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The Impact of COVID-19 on Audience Development

With events and cultural festivals all on hold or cancelled, much of the activity has moved online. The big question that culture makers and producers are asking themselves is this: “How should we look at audience development and engagement during and after the COVID-19 health crisis?”

By Rashmi Dhanwani

Photo by Ernest Ojeh on Unsplash

The COVID-19 pandemic has generated a wide-sweeping crisis across the arts and entertainment sectors globally. From event postponements to complete shut-down of operations, arts organisations and professionals are navigating through a crisis that didn’t come with a playbook. Arts professionals today are struggling to find ways to revive a fledgling theatre group or a sponsor-reliant cancelled cultural festival.

Audience Development v/s Audience Engagement

It is important to understand the principles of developing and engaging with audiences, and the difference between the two. This insight will help tailor our approach to each of these activities. ArtsEngaged, a consultancy for nonprofits, describes the difference between audience development and engagement: Audience development is activity undertaken by an arts organisation as part of a marketing strategy. It is designed to produce immediate results that benefit the organisation: sales, donations, etc. This approach is more tactical. Audience engagement is activity undertaken by an arts organisation, also as part of a marketing strategy, designed to deepen relationships with current stakeholders. This will, over time, improve retention, increase frequency, and expand reach through stakeholder networks. This approach is more strategic.

Audience development and engagement strategies were widely known and practiced before March 2020. The approaches employed were usually that of ‘development’ as a marketing tactic for ticketing and short-term conversations, and engagement’ as a customer retention and relationship building marketing strategy.

Arts audiences in a time of crisis

The informal arts and culture sector in India is amongst the most vulnerable, with no policies governing it and without perceivable support from industry associations for advocacy with Government authorities and ministries. So, fair warning: the situation is dire.

In such a scenario, how do cultural organisations continue to do their work, make art and, importantly, engage one of their most critical stakeholders, audiences? For starters, let’s look at the glass that’s half full. We have the internet! Which means we have the opportunity to get out of the dead-end we’ve been backed into. With some rethinking of our approaches around audience development, keeping in mind the basics — knowing your target audiences, using data and analytics effectively, building arts communities — and working resiliently, we should be able to pivot into the sunshine when the situation returns to normal.

From physical to digital

Arts organisations and artists have been forced to turn to digital platforms to fulfill organisational goals, showcase work and engage audiences, using digital tools like social media and virtual reality. Serendipity Arts Festival, for instance, launched a digital festival, SAF 2020 x You, which ran from April 25–30. And Pulp Society and the Irregulars Art Fair created a collaborative zine-making game, This is (now) online, and then sold the 16 collaborative zines from the game online to raise funds for COVID-19 aid. Even the venerable National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, adapted, launching its NCPA@Home digital series, showcasing performances across genres such as western music, jazz, Indian music, dance and more. Percussionist-composer Viveick Rajagopalan and software engineer/music producer Atul Shukla recently launched Artsqft, an interdisciplinary OTT performance space in India for independent artists in response to the need for artists to move to digital platforms. This kind of change helps retain existing audiences and attract new ones, and might work for bigger cultural organisations.

Smaller cultural organisations and solo artists may not have the archives or resources to pivot to digital but they can use this time to create a different kind of engagement: for instance webinars, Insta-lives sharing artistic processes, and AMA (Ask Me Anything) sessions. Irrespective of ability to scale and tech savviness, organisations and artists must rethink their offerings to engage audiences online. Digital marketing strategist, Deepak Gopalakrishnan, lists several strategies that can be put to good use.

Curation and Programming

Like always, content is queen. As is context. Digital audiences consume content differently. (Caveat: although we have artificial reality, virtual reality and enhanced reality, not all audiences have access to the advanced tools and resources to immerse themselves in these experiences.) So in this context, what kind of programming and content can we deploy? Roshan Abbas, creator of Spoken Fest, innovated with Lockdown Love, a virtual interactive theatre show. The Alipore Post created an Instagram festival. Toronto-based playwright Nick Green created a virtual festival, the Social Distancing Festival, as “an online space for artists to showcase their work when a performance or exhibition has been impacted by COVID-19.”

The vital question is, how helpful and relevant — especially given limited resources, changed routines, and of course the fact that so much of audience time is now spent on screens — will such events be to our existing audience and newer audiences?

Opportunity out of adversity

Altered circumstances bring challenges, but could also open doors. For example, a theatre group may already have a clear idea of who its audience was and have no idea how to find them now. Most performing arts organisations privileged physical audiences and developed strategies to engage and reach them. Now, with digital events, audiences can include people from around the world and also local audiences who would have otherwise found it difficult to access the work, like persons with disabilities, and professionals whose working hours coincided with performance times.

Deep dive into data

Digital platforms have advantages like built-in data collection and analytics. Along with tracking engagement, reach and impressions of various posts, Facebook and Instagram offers valuable data of audience demographics including age group, gender ratio and location, peak days and times of when your audience is online. Email newsletter software MailChimp provides insights on how many of your emails are opened and converted into an action like booking a ticket or signing up as a member. Online ticketing platforms such as, give you both customer data and time of booking. You can use these data to create more relevant audience profiles, understand their needs and behaviours, enhance your digital marketing campaigns and online presence through websites, social media pages, and online forums, new ticketing strategies and revenue models.

Pivoting to new models

The pandemic and lockdown have forced us to rethink revenue generation, which has led to a slew of digital events, online learning sessions and paid workshops. For instance, BookMyShow’s maiden Live from HQ event had close to half a million views, with singer Prateek Kuhad releasing his latest single. And Paytm Insider launched a digital events vertical, which allows organisers to publish, ticket and manage digital paid events. At Arts & Culture Resources India, we worked with British Council to quickly pivot our Festival Connections series into webinars and draw 3000-plus viewers. Online workshops by celebrated sarod artiste Pandit Tejendra Narayan Mazumdar, and tabla maestros Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri and Ustad Zakir Hussain, are attracting thousands of students. Bharatanatyam dancer Parshwanath Upadhye’s three-hour module can be purchased at $45 from the Punyah Dance Company’s website.

Organisations also need to re-evaluate their ticket pricing. Given the economic impact that lockdowns have had (including on your existing audience), there is likely to be a change in buyer behaviour.

Embrace the challenge

Nothing, absolutely nothing, can replace the live experience, where all your senses are engaged. But whether we like it or not, the audience behaviour and attitudes have changed in the last few months, and that change may last into the medium-term, if not for good. As an artist, a cultural producer or an arts organisation working in India, resilience comes naturally to you. To develop and engage your audience in the post-COVID-19 era, you will need to be adaptive, you must explore the opportunities that digital platforms present. And you must expand your audience base.

A word of advice? Be light footed. Look at your approach from a 2-6 week perspective and be ready to move models and plans around. As the actor, director and martial artist, the legendary Bruce Lee said, “Be water, my friend.

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