The Monthly talks to Colette Fahy from “thrive” (formerly Audiences NI) about audience development and Northern Irish comedy

Could you outline what your organisation does and what your role in the organisation is?

I’m the communications executive for thrive (formerly Audiences NI). We’re an audience development agency, based in Northern Ireland. We help cultural organisations know and grow their audiences.

We do this in two ways;

First, we help organisations to understand who their current audiences are, and who they could be.

This might involve giving them free access to research on audience demographics relevant to their sector, or it could be doing some original research for them.

Secondly, we help them to use these insights to make a change. This could be anything from creating a bespoke audience development plan for a large museum to providing free-to-all marketing training events for smaller cultural organisations.

In your presentation at the comedy conference one of your initial points was that if you want to work as an artist/comedian you need to understand how a small business works. Why was that important to emphasise?

As a comedian, you’re essentially a one man or woman band. You write your material, do all your marketing, organise the logistics of a show, perform… and then do it all over again.

A lot of comedians and freelance artists have other jobs and commitments too. When you’re short on time, you can’t afford to not get a return on your efforts. Like any small business, you need to think about who would be interested in your product.

We believe that the audience is at the heart of culture. Without an audience, arts, culture, and heritage can’t make much of an impact. After all, if someone tells a one-liner in a forest, and no one is around to hear it…

You spent quite a deal of your presentation discussing the importance of branding, being clearly identified, being part of a conversation with your audience?

Brand can be a bit of an off-putting word in the cultural sector. But it doesn’t mean changing who you are. It means identifying what makes you unique and then communicating that to your audiences.

Although everyone in that room (at the Belfast Comedy Festival Conference) was a comedian (besides us!), they all would have unique traits and different audiences.

For example, the audience for a Mrs. Brown’s Boys live show may be entirely different from an audience for a Stewart Lee stand up show. When you have limited time and money to get the message out about what you do, it’s important to be really targeted in your efforts.

We looked at some ways for comedians to think about what their own brand is, and then gather some data on their current audiences using social media. When you understand your own unique selling points and target audiences, you can create a really strong brand which means that you stand out and you can develop long-term fans.

The final point you made was about simplifying the written message and communicating clearly?

When you’re a freelance comedian, artist, or larger cultural organisation, you’re in competition with so many other leisure activities for people’s time and attention. When people are scrolling through Facebook on their smartphone, they are more likely to notice and engage with your message if you can get your point across in a couple of seconds. Everyone hates corporate jargon and unnecessary lingo – it’s exactly the same with the arts. The simpler you can get across what you want to say, the better.

It appears that many Northern Irish comedians tend to perform to small audiences. Is this down to poor marketing strategies?

Just to re-emphasise the point, people have a huge range of choices now for what they do in their spare time. It can seem difficult to compete with large entertainment companies and venues. However, there are so many success stories of comedians coming out of the country, who started on a small platform. There are regular comedy nights running in cities and towns across Northern Ireland, giving people a unique experience that they can’t get at home.

Comedians have a very specialised skill and devote years to honing their craft. Putting aside some time to really think about your personal brand, doing some research into your audience, and investing in some low-budget marketing can hugely increase the amount of people who get to enjoy your work.

We would advise anyone who is interested in building their own audiences to check out our website for free resources or book in for a free one-to-one audience appointment.

There also needs to be an audience built for comedy overall. This is what we mean by ‘audience development’. It’s about creating life-long comedy fans.

An example would be Broadway in New York. Everyone knows that is a great place to go to see a musical, thus more companies perform there, and more visitors head there to see a show. It’s a virtuous circle.

Initiatives such as the Belfast Comedy Festival are fantastic in that they bring people together to build audiences for their work as a collective. We often tell cultural organisations we work with that they are not in competition with each other, but they are in competition with Netflix, TV, and the comforts of home! Research shows that the more people start engaging with culture – the more they want. And the more likely their friends and family are to be introduced to it too.

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New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.