Digital – Meaningful: Trends in Digital Engagement

By Amanda Rigali on

Nadja Degen Profile

Nadja Degen was Arts Fundraising Fellow for Apples and Snakes until September 2016, and has remained at the organisation as Development Co-ordinator.

Since digital technology has become available and affordable for everyone, its impact on our lives has grown with dizzying speed and breadth. In her recent Fellowship blog on digital fundraising, Alessandra Green reminds us that the average UK adult spends over eight hours a day using technology. 38 million people access the internet on a daily basis and access to the internet using mobile phones has more than doubled between 2010 and 2014, from 24% to 58%. Digital technology impacts on nearly all aspects of our lives. It also affects the way that we engage with culture, and the way that cultural organisations engage with their audiences.

The Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, a £7 million initiative that supports collaboration between arts organisations, technology providers and researchers supported by Nesta, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Arts Council England, published the report Digital Culture 2014 which explores how arts and cultural organisations in England use technology. The three-year survey shows that almost 9 in 10 organisations (88%) are publishing content on free platforms, such as YouTube and Facebook. Overall, organisations are consolidating their use of technology in areas like marketing and distribution. In other areas such as income and revenue generation organisations seem to be expanding their use of digital technology. To round up these findings, there has been clear evidence that organisations that engage more with digital technology experience bigger impacts.

Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, 2015

Examples that demonstrate how the arts engage with their audiences online are numerous and diverse. Giving Tuesday has left the whole charity sector breathless at the beginning of this month. The Arts Council England launched its first Twitter novel The Unfollowed, written by Ian McMillan and published under the hastag #ACEnovel. Live streaming is becoming increasingly popular and captures new audiences; in late November The Royal Opera House streamed a rehearsal of Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker production which premiered on stage soon after. And not even two weeks ago my host organisation Apples and Snakes announced that we will receive funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to create a Living Archive for Spoken Word and Performance Poetry.

Since performance poetry as an artform relies heavily on oral tradition, this is a significant step towards preserving a cultural heritage that is in danger of being lost. However, this sensational news also hints at daunting challenges for my host organisation. The prospect of cataloguing and digitising an extensive archive of materials, including rare sound and video recordings, photographs, and press cuttings, collected since the beginning of Apples and Snakes in 1982 might unnerve even an experienced archivist. The aim is to create a bespoke, interactive archive that encourages input from the wider spoken word community. This highlights key questions relating to digital engagement: How can the Living Archive involve our audiences personally and meaningfully? How can the Living Archive speak to both current and new audiences? And will the Archive trigger responses that go beyond the digital, i.e. visitor numbers and ticket sales?

Lemn Sissay, Joolz Denby, Benjamin Zephaniah, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze and many more recognisable names feature on some of Apples and Snakes’ earliest event line-ups. Apples and Snakes, 2015.

A clear understanding of the wider spectrum of interaction that digital products allow will help achieve the above. The Guide on Making Digital Work by the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts lists the following four qualities that digital products have:

  • It can be functional: The digital archive enables me to access a performance.
  • It can be emotional: Listening to this performance moved me to tears.
  • It can be social: I’m discussing this performance with friends who live far away.
  • It can be permanent or ephemeral: I can purchase or download and keep this performance forever.

This list illustrates the vast potential of digital in terms of audience engagement and development, and naturally it reverberates with professional arts fundraisers. Digital content allows us to showcase artistic products and demonstrate the breadth of work that we undertake. It is a platform to raise awareness for our charitable status and the many ways that we serve our communities. The opportunities to engage new supporters seem almost endless. Arts fundraisers need to be attuned more than most to the richness of digital technology.

Alternatively, funding bodies that support organisations to grow their digital offer must be aware of the hurdles organisations face in the process. Flexible models that stimulate knowledge sharing in the wider cultural sector and between sectors as piloted by the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts pave the way, and a growing number of trusts, including the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, push these efforts further with a focus on arts access and participation.

How is your organisation harnessing the potential of digital technology for fundraising? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Posted by Amanda Rigali

Amanda is Director of Strategic Development at Cause4, and Head of the Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy Programme. As well as running the Programme, Amanda runs fundraising training sessions for cultural professionals across England and offers intensive strategy support to a range of charities.

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