Lessons learned after a year of ‘doing digital content’

Author: Kathryn Mason

It’s been an unparalleled year. A year that’s turned the whole world on its head, and thrown its own set of challenges to the arts sector. Challenges that have resulted in digital engagement being, for the most part, the only way cultural organisations have been able to exist.

We’ve all been so busy tackling the challenges posed by the pandemic that we’ve not had time to stop and reflect. To reflect on the different ways organisations have responded, on the new ideas we’ve generated, and on the things that have and haven’t worked.

So on Friday 5th March – nearly a year after the first national lockdown – we created a space to do exactly this. At a Roundtable titled ‘Lessons learned after a year of doing digital content’, we gathered a range of industry folk from various organisations across the UK, USA and Canada to share their own experiences using digital in new ways.

Our aim was not only to consider the lessons learned, but also to cast our minds forward and start thinking about how recent successes might form part of our future thinking as we transition back to normality (whatever that looks like!)

Thanks to everyone involved, we came away with a rich set of themes, lessons and questions that we hope can help inform the way we move into a post-Covid world. Here, we’ve captured some of the key things discussed.


Diversifying our audiences

Each of our speakers agreed that one good thing to come from COVID is the opportunity for organisations to reach brand new audiences. Audiences that, as Emily explained when talking about Opera North’s ‘From Couch to Chorus’ digital programme, “wouldn’t normally have been able to attend an Opera North performance”.

Now in its 3rd edition, the Couch to Chorus programme has attracted 67% brand new attendees from both the UK and around the world.


Participants from Opera North’s ‘From Couch to Chorus’ programme

Sophie told us how Little Angel Theatre’s ‘Watch, Make, Share’  series increased their YouTube subscribers count from <1000 to nearly 14,000 across 90 countries.

And for Wise Children, following the successful live streaming of their own shows Romantics Anonymous  and Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, they suddenly found themselves occupying the role of the Box Office for the first time.

As Simon explained, this meant they were “able to talk to their audiences in a way they’d never been able to before”. The audience data was theirs, which meant not only could they continue engaging with their audiences, but they could take direct control over building their audience base – the “Wise Children Tribe”. 

These experiences have all been enabled by the ability of digital to erase boundaries – whether they be borders, time zones, income levels or barriers to accessibility.

This was echoed by Emily’s colleague Katie when speaking about another of Opera North’s digital projects, Opera North On Demand – which involved working with Substrakt to create an on-demand paywall platform that could live stream performances of Fidelio and Seven Deadly Sins:

“For me, the most significant learning has been how much we’ve been able to develop our audiences through these live streams. We’ve welcomed new audiences from around the world and customers have requested that we continue to stream performances after the pandemic”. 

By creating digital content that can be distributed flexibly, organisations have been able to reach a far wider and more diverse audience. Maintaining these audiences and continuing to reach more people will certainly form one of the challenges we face moving forward as audiences start returning to physical venues. And looking at ways to avoid cannibalising audiences for an event that’s running both in-person and digitally will be another consideration.

These are all things that will inevitably continue taking a trial-and-error approach, but the past year has shown that in order to give ourselves the best chance, organisations need to stay close to their audience data, understand how audiences are feeling and engaging with the work and, importantly, encourage an environment of feedback and response to ensure that user needs and desires are guiding their digital approach. 

New pricing models

Another common theme discussed was around the different pricing models organisations have been testing over the past year. The notion of monetising digital content posed its own set of questions to many organisations.  

How much are people willing to pay for a digital experience? Should we offer free content to help people navigate through these tough times? How can we replace the income lost from in-person experiences without putting people off? How can we maximise donation revenue? Is a ‘Pay What You Feel’ model too risky? How can we avoid devaluing our offering while making sure audiences are still engaging with our content?

What our speakers made clear, through sharing the variety of pricing approaches they’ve been trying, is that there really is no single answer here. 

Holly told us about the Royal Court’s tiered pricing approach to their online festival My White Best Friend (and Other Letters Left Unsaid) – a decision they made to help increase accessibility in addition to gaining “an understanding of audience choices, expectations and levels of engagement”.

By offering both a £12 ticket and a £5 option for those on lower income, Royal Court were able to gauge people’s appetite to pay for content, in addition to how much (encouragingly, over 80% chose to pay £12).

This has informed the pricing model for their current digital project, The Living Newspaper an event that was originally intended as an in-person experience but has since been purposefully rebuilt as digital-only content.


An audience view of the screen setup for Royal Court’s My White Best Friend

Prior to the pandemic, some organisations already had a digital strategy in place, which was informing their thinking but then posed its own set of challenges around reputation and audience expectations when it came to pricing digital content in the Covid world.

Little Angel Theatre had already created a plan for delivering free online content alongside their in-person offering, so less than a week after theatres had closed they were able to launch their ‘Watch, Make, Share’ series – a direct response to the crisis that was designed to support families trying to juggle home-schooling and keeping the kids entertained, through the art of puppetry.

But while this received really positive audience feedback, it was not, as many organisations experienced, making any money. So as Sophie explained, “[they] started to think about what [they] could do to create something that was going to have added value…that people would be willing to pay for”.

Which is when they made the decision to switch their delivery platform from YouTube to Zoom and Vimeo – using a combination of both to deliver a more interactive audience experience for two shows, Reach for the Stars and WOW? Said the owl, that people in turn would be more likely to pay for.


Little Angel Theatre’s ‘Reach for the Stars’ performance, delivered on Zoom

For their ‘From Couch to Chorus’ programme, Opera North used a ‘Pay as You Feel’ strategy – an approach shared by many organisations as a means of helping them understand people’s appetite to engage with digital content, in addition to its perceived value.

Throughout the pandemic, this model has made the arts more accessible by inviting anyone to join, regardless of their income levels. And of equal importance, it has helped encourage people to try new things and experiment with their interests during a time that has certainly put a strain on people’s mental wellbeing, but also one that has seen a revival of open-minded thinking (as Stuart Buchanan talked about in our #DigitalWorks12 event focused on ‘Audiences’).

And these audience benefits have been coupled with organisational wins – Opera North far exceeded their own expectations, raising significant sums of PAYF revenue – figures they didn’t think would have been reached had they “put a fixed price tag on it”, Emily told us.

So while everyone is still exploring which formats and pricing models are best for which content, what this has shown is that people are willing to pay for digital experiences. Both those originally designed as an in-person event, but also those made for digital-first.

Looking ahead, it will be interesting to see how organisations adjust the pricing models for their digital offering and how these will compare to the in-person ticket prices.

Working with new people

One of the lovely things to have come out of the past year is the opportunities to work with new people, departments and organisations. 

As Emily made clear when explaining how ‘Couch to Chorus’  was enabled by a close working relationship with Opera North’s education team, collaboration and communication have proven to be more vital than ever in enabling the successful delivery of digital experiences. As a result, providing digital experiences has enabled departments to work more effectively together and learn from each other. 

Simon explained how it became a necessity to speak with people he otherwise wouldn’t have in order to successfully deliver Wise Children’s live streaming content:

“The digital work made all the departments work together, it meant that organisations had to communicate…people you thought you didn’t necessarily need to engage with are suddenly really key to your business”. 

This requirement for digitally-focused projects to be owned across teams or departments has seen the role of digital shift more broadly, from largely being used as a marketing tool, to an important part of the overall production process.

This is a really exciting transition that we are hopeful will continue as organisations begin considering how best to resource their future productions (both digital and in-person). Integrating digital into the wider organisational strategy may well be the way forward, which of course raises questions around how this will be resourced within post-pandemic company structures.

Continuous optimisation

What’s become clear is that organisations are on an exciting learning curve with digital. The dynamic and flexible nature of digital has rewarded a ‘test-and-learn’ environment, with organisations trialling different approaches, gaining quick-response feedback and optimising their content accordingly.

Holly told us how My White Best Friend initially sold out in advance, which raised a question over how Royal Court could increase the audience capacity for each performance without compromising the technical or artistic output. 

They tackled this by having a daily regroup to assess the previous night’s performance before releasing an appropriate number of new tickets each day. As a result of this approach, Royal Court had, as Holly puts it “accidentally created a sense of event by taking it one day at a time” (the hashtag #MyWhiteBestFriend went viral in London that week). This goes to show how the quick, reactive decisions enabled by digital can enhance the overall audience reach and awareness of the event. 

Simon talked about Wise Children’s decision to experiment with live-streaming following the successful production of their Wise Radio podcast content – a move that Simon saw as a natural progression. The approach they had taken to their podcasts (self-produced, ‘handmade’, personal) informed their approach to producing video content (which Simon described as “just in-camera podcasts”) and, subsequently, livestreaming (successfully beginning with a live stream of the Old Vic’s  “Lungs” before streaming their own shows). 


Wise Children’s “in-camera podcasts”, that were live-streamed following the successes of ‘Wise Radio’

This ‘what have we got to lose’ perspective has been shared amongst organisations, as we’ve seen them pushing the boundaries of digital opportunity and experimenting with new platforms to engage with their audiences.

Emily explained how Opera North have shifted strategies in both content and messaging across the three editions of ‘From Couch to Chorus’, in a move to reach a younger and more diverse audience. Refocusing their communications on diversity and mental wellbeing, as well as introducing evening sessions, has helped attract new, younger audiences.

So what does all of this mean moving forward? How will the generation of ideas in a digital context compare to those for in-person experiences?

Having been catapulted into a digital-first world, it’s now exciting to see organisations planning and creating content that’s ‘made for digital’ – with well-considered, digitally-focused strategies, objectives and delivery methods in place. 

Learnings from the digital strategy implemented throughout My White Best Friend have informed Royal Court’s approach to the Living Newspaper project, which is now being planned as a digital-only event – being live streamed in bitesize chunks with content being captured to a much higher standard than it would have been for the originally planned experience.

Little Angel Theatre are also in production of their first “made for Zoom show”, Where the Bugaboo Lives, which will allow audiences to “choose their own adventure story” by making their own narrative decisions at certain points throughout the performance.

This is a move that shows how organisations are recognising the unique benefits of providing a digital experience. As Sophie explained, Little Angel are now “really trying to use technology to create an experience that wouldn’t be able to happen live”. 


Little Angel Theatres digital-first production, “Where the Bugaboo Lives”

As a result of these strategic shifts, it feels like, overall, experiences being provided by cultural organisations will make better use of digital platforms, delivering purposefully different experiences to the in-person offering.

Both types of experiences bring their own set of benefits and opportunities. They complement one another while serving different needs and user experiences. That’s not to say they should exist separately. But the concept of delivering content to remote audiences alongside physical, in-person events makes the chances for reach, engagement and variety far greater.

And so the chaotic, crisis-driven learning journey that organisations have been on over the past year has in fact meant they are now equipped with a far better understanding of the digital world, how it can be used as a central stream of work and indeed, how it might best work alongside in-person offerings.

Final thoughts

This piece would never end if it tried to capture everything discussed at the roundtable. Other themes covered included the quality (or lack thereof) of archive footage and the subsequent need to reimagine existing content (or create it from scratch); the issue of artists rights and royalties; the various strengths and weaknesses attributed to different online formats, and much more. So, what next?

COVID upended the way arts and cultural organisations connected with their audiences. It put a hard stop to in-person, live experiences and asked us to consider how we could continue engaging with audiences.

And digital quickly became the best answer. The best means of continuing to deliver these experiences.

While some organisations were already operating with a digital strategy to augment their in-person programmes, the sudden reliance on digital as a primary revenue stream was unexpected, and therefore these strategies required significant rethinking.

Other organisations were starting from scratch – an equally daunting prospect that posed its own set of challenges.

Yet, what’s become clear as we start to come out the other side, is that digital has created new and exciting opportunities for organisations. It’s opened up new revenue streams, enabled organisations to reach new audiences, and encouraged a new way of thinking about the best ways to deliver meaningful experiences.

And while there will undoubtedly be new questions asked as we enter the post-pandemic world, what seems clear is that in the short to medium-term future at least, a hybrid mode of operation between digital and in-person experiences will become the norm.