Audience vs. Market Research: A Critical Distinction for Cultural Organizations

An overreliance on audience research may be the very thing holding back even the smartest of cultural organizations.

With so many cultural organizations nowadays boasting audience research capabilities, why is the industry struggling so severely in terms of engaging new and emerging audiences? We’re confusing audience research and market research – and that difference is the topic of this week’s Know Your Own Bone – Fast Facts video.

Not a video person? No problem. This information is important, so here’s a summary:


Most cultural organizations collect and focus on AUDIENCE research

Audience research is any research conducted on specific audience segments to gather information about their attitudes, knowledge, interests, preferences, or behaviors. For cultural organizations, audience research is often conducted on current visitors and past visitors. It often comes in the form of exit surveys, zip code collecting, and reaching out to members and visitors through email lists or online communities (to name a few sources of these types of data).

Audience research is the most common type of research carried out by cultural organizations by a long shot – and some organizations even have their own audience research departments! These data help us uncover information related to who is visiting, why they are visiting, and what the people who are already engaging with the organization think.


Organizations often struggle with collecting MARKET research

Market research, on the other hand, is any organized effort to gather information about target markets – including the folks who may NOT be visiting an organization.

Market research can be tricky, though, because someone who is not visiting your organization cannot fill out an exit survey. They may not be a part of your online community, and they aren’t likely on your email lists. Simply put, they aren’t a part of your audience yet. The industry’s inability to reach underserved audiences relates directly to our lack of market research and a general overreliance on audience research.


Organizations need both types of research, but our lack of MARKET research risks big sustainability issues

Audience research has tremendous value for perfecting programming, but that’s not where the industry needs the most help right now. In order to remain solvent and relevant in today’s world, cultural organizations desperately need to engage new audiences.

Unlike audience research, market research helps organizations find out who is NOT visiting and why they aren’t visiting. This is a big deal because organizations are doing a really not-awesome job reaching new and emerging audiences! Not to mention, cultural organizations (museums, performing arts organizations, aquariums, etc.) are experiencing a phenomenon called the negative substitution of the historic visitor. This means that for every one person who profiles as a historic visitor who leaves the market, they are being replaced by less than one person. Millennials are not visiting cultural organizations at representative rates, and engaging people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds – who make up more and more of the US population each year – is perhaps our greatest opportunity to secure our futures. In other words, the demographic makeup of the US is changing and we really need to get better at reaching new audiences and making them our new regular audiences.


It is impossible to fully understand market perceptions of your organization and reach new audiences if you only study the people who are already in your community.

To succeed, organizations need both types of research.


Like this post? You can check out more Fast Fact videos on my YouTube channel. Here are a few related posts from Know Your Own Bone that you might also enjoy:


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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Financial Solvency, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 3 Comments

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

3 Responses to Audience vs. Market Research: A Critical Distinction for Cultural Organizations

  1. Andrea Michelbach

    Great post and an important point! Given that so many of us are finally becoming accustomed to the importance of audience research but may not have internal capacity related to market research, do you have a few suggestions on where to start for a market research project? What type of contractors should we be looking to hire? Is it something orgs can do themselves with a bit of time and training?

    • Colleen Dilenschneider

      Great question, Andrea. As a low-cost starting point, there is extant, applicable data available from industry resources and convening bodies (think AAM for museums, AZA for aquariums and zoos, etc.) Many of these organizations sponsor research and make it available to their members. Also, industry colleagues and peers that have commissioned their own research may be willing to share their findings. In my experience, peers are often very collegial about resource-sharing. Another potential outlet for data is the funding community. Many foundations sponsor research relevant to program areas, and this data is frequently made available to grantees and other interested parties. In terms of organizations conducting their own market research, I think that this depends entirely on the resources and priorities of individual organizations. The tasks of developing the research methodology, collecting the data, analyzing the data, and communicating the findings are intense, full-time tasks that may require multiple skill sets. This said, there is no reason why an organization committed to these tasks wouldn’t be able to successfully manage these processes internally. Lastly, for those organizations seeking outside expertise to support their market research needs, I recommend seeking the endorsements and recommendations of colleagues who have conducted similar research to identify potential partners. Of course, a vast majority of the data shared here on Know Your Own Bone is market research made available for free to organizations. Thanks so much for reading, and I hope that this information helps!

  2. Rainer

    Yes. Thank you. You have addressed one of the biggest shortcomings in marketing departments in cultural organizations.
    It can be so enlightening to do research in a city and discover from non-theatre goes what is holding them back !
    This subject needs to be tackled more often.

    In Germany I know of one study where the center for audience development at the free university of berlin has conducted such research in the city of Braunschweig which was very helpful for the state theatre in said city to derive directions from it for future marketing campaigns …


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