The future of cultural consumption is omnivorous. People want more digital in their cultural diet and more digital options on the menu. This may well be the critical headline finding from Covid research in the sector, with far-reaching implications for all of us.

Our extensive research on the impact of Covid with the Centre for Cultural Value offers clear evidence that, while culture lovers are keen to get back out there, they still want continued access to high-quality digital content. It also revealed inspired experimentation across the sector, pointing to the shape of things to come.

But some organisations are abandoning the digital prototypes and new online offers designed to get audiences through lockdown. The evidence suggests this is a mistake: we need to keep going, finding solutions to, rather than side-stepping, the major resource problems this presents.

So, what are the key trends we need to respond to - and what new skills and approaches will we need?

Catering for omnivores

The Cultural Participation Monitor (CPM) shows that people for whom cultural activities are important are digital/live omnivores.

During lockdown, even the most risk-averse users adapted: theatre subscribers substituted online performances, schools used rapidly developed resources instead of visiting their local museum, and the social media innovations organisations stumbled into found whole new audiences keen to hear their stories.

Moreover, typically less well served audiences benefitted proportionally most from the shift. Not only did research find audiences online to be significantly younger and more ethnically diverse than in-person ones, but disabled culture-buffs in particular – upward of 10% of audiences – increased their engagement substantially as a result of being able to access so many more experiences online, and have been vocally campaigning for the flow to increase. That seems like momentum we don’t want to lose.

Across the board, while they of course want live interactions back, visitors now say they want continued access to these new digital benefits, not instead, but also. In fact – over 80% of Covid-time online culture consumers intend to keep engaging with digital content alongside in-person visits in future.

Going a la carte

The upshot is that we need to wean ourselves off the set-menu approach of an either/or framing of digital engagement. People with an interest in culture are just as likely to plan a night out at the theatre for a special occasion or to meet friends at a weekend exhibition as to watch a streamed performance in the bath, jog to a podcast or use a museum history pack to help entertain and educate their kids.

Combined, these indications are eye-opening, showing not just what future audiences will expect but highlighting the power of digital to enrich and extend relationships with users, potentially driving up frequency, and building support and interaction.

To realise this potential, we need to adopt the design habits used with such flair in lockdown: to invent new content, experiences and channels in direct conversation with audiences’ concerns and desires.

There is a name for this: human-centred design. It is a rigorous and iterative process, driven in equal measure by data and by empathy. Many already and intuitively practise aspects of it brilliantly, without necessarily recognising it.

Nevertheless, a conscious understanding and application of design-thinking approaches will greatly enhance our ability to develop omnivore/omnichannel audiences in future.

Rewriting the recipe

We talk a lot about the importance of research and data to audience development. Despite being generally pro-data, however, pre-Covid research showed us that the sector still had low levels of confidence and maturity when it comes to using it to make decisions. Digging a little deeper, we found the root cause to be that few people in the sector actually know what questions they could or should be using the data to answer.

Using the human-centred design framework helps solve that problem. Very simply, the first question to ask about audiences is: What’s the need right now that we can address? In a design thinking framework, the next question we might pose to ourselves – and even better to our audiences – is: How might we…?

The ideas that question unlocks then lead us to develop simple prototypes and experiments, which in turn lead to the final set of questions: Is that working? Why? How? For whom? How can we adapt it, scale it, monetise it? And so on. The more relevant data you have – and plan to have – the better your design will be.

The case for such experimentation has never been so urgent - it is the critical skillset for anyone in audience development or arts marketing. It’s not just a way of thinking, but a learnable skillset, supported by tried-and-tested tools and techniques to help you become a true designer:

  • To understand and act on the rapidly changing – or emerging – appetites of your audiences, using quantitative and qualitative data;
  • To build testing and prototyping into the way you make change and develop new offers and channels;
  • To take decisions guided by data tailored to the purpose.

Seasoning to taste

Design skills like these will be critical in effecting ‘channel shift’ – that is moving towards a model where we are fully flexible as to the platform, format or medium we can use to engage and convert potential audiences. And the shift needs to be driven by data – who is using what channel, how much does it cost to acquire, convert, retain different users, what is the optimal marketing mix, where the best cost-benefit?

We already know that organisations are jumping the digital ship due to lack of resources to restart their in-person offers, and that initial failures to, for example, graft old pricing models onto new digital offers have made many give up at the first hurdle. It’s true that people will not pay theatre-ticket prices for your online performances, that schools’ engagement won’t fund an extra member of your education team to create resource packs or run a Minecraft museum club. But that’s not where the options end.

Watching a play in the bath, for example, should be a cheap and easy night-in, but it’s one that many people soaking in tubs around the world might happily pay a small fee for. The question here is: how might we monetise higher-volume/lower-friction content? Would viewers even notice £2 to Apple Pay? Maybe local schools can’t pay a high price for the digital resources you produce to accompany your live experience, but a low subscription offered to schools nationally for curriculum-rich content might be sustainable?

What we know for certain: the appetites for future cultural consumption are omnivorous and people are prepared to pay for more than the old set menu. We just need the confidence to stray from the recipe book a little and start seasoning to taste.