How online events had a positive impact on audience engagement and donations for a small heritage organisation
This case study is based on a session at Digital Heritage Lab's Digital Skills Day, when David Johnson talked to Celia Gilbert from The Rose Playhouse in Southwark, London about the positive impact this small heritage organisation experienced since moving its events online.
Model of architect's design of The Rose Playhouse's new visitor centre / exhibition and performance space.
Image courtesy of The Rose Theatre Trust. Photo Nick Helm ©.
David Johnson: I was very fortunate to get to work with Celia and The Rose Playhouse as their Digital Skills Mentor as part of The Lab strand of the Digital Heritage Lab. I've enjoyed listening to the story of The Rose Playhouse and their fascinating journey. I will let Celia introduce herself, and then she can tell us a bit about what The Rose Playhouse is and what it does.
Celia Gilbert: I've been working at The Rose Playhouse for nearly two years and I'm the only person who is paid. I work for the Rose Theatre Trust and my job has grown considerably.
For over 30 years since its remains were first discovered, the Rose Theatre Trust has been working to continue to save The Rose Playhouse. Built in 1587, it was Bankside’s first theatre, with plays by Shakespeare and Marlowe presented there.
The Rose’s remains were discovered in 1989 during an archaeological dig on the site between Rose Alley and Park Street. The 1950’s office block above the site was being re-developed. The campaign to ‘Save the Rose’ became a major international news story, and the site attracted many visitors.
There was a danger that The Rose’s foundations would not be preserved. So, a campaign was started which was backed by people from all walks of life including famous thespians Dame Judi Dench, Dustin Hoffman, Ian McKellen and Dame Peggy Ashcroft. English Heritage took over the site, which is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument. It is nationally protected and is on the ‘Heritage at Risk’ register, because of the absence of a permanent conservation regime. This meant the new building that was built on top of it now sits on girders to allow access to The Rose’s foundations from street level.
The building above is currently being refurbished again but we’ve been able to renew the license so that The Rose can exist there for a lot longer. We are now raising funds to try and reveal the rest of the dig, because only two thirds of the theatre was discovered. Our aim is to build a Visitors Centre where we can celebrate the archaeology and continue to use the space for live performances.
We haven’t been able to use the space for performances, not just because of Covid, but because of the current refurbishment of the building above the site.
The reconstituted cutaway view of the first Rose, by William Dudley, incorporating material by Jon Greenfield and
C. Walter Hodges, taken from the guidebook, The Rose, Bankside’s first theatre 1587.
David: It's quite interesting that your decision to move events online wasn't entirely based on Covid, but was necessary for other reasons.
Celia: We do talks as well as performances and we had to cancel an event on Elizabethan Meals and Manners. We thought it would be lovely if we could have some way of putting this type of event online. We wanted to reach a wider section of our community not just those who follow theatre but history and archaeology too. We thought, what could we do? The world was moving onto Zoom and so we thought maybe that's something we could explore. A way to remind people that we’re still here even though we weren't physically open.
David: Absolutely. As you say, you're the sole member of staff, you've got a group of volunteers and trustees supporting you, but what were the practical challenges for you shifting your events online?
Celia: Because there’s only me, I needed to be able to have other people to help me. We’ve always had volunteers helping, but it seemed very integral that we had a team of people. So, we created an events team, which consisted of people who were already helping with the on-site events ― open day events and performances.
From that team came the ideas of who we might invite to come and talk. It was important that we had the right material that people would be interested in so that we could develop a following.
We were already using Trybooking.com for tickets to our on-site events, so we were able to use the same ticket agency to sell tickets for our online events. We sell tickets at £5 and there’s also the facility to donate at the point of purchase. Donations are very important to us because we are completely dependent on funding for everything we do, including to fund me. This seemed to be a revenue stream that was waiting to happen and it was how we could attract funding during Covid.
The world was moving onto Zoom and so we thought maybe that's something we could explore. A way to remind people that we’re still here even though we weren't physically open.
David: When we first started talking, about a year ago, we were thinking of ways to grow your social media and grow your audiences, outside of the very loyal group of people you've engaged with you.
Celia: Yes, absolutely. We have a very loyal following. We have quite a lot of subscribers that have joined over the years either because they've visited the site or they've watched something there. And obviously, a band of Friends as well. So, we started with that element, and then you get a certain amount of word-of-mouth marketing. Then people started getting these regular invitations and from that we were able to develop a social media following.
Word-of-mouth was very important, but it then became very apparent that we could attract a much bigger national and international audience. We were getting scholars and theatre goers from America, Australia and all over Europe, and even further beyond, attending our online events.
We realised that we didn't need just a London-based audience. We were reaching out to an international following, so we started to grow that audience through social media.
David: I think 50 is your maximum capacity at The Rose but your online capacity has greatly increased. Finding new audiences and growing a platform for online events has been really transformational.
Celia: Yes, our ability to do these events online was very important and we could capture those people who attended. We also found choosing the right subject matter for our events also played a part in growing our audience. For example, a speaker who did a talk for us about Mudlarking on the Thames brought in 743 ticket-buying people.
A talk on The Rose Past, Present and Future then brought a new range of people, interested from ‘Mudlarking’. Online has enabled us also to greatly increase our audience capacity. At first, we had 40 or 50 people join us now we're averaging 100 and sometimes we go over that.
David: I'm quite interested about how you embedded the ask for donations in that as well?
Celia: As well as selling tickets for our online events we thought we’d also get people to donate as well and sometimes we get up to £200 in donations for an event attended by 90 to 100 people buying tickets. The online events have grown our donations as well as our audiences. We couldn't have achieved this level of income with just the ticket revenue at the price we charge. We didn't want to price ourselves out of the market, as you can't run these online events like a theatre. It’s a different dynamic.
The online events have grown our donations as well as our audiences.
David: And how about asking people for a donation during the event as well as a point of sale?
Celia: At the start of each online event while we’re letting people into Zoom we share slides — which is useful for those people who may have sound issues to have something to read. We use these slides to invite people to become subscribers to our events, which in turn we hope converts into them becoming Friends of The Rose.
If the speaker gives us permission, we record the online events — these recordings are only for people who bought a ticket but who couldn’t attend the live event or if people donate then we’re happy to let them view recordings as well.
David: What are you going to take forward from this after reopening? What will stay what won't stay? What have you learned?
Celia: We hope by September 2021, we’ll be able to reopen The Rose Playhouse site and start on-site events again. Live events are what we are. There's nothing like the experience you get in the space itself. We hope to have some online events to run alongside the on-site events, particularly aimed at those who can’t geographically get there. There will be a sharing of the work that we do going forward as well. So putting us on the map a bit more.
David: Yeah, and I think that's absolutely relevant in terms of future fundraising as well. You've got audiences and donors from the US and Europe — how do you continue that narrative and engagement with The Rose? Because they're now engaged and interested in what you do as well?
Celia: Yes, it's kind of opened up a whole new area for us. We can start to think outside the box in terms of what we do in the future.
David: That's brilliant. So, what are your future plans?
Celia: Well, we're very dependent on fundraising. In 2013 we were part of the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s Rose Revealed Programme — plans to build a facade and visitor centre along Park Street where we are situated. We also hope to reveal the rest of The Rose site. So, it's getting funding to be able to do that.
We hope there'll be a way that we can have the archaeology live streamed as we try to reveal more of the original site of The Rose, so that people can watch what happens — but that's quite a long way down the road.
Fundraising is important but we can't do it all online. We've obviously got to look at other sources of funding, which is ongoing.
David: The thing I've taken away from our time working together has been the broadening of themes of what people might be interested in. As you said, there's an audience for history, there's an audience for heritage, there’s an audience for performance, an audience for archeology, and there's even an audience for mudlarking.
Celia: It was actually a delightful discovery. You have an expectation of the Shakespeare, Marlowe and theatre followers, but from that we've now explored life in Elizabethan times, for example, we have just done an event named: ‘Shakespeare Lavs and Loo paper’!
Education is an important strand in our work so going forward, finding a wide range of themes to attract a wide range of interests and ages is key.
The Digital Heritage Lab is a project managed by the Arts Marketing Association (AMA) in partnership with Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy, One Further and the Collections Trust and funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of the Digital Skills for Heritage initiative. It is a free programme for small and medium sized heritage organisations seeking to develop their digital capabilities and capacity.