In a time of great uncertainty, understanding audience attitudes and behaviours make the future a little more predictable, writes Maurane Ramon.
© Neal Campbell
When Covid-19 hit and the entire sector closed its doors, we at thrive partnered with Indigo Ltd to deliver the After the Interval Act 1 and 2 surveys in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Designed specifically for ticketed organisations that lost most of their income overnight, the survey aimed to uncover how audiences felt about returning to arts events, booking tickets, social distancing measures, outdoor events and engaging with and paying for culture online.
After the Interval has provided vital information on audiences for organisations who took part, allowing them to recognise opportunities and plan for reopening as well as informing funders and stakeholders about the trends across Northern Ireland. The situation, however, remains extremely challenging and difficult to predict. The rise and fall of Covid-19 cases and new restrictions is constant and ever-changing. As the context changes, so do the feelings of audiences. For this reason, we wanted to continue our research, expanding it to more parts of the cultural sector, such as visual arts spaces and other non-ticketed organisations that have limited access to audience data.
What we asked
We wanted to find out how arts and culture now fit into people’s lives. Questions were focused on audiences’ motivations to engage with arts and culture before Covid-19 to identify the real impact the pandemic had on cultural engagement. We also wanted to know who cultural organisations are competing with: now that engagement is largely online, what are audiences willing to pay?
To do this, we developed Culture Beyond Covid. Funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland Organisations Emergency Programme, it is a free survey for organisations to get insight directly from their audiences and see what the bigger trends are across the country. It is almost impossible to plan for the next few months but having some concrete information from your audiences is the best place to start.
Culture Beyond Covid has three main aims in supporting Northern Ireland’s arts, culture and heritage sectors:
- Keep a dialogue going with audiences and visitors as Covid-19 and its implications on people’s lives and cultural behaviours continue to change;
- Offer free surveys to all cultural organisations, including those in the arts and heritage sectors;
- Create shared insight from the survey responses to support individual organisations, collaborative approaches, and inform stakeholders.
More than 3,400 people responded to questions from 26 Northern Irish organisations between mid-October and mid-November. Covid-19 has affected everyone’s lives and the findings showed this was as true for audiences as well as the organisations they love. We all must learn to live with this virus and adapt, and the best way forward is to use audience insights to better meet audience needs.
What we found
When it came to attendance and intention, some of the results were disheartening. 83% of Northern Ireland audiences are not attending in-person events and only 31% are booking tickets for future events. However, theatres, music venues and other indoor performance spaces haven’t reopened at all since March and scheduled events keep getting postponed or cancelled. Northern Irish audiences are understandably hesitant to come back to live cultural experiences – avoiding crowds and the uncertainty of the situation are top of their concerns.
If they’re not attending, what else are they doing in their spare time? Activities involving technology – watching TV or Netflix, keeping in touch with family and friends digitally, and social media – were the most popular. But when asked if they wanted to continue this in future, responses differed. Screen fatigue has hit audiences who said they would prefer to spend their time outdoors. Indeed, outdoor culture was most visited since Covid-19 hit. Our new stages and cultural spaces are now outdoor, online and interactive.
Northern Irish audiences are still engaging with culture online, but they are not as inclined as they were during the first lockdown. Passive content like livestreams and talks were most widely watched by audiences. Although most are open to paying for culture online, generally people watch or take part for free. Audiences are more likely to pay for new or interactive online events.
Will digital still have an appeal once places reopen? Half of audiences are on the fence. The challenge for organisations will be how to engage with all different types of audiences: those who already engage with you online, those who don’t, and those who are willing to pay for it or not. As with any cultural content or experience, understanding what needs culture online can fulfil will be key to a successful, blended approach.
How we feel
On a more positive note, Northern Irish audiences are missing how arts and culture makes them feel. The majority of respondents agreed that culture uplifts and inspires them and is an opportunity to spend time with their loved ones doing something they enjoy. They are also eager to hear from the organisations they care about.
Our final tip is: talk to your audiences, ask them how they’re doing, and tell them what you’ve been up to. When all of this is over, they will remember you missed them as much as they missed you.