So why aren’t they coming to see my work? Audience development and the Law of Diffusion

We hate to admit that some stuff is simply beyond our control. We also don’t like thinking that what we do is elitest, or of genuine interest to very few people. The unfortunate – mathematical – truth is that so long as what we do is deemed or perceived to be new, complex or innovative, (a word much misused in the arts in my opinion) then we will only ever attract a small number of people. Why is that?

Diffusion of Technology Bell Curve
Diffusion of Technology Curve


Business is full of graphs. A lot of them are bell curves. This one here is The Law of Diffusion of Technology. What it does is break down the total potential market for a new product (usually tech) according to the behavior and engagement of the customer. Its surprisingly accurate.

The figures are intriguing, and in an arts context very familiar.

  • 2.5% of the potential market are innovators. Interested, informed, passionate, practitioners
  • 13.5% are the early adoptors. They have friends who are innovators, they’ll happily queue for hours to get the next iphone (despite the fact that they could stroll into a shop the following day)
  • 34% are the early majority. Once its clear that the new thing is quality, dependable and not going away –  they’re in!
  • 34% are the late majority. As soon as the price comes down they’ll join the party,
  • 16% are the laggards. People who only buy a button phone because they can no longer get a rotary dial.

Another fascinating piece of information that comes out of this graph is that the vast majority of products never get beyond the early adoptor stage.

Think about the audience for a new theatre company: initially  its tiny, the actors and their actor friends, then family and then friends of friends and non actor friends, the critical fraternity and some really passionate and interested people – the innovators and the early adoptors, or as they are called in the emergent arts marketing literature “the enthusiasts”. How many shows and companies, musicians and artists hit that point before the early majority and stall, before exhaustion finally overcomes them.

This is why funding exists – in business as well as the arts – to sustain the development of new products and product innovations in the knowledge that the vast majority will fall at the crossing to the early majority but the ones that make it across will make that investment worth it.

Another aside is that Arjo Klamer’s theory of the “spheres” of culture is another way of thinking about the Diffussion Bell Curve, but ultimately describing the same phenomenon. Arjo is professor of the Economics of Art and Culture at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

But that’s an aside. The real question is why do they fall at the early majority? There’s a lot of reasons, but key among them are the ideas of relevancy, ease of use, and complexity. Because not everybody is an enthusiast. If the art is complex (it requires a lot of prior knowledge to understand), difficult to engage with (hard to get to, wrong time, no parking, too expensive) and irrelevant to my life or my needs, it will fall at that bridge. This does not mean that it has to be “dumbed down” or deliberately “commercial” or “populist”. What it does mean is that the work has to understand and respect the audience, always striving for clarity, always engaging and always, always relevant.




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