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[15 Jul 2021]

Engaging new audiences and building resilience during a pandemic – what we’ve learned

Written by AFP Fellow and Back to Ours Producer Nesta Nelson

Arts Council England research on the value of arts to people and society proves participating in arts and culture, makes a positive and enriching contribution to a person’s health and well-being.  As Producer at Back to Ours, it’s a HUGE part of my job to work out how we reach new audiences for the arts here in Hull. So, what do we want?  Well – deep breath – to make a lasting change in local neighbourhoods that traditionally have little or no engagement with the arts. We exist to give more people the chance to participate, regardless of their social, educational or financial circumstances – or where they live.

With theatres, galleries and arts venues shut indefinitely until May 2021, Back to Ours had to very quickly think about engaging new and existing audiences digitally, whilst juggling our commitment to quality arts programming. So, how’s it gone so far? Glad you asked…

Live Streaming: not as easy as it looks. Who knew?

First up – Facebook Live. We knew from evaluation stats that this platform would reach our core audience. We asked artists we’d worked with previously to make recordings or devise live streams that would resonate with current themes of isolation, hope, or – what the hell – just make people feel good by encouraging a kitchen disco or a bit of a knees-up.

With every live stream, comes a real-time commentary from the audience in the form of the comments section – conversations people have amongst themselves whilst they’re watching. Having a window into these moments is lovely, and something is reassuring in knowing people who’ve never met before can exchange conversation, tell each other what they’re having for tea, or how emotional a performance makes them feel. Viewers can also invite their friends or long-distance relative to join in, watching instantly together at the touch of a button. Our new online adventures have joined us up with people across the globe, including a spoken word fan in Brazil and an Elvis enthusiast tuning in from Afghanistan.

Artists are surveyed after their performance and – interestingly – feedback so far evidences increased levels of nervousness and vulnerability from working in this way. We underestimated how vulnerable performing to a mobile phone alone in a house would make an artist feel. Performing without being able to ‘read’ the energy in the room or being able to bounce off the audience is a frightening prospect for performers used to being in packed pubs, clubs and theatres.

On the flipside, ALL artists reported that being able to interact with others digitally brought a boost to their mental health, leaving them considering new ways of working online – some have even started producing their own online work after their performance with us.

New Audiences

We’re reaching new audiences, quicker than before. Will this make us shift our focus to online work and result in us creating less in the real world?

A study carried out by Creative Industries Policy & Evidence Centre shows that a quarter of people who have accessed online content during lockdown have done so for the first time, demonstrating a growing opportunity to access new audiences through digital means.

Our new online Facebook reach is vast; we grew from just over 3000 followers to double that by the end of 2020, and we’ve reached thousands and thousands of people with our live-streamed performances. Question is; will these numbers eventually translate into real-life bums on seats?

Our own research so far suggests that whilst our digital work serves as an excellent engagement tool in capturing new audiences for arts experiences, it can’t replace the connections made during a shared live experience in the real world.

A survey completed by our live stream audiences shows that 92% of viewers would be much more likely to attend one of our events in person having engaged through Facebook, which is great news. Encouraging people to dip their toe in the water through a digital platform proves to be an excellent engagement tool, removing the initial barrier that someone who’s arts-engaged might not even consider.

Live streams – are we now ready to try and turn these into a crucial source of revenue?

Two-fifths of creative organisations estimate their income has dropped by 100% since the coronavirus outbreak, new datafrom the Creative Industries Federation has revealed. One in seven organisations believe they can last less than four weeks on existing reserves, while 63% predict a decrease in annual turnover of more than 50% by the end of 2020.

Arts organisations must diversify their income if they are to survive. Does our live-streamed programme present an overlooked opportunity to build audiences and revenue at the same time? Our newfound friends in Afghanistan and Brazil aren’t going to buy a ticket to a live show once we are back to the new normal, but they might buy a PWYC ticket for a digital performance.

Results from the 2017 ACE and Nesta Digital Culture survey suggest more organisations are using digital tech for revenue generation in the form of ticket sales and donation facilities than ever before. Therefore, it makes sense that since the C-19 pandemic began, we’ve seen a sharp rise in the use of donation facilities and pay per view platforms online.

The Big Question – What have we learned and how will we apply it in the future?

The live experience is so important. This is evidenced through our digital analytics, as viewing numbers and levels of engagement are low in shares of previous live performances after they’ve happened, strongly suggesting that people WANT to feel as though they’re taking part in something right then and there, not consuming after the moment.

A study led by UCL found that watching a live performance can synchronise your heartbeat with other people in the audience, regardless of whether you know them or not. The physiological synchrony observed during the performance was strong enough to overcome all social differences and engage the audience as one.

Our evidence so far suggests offering audiences a safe – sometimes anonymous – space to ‘try it and see’ has only increased the appetite for real life, face to face experiences we simply cannot recreate at home.

But what if the concept of at-home viewing experiences shifts? For years David Lynch has asked that his at-home audiences change the contrast/brightness settings on their TV/monitor screen to specific parameters so they can see his work exactly as he’s created it. Do we then need to start thinking about not only what live audiences see, but also how people at home consume the work digitally how the artist intends?

So many questions and different things to consider, but we know, with or without the magic of live performance, our current online work’s proving to be an invaluable engagement tool. Still, that won’t stop us from getting back into live venues over the coming months….