Professor Chris Kemp, CEO of Mind Over Matter Consultancy, asks whether we really know what our audience wants?


Festivals and events spend inordinate amounts of time improving their products and services for their customer base. They constantly try to hone what they believe will attract new custom whilst maintaining their already existing customer base. However, in our recent research with 14-16 year olds we have been shocked by how little festival and event organisers know about the audience, their needs, behaviours and idiosyncrasies.

The two biggest issues related to the holes in our collective knowledge about the market and our misconceptions about what the audience really wants stem firstly from false rumour or made up research, and secondly, by listening to the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you really want to find out what the customer wants you don’t want them to tell you what you want to hear; you want them to be brutally honest and give you the naked truth about your provision. The easy life might be a good way out for the bored and the disenfranchised but it is not the smart way to create sustainability at a festival or an event.

In a recent focus group carried out between 43 European festivals and a group of 14-16-year-old festivalgoers it became very clear that many of those from festivals in the room were on a different planet when it came to providing and understanding their customer needs. This is not surprising given the small amount of time that the festival personnel have to initiate exposure to and solicit information from their customers and to find out what they really want and about new and emerging trends. Carrying out questionnaires and pressurising people at festivals into filling out long forms which are often quirky and ask the wrong questions is not the way to approach it. The way to do this is to talk to the audience in a comfortable atmosphere without pressure and through such conversations tease out what they really want the festival or event to provide for them.

Our focus group of 14-16 year olds were exceptionally mature in their outlook and shocked some of the festival organisers by highlighting areas that many of them had not even considered. Firstly, the group identified that the social media platforms being used by the festivals were outdated and not used by many of their peers. They preferred platforms that were clean, pictorial and transient. Instead of using Facebook or Twitter, the panellists were using Instagram, Snapchat and some of them also used WhatsApp. This rang alarm bells for many of the organisers as some festivals used neither medium to deliver communication to the crowd at an event.

When identifying what the panellists disliked about festivals the main complaint was not about warm beer and poor toilets; those endlessly quoted areas of festival concern but the way in which drunks and those on drugs groped them and subjected them to anti-social behaviours whilst they tried to watch bands and socialise. Many youngsters today are not interested in drink and drugs but rather more in new technologies, messaging and streaming. What was acceptable 20 years ago in the “fair game” of the event is now frowned upon and if continues will drive away those entering the market for a more purist reason. This eye-opening session was a salutary one and those involved went away feeling both sorry that they had not done this kind of interrogation earlier and amazed that they just had no idea about their younger audience.

There is a lesson to be learned here and that is; more of the same does not mean higher quality output it just means that the interface between the festivals/event and its audience starts to become wider. This is not about ease of access but taking the time to find out a key answer that all festivals needed to know. The time to strike is now whilst the new audience is still fresh, full of ideas and willing the festivals just to ask them how to help in future proofing the festival and event industry.