A new art form guides an old one

The Broadway district of New York is considered by many as home to the best of the world’s live theatre. 

In January 2016, The Broadway League, the representative body for Broadway theatre released its latest research report, “The Demographics of the Broadway Audience 2014-2015”.

Precious Sons

Precious Sons Poster, 1986

30 years earlier (1986), “Precious Sons” was touted as the first Broadway play to utilise market research as a tool for attracting an audience (Hollie 1986).

A comparison of this 1986 attempt at market research, and that of 2016, highlights not only the growth of the Broadway industry, but also the evolution of market research itself.

The 1986 research

The producers of Precious Sons paid a market research firm $15,000 to send 1,000 questionnaires to New York City (NYC) households, asking for opinions on ticket pricing, theatres location, and their familiarity with the cast.

The results indicated that a ticket price of $28 was preferable to the standard $40, and that Broadway’s audience consisted mainly of suburbanites.

As a result, the play’s producers dropped ticket prices to $25, spent $50,000 on television commercials, placed newspaper ads, and sent direct mail, all aimed at the suburban demographic. The play was a failure.

What went wrong?

The plays producers subsequently learned that, rather than suburbanites, it was Broadway’s immediate residents that formed its audience. Putting aside any perceived quality of the play, a plausible reason for the segmentation studies failure is that a survey of 1,000 residents (out of a possible 7 million) was not large enough to provide accurate data.

The 2016 research

Obviously, market research has come a long way since 1986.

The 2016 report collated data from 13.1 million Broadway attendances, providing information on total attendances, audience demographics (age, race, gender, location), attendances per person, influences on show selection, sources of information, and ticket purchase methods.

Data is collected electronically at time of ticket purchase, and through theatre websites and in-theatre activities. Data collected from theatres is shared with the League.

Broadway’s increased capacity to collect data means they have access to a greater number of survey responses, enabling “big data” analysis and data mining to occur.

Concurrently, the number of questions they ask has grown, widening their knowledge of customer behaviours, attitudes and demographics.

Centralised ticket outlets have increased the ability to draw conclusions from customer purchases (e.g. more people go to plays than musicals). This type of knowledge can not only reveal patron preferences, but also help with issues like demand forecasting.

As over 50% of Broadway sales occur electronically, the industry is able to monitor and react to consumer actions. Control groups can be established (e.g. a small number of theatres) and factors like pricing can be changed and then if necessary, amended.

What’s missing?

While the industries 2016 market research is more comprehensive than that of 1986, and includes aspects of factor analysis, it is largely quantitative in nature.

The industry analyses demographic data in attempts to attract new markets (Winer 2014), however it lacks qualitative data that could also inform these efforts.

Despite being more difficult to draw conclusions from, qualitative feedback, like that derived from customer satisfaction surveys could provide additional insight.

In addition, positioning studies like perceptual mapping could help the industry better compete with other forms of entertainment, such as cinema and live sport.

Interestingly, the previous method used by Broadway to conduct market research was to firstly run a play at a smaller off-Broadway theatre. A revisit of this “focus group” style approach may be an ideal means of producing some of the qualitative data currently lacking.

by Michael Douglass
WordPress username: michaelmoth


The Broadway League 2016, The Demographics of the Broadway Audience 2014-2015, retrieved 12 April 2016, <https://www.broadwayleague.com/index.php?url_identifier=the-demographics-of-the-broadway-audience>.

Hollie, P 1986, ‘What’s new in market research; Surveys that may help on Broadway’, The New York Times, 25 August, Business Day, p. 16.

Precious Sons poster 1986, Playbill website, poster, retrieved 16 April 2016, http://www.playbill.com/production/precious-sons-longacre-theatre-vault-0000006874.

Winer, L 2014, ‘Demographics track where theatregoers are going’, Audience Research, 18 July, p.1.


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