CT Consults
13 August 2020

Engaging audiences from lockdown

Graphic of figure holding a torch in front of a mirror

With venues closed, how do cultural organisations carry on engaging audiences?

Keep it relevant

Nobody was prepared for something like coronavirus, not just in arts and culture, but across the board, in all walks of life, we were taken off guard. Your audience is understanding of the situation and for those that paused to take stock, rather than rushing in out of fear of being lost in the shuffle, they were able to respond more effectively to the needs of their audiences, engaging audiences appropriately.

It is hard enough for arts and culture to get the attention which we would like to see online – especially if you are a smaller organisation with limited reach. People are still probably more concerned with getting their supermarket order than they are about their favourite cultural organisation pumping out content.

Even a few months into the pandemic, it’s worth taking the time to see what resources you have already and how you can use them. There is a higher risk of losing followers and goodwill from your audience by throwing anything at the wall than there is by saying nothing. Keep it relevant. 

You won’t become a YouTube sensation overnight, so don’t kill yourself trying to! Be realistic in your expectations and work on a content plan that you can actually deliver and is relevant to your audience – like you would in normal times.

All organisations are not equal and your digital archive will only be as big as your funding. It’s easy for the National Theatre to stream world-class performances captured on the highest budget to everyone with an internet connection, we’ve similar examples from the likes of the Berlina Philharmoika who have switched their paid service to a free one. This is great stuff, but it’s not something many can achieve. 

That said, we’ve seen some excellent examples here in Manchester, in particular, the work of Manchester Collective has stood out. A comparative minnow, but also incredibly agile and forward-thinking, Manchester Collective seemed to switch onto digital overnight. Again, they were already digitising their content so found themselves in a better position than some. Another ace up their sleeve is that they suit the online space better than most classical organisations – they are not a BBC Philharmonic or Hallé who rely on scores of players and a concert hall, they all about intimacy and performing in found spaces and the sense of occasion isn’t lost too much over a broadband connection.

It didn’t just happen though – they branded what they were doing, Isolation Broadcasts, and put together a schedule of performances alongside a proper marketing campaign. They engaged publishers like our own consumer-facing website, creativetourist.com, to promote their programme, and found trusted voices like BBC Radio 3’s Elizabeth Alker and their own star violinist and Music Director Rakhi Singh who have big profiles to help extend their reach engaging audiences.

“Our work has always been about forging an arresting, personal connection with our audiences, and we knew that we had to continue in this vein throughout this wild and woolly time” says Adam Szabo, Manchester Collective’s Chief Executive. “As a small, relatively new organisation, we’ve never had huge reserves or an endowment to fall back on. Any measure of success that we’ve had in this period has been due to the authentic and high-quality way that our artists and collaborators have communicated with our audiences. In times of crisis, audiences and stakeholders will not respond to “woe is me” messaging – arts lovers have always been attracted to passion and vision. Right now, part of that vision has to be about how to work effectively and inspirationally in a totally digital landscape.”

It is the way they have used their artists and collaborators, not falling back solely on recorded concerts, but engaging audiences across their social platforms to create interactive content. If anything, it feels like Manchester Collective has raised their profile in the past few months. 

We’ve seen similar examples from Band on the Wall who were the first to make an event and schedule around re-watching their archive concerts, and the Old Bank Residency – a twelve-month creative occupation of a disused bank in Manchester – who has shifted their entire schedule of tutorials and workshops online, even moving the focus of their sessions to cover things like mask-making and improving the lighting on your Zoom calls – all the more relevant than ever in this new normal. 

Four members of a chamber orchestra sit in semi circle under four red spot lights

Traffic Doesn’t Matter (and it never did) 

Forget about your statistics for now – everyone across the world is dealing with a new set of priorities and a huge dip in your traffic now is to be expected. Unless you start to stock your online gift shop with facemasks and hand sanitiser, you’re not going to be able to funnel your usual traffic – that’s fine, don’t beat yourself up for having terrible stats right now, be realistic with your expectations.

What you really need to think about is why you even want traffic in the first place. Pandemic or no pandemic, you need to identify clear goals for your users, without clear goals then what do you want the traffic for? 

A couple of months ago, your focus may have been on ticket sales and pushing traffic towards discovering an upcoming event. But now are you hoping to increase newsletter subscriptions? Or do you want future ticket sales? Or is it about generating donations? Maybe you don’t have a clear goal right now – in which case – stop worrying about traffic!

Our own traffic for creativetourist.com comes from organic search – people looking for things to do in Manchester and the North. Well that’s gone! BUT it will be back and that’s why time may be better spent preparing for reopening than chasing traffic now which you’ve nothing to give.

Despite what many believe, creativetourist.com is not a charity, it relies on income from paid campaigns. We are a business and our traffic is only useful if it helps us achieve our goals and our clients’ goals.

So our business model is promoting events and things to do for our clients – we funnel our traffic into their websites to buy tickets and that’s how we prove our value. We mostly achieve this by having really good search engine optimisation and pulling in organic traffic for people looking to find things to do in Manchester and the North. We know from work we have done with venues across the north that we convert traffic into sales better than pretty much any source. But now we’re focused on continuing to help the cultural sector engage with audiences and we have been lucky enough to receive some funding from Arts Council England to support our freelance editors for a few months until we’re hopefully in a position to start generating income again.

So what are your goals now? This is a great example from Contact theatre who are letting their young artists take over their website and social media. They are using their platform to give young people a voice during the pandemic.

One goal people are likely to have is to generate donations. Setting up your website and digital communications strategy to focus on donations is quite common at the moment. It’s also a bit of a double-edged sword. At a time where people are furloughed or unemployed, businesses are going under and even the NHS is relying on donations it can seem funny to ask. So it has to be about getting creative and we’re pretty good at that as a sector.

The pilcrow pub, like many of the independent bars in Manchester, asked people to buy their own bar tab prior to reopening. Other places have increased the push to sell merchandise

Try and innovate and do something more than just ask.

Fancy a bit of nostalgia?

Manchester is a city which doesn’t need to be asked twice to indulge in a bit of nostalgia. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority, working with the city region’s Night Tsar and partners set up a series of online club nights including Hacienda nights and sets from famous gigs on Facebook live, and they’ve been going down a storm. Over 1.5 million people steamed the Hacienda event – everyone is feeling a little nostalgic right now.

One thing you and your audience have in common is memories. If you can’t broadcast previous performances like the bigger organisations can, then use what you have. Go through your archive and find photographs of old commissions – see what there is to play with.

Have a look at what’s trending – we keep seeing things like ‘20 year old’ challenges and people sharing their favourite albums, that stuff’s great. Remember it’s easier to join in with a trend than to start one.

And finally, remember that collaboration is important. Work with similar or local venues and organisations to highlight the best content that people are doing virtually and not just focusing on what you are doing. 

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