post by Kadja Manninen (2018 cohort)
Coming from an arts management background with over a decade’s worth of work experience, for me, one of the main reasons for applying to the Horizon programme, was the course’s strong industry focus. This means that already in the application phase, students are matched with industry partners, with whom they collaborate actively throughout the PhD. My industry partner is The Space, a digital agency funded by the BBC and Arts Council England, whose mission is to help arts and cultural organisations to reach new audiences online. Particularly during the third year of my PhD, I have worked closely with my industry partner on various projects they are partners in. Through these projects and my own PhD research, I have had the opportunity and privilege to talk to around 40-50 arts organisations and independent arts professionals. The conversations have mostly centred around digital transformation, new digital business models, the needs of digital arts audiences, and more recently, the impact of Covid-19 on the arts and cultural sector.
Therefore, I was thrilled, when the wonderful Helen Kennedy, Professor of Creative and Cultural Industries at University of Nottingham, invited me to take part in a panel discussion at the Interrogating Audiences online event the Institute for Screen Industries Research (ISIR) was organising on July, 9th, 2021.
The event brought together around 60 participants, both academics from different fields as well as representatives of various cultural organisations. The programme was composed of three panel discussions around the following questions:
- What questions do we have about audiences?
- How do we gather evidence to answer these questions?
- How would the answers be used to help design content production and distribution/ marketing strategies?
Below, I highlight some key takeaways from the three panels and my own experience as a panel member.
I was part of the first panel alongside Steward Terry from Broadway Cinema and Jennifer Hessler from University of Huddersfield. Our discussion focused on the many questions we have about audiences. Drawing on the interviews I have recently had with arts and cultural organisations, I decided to approach the topic from arts producers’ perspective.
It is increasingly clear that the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated digital transformation and organisational decision-making within arts organisations. While the strict social distancing restrictions imposed by the UK government closed cultural venues repeatedly over the pandemic peak year, they also created room for change by allowing arts producers to stop and take time for rethinking their ways of operating and exploring new forms of digital engagement with their audiences.
During my interviews with arts organisations, many described the diverse and often experimental ways of audience engagement they were undertaking under the new circumstances, where in-person encounters were not allowed. The organisations that were already digitally mature at the start of the pandemic, were in the best position to tackle the challenge of reaching digital audiences. They were, for example, able to rapidly repurpose their existing digital content and broadcast it, which enabled them to remain relevant and not to be forgotten by their core audiences. These organisations also tended to be the ones that saw the pandemic as an opportunity to reach new, more geographically dispersed audiences, and thus began creating new types of content specifically designed for digital delivery. There are many examples in the sector, but I think one that is definitely worth mentioning is Opera North’s From Couch to Chorus project, which gathered over 6000 people from all over the world on Zoom to sing opera.
Some arts organisations engaged in unprecedentedly bold experimentation with digital content, and launched new digital products such as online escape rooms or at-home XR experiences. Organisations also upskilled internally, i.e. staff members rapidly learned, for example, the art of online teaching or performing to the camera. More recently, there has been an emergence of digital platforms introduced by arts and cultural organisations, a phenomenon that I think no one could have anticipated pre-pandemic. Another successful example from the sector is Rambert Dance, who have done particularly well with their Home Studio platform, creating an inclusive, global online community around their work, and Darkfield, who through an app-based approach have reached large international audiences for their at-home immersive audio experiences.
Steward Terry from Broadway Cinema agreed that also in the film industry, the engagement with new and existing digital audiences has been something that they have been actively developing, and they as well, launched their own on-demand platform, where selected films can be rented. He underlined that is has been key for Broadway Cinema to determine what makes them unique to motivate audiences to engage with them particularly during the pandemic. Interestingly, he also observed that after the re-opening, their audiences have returned, however, many seem to be somewhat younger than the audiences they had pre-pandemic.
The second panel centred on the different techniques of collecting data from audiences. It was great to see how mixed methods research is now becoming much more frequent in the arts. For example, Bridgette Wessers described the AHRC-funded “Beyond the Multiplex” project, which through a mixed-methods approach aimed to understand how audiences engage with main stream film and how can the cultural value of not-so-known films can be optimised. She emphasised that one dataset does not give you the whole picture, but its importance to approach the phenomenon from different viewpoints.
Richard Broughton from Ampere Analytics shared his knowledge on commercial data collection methods, which they use to evidence audience behaviour. These included financial information on how much audiences are spending, large-scale quantitative surveys and interviews as well as collection of title-level tracking. Listening to Richard’s presentation I couldn’t help wondering that it would be great if there was more collaboration between academics and commercial analytic agencies so that these efficient methods could be also accessible to academic researchers. Erin Sullivan from The Shakespeare Institute described interesting social media research data collection methods such as sentiment analysis and particularly the Netlytic software for collecting and analysing tweets and YouTube posts. This is something that I plan to explore more in detail in the near future.
The final panel focused on the data-driven approaches that inform content production and distribution strategies. Ayesha Taylor-Camara, PhD candidate from University of Nottingham gave a wonderful introduction to her research that explores the value of the BBC. Her presentation helped to understand the role media plays in people’s lives and how a cultural organisation’s value is formed based on the interactions and experiences with their audiences. Matt Locke from Storythings introduced a new (at least to me) concept of “anectdata” that is not necessarily captured by traditional data collection methods, but bears an increasing importance to broadcasters. He also underlined the significance of understanding the churn caused by digital technologies in audience behaviour. Rachel Shaw from the BBC agreed that the pandemic has accelerated change in the TV industry. For instance, the way BBC assesses value of content has changed from vertical to horizontal, since the distribution method has changed from a singular moment to a continuous event.
As the three-hour event approached its end, the closing discussion concluded around the overarching theme of change. Liz Evans from University of Nottingham drew attention to how change and trends impact audience research, and whereas in the industry audience research can be fast-paced, change and trends are often difficult to capture through academic research. Liz also made an important point about cultural audiences not being siloed in one sector, as people who watch television also commonly go to cinema and theatre. Therefore, she called for more inter-sectoral collaboration and understanding that changes in the film and TV sector can also impact other sectors, such as the performing arts.
Indeed, I think there are important lessons we can learn from understanding different audiences from different sectors. There are universal challenges and common issues that Covid has made more apparent, as Liz stated, pushed certain sectors, such as performing arts to a direction they wouldn’t have gone naturally.
To finish, Helen Kennedy pointed out another important question that is pertinent to all cultural sectors and has repeatedly come up in my own research: How can we reach audiences we know nothing about, and how can we create content for them? During the course of the pandemic, it has been easier for audiences to try something new and suddenly become, for example, dance audiences or opera audiences. If new audience demographics keep turning up at online events – whereas they wouldn’t attend this event in a live setting – what does that tell us about the barriers of access to these art forms or cultural institutions?