You might imagine that having written about a survey just last week, I'd be eager to move on to something less statistical in this post. I would have imagined that too. But we'd both be wrong, because 'The Fringe and Off West End Audience Report 2011' was published last weekend and it raises some issues that are worth flagging up, particularly when compared to the Society of London Theatre's (SOLT) 2010 'West End Theatre Audience Report'.*

The potential benefits of gaining a greater understanding of who audiences are, how they book tickets and what influences their decisions to do so, are huge. SOLT has been running surveys of West End audiences every few years since 1981, and many of London's Off West End and Fringe venues conduct their own audience surveys, but this is the first time that these audiences have been surveyed as a whole. With budgets tighter than ever, venues can ill afford poor ticket sales or a misplaced advertising spend. This type of information can be very useful when it comes to making programming decisions, planning fund-raising campaigns and drawing up press and marketing strategies. Small venues in particular have a lot to gain because they may not have the resources to fund their own surveys or large enough databases to make such information-gathering worthwhile.

One of the most striking figures reported is that 76% of respondents tend to book tickets for Fringe and Off West End shows online via the venue's website. In addition, 77% of theatre-goers said that they usually find out about productions via emails or e-newsletters sent out by the venue, and half of respondents find out about shows mainly from theatre listings websites and venues' individual websites. Only 23% reported learning about productions from newspaper or magazines adverts, and only 18% from newspaper or magazine listings. Any London theatres still in doubt as to the importance of a robust digital marketing scheme, a good quality website and an easy to navigate online box office might want to bear this in mind.

It's also interesting to note that while 80% of audiences say that they tend to support their local theatre, 20% do not. The fact that such a large proportion of theatre-goers are engaged with their local venues is very encouraging, but this figure flags up that some theatres are failing to reach a very valuable audience: people within their own communities who already go to the theatre.

There are various ways that theatres might seek to address this issue: community awareness-raising events and advertising in the e-newsletters of other theatres are just two of them. But perhaps the responsibility shouldn't rest entirely with theatres; maybe audiences could also raise their game. If you're a regular theatre-goer but you've never seen a show at your local theatre, go on the website and sign up to the mailing list now. Matt Trueman recently wrote in a blog post for The Guardian that “London's fringe theatre is the strongest it has been for years”. Take a chance on your local theatre. You might be surprised by what you find.

But surveys such as this are not just handy for individual venues, or indeed only for London's fringe theatre scene. Good quality audience data is also useful for the UK culture industry as whole. Take the fringe survey's findings on gender for instance: male and female attendance is roughly equal, with women making up 53% of audiences and men making up 47%. Compare this to the West End, where according to SOLT's survey, audiences are 68% female (up from 65% in 2003 and 61% in 1997). Why this discrepancy? Is it simply because musicals, of which the West End is largely comprised, tend to be more popular with women than with men, or is there something else at play here? Now that these figures exist we can begin asking these questions.

It's unfortunate that the Fringe survey didn't ask about respondents' ethnicity, as it would have been very helpful to have a figure to compare with SOLT's finding that 92% of West End audiences identify themselves as white (iTrend hopes to include a question on ethnicity when the survey is repeated at the end of the year). As I've written previously on this blog, increasing ethnic diversity among both audience members and artists is a major challenge for the theatre industry and data is crucial if we want access to widen. This issue is particularly pertinent to London as so many of its smaller venues are located in highly ethnically diverse communities currently under-represented in theatre.

There is no association representing London's fringe and Off West End venues in the way that SOLT represents its members, but in the absence of such a body fighting for the sector, large-scale surveys such as 'The Fringe and Off West End Report 2011' can be of immense value. Every now and then it pays to put audiences in the spotlight.

*The report was conducted online over the final fortnight of November 2011. Responsible for the survey were iTrend Research Ltd and, who invited a wide range of Fringe and Off West End venues to send the survey link to their databases. The survey also ran on the website. SOLT's survey took place over 2008-2009, with audiences at 37 West End shows given forms to complete and invited to take part in a follow-up online survey. Both these surveys were self-selecting – like the Equity survey I wrote about last week – so the results aren't entirely unbiased, but attempts were made to reduce this bias by offering incentives to take part. With 5,471 and 4,586 responses respectively, the iTrend and SOLT surveys both yielded robust and representative samples. You can download the Fringe and Off West End Audience Report 2011 here, and find out more information about SOLT's survey here.