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DanceWorks Chicago. Photo by Sascha Eilert. DanceWorks Chicago. Photo by Sascha Eilert.

Everyday Data: Market Research with DanceWorks Chicago

  • Posted Feb 26, 2018

by Carol White, CB White Consulting 

When Parke Ballantine, board member of DanceWorks Chicago, first contacted my firm, CBWhite , she talked about the organization’s tenth anniversary, a great milestone and an opportunity to think in new and different ways about the next decade. Like many other arts groups, DanceWorks Chicago is seeking new audience members and, based on what had attracted some recent board members, they had ideas about what might appeal to people who might not be “dance-centric.” 

Why Do Marketing Research?

When an organization has a new marketing idea, it can be tempting to move straight to implementation, such as new campaigns, new slogans, and new lists. This approach, really one of trial-and-error, can be costly and time-consuming. For arts groups thinking about audience development, taking the time for marketing research reduces trial and error and, in the long-term, pays off with consistent and effective strategies.  

Marketing research is used to learn what motivates audiences, what they find compelling about what an organization has to offer, and what might pose a barrier to attendance. It’s also used to identify traits of high potential new audience members, perhaps their demographics, neighborhoods, or attitudes, or the types of communication methods they use.

Equipped with such information, organizations can make fact-based decisions that allow them to achieve their missions more effectively. Research results are likely to drive the language used to present the organization in marketing materials and in informal conversations. It may affect the methods used to promote programming or events. It is also likely to inspire innovative ideas regarding ways to spread the word.

Research People on an Organization’s Current List

Much marketing research for arts organizations focuses on building audience. For some, learning how past audience members perceive and describe the organization is key. Such learning can help organizations create marketing campaigns that are effective in bringing in new people.

Why does research with those are already “in the fold” help bring in new people? Because many organizations describe their work in technical terms or jargon that explain what they think is important. But, that is not always what audience members find special. In fact, audience members often describe things that are less esoteric or that organizations take for granted and don’t include in communications.  

Here’s an example. I did a project for a youth choral group that promoted its artistic excellence. In research, parents told us the group was, “Fun!” The artistic director is fun, so kids want to go (a great benefit for a parent), but he couldn’t imagine anyone would teach kids to sing in a way that wasn’t fun; he took “fun” for granted until our report. Our results created a marketing shift that the Director felt saved the organization.

DanceWorks’ Needs Were Different

DanceWorks Chicago didn’t just want to reach new audiences. They wanted to reach people with a different reason to engage than past audiences. We could (and did) ask current DanceWorks Chicago list members what they thought about the new messages. But, it was essential to look beyond the current list to address DanceWorks Chicago’s questions.

I introduced DanceWorks Chicago to the notion of a consumer panel. Panels are composed of people who have agreed to be part of marketing research, typically to take surveys. Of course, we have concerns that people who want to take surveys may differ from those who don’t, but researchers and the panel companies address this issue as well as possible and the panels offer an incredibly cost-effective way to reach respondents.

We didn’t want to survey just anyone in the panel. We devised a scoring system to identify people who might have some affinity for DanceWorks Chicago, developed an online survey to evaluate DanceWorks Chicago’s ideas, hypotheses, and options, and used the panel to distribute our survey. We got results on time and on budget.

Selecting a panel provider requires expertise. A market research professional can help. Here are just some of key things to consider:

  • Develop a list of the types of people you will be seeking. What will make someone qualified to take your survey? That will help you find a panel company that is a good fit.
  • Look at a few providers. A search for “consumer panel market research” brings up quite a few of the big companies, but you might want extra search terms to find one that specializes. For instance, some are better for finding business decision-makers, others specialize in health and diseases (for reaching medical professionals or patients), and many are simply broad consumer panels. You might find out:
    • Their coverage (that is, number of panel members) in the geographic or interest area you’re studying
    • Their sample representativeness so that your survey invitations are sent out to a group that mirrors the population of interest, at least in a demographic sense
    • How the panel members are recruited to check for selection methods that might introduce significant bias, such as only people who are frequent fliers
    • How many surveys people are permitted to complete each month, to watch for “professional respondents”
  • Play it safe.
    • Consider the ways you might screen possible respondents to ensure they are qualified for the survey. We often include a variety of questions, some of which are qualifiers and some that are “extras” so it’s not obvious which questions will get someone into the survey.
    • If you’ve never used the panel before and cannot talk to a colleague or trusted researcher who has used the panel, ask for a small test. When I was trying out a new panel for a study with women, I tested a one question on a sample of their members. When the results showed that almost all the respondents claimed to be both menopausal and recently pregnant, I knew there was a problem with the panel’s quality!

These tips might make using a consumer panel seem fraught with danger. I have conducted dozens of studies using consumer panels and almost all my experiences have been good.


The survey with DanceWorks Chicago’s own list members and with the panel members allowed us to see which ideas would most motivate people to connect with the company and what kinds of people (demographics, attitudes, etc.) would be attracted. The final phase of the project involved bringing staff and board together to reflect on the research and use it as a springboard to generate ideas, score them in terms of likely effectiveness, cost, and effort, and then choose top priorities based on collective data and wisdom. The survey, data collection, and analysis, led DanceWorks Chicago’s efforts to reach beyond current dance-centric audiences and supporters to engage new people as arts consumers and donors.

At the end of market research projects like these, most organizations report that they feel confident and energized to put plans into motion. They also operate with a new level of cohesiveness, as key decision-makers and implementers have worked together and gained a common language about what matters to those outside the organization.

Working with a Market Research Consultant

Both DanceWorks Chicago and I have been asked why our engagement worked so well. A few thoughts that are specific to market research:

  • Be clear about the organization’s questions and challenges. Choosing some top priorities may be needed, as surveys that seek to ask too much become lengthy and respondents stop paying attention.
  • Find, and then trust, a researcher who will be objective. A good researcher will not have pre-conceived notions, but will design research to uncover truths.
  • Listen to the research results and then integrate them into the decision-making process. The external market research cannot and should not change the mission. However, a thorough understanding of the market leads to informed decisions. 

And, a final thought that applies to any consulting engagement: Expect collaboration and teamwork. A good consulting engagement requires active participation from the client. Consultants bring a skill set and one set of experiences; clients bring content and wisdom and another set of experiences. The combination produces mutual enthusiasm during the process (not just for the result), rigor in the approach, and openness which helps everyone grow and learn together. The process can be exciting and enlightening and, most importantly, increase the odds of success.

Carol White is president of CBWhite, a consulting firm that guides nonprofits toward their destinations through the art and science of marketing research.