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DT:TV Case Studies

New Horizons: audience development and technology

The recently released, initial findings of the London Calling Digital Marketing Survey (which surveyed over 1,000 London and SE based arts organisations) and the IT and Digital Content Audit of all organisations that are regularly funded (RFO) by Arts Council England North West, that I conducted earlier this year, discovered similar patterns. London Calling’s initial findings revealed what Managing Director John Nicholls described as “a very clear desire within the sector for it to engage actively in digital media”. And the overall picture that emerged from the NW audit supports this: ideas are not limited by imagination or lack of ambition. Sector marketing professionals are interested to engage with digital marketing solutions such as interactive viral campaigns and SMS/MMS marketing.

Push and pull
The NW audit found 100% of the Artistic Directors of visual arts organisations agreed that the creation of digital content around artistic activity fitted into their artistic vision. 76% of performing arts RFOs reported the same commitment. (Ideas in place are not limited by imagination or lack of ambition, but by a lack of inclusion in formal strategic documentation; budgets and capacity planning; and organisational and artistic development thinking). When I measured the NW in 2004, only 65% of arts organisations had websites – now, between 95% and 98% of organisations have websites. And the majority, at least, of these websites work: they look nice, our audiences browse them and use them to pull the information they want. In addition to the “pull” of websites, some organisations are working to improve and personalise overall customer experience though digital communications, employing more sophisticated ways of deploying “push” marketing activities such as direct email (three quarters of London and SE respondents make use of this facility).

We now need to grasp the opportunities to ensure that digital technologies will work hard at audience development on our behalves. Look around you and you’ll recognise that we are creating art in a rapidly changing, consumer driven environment. Digital technologies have a great ability to connect with those generations which are ‘growing up digital’ – there is a spirit of exploration amongst technology users, and in the under 40’s an intrigue and delight in the newest digital devices. Arts organisations with audiences within a younger demographic have had great success (cheaply) producing podcasts – see Pilot Theatre’s video podcasts by artistic director, Marcus Romer; and (more costly) video shows for Personal PlayStations (PSPs) – see ICA’s The Show .

But digital technologies should also be considered in terms of their unique ability to tackle some of the social and psychological factors that inhibit attendance and participation in the arts amongst those who regard the arts as “not for people like us”. Inclusive “social software” (like blogs, chat rooms, wikis and forums) are easy to set up and add to your existing website, enabling your audience to engage in a meaningful dialogue with you, and each other. The audience begins to develop itself, with communities of interest emerging. People not sure about attending will ask questions that other audience members will answer. Check out the Philharmonia’s forum, where you will find discussions that will hook your interest whether you are a budding bassoonist or dynamic DJ (I like the discussion around the question posted – “Should the turntable be considered a musical instrument?” which had responses from composers for film to GCSE students).

It’s worth always reading these conversation strands and contributing too – negative comments can reveal how you could improve audience experience, or who you should/not invite to participate in your consumer council. Other comments may well give you ideas for live and virtual events that you could run that would be of particular interest to your communities. Setting up social online spaces like a page on myspace.com can really work hard for you as a viral marketing tool, as potential audience members pass on the URL (website address) to each other; and as people discover your page serendipitously, or because it rises up the ranks due to the number of hits it gets! It’s easy to set up and it’s free. Contact Theatre marketed their recent new work Skid 180 about BMX subculture successfully via a myspace page. If you’ve got a forum or chat room on your website, make sure that a member of staff is frequently live online, and make sure the website users know when artists will next be online. (Offer the same level of customer service and quality in your virtual engagements as you would in your live and/or venue-based engagements with the public). Individual artists can write a blog, perhaps describing and showing working processes and answering readers’ questions and comments. Hoipolloi have recently used a microsite and blog to generate interest around their character Hugh Hughes and his show Floating.

Content led
Creating digital content is often an additional cost not included in many revenue budgets – if you’ve found some funds to experiment making one piece of content, how can you minimise the risk and be sure to make something that the audience actually wants? Why not let the audience visiting your website decide what they would most like to see as digital content: imagine a theatre company letting their audiences vote from a menu of say 5 items (a digital video masterclass with a director; virtual tour behind the scenes; an interactive game, etc.), with the item receiving the most votes being made into digital content. An audience member will feel that their interaction with you (even if they voted for something else!) prompted a response from you.
Although annual budgets for digital technologies are low (two thirds of respondents to London Calling reported budgets lower than £10,000) and the NW audit reported 80% respondents blaming lack of funds as the main barrier to digital technology development, the process has just begun. As John Nicholls comments, “there is a considerable journey of knowledge building on which the arts is clearly willing to embark over the next few years,”

On limited budgets, we have become competent as a sector at digitally broadcasting (pushing) our information in fairly sophisticated ways to our audiences. However, it is highly labour intensive for us as the content producers. Using social software and social spaces can provide us with the extra benefits of the audience co-producing content with us, and a viral marketing distribution channel. For the audience, the benefits are a sense of participating; of being listened to; and of having their experience with you tailored and personalised.

This article first appeared in Arts Professional, Issue 129 and on Hannah Rudman’s blog September 19th 2006.