Post by Hannah Grannemann, Guest Editor
Part of the Series Audiences During the Pandemic
No one had any idea if people would tune in to all this arts content when the digital floodgates opened in March. What do we know now?
We know that engagement with arts content online has skyrocketed, with scores more people watching online than usually attend in person:
- 7.9 million people had watched the Metropolitan Opera’s first free stream of the pandemic, Bizet’s Carmen
- 27 times the normal audience streamed a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert than normally attended in person. (both statistics sourced Barbara Jepson in the Wall Street Journal, May 19)
- 217,000 people watched the National Theatre’s One Man, Two Guvnors at the same time. (Giverny Masso in The Stage, May 29)
- Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is seeing a five-fold increase in views of its online videos as compared to 2019 (Jeremy Reynolds in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 13)
OK, before you @ me, let’s name all the things: these performances were offered for free online. These are high profile organizations with pre-existing international followings, large audiences (as arts audiences go), strong reputations, and high-quality recorded content at the ready. Plus, I chose these numbers to highlight without any attempt at finding a representative sample. Therefore, the conclusions we can draw from only these examples are narrow, and I’m not claiming otherwise.
The audiences for streaming that I cherry-picked above are eye-popping. Let’s look at some more reliable numbers. WolfBrown, a market research and consulting firm for arts and cultural organizations, is conducting an ongoing arts audience study during this crisis, surveying people who attended arts organizations in person before the pandemic. (I mentioned Alan Brown’s research in my previous post.) On June 29, 2020, they reported some results:
- 28% of survey respondents who attended orchestras, opera companies, theater companies (n=1,149) answered that they had watched online arts content, split equally between those who had watched once, and those who had watched more than once.
- 58% had not watched any online arts content and 14% were not aware that the organization offered digital content.
- Theater companies fared the worst of the group (n=296), with 71% of respondents who were theater attendees answering that they had not watched content, 27% weren’t aware of online content – leaving only 2% who had watched once, and NONE who had watched more than once.
So if the people watching are not the audiences that were coming in person…does that mean that there is a whole new audience?!? The very holy grail we have been looking for?
Results of another study conducted by LaPlaca Cohen and Slover Linett offer additional insight. They conducted a different version of LaPlaca Cohen’s regular CultureTrack study with 124,000 respondents in the first three weeks of May 2020. The vast majority of respondents were arts attendees of the 653 participating organizations, with the addition of non-attendees to ensure the sample was representative of the U.S. population.
- 53% of respondents reported viewing or participating in digital cultural content. (It’s important to note that “cultural” for this study is a much wider net than “arts”.)
- Of viewers that watched content by arts organizations, a range of 32-55% of the viewers had never attended the organization.
By comparison to pre-pandemic numbers, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Survey of Public Participation (SPPA) in the Arts 2017 found that 74% of U.S. adult residents engage with the arts “electronically” (their term) at least once in the prior year, with most people listening to music. (The SPPA asks the question differently than CultureTrack study, so I don’t think the 53% vs. 74% difference is necessarily contradictory.) The NEA conducts a “short form” survey this year – it will be very interesting to see the change in the “electronic” numbers.**
What are we to make of all these numbers? It’s clear: Arts organizations are reporting massive increases in online audiences driven by viewers and participants who have never set foot inside their buildings.
So – YES, there is a wider audience for the arts.
There is an unprecedented opportunity to “tap” those untapped audiences. Arts organizations should be making the most of this high volume of digital engagement while they have it: get as many people as possible watching, get them excited and engaged in the art form, in the artists, in the organizations, in the missions, in the impact. Put all they have into it.
When we go back to being in person, keep up this digital content, value the audiences participating in digital offerings as much as the audiences members who show up in person.
Digital audiences “count” too.
Side note, fun theory: the 2017 SPPA reported that play-reading increased from 2.9% of adults in 2012 to 4% in 2016, with 6% of adults 18-24 years of age reading a play in the previous year (the age cohort with the most play-reading). I have a hunch – without direct evidence – this increase was driven by the 2016 publication of the script of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which sold 2 million copies in the US in its first two days of release. But I digress…
Trevor O’Donnell says
Thanks for a great post, Hannah (and Lynne).
The data you present says a lot about digital audiences, but I’d be very cautious about leaping to brick and mortar conclusions. Any experienced marketer will tell you that it is extremely difficult to turn people who access arts content for free into paying customers.
Before we start counting new audiences in this data, we need to know a lot more about these digital participants: what they access online, how they find digital content, why they access online content, how satisfied they are with a digital product, what their level of engagement is with the content they access, where they live relative to the content they access, and – most importantly – whether there’s motivating connection between what they do for free online and what they will pay to do in the real world.
All we can say for certain about these folks is that they access free arts content and don’t necessarily pay to participate in person. This is great news for arts providers who want to produce and disseminate free digital content, but until we can identify a measurable motivating correlation between online and in-person participation, it’s a considerable leap of faith to count them as future patrons.
Your holy grail metaphor is spot on. Arts professionals love to cling to a belief in a mythological new audience that lies just beyond their grasp. But this audience doesn’t exist and encouraging arts organizations to quest after it in the digital realm may divert energy and resources away from more productive work on the ground.
Hannah Grannemann says
Hello Trevor, great to hear from you – I’m a big fan of your work! I completely agree – we can’t make claims about how digital audiences will translate to in-person audiences yet, so I am holding off on doing that until we have information about it. Thanks for reading and engaging with this series, I hope to hear from you again.
Andre Weker says
I would be curious if there is data that correlates the length of time spent watching to accompany the numbers presented here. I would be concerned that a large percentage of the “new audience” tuned in as a curiosity but only remained engaged for the typical 30-60 seconds for online content. Not that those views don’t count, but I would be a bit cautious that they could be flipped to a new paying patron/donor audience.
Hannah Grannemann says
Thanks for reading the series, Andre! Yes, I will be watching carefully to see what happens as we continue as far as audiences paying for digital viewing/participation and then how digital audiences translate to in-person audiences. I look forward to writing about it when it happens!