The lack of a marketing strategy in the first few years of the programme and the diminishing dominance of YouTube led to underwhelming take up of the multi-channel Canvas network.

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The vast majority of National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) rejected Arts Council England (ACE)’s £1.8m YouTube network, Canvas, an evaluation of the programme has found.

Even after the model was revised following lower than anticipated take-up in the first year, only 13% of ACE NPOs had signed up by the end of the three-year project, despite three-quarters of NPOs operating their own channels on the streaming site.

The evaluation report also finds that the network only achieved its viewer and subscriber goals once these were significantly re-adjusted in the final year of the project; that YouTube is not the best way of reaching an arts-savvy audience; and that posting videos on more focused channels, or organisations’ own channels, is likely to be more effective than using a hub to generate views.

“An aggregate audience for the arts may not exist” the report concludes.

Viewers, subscribers and members

Production company Brave Bison, formerly known as Rightster, was awarded £1.8m to deliver the multi-channel network (MCN) for the arts in 2014. It was launched in September 2015, aiming to make arts content more discoverable and engaging to audiences, increase the number and range of people engaging with arts online and offline, develop both the skills and digital capacity of the arts sector, and build the volume of creative media.

The report concludes that Brave Bison “maintained a well-organised, well-presented destination that audiences found compelling”, and demonstrated “some beneficial impact on making content discoverable and engaging to audiences”.

But most of the 3.3m views and 15.9k subscribers were attracted in the final year, when 1.9m views (58% of the total) and 9,700 subscribers (61% of total) were added. Over a third of the views came from just three videos, of which two featured the same musician, who was later nominated for a Grammy award.

One of the targets was to sign up 150 NPOs, yet only 40 had joined by the end of the first year. By March 2018 Canvas had signed up 24 core members, who received hands-on support and management of YouTube channels, and an additional 100 associate members, who were given access to training sessions and an online collaborative workspace. Associate members made up the bulk of video views and subscribers across the Canvas network.

Although 75% of NPOs operate YouTube channels, just 13% of ACE NPOs were core or associate members of Canvas by the end of the period. Large organisations such as the National Theatre, Tate, the Royal Opera House and Shakespeare’s Globe did not sign up. 

When asked why the take-up was so low, given the minimal barriers to entry, an ACE spokesperson said: “We don’t have any specific evidence as to why some NPOs with YouTube channels considered the Canvas offer not for them, but could infer from the broader findings of the MTM report that they relate to lack of capacity and relative infrequency of producing and publishing video content.”

The report notes that videos got most views when they were shared by individuals or organisations that themselves had lots of subscribers. It goes as far as recommending that videos be posted on other organisations’ channels, rather than a central hub – a position backed up by arts organisations interviewed for the report, which were “overwhelmingly negative” in their thoughts for an aggregate site.

Competition from other sites

The report also claims that YouTube is not the best way to reach an arts-savvy audience. It says that when the idea for Canvas was conceived, YouTube was the dominant video platform, but that other social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook have since become video-friendly.

Despite publishing more than two videos a week to Facebook in its final year, Canvas has “failed to deliver meaningful reach or engagement on other platforms”, says the report, which points out that there was a lot of competition for viewer time, from platforms such as Netflix and iPlayer as well as other YouTube content creators. 

“Arts organisations’ video content needs to be compelling in terms of look and feel and narrative coherence if it is to command an audience in this highly competitive environment, where the main restrictions on viewing are driven by consumer time,” the report notes.

Marketing failures

A representative sample of people online in the UK found that just 9% knew about the channel, in contrast to major arts organisations such as the National Theatre, Tate, and the Royal Opera House, which had 66% awareness. The report acknowledges that Canvas had a much smaller budget, had been running for a much shorter time, and had “no equivalent live offer to help develop its profile”. 

Crucially, Canvas was found to have had “no evidence of a social media and marketing plan for the channel and limited evidence of paid promotion” in Year 1. Most marketing activity from the new strategy didn’t take place until Year 3. It also missed its targets for in-house productions at start of year 1, and both in-house and external commissions in Year 2.

Learning

Analysis by AP last year found that low subscriber rates and minimal commercial opportunities had forced the YouTube network to adjust its approach part way through, making changes such as no longer requiring organisations to hand over their video rights. The network also backed away from seeking advertising revenue to become financially self-sustainable, and started to offer digital services and training.

The evaluation includes advice about the nature of promoting videos, stressing that the video landscape changes quickly and future initiatives “need to be agile, with “flexible targets”. It adds that organisations need to publish videos on Facebook more frequently than they do on YouTube. 

The Canvas Programme Director said that one lesson was that “you can’t just drop a model onto arts organisations”, because organisations have a diverse range of content creation and marketing needs, and most lack basic filming equipment, editing experience, video production and direction. 

The report also says that small to medium-sized arts organisations lacked the time to engage with Canvas, which in turn didn’t have the resources to tailor training to these organisations.

It also suggests that the amount of resources invested in content for the aggregate hub were not key determining factors in generating views, given that externally commissioned videos with a budget of £10k did not deliver consistently higher viewer numbers than other uploaded videos.

“In general, the major determinants of viewer numbers were more about popularity of subject area and fit with the YouTube platform, and, crucially, degree to which the content was related to artists or organisations with large subscriber numbers,” it concludes.

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Comments

ACE never employs staff who have the skills to deliver or lead a digital interface contract.The SPACE project with the BBC was a similar waste of money. Sounds like Brave Bison got away with delivering very little for a nice tidy sum, with very little effective monitoring. Stop these vanity projects and just give the cash to skilled arts orgs, who know what they are doing. When I think how many projects £1.8 million could of supported, I hang my head shame and desperation. How can ACE expect people to advocate for it when it makes cock ups like this again and again?