As I join AEA Consulting, I've been reflecting on years of running digital and multiplatform projects in large cultural institutions like Tate, Channel 4 and the BBC. There are many lessons learned and other emerging trends – or signals from a possible future – for digital in the cultural sector that I look forward to working on with our clients at AEA. This is a small selection, and it is only the structure of this article that lists them individually; in reality they interlink and inform each other, with often the most interesting ideas and initiatives to be found at the intersections.
Embracing a remote audience
This is not a new idea for most sectors, but the arts and culture sector has always laid the greatest emphasis on audiences attending in person. Prior to 2020, venues' digital activities were predominantly focused on driving in-person visits rather than seeking to grow an audience "at large". The pandemic flipped this when all audiences became remote overnight. Now, as buildings have reopened and we return to something that feels like normal, will cultural organisations continue to serve people who aren't willing or able to come into their buildings?
People don't attend cultural spaces for a wide range of reasons – geographic, economic, health, historic exclusion, and more. Leaning into serving remote audiences increases diversity of access to cultural experience and grows brand awareness, reach, affinity, and inclusion, with opportunities for conversion in the future.
The digital landscape is noisy. One way to stand out, build audiences, and generate attention is through great storytelling. The arts and culture sector is rich in histories, stories, artefacts, practices, and knowledge, all of which can be drawn on to engage audiences. Organisations can also take inspiration from outside the sector – from entertainment producers and game developers, but also from the wider creator economy which uses a vast array of production tools and sharing sites to produce, create, and distribute.
It isn't enough to just tell great stories. How organisations craft them so that they are relevant and meaningful to their target audiences is key; stories that are inclusive, that are told by the people they are about and for, and that are distributed to the spaces where the audience can be reached.
Digital storytelling is more than simply the content; how the story is told is part of the, well, story. The content format, the platforms it sits on, the context audiences consume it in, whether it is interactive or generative, for one person or shared consumption, whether it invites or involves comment, whether it is read, viewed, heard, or played are all part of what makes good digital storytelling.
Learning & Community
The pandemic disrupted formal learning across the globe while simultaneously driving uptake in informal, online learning through a multitude of online courses, talks, and webinars. No doubt some of these formats will remain, and some have the potential to grow reach and revenue. There is a role here for cultural institutions and organisations to draw on their existing deep subject-specific knowledge and expertise in conveying it to interested audiences to create programmes that reach learners around the world, whether for general interest, engaging specific groups like young people or children, or for professional development.
Organisations can also leverage digital tools to augment and amplify the use of cultural spaces as locations of community encounter, discussion, and debate. The notion of online communities is decades old and continues to evolve – the nascent Web3 version is decentralised autonomous organizations, or DAOs. I am curious to see how these newer forms of self-organising digital community might connect to arts and cultural buildings, brands, and districts.
Visitors are well accustomed to a museum audio tour or interactive station to engage children with an exhibit, but digital can support many more opportunities to enhance visitors’ enjoyment or engagement and make their encounter more accessible. Examples range from audio-described artworks and smart caption glasses for theatre and performance, to curated soundtracks and quest games that add an invisible layer for people to enjoy.
Which brings me to...
The cultural sector has been delivering immersive experiences for centuries, and digital technologies offer new methods and formats for doing this. Recent years have seen experiments with a range of forms using digital technologies like projection mapping, AR, VR, and XR, and some of these have gained significant commercial success. The formats in this space are many and varied, ranging from immersive exhibitions or immersive art and virtually rendered heritage sites to sonically augmented art exhibits and technologically enabled theatre production. Their popularity speaks to a growing experience economy and is strongly influenced by international success stories like Punchdrunk Theatre Company, Secret Cinema, and themed escape rooms such as The Void’s Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire. Immersive experiences speak to a very human desire to be amazed and transported. They don’t have to be digital, but digital experiences are definitely part of the mix.
Hilary Knight is a Senior Consultant at AEA Consulting.