Arts Audiences and the Internet

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What is your internet strategy? Every organisation has one, whether they know it or not. Some strategies are highly developed and powerful, others less so. For others still, the strategy is more or less to ignore the internet, perhaps reluctantly due to a limitation of resources, or maybe in the hope that in time, it will, like the rubik’s cube, go away!

Yet the writing is on the wall; the world is changing significantly. For any organisation seeking to maximize contact with their audiences and potential audiences, it appears that the old ‘we’re ok, we have a website’ approach may no longer suffice.

A well considered internet strategy, however modest in scale, can help organisations to engage with and build audiences, and in so doing may help provide vital links to support an organisation’s sustainability and growth over the coming years.
For those yet to be convinced, this article presents a broad overview of changing trends in internet usage, followed by a brief analysis of two key areas which will be of interest to arts organisations, specifically;

  • how people are increasingly uses the internet as a research tool, to inform decisions on how they spend time and money, and
  • how people are increasingly spending their money on the internet.

Finally, it is the core aim of Arts Audiences to support Irish arts organisations in building relationships with their audiences. In this context, in order to identify and respond to the strengths and weaknesses in the sector, we have conducted a study of the online activity of all organisations funded by the Arts Council in 2008, and a broad analysis of this is to be found at the end of this article.

changing behaviour
In Ireland last year, 1.5 million people used the internet every day or almost every day. This figure has increased by 49% since 2005 . The speed of this internet access is also increasing significantly, with 1.2 million users accessing the internet via broadband in 2008, an increase of 35% on 2007 figures (source: CSO, Information Society and Telecommunications 2008).
From the point of view of arts organisations looking to engage with shifting audiences, it is worth looking at how these trends are affecting the public in 2 ways; (a) at how methods of decision making are changing, and (b) at how the changing trends affect patterns in the purchasing of goods and services.

decision making
the input of the internet into the decision making process makes it one of the most important influencers in our life choices.” – Barry Lemmon, TNS Global

A TNS worldwide study reveals that we spend over 30% of our leisure time online, and that 8 out of 10 people use the internet as a source of information prior to purchasing, whether or not the purchase takes place online.

Citing the example of those who had bought a holiday in the previous 4 weeks, TMS found that 86% of people thought the internet played a crucial or important role in the process, while only 7% said they didn’t use the internet at all in the process. This global trend is mirrored in Ireland – a recent study by Irish market research firm iReach reveals that in Ireland for the first time ever, the internet has eclipsed friends and family as the top source of direct purchasing advice (50% versus 49%).

A key factor in this new approach to decision making is the rise of social media platforms. Applications such as facebook, bebo and twitter, as well as blogging applications are effectively now facilitating a new word of mouth. As of June 2009, there are 825,000 registered facebook account holders in Ireland alone, an increase from 400,000 in January of 2009.

Some arts organisations are tapping into the potential of facebook successfully. For example, at the time of writing, with almost 2,000 facebook fans, the Darklight Festival is using the application successfully to build a community around its upcoming festival. Regular posts enable Darklight to build a dialogue with its audience. Posting the question ‘Guests for Darklight Festival 2009: Any requests?’, Darklight elicited 34 responses, with another 20 responding with suggestions to the question ‘Favourite End of the World Movie?’ . Small numbers perhaps, but nonetheless this modest but well considered ongoing use of this application is enabling Darklight to engender in a sense of loyalty and ownership over the festival in this online community.

Purchasing patterns
Purchasing online is greatly increasing in Ireland. After travel and accommodation, the most common internet purchases are tickets for events (385,600 purchases in 2008), Films and Music (316,400 purchases), and Books / Magazines etc (297,000). The 2008 figures alone are significant, but when we look at the trend over the past 4 years (see graph below), we can see another key dynamic – online purchases in these three areas in increasing rapidly – in these 3 areas online purchasing increased on average by over 70% in this period.

CSO graph

Can arts organisations successfully tap into these trends? The Barbican Centre in London is an interesting case to look at in this context (as seen on the AMA website)– a recent significant overhaul of their customer relationship management strategy has resulted in a 210 per cent increase in website hits over the past twelve months, and online sales now average around 62 per cent of all business each month.

Furthermore, where 4 years ago the all important ‘repeat attender’ represented just 30% of overall audience, now 58% of the Barbican’s attendance is made up of repeat attendance. It can take a considerable amount of resources to realise such returns, however if, as it is often suggested, the cost of acquiring new customers is five times the cost of servicing established ones, perhaps such investments can pay off.

The arts In Ireland
How do the arts in Ireland fare when it comes to engagement with the internet and new media technologies? In March of this year we conducted an online analysis to gauge the extent to which the funded arts sector has engaged with the internet and new media.

Out of 352 organisations funded by the Arts Council in 2008, 9 were without a web presence (i.e. no website, social networking presence etc). Of the vast majority of organisations which do have a web presence, a key factor in assessing the success of this web presence is how up to date is the information it is providing. In general, notable exceptions aside, the following overall patterns emerged;

  • venues update their sites / web presence very regularly
  • festivals and events tend to update a few months prior to their period of activity – once this has passed, these websites can, for months, be showing information which is out of date
  • similarly, production company websites tend to update their website / web presence when production information becomes relevant, meaning that their websites can spend significant amounts of time displaying out of date information.

Online Booking

In the context of the CSO purchasing statistics (outlined above), it is perhaps an indication of opportunities missed that over half (53%) of the funded venues don’t offer online booking facilities. However costs associated with the installation of such facilities may be a factor in the low take up of online booking systems. Organisations funded through festivals and events fare better in this area, with 71% of these providing an online ticket sale service.

Email newsletter/ Mailing List:
A well managed emailing list can be a powerful tool in terms of engaging audiences. A high profile example of this would be the Barbican Centre. This organisation is clearly operating on a very large scale, and is resourced accordingly, nonetheless the success of their mailing list is noteworthy. With a emailing list of 100,000, the centre’s marketing team can directly track revenue generated from e-mails sent to its lists, and in a recent season launch, a single e-shot to its public resulted in over £110,000 sales to its classical music audience base.

Of Arts Council clients, 121 organisations (34%) offer an email newsletter/ mailing list to audiences and 18 provide RSS feed.

Social media/networking:
As outlined above, social media can allow arts organisations to connect with audiences in unprecedented ways. Application such as facebook, twitter and bebo give arts organisations an inexpensive means to inform an audience who are interested in their work, as well as importantly opening avenues for audiences to communication directly with the organisation.

The Irish Film Institute’ facebook page has over 3,500 fans. Daniela Crowley of the IFI says facebook offers the IFI a low cost way of entering into a dialogue with their public, a public they would have difficulty in accessing otherwise. In particular it provides a space where the public can feedback and make programme suggestions – enabling the IFI to listen and respond to it’s audiences needs.

Of the organisations we looked at;

  • Approx 22% of organisations with websites use some form of social media – Blogs/ Facebook/ Bebo/ My Space/ Twitter etc
  • 28 websites have a blog (8%)
  • 6 have a YouTube account
  • 10 have a MySpace account
  • 5 have a Bebo page
  • 12 have a Facebook page
  • 14 use a Forum
  • 1 uses text (Although it is possible that this is used more widely and not advertised through the website)

In conclusion
With new developments in internet technology, and the rollout of broadband over the past few years, it can be seen that consumer behaviour is changing radically, and that the arts is not immune to such changes. Specifically, it is clear that people are changing (a) the way they make decisions about how they spend their time and money, and (b) that resulting purchase transactions are increasingly taking place online.

With the arrival of smart phones (such as the iPhone, Blackberry, Nokia N95, etc) , comes a greater access to broadband, and as such it is fair to assume that these trends continue as they have over the past number of years. Clearly, arts organisations seeking to engage with and build audiences over the coming years will need to develop strategies to cope with and capitalize on these trends. While numerous organisations are clearly engaging, others are struggling to do so.
There are challenges ahead, and rewards for those who can manage to rise to such challenges. In order to support arts organisations in their efforts to these endeavours, Arts Audiences will be embarking on a range of training initiatives over the coming months, designed specifically to assist arts organisations to rise to these challenges. Details of these initiatives will be announced over the coming weeks and months.


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