Our contributing expert Cat Leaver, head of strategy at digital agency AD, on audience etiquette and managing expectations
With digital experiences infiltrating our physical lives at a rapid pace, arts organisations are faced with the challenge of having to manage audience etiquette and expectations. Opinion is divided: should technology be embraced during a performance, or banned?
Many people view others taking their phones and tablets out during performances as rude and distracting to their personal enjoyment, yet at the same time producers want to engage audiences in their marketing strategies. Audiences, you see, are perfect candidates for spreading the good word about your work across a vast range of social media channels.
And yet it’s not a simple matter of making electronic devices permissible in your show – there’s clearly more to consider than that. So, what are the pros and cons of allowing a digital takeover to happen?
We all know there’s a fine line between allowing activities that are good for social outreach (uploading clips to YouTube, tweeting, posting to Instagram and Facebook), and actions that are distracting – both for the performers on stage, and for other audience members who have parted with hard-earned cash to attend your show.
There’s a whole website and active community suggesting that the theatre should remain a sacred haven free from interruptions (theatre-charter.co.uk – a charter for better behaviour among theatre audiences). While there are definitely valid points to be made about unambiguously antisocial behaviours that should always be avoided, such as mobile phones ringing during shows, there are also contexts in which an attitude shift could be welcomed.
After all, the arts are all about passion, not rules and regulations: shouldn’t we want our audiences to be actively engaged in the experiences they’re paying to be a part of?
The survey Digital Culture: How arts and cultural organisations in England use technology discovered that 31 per cent of performing arts venues had seen a significant positive impact on revenues from allowing technology to be part of the experience.
What’s more, 40 per cent of venues stated that their use of digital technology meant they were able to reach a far more diverse audience (with particular success in attracting younger audiences via this medium). Tate galleries recently commented that ‘digital was forcing [them] to rethink creative practices’, and so it should: live-tweeting and live shows or exhibitions now go hand-in-hand. Furthermore, some 26 per cent of arts organisations are actively creating smart digital experiences that sit alongside a live performance.
Likewise, a recent study by TicketMaster showed that half of 16-19 year olds tweet about a performance during a show, while 21 per cent of people frequently take pictures. So how do you go about harnessing the influence of the digirati, without annoying your more traditional audiences?
Palm Beach Opera in Florida has come up with a novel idea, and has introduced ‘Tweet seats’. This bold initiative provides space for all to enjoy the show in their own unique way. Other organisations have also created programmes that cater to differing audiences, with certain performances of a show welcoming digital interactions, and others adhering to more formal rules of conduct.
This means that audiences have a clear opportunity to select what type of experience they want to be part of without missing out.
The key to getting the balance right is to know your audience. What you want to avoid is a situation in which people are so consumed by their digital activities that they miss the actual event altogether, as this will only undermine the experience itself.
Think about how can you ‘control’ interactions, and promote the right type of digital experience. Could you provide ‘social intervals’ where you actively encourage digital word-of-mouth? Could you create digital interaction areas in break-out spaces (think Twitter walls, interactive screens, projected social ‘check-in’ maps and storytelling aggregators)? Could you run social media-based Q&A sessions at the end of shows?
The way forward is to research opinion, and then revise your acceptable ‘codes of conduct’ to suit your own unique audiences.