The Future of ‘Digital’ in the Arts

The Future of ‘Digital’ in the Arts

The objective of this paper is to determine how the digital era and social networks in particular can be used to improve theatre marketing. Throughout my research, I have found it difficult to obtain reliable figures and information on social media and its usage. Information, if any is found, is often contradictory and unrelated to Northern Ireland or indeed the arts industry. As the complexity of the social media landscape and its possibilities continue to evolve on a daily basis, I find there is no use in looking to the past to obtain my research but rather monitor the activity that is going on at present and thus will be focusing my research on local examples. It is important to state here that I became interested in this subject area having spent three months in New York last summer working as a social media intern in several arts organisations. This interest in theatre marketing and the growing possibilities that social media presents has been born out of my frustration at the lack of creativity from a majority of arts organisations in Northern Ireland. The recommendations offered in this paper are ideas that emerged from my research during this dissertation project and simply aim to be guidelines for arts organisations to implement. Statistics used in this paper were taken from the following secondary sources:

  • Ofcom Communications Market Report 2012: Northern Ireland
  • Northern Ireland Statistics and Research agency

Living in the digital age, social media has become heavily integrated into our daily practices, however the theatre, unlike most industries, has been slower to adopt such modern approaches. This paper examines the role of social media and modern technology as a means to connect and engage audiences and to improve the marketing of arts organisations. Focusing on four parts of social media and digital technology, this paper will firstly, examine the role of video in theatre marketing and theatre criticism. Secondly, highlight the importance of Twitter in arts organisations and examine the reasons for the decrease in printed material and explore the future of digital programmes. Finally, the paper will discuss the rise of smartphones and apps in relation to the theatre industry. For a long time, theatre organisations have marketed themselves through a relatively narrow band of marketing opportunities but the advancements in technology and social media present myriad possibilities of how organisations can communicate with their audiences. With the recent integration of social media in live productions and with marketing departments of arts organisations using social networks to connect and engage with audiences, technology and social media now matter as much offstage as they do onstage.


Video: Video trailers have become a relatively new marketing strategy for theatre companies to promote their productions. These trailers often use rehearsal footage and cast interviews to give the theatregoer ‘a snapshot of what they can expect from a particular show.’ As Kingsley Jayasekera, Director of Communications and Digital Strategy at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, states: ‘theatre reviews can struggle to capture the essence of a show, making purchasing tickets a high-risk move on their recommendation alone. By giving people a clip of the action, theatres begin to diminish that risk.’ Arts criticism has also been enhanced through the use of video blogs – also known as Vlogging. A vlog is a video documenting (online) a person’s life, thoughts, opinions, and interests. Vlogging offers a richer web experience than ordinary blogs, as it combines video, sound, still images as well as text. One of the best advocators of Vlogging is theatre enthusiast and arts critic; Eve Nicol. The National Theatre of Scotland’s digital media associate finds, ‘what may appear as cliched on the page can come across as passion on YouTube. Being rendered speechless by a piece of work doesn’t come across too easily in writing.’ Her theatre review vlogs of productions in London and Glasgow have generated over 5000 collective views on YouTube and whilst her vlogs may not offer a more insightful or intellectual alternative, they provide a more accessible platform for conversation as opposed to the closed texts of printed reviews published in the traditional press.


Twitter: Just like the growth of computers, technology and the Internet, Twitter has become a part of our everyday lives in the West, with over ‘140 million active users and more than 175 million tweets sent every day.’ Trisha Dowerah Burah in her paper ‘Effectiveness of Social Media’ finds that ‘Twitter has become the most effective social media tool for real-time communication.’ Northern Irish arts organisations are beginning to realise the potential of the social networking site, as Audiences NI reported 80% of theatre companies surveyed in their ‘2013 Digital Review’ are using Twitter compared to 42% in 2012. Twitter has the ability to start conversations and create dialogues, but all too often arts organisations merely tweet about themselves and are not effectively interacting with their audiences. Theatres are overflowing with a wealth of creativity, but yet their marketing departments often do not reflect this. By using the creativity within the organisation, theatre companies can begin to create sites that are as lively and reciprocal as their live productions. The National Theatre of Scotland’s (NTS) most recent ‘social media call’ is an example of how an organisation can use social media to it’s potential. NTS’s marketing department invited ‘Tweeters, Bloggers and Instagrammers to document a special sneak preview of [their] production of Macbeth; an initiative that generated several blog posts and video responses and had the hashtag #ntsmacbeth trending on Twitter.’ Similarly, The MAC Belfast recently adopted the marketing strategy of TweetSeats: asking local bloggers and Twitter followers to live-tweet from their production of the Spelling Bee using a special hashtag (#macspellingbee). Audiences were allowed to photograph, film and continuously tweet any of the action as long as it did not include spoilers that would give away the show for others who would come and enjoy it. This generated online discussions about the production on the MAC’s Facebook and Twitter sites and led to a series of online reviews. The TweetSeats campaign was hugely important for the MAC – not only did they increase their social media following on Twitter and Facebook but online ticket sales for the production increased dramatically. Both campaigns use interesting marketing strategies which demonstrate how theatre organisations can harness the potential of the emerging media and interact with future audiences. Amy Rushby, Marketing Manager of the Royal Shakespeare Company, notes that, ‘social media needs to be curated and reciprocal. Just because someone’s following you doesn’t mean they pay any attention to you.’


Print and digital programmes: The print materials produced by arts organisations can be costly investments, particularly when funding generally and marketing budgets specifically are being stretched ever tighter. In recent years, many businesses have migrated their marketing efforts online because of it’s ‘cost effectiveness, exposure potential and convenience’, however print still remains a powerful and necessary component of any marketing campaign. Theatres have historically produced large volumes of printed programmes for their productions, which usually consist of a director’s note, rehearsal photographs and cast biographies. However, digital publishing offers myriad possibilities for arts organisations with the addition of video interviews and real-time interaction with fellow theatergoers. One particular example of an arts organisation exploring the digital world is the Old Royal Theatre in London. Their 2012 production of Swan Lake had both a printed and digital programme. By scanning the ‘QR code’ on their printed programme, audiences could access online, ‘behind the scenes’ material which contained interviews with cast and crew, backstage video tours, production and rehearsal shots and trailers of forthcoming productions. The QR code is an excellent method of bridging the the gap between print and web and will no doubt be used by arts organisations to promote their online resources in the future. While print programmes will continue to hold their place in theatres, digital programmes could be the next advancement for theatres to invest in.


Increase of Smartphones and Apps: The ever-increasing use of smartphones and the ability to receive email instantly, has highlighted the importance of a good mobile interface to many companies. In recent years many organisations have invested heavily in mobile-friendly sites but arts analyst Chris Unitt believes that ‘while mobile-friendly websites are a step in the right direction, apps are the future for many organisations.’ Research has found that smartphone users spent ‘94 minutes per day using mobile apps, while web consumption dropped to 72 minutes. In spite of this increase, a majority of arts organisations have not ventured into the mobile app market. Furthermore, many of the theatre apps available for smartphone users (such as TheatreLondon, TheatreLand and iTheatre) merely offer a list of forthcoming shows. One example of slightly more innovative practice, is Belfast’s Kabosh Theatre Company, who have created two apps for their Belfast Bred (2012) production and who recently began developing an interactive video app of West Belfast for their play, The West Awakes (2010). Another company exploring the mobile app market for the theatre industry is London based design company Red-C. Their app Theatre Ninjas allows users ‘to hunt down free or discounted tickets during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Audiences can click on a variety of ‘Ninja-helpers (Theatre, Comedy or Music)’ and a list of all tickets available for events on that day will appear. Having selected their chosen event, the app displays a unique code to the user to present at the venue to gain a free or reduced ticket. The Gate Theatre, Dublin is the only arts organisation in Ireland (North or South) to launch a venue-specific app, allowing theatre-goers to purchase tickets, access information about future productions, read the history of the theatre, watch video interviews with the theatre’s creative team and signup for exclusive offers. Aisling Quigley, Marketing Manager of The Gate Theatre stated that ‘not only have ticket sales increased since the launch of our app in February of this year but we’re now finding 20% of our online booking is through our app or on a mobile device.’ Confirming this trend, the Audiences NI report found that ‘60% of Northern Irish smartphone users spend their time purchasing goods and booking tickets online.’ Thus indicating the importance of mobile apps to the future of digital marketing in arts organisations.


Taken together, the four parts of this paper suggest that social media and modern technologies are paramount to the future of arts organisations. Having surveyed the social media landscape of arts organisations in Northern Ireland one trend emerges amidst the constant change that is currently occurring: organisations who grasp the meaning and capabilities of social media have gained an advantage in their marketing capabilities (NTS and the MAC examples) and those who have refrained from doing so – or simply delayed advancing fully onto the social media scene are suffering as a result. As the power of social media steadily increases and large numbers of consumers continue to use social media, arts organisations need to appreciate the potential of digital marketing and begin to interact and engage with new audiences online.


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