As arts and cultural organisations around the world close their physical doors to the public, learning and programming staff are thinking about how they can open new virtual ones to engaging and educating audiences online.

From students (and their parents) adjusting to home schooling, to teachers leading virtual classrooms, to families looking for fun and stimulation, to furloughed workers looking for professional development opportunities, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought online learning resources to the very forefront of arts and cultural engagement.

But just because necessity has increased the demand for online learning resources, that doesn’t mean organisations should rush to put out hastily-produced content in an effort to keep up with the times. By taking a slower, more considered approach with a nod to best practice, you can ensure that the resources you are providing are truly valuable to learning audiences both during the lockdown and beyond.

At The Audience Agency, we have a long track record of working with arts and cultural organisations across the UK and beyond to help them understand what their target audiences really want from online learning resources. The nine top tips we’ve learned over the years are:

1. It’s about your audience, not you

The starting point for any great online learning resource is defining who your learning audiences are and what they need, rather than thinking about what your organisation has to share, and then trying to find an audience to fit.

How can you find alternative solutions to consulting with your target audiences, when in normal times you might commission independent research? You could simply brainstorm with colleagues about what a particular audience might want, or test out ideas with people in your network who fit your target criteria.

You might also find segmentation tools like our own Audience Spectrum a helpful starting point for thinking about your target audience’s interests. Although these segments are primarily focused on adults, they do include key insights and advice about engaging with a range of family audience segments such as Facebook Families and Trips and Treats.

This approach doesn’t just apply to online learning resources, it’s best practice for any programming or content development. Check out this useful article on Audience-Centred Design from our CEO, Anne Torreggiani.

It’s also important to recognise that online learning is not suitable for all audiences, especially for children under the age of 2, certain vulnerable groups, or those with limited internet access or digital skills.

2. Be specific

Another common pitfall is not being precise about the audiences you want to engage. Sure, we all want to engage everybody, but by not being specific we can end up creating content that isn’t particularly relevant to anybody. Really drill down into a specific learning audience (or audiences) and their individual context. For example, if you are targeting schools – do you mean students, teachers, or both? What age groups and subjects? Are you looking to reach the whole of the UK, and if so does your content reflect the differences between devolved national curricula? There’s no limit on the number of audiences you are looking to engage, as long as you are considering the specific needs of each distinct group.

3. Understand the competition

Once you’ve identified what learning audiences you want to target, it’s a good idea to have a look at what’s already available for those groups, and how they’re doing it. Which approaches work well, and which are best avoided? Are there any particular gaps in the resources out there that your organisation could fill?

The good news is, if you’re reading this article, you’ve probably already well on your way to having this step covered.

4. Find your USP

All arts and cultural organisations have fascinating stories and experiences to share; identifying what content makes you truly unique will go a long way to helping your learning resources stand out from the crowd. There’s little point in stretching to create content that covers a huge number of topics that are only vaguely connected to your core mission. Focus your efforts on the strongest areas where you can engage and educate learners better than anyone else.

5. Reuse and recycle

This mantra is relevant to online learning content as well as the planet. Does your organisation have any existing digital assets that could be repurposed or tweaked as an educational resource? Content such as videos, images, blogs, and recorded lectures can often make great learning tools for audiences such as secondary school students and teachers if you can identify and communicate relevant curriculum links.

6. Think quality, not quantity

If simply repurposing existing content isn’t an option for your organisation, you’ll probably be looking to create new resources from scratch. One piece of advice we give clients doing digital projects is that audiences will judge your offer against all the other content they engage with, not just those from other arts and cultural organisations. Yep, that means your online experience is being compared against behemoths such as Google, Netflix, and Microsoft.

So rather than stretching your own resources too thin to generate a large number of resources that are of sub-optimal quality, or tackling a more complex game or app without a healthy budget, consider something smaller but perfectly-formed. It’s OK to focus on quality rather than quantity.

7. Keep it simple

It’s tempting to be drawn to flashy new tech or software trends as a way to appear relevant, but we know from our experience and work with clients that these aren’t always necessary or wise investments for cultural organisations.

Whether you’re creating online content (like video or web games) or downloadable resources (like an activity sheet), a learning resource is only as good as the tech knowhow and set up of the people who use it. Don’t assume your audience will want to install new apps or take time to learn a new platform just to access your content. Help audiences get to what matters as quickly as possible – your content – rather than getting distracted with how it is delivered. Make it easy for them by using file types, software, and platforms they are already likely to be familiar with such as PDFs, Word docs, and YouTube videos. For inspiration, check out Historic Royal Palaces educational YouTube playlists and The National Archives extensive collection of PDF lesson plans.

This doesn’t mean that the look of your resources aren’t important – eye-catching imagery and thoughtful design are crucial to encouraging learners to notice and engage with your content. But ultimately, the flashiest part of your learning resources should be the content itself, not the technology that delivers it.

This great article from an online educator in Canada explains the importance of using simple approaches to online learning, along with some useful tips.

8. Make it easy to find

So, you’ve put in the hard work of creating a unique, engaging learning resource perfectly suited to your audience’s needs. But what is the point if nobody sees it?

With huge daily increases in new arts and culture content going online during the pandemic, its more important than ever to make yours easily discoverable. That means making sure all of your online learning resources are Search Engine Optimised (SEO) so they will rank well in relevant Google searches. It’s also crucial to make sure your resources are promoted and clearly signposted on your organisation’s website, so potential users can see what you have on offer and find them quickly.

For more inspiration on designing user-friendly online learning hubs, check some of these great examples from our clients Derby Museums, Westminster Abbey and Museum of London.

9. Thinking post-pandemic

Organisations are understandably focused on what they can produce right now to support and engage with audiences during the lockdown – but it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what the post-pandemic legacy of these activities and resources will be. That means considering what is needed to maintain your learning resources for future users, and how you will measure their success.

Regardless of content and format, your resource/s will likely need regular updating to keep them accurate, relevant, and working properly. Most audiences have very little tolerance for anything that is even slightly out-of-date online – the internet is all about present, even when it’s sharing stories from the past.

Make sure someone in your organisation is assigned to review online resources at regular intervals, otherwise this important task can easily be forgotten. After investing hard work and money in developing your resources, the last thing you want is for potential users to be put off because of out-of-date content or a technical glitch.

It’s also important to think about how you will measure how effectively your resources are reaching their target audience. Evaluation can be tricky during a lockdown, but our Head of Digital Katie Moffat has been sharing some advice on measuring online engagement. We also have plenty of resources about general evaluation planning, using creative techniques, and evaluating with young people, which provide practical tips regardless of how or where your learners are engaging.

There’s a frenzy of online content being pushed out right now, but it’s worth taking a step back to invest the time needed to create resources that are high quality, unique, and truly focused on audience need. Although digital learning isn’t a replacement for the onsite engagement work arts and cultural organisations provide, taking a more considered approach will help maintain and build your learning audiences for the future, thereby ensuring a legacy of quality online resources long after the crisis passes.