How do we engage younger audiences? This is a question organisations often ask themselves – and don’t always arrive at a clear answer.

In the first of our three part series, our consultant, Laura Karban, draws on our research to unpack ways to understand this cohort – and, crucially, how to connect with and engage them.

We’re often getting asked about what young people are interested in. And we like to tell our clients that, en masse, young people’s interests are possibly the least interesting thing about them. As one more obvious and universal point, young people are not an entirely discrete group with their own hobbies and interests, but a reflection of the infinite assortment of human beings, with an equally infinite range of likes and dislikes.

In addition to this, research that we carried out in 2018 added to evidence that strong subculture identities, such as mods and rockers, punks, emo, goths and skaters, have been diluted and are being replaced by something more complex, and less easily categorisable. The opening up of online networks which connect young people to other young people and influencers globally has contributed to a ‘fragmenting’ of influences. And this is even more true five years later than it was then.

This means that the old fashioned strict boundaries of subculture, affecting how young people talk about themselves and their interests, has been hugely softened. Young people align themselves less to one genre or style, but rather have a really broad variety of identities and trends that they associate themselves with. A more mix and match approach.

So how does this help arts and culture organisations? Simply put, it doesn’t. There’s no silver bullet to engaging younger audiences. They’re not going to be brought in solely by some bleeding edge tech, specific exhibition content or some buzz words. But there are approaches that can support engagement with this group who are, by definition, still finding their place in the world.

Authentic connection with other young people

While your brand may be well-thought of, stable, or even edgy, young people want to feel like they’re having authentic interactions with other humans, and particularly other young people. Trust in institutions is generally lower than it was and, depending on your institution, your brand is unlikely to be a major draw. Employ young people to plan your programmes, write your copy, so that your offer feels relevant and authentic. And facilitate real life interaction as much as possible to build connection.

Making moments

Belonging to a particular subculture is being replaced by the more immediate feeling of belonging to something much more fleeting, or in the moment – think TikTok micro trends. For arts and culture organisations this means creating immersive moments or experiences that are entirely absorbing at that point in time. And this doesn’t just go for young people: post covid many people are seeking these short, all-consuming periods of joy and wonder, to get lost for just a few minutes.

A sense of importance

Young people are understandably concerned about what their future, and the future of the planet looks like. Social and climate justice are regularly top of mind, and this is an expectation for arts and culture organisations too. Don’t, however, fall into the trap of assuming young people are all earnest eco-warriors. They’re just as confused and conflicted as everyone else, and are looking for offers of collaboration, hope and solution to ease climate anxiety especially.

Engagement on their own terms

Young people can be really busy. Balancing work, study, social and family lives means that there is often little time for arts engagement in formal settings. Making engagement genuinely flexible and allowing for out of hours events and unprompted visits as much as possible should support interest and access.


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