Unassuming Abraham Wald was perhaps not widely known until Matthew Syed’s book, ‘Black Box Thinking’ was published in 2015. Since then, I keep hearing about one of his most famous observations which is mentioned in Syed’s thought-provoking book. Abraham Wald was a Jewish Hungarian statistician who was working in Vienna when the Nazi annexation of Austria (the Anschluß) occurred in 1938. He made the smart decision to get out of Europe when he saw how things were shaping up, although sadly, most of his family were not so fortunate. Having moved to America, later in the war, he ended up working on a number of scientific programmes including one that was concerned with Allied bomber losses. Air Force bosses on both sides of the Atlantic were worried about mounting losses (over 44% of the RAF’s Bomber Command crews were killed in action) and felt that they needed to provide more armour protection on bombers, even if this meant losing some speed and manoeuvrability. Wald was part of the team given the job of investigating where the additional armour would be most effective, based on the bullet strike and flak impact data from the aircraft that had returned from missions over Germany. Wald’s research identified one of those obvious truths (usually only obvious after the event), that the team was basing its research on the wrong dataset. They were looking at the aircraft that had returned, albeit with multiple bullet holes. Wald was more interested in figuring out where the bullets had struck the aircraft that hadn’t returned and had been lost over Europe. From his investigations, he was able to show that the engines and cockpit were the most critical impact areas and, as a result of his work, hundreds or maybe thousands of aviators’ lives were saved when additional armour was added to these areas.
L-R: Abraham Wald, whose work saved countless lives; typical bullet strike areas on the aircraft that made it home; flak damage to a USAF B17 Flying Fortress.
So what on earth does this have to do with audience development? Well recently, the Wessex Male Choir carried out a few surveys. The first was to find out where our audience had heard about our event. The majority had heard by word of mouth from choir members. Choir members enthusiastically telling people about concerts remains the No.1 way of pulling audiences (and attracting new members) but, as many of our choristers tell us, they are running out of people to tell. The ‘friends and associates of choristers’ marketing opportunities are reaching saturation point, so if we wish to grow our audience numbers (and who doesn’t?), then we must look somewhere else. Hot on the heels of that group, were those who had heard about the event on Facebook, and interestingly, it was within this group that we found quite a few people who had never been to one of our concerts before. Incidentally, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the ‘older generation’ (so often the main demographic for our audiences) don’t use social media. They do, and it’s big and getting bigger all the time. The second survey went out to our ever-growing mailing list members: these tend to be our loyal core supporters who sign up to receive newsletters and surveys, and who want to be kept in touch with what we’re up to. They are important to us as they could be seen as the mainstay of our audiences, but of course, these are invariably people who have already been to our concerts rather than new audience members. They are a useful barometer in terms of whether our ‘offer’ is attractive and we need to keep them on-side, but unless we can persuade them to bring-a-friend along, we are unlikely to develop new audiences via this route.
So how does this link in with World War 2 bomber losses? Well in simple terms, if we want to build our audience, it’s no good targeting the people who already come along to our concerts (they are analogous to the bombers that returned). We need engage with those who do not currently come to our events and find out why. As Henry Ford allegedly said, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”.
Einstein also understood the futility of doing the same thing and expecting different results. He is often quoted as saying that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. (Actually the quote probably originated with novelist Rita Mae Brown)
In other words, audiences won’t grow until we try targeting a new approach that reaches out to those people who aren’t our regular fans: knowing how to reach them can be quite a challenge. The Wessex Male Choir has tried to apply a bit of lateral-thinking in its recruiting efforts by thinking about where men hang out. The obvious places are in pubs, gyms, at sports clubs and venues, in barbers’ shops, and in male-dominated professions. ‘Hit and run’ style recruiting ‘sings’ in local pubs have, disappointingly, not produced a single new member yet, but singing at a local Rugby club has yielded success. We’re trying a more persistent approach to pub-singing, not just because our guys like beer, but we think the message and the impulse to join us, probably needs fostering by more than one visit. Having a slightly more persistent reminder might also help, so we are considering getting beer-mats printed and distributed to landlords who will take them.
But market research, especially for audience development, is key, and in this regard, organizations such as the Audience Agency (www.theaudienceagency.org) can help. Some of their resources are free and others come at a price, which is generally a bit steep for organizations such as ours. But they are the professional audience development folks, so it’s worth considering using what they offer. A few of the ‘jump out’ facts for me on their ‘Engaging Older Audiences’ snapshot, were that one in five people in
the UK is over 65, and that although women are slightly more likely to engage with the arts, once over 65, that margin reduces and men are increasingly likely to show an interest. But even then, it tends to be the women who make the bookings. Over 65s tend to be more loyal customers, and often, the 65-80 age range are still highly active, and have the money, mobility, time and inclination to explore the arts, so offering this age group ‘a good night out’ is a good way to start building audiences. Of course there are other demographics you may wish to target, but for male choirs, this is a key development area.
Abraham Wald answered the question he was given, but the heavier the aircraft became, the slower and less manoeuvrable they became, as well as having to carry fewer bombs because of the weight of the armour. Ironically, more armour made them more vulnerable. Over Germany, by the time the night-fighters had scrambled to intercept the bomber stream, quite often the bombers had reached the target and dropped their bombs. Arguably, the bombers’ survivability could have been greatly improved by the removal of armour and hydraulically- operated gun turrets (which were largely ineffective anyway), along with the crew members needed to man them, and the ammunition they carried. The reduction in weight would allow for greater speed and manoeuvrability, and deny attacking fighters the opportunity for multiple attacks. In honesty I’m not sure how that applies to arts audiences other than to say you should never base your planning on gut-feeling but instead use the available evidence! Sometimes the answers are surprising.