In this first of three think-pieces, Andrew McIntyre, Morris Hargreaves McIntyre (MHM) argues that the phenomenal effort we’re all putting into giving audiences access to our digital content needs to be re-framed as a series of radical experiments that can make our post-Covid organisations far more audience-focused.
The response of arts, culture and heritage organisations to the Covid-19 crisis has been swift in deployment and magnificent in scale. Possibly too swift and too magnificent.
Week 1: The show must go on
As our venues and sites entered lockdown, our sector showed its determination to keep on giving our audiences access to our art, history, collections, science, knowledge, music, dance, performance and nature. While we must acknowledge the invention, creativity and logistical triumph of these efforts, and the undoubted pleasure, joy, solace or just distraction this offers, Nina Simon, in her excellent Medium article describes the sector’s instinctive, show-must-go-on response as “scrambling to engage”. Collectively, we spammed the internet, flooding social media and stuffing our audiences’ inboxes with a smorgasbord of digital content, touting an overwhelming and dizzying choice of ways to watch, listen, read, sing, dance, play, create and interact. Nicholas Berger, in his must-read provocation, again on Medium, questions the value and purpose of much emergency digital content, arguing that. “These immediate, ad hoc, digital projects highlight not a resiliency, but a deep fear… of being alone… grasping at some sense of togetherness”.
Week 2: Content, content, everywhere
By Week 2, new guides were springing up, offering reliable pathways through this dense, impenetrable content jungle, with some assembling copious listings and burgeoning directories and others proffering concierge services and critics’ recommendations. The New Zealand Herald was quick off the mark in promoting seven virtual museum tours. Unfortunately, for our Kiwi colleagues, none of the seven were in New Zealand! As a sector, we’re quick learners and we soon understood that different content was eliciting very different audience responses: downloading from our back catalogues of on-demand content was not the same as participating in live-streaming events as shared experiences. Content broadcast on the internet was not the same as content made for the internet. Fun, viral social media posts were not the same as interactive co-creation or giving audiences the tools for DIY culture. And none of it was the same as the real thing.
Week 3: What does the future hold?
The content frenzy gave way to an outbreak of future-casting. Multiple commentators have been predicting that our world is forever changed and that audiences, having sipped from the digital cup, will never be the same again. The go-to phrase is the ‘new normal’. In reality, there is no normal. Nor is the future likely to look much like this state of emergency. Mark Ritson, writing in Marketing Week, nailed it (as usual): “It’s not going to change – the world will quickly, not immediately, go back to normal. If you were living in England in 1996 you’d have sworn we’d never eat beef again [due to ’mad cow’ disease] – very quickly we forgot, and we returned to our previous behaviours. People have been building their cognitive systems for millennia; they’re not going to change because they can’t go outside for three months.” He’s right. 9/11 has made us take our shoes off, but hasn’t stopped us flying.
The recovery may be slow, and we will need to strategize for that. While there may be pent-up demand and certain audience segments may return sooner, other segments may be wary or their spending power weakened, certain types of offer and settings (outdoor?) may, initially, be more attractive, and there may be legal and practical restrictions on what we’re able to deliver. But the audience, including tourists, will return. We may have pushed some people further along the digital adoption curve but that will merely enhance, not replace, the analogue. Already, there are attempts to model and predict future audience intent. While we’re all eager to get a first glimpse of what might happen, here we really should counsel caution. What people are currently doing is knowable. It’s way more reliable than what people say they might do next week or next month, let alone in some post-lockdown future. That’s why the reflex impulse to embark on big audience tracking studies will be far less useful to our organisations than small-scale evaluation and consultation. Right now, deep data is far more valuable than big data.
Week 4: Mission critical
There’s now a growing chorus asking for some reflection. People have been asking, ‘Does the stuff we’re doing actually fit with our mission, vision or cause?’, ‘Who are we doing this for?’ and ‘How will any of this help us in the long term?’. A quick consensus is emerging that the ‘winning formula’ will be vision-led organizations producing content that is authentic and human, in an attempt to engage and build their communities. In short, the organisations best placed to succeed are those that are unequivocally Vision-led and relentlessly Audience-focused.
Most organisations can invoke their vision/mission/cause and can claim to be Vision-led (some, perhaps, more convincingly than others). But most fall short on true Audience-focus: putting the needs of their audiences at the heart of all of their processes. It’s grasping this fundamental tenet – that people engage in culture to meet their deep seated, social, intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs – and that we need to deliberately design everything we do to meet those needs, that sets Audience-focused organisations apart from the rest.
Audience-focus attracts new people, deepens engagement, builds community, accrues brand equity, generates income and delivers the mission/vision/cause. It’s the secret sauce for success.
Many progressive organisations have already opened these channels of dialogue, actively listening to their audiences, understanding their needs, and reshaping every aspect of the way they operate. But, many organisations still operate at ‘arms-length’ from their audiences. Here, programming may be done discretely, memberships might be built on a more transactional model, there’s likely a more traditional sales and marketing focus and audience segmentation may only be demographic. For these institutions, becoming more Audience-focused will be a culture shock, though it’s no less vital. Ironically, this crisis may present us with the most profound opportunity to sharpen our focus.
The real opportunity: Audience-focus
While perfecting new, digital content and tracking new audience behaviours are both worthwhile, I’ve instead been reflecting on how we all might use the Covid-19 lockdown to conduct radical experiments in Audience-focus that could change our organisations permanently, and for the better. I know that sounds an odd, possibly insensitive, thing to say as many of our colleagues are being furloughed, or worse, and many of our institutions are struggling to stay solvent. But rather than putting all our wagons in a circle or battening down the hatches and waiting for the storm to pass, we need to use this time – and its unique circumstances – to build stronger, more resilient foundations for our future.
Practicing new customs
Institutions invariably find it difficult to become more Audience-focused – I know this because I’ve spent my whole career supporting them on that journey. The hard yards of real organisational change are made harder by the inertia of business-as-usual: the tyranny of business plans; the lack of discretionary budgets; the rigidity of hierarchies; the isolation of departmental silos; and the dead hand of custom and practice. New ways of working and thinking are rehearsed only in the 5% of marginal space remaining. But Covid-19 has, at a stroke, suspended normalcy and created a vast, liminal space in which real change is suddenly more possible. Our plans are iced, our budgets in flux or free fall, our hierarchies suddenly flattened, maybe our usual silo colleagues have been furloughed so we have to collaborate with new people, in new ways. Business can’t be ‘as usual’.
This ‘Twilight Zone’ presents us with an extraordinary chance to radically experiment our way to greater Audience-focus, increased relevance and deeper engagement. But it will not emerge as a by-product: we will have to do it deliberately. For many, if not most, organisations, these experiments will have to be on a shoestring budget, or may have to wash their own face financially. It helps, then, that listening to the audience and reflecting on what we learn, is a low-cost exercise. And our sector is often most creative and inventive when resources are scarce. In Part 2 of this think-piece, The Seven Pillars of Audience Focus, I’ll share a framework for doing that and some wonderful examples from colleagues already building greater Audience-focus during this crisis.
Andrew McIntyre, Morris Hargreaves McIntyre (MHM), 16 April 2020
Much of the thinking behind this think-piece has been informed by the insightful discussion happening on Audience Matters, a ‘hive-brain’ forum for hundreds of colleagues across the sector and around the world to share their lockdown practice and strategize future plans. All are welcome to join.