minutes.

More tablets could get more responses, but would require more bodies to manage them. So, small venues might be the best fit for tablet surveying, unless you have an army of volunteers available at each performance who can manage the tablet-patron interaction.

Things that make tablets potentially awesome for surveying

  • No need to digitize email addresses
  • Results ready instantly (good for marketing decisions)
  • “Fun factor” is added to survey completion
  • Younger audiences may be more interested to complete a survey
  • Easy to change the survey based on new data or needs
  • Patrons without a tablet can be given the survey URL so they can complete on their own tablet or mobile phone

Things that make tablets potentially not awesome for surveying

  • Hard to manage a lot of tablets without a lot of people
  • Screens may be difficult to see if your event is in the outdoor sun –Need to remember to keep batteries charged
  • Chance for tablet to be stolen (unlikely, but possible)
  • Some patrons may think they don’t have the skills and will require handholding
  • This also may bias your results to more tech-savvy people
  • You may unintentionally create your own bias in whom you select to answer the survey

So, I am continuing to experiment, this time with a small-venue theater. I think tablets can shine on their own in a small venue, so the sample size stays large. They could work in a large venue, if you have many tablets and multiple staff people to manage them. We would also like to experiment with a hybrid method: tablets and extra staff to run them for opening performances to get actionable marketing data, and then switch to paper surveys for the rest of the run. Could be the best of both worlds. I’ve got a fleet of tablets, and am interested in talking to other arts venues with different setups in which to experiment. If you and your venue would like to participate in these experiments, get in touch. We can match up schedules, see if we can come up with some best practices, and publish back to the field. -Ron