As commissioned for and featured in JAM 77 / Summer 2022

People want more digital in their cultural diet – and more digital options on the menu. This may well be the critical headline finding from Covid research in the cultural sector, with far-reaching implications for the future. If your experience of the pandemic has left you in any doubt, let it go.

Our extensive research on the impact of Covid since 2020, with the Centre for Cultural Value, offers clear evidence that, while culture lovers of all shapes and sizes are keen to get back out there, they also want continued access to high-quality digital content.

It also revealed inspired experimentation across the sector pointing to the shape of things to come. But indications now are that some organisations are abandoning their digital prototypes and new online offers designed to get audiences through lockdown. The evidence suggests this is a mistake: we need to keep going, finding solutions to, rather than side-stepping, the major resource problems this presents.

So what are the key trends we need to respond to – and what new skills and approaches will we need?


Catering for omnivores

The Cultural Participation Monitor (CPM) shows that people for whom cultural activities are important are digital/live omnivores, hungry for more digital manifestations of our work. (Obvious, but worth also saying, it did not reveal a digital-only audience). During lockdown, even our most risk-averse users adapted: theatre subscribers substituted online performances; school contacts used rapidly developed resources instead of visiting their local museum. But it turns out that, while they want live interactions back, our regular visitors now say they want continued access to these new digital benefits, not instead, but also. In fact, 82% of those who had engaged with digital content during the pandemic said they would continue doing so alongside in-person visits in future.

82% of those who had engaged with digital content during the pandemic said they would continue doing so alongside in-person visits in future.

Online audiences are digitally and culturally savvy – as we might expect. The CPM confirmed a high overlap between cultural super-engagers and those with an interest in the latest tech. Even more encouragingly, it also offers evidence of a general willingness to pay for cultural content, as well as an upsurge in people’s desire to support the arts.

Disabled culture-buffs in particular – upward of 10% of our audiences – increased their engagement as a result of being able to access so many more experiences online and have been vocally campaigning for the flow to increase. Online audiences are also proportionately significantly younger and more ethnically diverse than in-person audiences, with younger groups expressing greater interest in interactive/ participatory formats and experiences.

The upshot is that we need to wean ourselves off an either/or framing of digital engagement. People with an interest in culture are just as likely to plan a night out at the theatre for a special occasion or to meet friends at a weekend exhibition as to watch a streamed performance in the bath, jog to a podcast or use a museum history pack to help their kids.


New formats and experiences

Audiences were also hungry for the new experiences cultural organisations and practitioners invented under the proverbial influence of necessity. Those with specialist, apparently niche offers found global audiences of a size they could never have dreamed pre-Covid. Small museums slotted into deep engagement with untapped communities of enthusiasts across the world by harnessing the power of social media in new ways. Socially engaged arts practitioners changed direction: one told us that, after a career avoiding “impersonal digital”, she’d discovered that participants found a Zoom in their living room less intimidating than meeting up. Another, that moving their reminiscence project from a community centre to WhatsApp increased engagement tenfold.

Indeed, stories of new formats in all walks of our practice – from online opera classes to listening/audio clubs and digital cabaret parties – all found favour with surprisingly large and committed audiences. See what our Head of Digital has to say about how the social media innovations we stumbled into during the pandemic can be transformed into purposeful strides forward.


Trusted cultural brands

And there is little evidence that digital engagement causes any kind of displacement. Our pre-Covid analysis of NT Live audiences showed that live attendance at the National Theatre actually increased among residents of parts of London where a screening had taken place. An overwhelming majority of CPM respondents who accessed digital culture back this up. In short, the more needs we can meet, the more people will engage with us. Interestingly, the CPM suggests that, as a result of our lockdown endeavours, audiences do look to the cultural organisations they know well as a trusted source of digital content. But if we’re not the ones providing high quality cultural content, all the indications are that people will go elsewhere.


Designing the future

Combined, these indications are eye-opening, showing us not just what future audiences will expect but highlighting the power of digital to enrich and extend our relationships with users, potentially driving up frequency, and building support and interaction. To realise this potential, we need to be able to adopt the design habits that colleagues used with such flair in lockdown: to invent new content, experiences and channels in direct conversation with our audience’s concerns and desires of the moment.

There is a name for this: human-centred design. It is a rigorous and iterative process, driven in equal measure by data and by empathy. Many of you practise aspects of it brilliantly, without necessarily recognising it. Nevertheless, a conscious understanding and application of design thinking approaches will greatly enhance our ability to develop omnivore/omnichannel audiences in future.

we need to be able to adopt the design habits that colleagues used with such flair in lockdown: to invent new content, experiences and channels in direct conversation with our audience’s concerns and desires of the moment.


Data with purpose: asking the right questions

We talk a lot about the importance of research and data to audience development. In our 2018 research Services for Data-Haters[1], for example, we discovered that well over 90% of people working in the sector agreed that using data was vital to audience and business strategy. Despite being generally pro-data, however, the sector still had low levels of data confidence and maturity. Digging a little deeper, researchers found a root cause, that few people in the sector know what questions they can and should be using “data” to answer.

Using the human-centred design frame really helps solve that problem. Very simply – the first question we need to ask about audiences is: what’s the need you have right now that we can address? In a design thinking framework, the next question we might pose to ourselves – and even better to our audiences – is: how might we…? The ideas that question unlocks lead us to develop simple prototypes and experiments, which in turn lead to the final set of questions: is that working, why, how, for whom, how can we adapt it, scale it, monetise it? And so on. The more and more relevant data you have – and plan to have – at each stage, the better your design will be.


Channel and model shift

Design skills like these will be critical in effecting ‘channel shift’ – that is moving towards a model where we are fully flexible as to the platform, format or medium we can use to engage and convert potential audiences. The shift needs to be driven by data – who is using what channel, how much does it cost to acquire, convert, retain different users, what is the optimal marketing mix, where the best cost-benefit?

We already know that organisations are jumping the digital ship due to lack of resources – money, time, focus and user-feedback – to restart their in-person offers. For example, the failure of attempts to graft old pricing models onto new digital offers has made many organisations give up at the first hurdle. It’s true that people will not pay theatre-ticket prices for online performances, that teachers are not going to pay for an extra member of the education team to create resource packs or run a Minecraft museum club. But there is demand and people say they will pay, we just need to fit – and refit – the right approach to each channel.

The shift needs to be driven by data – who is using what channel, how much does it cost to acquire, convert, retain different users, what is the optimal marketing mix, where the best cost-benefit?

Watching a play in the bath should be a cheap, or free, night-in but there may be a lot of people soaking in tubs around the world wanting to access your content. The question here is: how might we monetise higher-volume/lower-friction content? Would viewers even notice £2 to Applepay? Others may be your supporters, and free access their “thank-you”. Our local schools may not want to pay a high subscription, but a low subscription offered to schools nationally for curriculum-rich content might be sustainable.

If we are to rethink an omnichannel approach for omnivore audiences, we will need to experiment around the variations, following a user-centred design approach informed by forensic data and energetic testing. Working in experimental collaborations – ideally with shared platforms – will help to lower risk.


Everyone is a designer now

In our view, the case for such data-driven experimentation has never been so urgent and we would argue that this is the critical new skillset for anyone in audience development or arts marketing. It’s worth saying that this is not just about a way of thinking, but is a learnable skillset, supported by tried-and-tested tools and techniques to help you become a designer, to:

  • understand and act on the rapidly changing – or emerging – appetites of your audiences, using quantitative and qualitative data
  • build testing and prototyping into the way you make change and develop new offers and channel
  • take decisions guided by data tailored to the purpose – not our love affair with clever new ideas.