How should we continue our digital journey, and do we want to?

Author: Kathryn Mason

As sponsors of The Stage’s ‘Future of Theatre’ conference this year (16th-18th June), we hosted a roundtable that posed the question: ‘How should we continue our digital journey, and do we want to?’

We were interested in hearing from folks who work at arts and cultural organisations to understand how they have been using digital in response to the pandemic, the challenges they have faced, and importantly whether they see digital playing a role in their plans moving forward, as in-person events start to regain a foothold in people’s cultural consumption.

While many things were discussed, there were two key takeaways:

  1. Digital will play a far greater role in organisational plans moving forward
  2. Funding remains an issue, as organisations start to navigate how digital content can be monetised in a post-pandemic context

And so the question becomes, how can we continue to build on all of the great digital work that has been created over the past year – from a resource, financial and artistic output point of view – while still regaining the lost ground of in-person events?

This raises questions around new and different audiences, structural changes required at an organisational level, where the funding comes from, and what success looks like.

We had such an interesting, insightful and helpful conversation that involved everyone sharing their own knowledge and experiences. This is a journey we’re all on together, and we hope that discussions such as this can go a little way in helping us all to move forward in the most productive, creative and enjoyable way possible.

Here, we capture four of the key themes discussed.

Digital has proven to be an effective audience building tool

Everyone agreed that having a digital offering has created an opportunity to reach a far greater and more diverse audience pool. This is for a number of reasons, including:

  • Geography – people can view digital content from anywhere in the world. Digital audiences aren’t restricted by time zones or proximity to venues.
  • Accessibility – it removes physical barriers to entry, specifically for people with a disability who cannot physically attend an in-person event.
  • The merits of free streaming platforms such as YouTube – while there are economic challenges with this model (more on this later), they remove the socioeconomic barriers to entry that might prevent people from being able to buy a ticket. Making art and culture accessible to everyone with free content is something that we all agreed is a great thing.
  • Lower perceived risk associated with digital – research has shown that people are happier to take risks on a new artform in a digital context as opposed to buying a ticket for an in-person event. This has meant that people who may not otherwise engage with the arts and culture are now more willing to do so.

Indeed, organisations have seen a lot of ‘first time attendees’ to their digital content, which led to us discussing the need to harness these new audiences by:

  • Creating a new forum for digital content as an artistic output in and of itself, identifying ways to differentiate digital work from the in-person or traditional live streaming event, ensuring that there is a qualitative difference that will add value for the people viewing it.
  • Making new content for digital (similarly to Royal Court’s ‘My White Best Friend (and Other Letters Left Unsaid)’ which was created specifically for an online audience).
    • This provoked questions around how we can make digital content a communal experience in the way that in-person events are.

This led to conversations about the hybrid route many organisations are now looking to take – an approach that will see a combination of digital and in-person events. This will not only help organisations future-proof themselves as we transition into the post-pandemic era, but will also continue to enable them to reach a more diverse range of people.

The last year has exposed a digital skills gap at cultural organisations

A common theme in many current conversations has been around the need for more accomplished digital skills within the workforces of cultural organisations.

The past year has forced organisations to use digital as their main revenue stream, which was usually either completely unplanned for, or expedited any digital plans that might have been in place (forcing premature decisions to be made).

More often than not, digital has fallen within marketing and sales or technical departments, as opposed to having a dedicated team or department in and of itself.

This very quickly exposed a gap in knowledge, experience and expertise in the digital sphere, with organisations having to learn and adapt as they went. Regardless of the digital maturity of different organisations, this has been a steep learning curve for everyone (Glastonbury’s technical failures seem to have been commonplace!)

We all agreed that if digital is to continue to play a greater role in cultural activity, organisations need to make structural changes within their teams and departments to make sure they have the specific skills needed to deliver a successful digital programme.

How can organisations find a sustainable way of monetising digital content?

This was probably the most prominent part of our discussion. The past year has been the opposite of “business as usual”, with the Cultural Recovery Fund and other one-off pots of money helping organisations to tackle the immediate challenges of Coronavirus.

But if we’re all in agreement that we’d like to see digital becoming more “business as usual”, then the current funding and business models immediately come into question. Why?

  • As mentioned, digital has by and large been attached to a marketing and sales function within organisations, which makes demonstrating a return on investment a simpler job than trying to commission new work (with new artists and new audiences) within a new ‘digital’ function – which has no business model upon which to monetise that work.
    • This is obviously a difficult problem for organisations to be engaging with (particularly when it comes to areas such as rights and contracts), it requires a process of change that sees organisations creating sustainable business models for digital content.
  • This also requires a shift in funding, and the expectations funders have about what digital means.
    • So perhaps what comes first is a change in the mindset and understanding of funders about ‘digital’ itself. We all discussed how seeing digital as one strand of an entire project, as opposed to just a ‘separate thing on the side’ is the first step in this direction.
    • What might help with this is the fact that audience expectations really have shifted over the past year. As we’ve seen happen in Australia as in-person events have returned, people are still showing a great appetite for digital content. These new digital audiences are here and willing to stay, and so the funding needs to reflect that.
    • Being clear that it is funding, rather than ticket sales, that is subsidising events and organisations is also an important distinction to be made on this journey.

As part of all of this, we talked about the need to stop comparing apples with oranges. Whether that’s propping our digital content up against the likes of YouTube (and their free live streaming services) or big name production companies such as Netflix (and their high value production budgets), or bigger organisations with far bigger budgets and an established digital platform (such as National Theatre and their NT at Home programme) –  a shift in discourse needs to take place in order to differentiate, and provide support to, the new (and still maturing) digital work being created by arts and cultural venues across the sector.

Everyone agreed that monetising digital content is going to be a significant challenge moving forward, with organisations largely unable to make the finances stack up within the current funding and business models.

Digital content in this new context is different to the traditional ‘theatre money model’, and so there’s a need to establish different models and create different spaces within which to monetise digital activity.

Measuring the success of digital content

This prompted us to discuss the merits of offering free digital content that everyone can enjoy, and what this means for success metrics.

If organisations choose to keep some or all of their digital content free, then we need to consider the other spaces in which digital activity can impact and function, in a way that can be measured against things beyond just income.

And so we need to consider other models of ‘value’, and develop a more nuanced understanding of how digital can enhance work that’s already being done, as opposed to directly looking at digital as a way to solve economic challenges.

  • Education and participation programmes have been a hugely successful result of the last year, and perhaps a solution to the financial challenges above would be for institutions to consider these not solely as an extension of their “main stage” programme, but as a constituent part of the wider activity within which success is currently being measured.
  • Beyond this, we can look at the value programmes such as this provide when it comes to things like wellbeing, cultural enrichment, education, accessibility and knowledge-sharing.

Benchmarking new digital activity, in the various formats is has, and will continue to take, was also an interesting topic of discussion:

  • With new digital audiences comes the need for more sophisticated measurements of engagement.
    • Beyond just audience numbers, we should start to look at ways to evaluate meaningful engagement with digital work – for example, 200 people might watch a live stream and be doing something else simultaneously, whereas 50 people could be 100% engaged with the work.
    • Solely looking at audience numbers could be an inaccurate measure of success.
  • With digital content being new – and therefore no precedent or benchmarks set – it’s also proving difficult to judge how good the results are. What’s a good viewing figure for something brand new?
    • Comparing the results of in-person events vs digital content would be inaccurate and misleading, and so it would be useful to establish new benchmarks and metrics specifically for these new digital formats.
    • An idea was shared around creating a group or network with other organisations within which data and results are confidentially shared, to help contextualise individual organisations’ results.
    • This would also help remove the silos organisations are currently operating in – from both a business and emotional perspective!

What’s really exciting about all of these discussions is that, for the first time, we’re seeing institution-wide engagement with digital as a meaningful artistic output.

Organisations have cultivated new audiences, found exciting and innovative ways to share content, and started redefining the role digital will play in their future plans.

So while we are still left with many questions unanswered, what we’re hearing is that digital is here to stay. The next step? To engage with the current challenges which include funding, contracts and structures, so that organisations can create the conditions within which digital can become an effective, enjoyable and sustainable part of their entire offering.

Easier said than done, but having fruitful and insightful conversations such as this can play a part in helping all of us to channel our focus as we move into a post-Covid world.

If you have any questions or would like to have chat about any of the above, please do just get in touch: team@substrakt.co.uk