Digital Futures

Author: Katie Moffat

As the dust settles on the most challenging year in living memory, the cultural sector is beginning the process of recovery.

Of course we are not out of the woods yet and there remain huge challenges ahead. However, we can say with certainty that the sector has collectively learned a huge amount and when we combine this learning with the insights available from wider policy and primary research, we have an incredible evidence base from which to move forward.

A recently published report, Boundless Creativity, by the UK Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Council (AHRC), summarises a research project which examined, “… the role of innovation in shaping cultural experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic…” Many of the report findings and associated recommendations echo the conversations in Substrakt’s recent roundtable discussions, held as part of The Stage’s Future of Theatre conference, and it is positive to see some clear through lines from the recommendations of policy makers to cultural organisations planning their future digital priorities.

In developing next stage digital strategies it is also important that we refer to the available research about audiences’ digital behaviours, motivations and intentions. Many organisations have learned the hard way this year that successful digital engagement requires a laser sharp focus on who you’re creating content and events for. While the online environment offers the potential of large audiences, the reality is that success comes from designing digital experiences with a clear target audience in mind.

The latest research from the longitudinal Covid Participation Monitor, demonstrates clear differences between audience groups, for example, while the most popular (cultural online) activity across all age groups was watching music or performing arts, younger audiences showed the most interest in virtual tours and workshops (20% of those aged 16-34 vs 5% of those older than 45). These kinds of insights are hugely valuable as part of the planning process. It is certainly not ‘if we build it they will come’.

The priorities

So let’s draw together some of these recent sources of insight and highlight the consistent themes that run through them all:

Collaboration will be vital to success

  • In an R&D context but also in reaching and broadening audiences and in monetisation. The Boundless Creativity report is clear on the importance of broadening access to cross sectoral R&D projects to smaller cultural organisations and it is positive to see the commitment to new funding calls (subject to funding review) that will aim to address this area.
  • Collaboration between larger cultural organisations and smaller producers also offers the opportunity to provide a wider range of options for audiences, which could lead to audiences engaging more often and more deeply. The report poses the following question which we agree needs further investigation and discussion, “Is there room for a platform that gives smaller cultural practitioners control over their content and how they profit from it, allowing for experimentation, content aggregation, and making content more accessible to new audiences?”

Hybrid approaches are here to stay

  • The Covid Participation Monitor research demonstrates that even when the pandemic is over, amongst certain audiences there will continue to be an appetite for digital experiences but to be more likely to succeed, the sector needs to take the time to understand where the opportunities lie (for engagement and monetisation). For example, the same research reveals that, “Of respondents who expressed some interest in digitally enhanced in-person events, such as those with ‘behind the scenes’ access, exclusive interviews, ‘teasers’ and extra artistic content, about half have said they are willing to pay more for them…Again, age is a key factor here, with younger audiences that are interested much more likely to say they are willing to pay. Over 50% of those younger than 45 were willing compared to a quarter of 65-74 year olds and only 1 in 5 of those over 75.”

Good data & insights are more important than ever

  • If the sector is to continue to develop audience centred approaches, it is vital that it uses the available data and insights to help inform strategies. In reality this will be a combination of individual organisations’ data plus freely available sector insights, The Boundless Creativity report notes the importance of continuing to develop the use of data in the sector, saying, “It is imperative to open up access to data, in particular audience data, to create a shared understanding of consumer and audience behaviour arising from new modes of engagement.”
  • Our own roundtable discussions highlighted how organisations are continuing to review and consider what data can help them to evaluate digital success and one of ideas was the development of a group or network within which data and results are confidentially shared, to help contextualise individual organisations’ results. This is something Substrakt will be looking into developing further in partnership with other experts in the sector.

Continue to upskill the sector

  • Over the past few years the cultural sector has made huge strides in digital skills and to a significant extent the last 15 months has accelerated progress, with individuals learning new digital skills out of necessity. Initiatives like Arts Council England’s Digital Culture Network have also played a vital role. But everyone acknowledges that there is still work to be done and is it good to see DCMS/AHRC recognise digital skills development as an important area of focus.

Even while there are still so many Covid-19 related challenges, perhaps we can also start to be cautiously optimistic about what lies ahead for the sector. In a digital context it’s vital that we don’t lose the momentum of the previous year and that we collectively capitalise on the very significant learnings and insights that this turbulent time has uncovered.

Substrakt is planning the next Digital Works in which we will likely dig into these issues in more detail, if you’d like to be notified of the next event please sign up to our newsletter  here.

If you’d like to discuss any of the things I’ve outlined in this article please do drop me a line: