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Having flexed our innovation muscles in response to the pandemic, now’s the time to assess what we’ve done and use this knowledge to develop new ways of working on a larger, longer-term scale. The Audience Agency team looks to the future of festivals online.

silhouette of a person looking up at a coloured starry sky

Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

It’s summertime and that means The Audience Agency team is deep in evaluation for outdoor (and some indoor) festivals. We relish the opportunity to mobilise our Audience Finder service, and other research methods, to reap the rewards of another year of engaging with festival audiences. But this year, the sector is challenged to consider what these experiences are, or could be, without that visceral interaction of performer and audience across physical space.

Mass participation is possibly the polar opposite of social distancing. So, in comes digital, discrete and local. And out, it seems, goes large scale, jostling crowds and intimate workshops. How, then, can we understand the impact of alternative ways of presenting work and digital experiences, where we can’t see our communities coming together and feel the public celebration of a place and the work of outdoor artists? Might we be able to find new opportunities, ideas or room for innovation that could really stick in this ‘new normal’?  

Different approaches

As The Audience Agency’s research has continuously shown, festivals hold a unique position in our cultural landscape. The attraction for many is the ‘aesthetic of conviviality’ – enjoying an event collectively in the open air – as evidenced, for example, at the Cambridge Folk Festival or in the Global Streets initiative. This, of course, is not something that can be replicated through online streaming… so other approaches are rising to the fore.

Some have presented the same work but in a different way:

  • Galway 2020 demonstrating Kari Kola’s Savage Beauty from a bird’s eye view, which is not possible in real life regardless.
  • Hull Freedom Festival ‘repurposing’ its archives leading into this year’s festival, which takes place in online and broadcast form.

Some have taken an entirely new tack:

  • Revoluton Arts, an Arts Council England Creative People and Places project, is producing community work that does not circumvent, but directly addresses the pandemic, so a project on touch has become one on not touching and a ukulele orchestra has become ‘the big strum’.  

Others have nestled in-between:

  • So Festival has converted to the Sofa Fest 2020 with a perfect play on words that engages people, responds to the current situation, showcases the fantastic community spirit that Lincolnshire is renowned for and, of course, is entertaining too!  

There are countless examples of the ingenuity of the sector and its artists to respond to new circumstances and explore their assets, including, for many artists, finding new ways of developing their work and exchanging ideas digitally.

The who’s who of online engagement

Holding events online shouldn’t mean you can’t capture important insights into the reach and impact of the festival. It may even be that these insights point to new ways of working that could (and should) continue. By combining both quantitative and qualitative data collection approaches, you can gather audience size, how engaged they were with different events or pieces of content, what type of people attended and what they felt about the experience.  

When building an evaluation framework, starting with your objectives and goals helps place the work and audiences in the context of your mission. It is important to assess impact on the same terms, whether for work presented digitally or physically, and to consider if you want to reach more, different or new audiences and assess impact in terms of both individual wellbeing and community integration, for instance.

Data from tools like Google Analytics, YouTube and social media platforms help to assess key quantitative metrics, but it’s a good idea to also consider surveying your audience, since this will provide you with rich demographic data and insights, such as ‘reason for attending’.  In the same way as your fieldworkers may pop up at the end of a performance, an e-survey can pop-up on a screen – our own Digital Audience Survey offers an easy solution. To put those findings into a context and assess if you are reaching new or different audiences, Audience Spectrum profiling can help. In considering how to collect data, don’t be constrained, as a small online panel may bring you evaluation gold.  

Ordinarily, our own Audiences for Outdoor Arts reports show that festivals reach both culturally-active urban audiences (our highly engaged Audience Spectrum segments like Metroculturals and Experience Seekers) as well as lower-engaged groups (such as Facebook Families and Kaleidoscope Creativity). Crucially, these are actually the segments that our analysis so far suggests will be the least affected, in terms of reduced cultural attendance as a result ofCovid-19 and its impacts.

Overall, the data suggests that outdoor festivals and events are less vulnerable from an audience perspective (although this does not take into account what it might take for artists and organisations to mount a festival). On the other hand, what will the impacts of presenting our festivals in new ways be on the profiles of audiences and will it offer a whole new way to engage? All insights are being collated in our Bounce Forwards Evidence Hub – so check in regularly to see how our findings progress.

The way forward?

Understanding who engages, and how they engage, invites us to consider what other new kinds of experiences current and different audiences may be up for and how we might involve them in devising these. While our responses are currently born of necessity, what if we developed them by design. Our exploration of the place of digital in Creative People and Places projects highlighted that the demand for work presented in different ways is only limited by the experience of them. Having flexed our innovation muscles in response to the pandemic situation, we should harness what we’ve learned to develop new ways of working to address issues like digital exclusion - brought of course into sharp focus by the pandemic – on a larger, longer term scale.

While the text books, blogs and gurus will be awash with how to make an opportunity out of a crisis, we are abundantly aware we are not out of the woods yet. Whatever we do now has to fit a dauntingly new world view (whatever your perspective) and, while we certainly need some time to make sense of it, we must accept from the off that there’s no going back.

Penny Mills, Katie Moffat, Jonathan Goodacre and Oliver Mantell work for The Audience Agency.

This article, sponsored and contributed by The Audience Agency, is part of a series sharing insights into the audiences for arts and culture.

Photo of Penny Mills
Jonathan Goodacre
Photo of Oliver Mantell