Online culture isn’t going anywhere

The truth is, even as lockdown restrictions are eased, many audiences will be relying on digital for their cultural fixes for months – if not years – to come. 

Museums and galleries may be welcoming back some visitors but many others, particularly in the performing arts, have a long way to go before they can even think about large audiences and live performances. 

And, as the recent experiences in Melbourne, Leicester and other cities worldwide show, localized lockdowns are likely to be a feature of life for the foreseeable future. 

Early into lockdown, there was a rush to get content out. The good news is that we no longer have to scramble, and can take the time to reflect. Venues preparing for the long haul can apply a more considered approach to their digital programming and put into practice the insights gathered from that first  lockdown content. 

What performing arts audiences want from digital content

Over the past few months we helped our clients across the world evaluate the digital content they were offering while audiences were asked to stay at home, in particular: the Donmar Warehouse in London; Malmö Live in Sweden; and Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater in New York City.

Each study was short and focused, with space for open, honest feedback. Across all three we spoke to 884 participants.

While the organization, the offer and the objectives were different each time, some wider themes emerged. Here’s four things we learned that can help performing arts plan for the coming months:

1. It’s not just about distraction – it’s about feeling uplifted

We often hear audiences talk about engaging with culture as a means for escapism, of stepping out of everyday life. But current audiences are looking for more than just distraction from cultural organizations. 

Content with joy, levity and comedy, anything to take me away for a bit and escape the tension.

Respondent from Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater

Even in lockdown we have near unlimited options for mindless and easy distraction. Audiences want something deeper from our sector. Across all three studies we saw desire for inspiration and food for the soul. Joy was the outcome Joe’s Pub audiences sought most. Now might not be the time for dark or challenging content but that doesn’t mean the alternative is to be frivolous. From cultural organizations audiences don’t simply want escape, they want to be uplifted.

2. Shared experience is key but don’t overthink it. It’s really just a feeling.

A sense of connection to others often emerged as a motivation for watching digital content but this is more about a feeling than any kind of practical connection. We tested interest in a range of techniques to increase connection through interactive content – pre-show talks, Q&As, group chats – and none really excited audiences. Similarly, watching at the same time as friends or family wasn’t a priority.

[I want to] feel a bond and that I participate in one event together with others. Have been thinking a lot this and is pretty scary really, hard to explain. But it is a very nice feeling to listen live!

Respondent from Malmö Live

The connection they are looking for is more of a feeling. Just knowing other people are having the same experience is enough, and connecting to the artists themselves serves this purpose. Malmö Live audiences were happy to connect with the orchestra – the rest of the audience was less important.

For this reason, the important of ‘live’ is relative. Streamlining a live event does increase the sense of connection but offering multiple opportunity to view is more important to increase access.

3. Digital isn’t a replacement, but it’s a valuable way to sustain relationships.

The audiences we spoke to were clear: most did not expect a digital production to live up to ‘the real thing’. However, they were also clear that the experience did exceed expectations.

So what’s the point? While digital content can and does have global reach, it’s not the key to finding new audiences. Most often, the audiences who tuned in to digital performance were those closest to the organization, who wanted to keep in touch and support. It’s about sustaining relationships, generously meeting their needs in this time.

It was a wonderful accomplishment under the circumstances. I would love to see this sort of thing continue even if/when we get back to normal. What a wonderful way to help develop a new play.

Respondent from the Donmar Warehouse

Many hadn’t watched digital productions before, but they were willing to follow the brand they trusted to a new platform and it kept them connected. Audiences said they were both more excited to visit in person and were more likely to watch future digital productions.

4. Make a choice on resources: commit fully or use what you’ve got

Audiences loved the Donmar Warehouse’s Midnight Your Time specifically because it lived up to the artistic and production quality they expect from the venue. It was made specifically for digital audiences and the format served the production perfectly.

But there is also appetite for a chance to see the performances they missed or the favorites they’d love to re-live. Audiences definitely don’t want to see the organization they love and support wasting resources. 

Essentially, there is no half-way: either invest the time and resources to create something special or give access to the best from your back catalogue with minimal extra effort, saving your much-needed resources for re-opening.

Image: Diana Quick in Donmar Warehouse’s lockdown production of Midnight Your Time