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Fiona Morris: ‘Theatres must place digital at the heart of all they do’

Rosie Kay Dance Company’s 5 Soldiers was streamed live on the British army’s Facebook page, garnering more than 32,000 views
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For too long, many arts organisations have considered digital strategies to be a mere add-on to their work, says Fiona Morris, chief executive of the Space, who argues that self-publishing is the key to digital success

Even now, when hosting a YouTube channel has made some people millionaires, and when a tweet can change a person’s life, people in some industries – including the arts – remain uncertain what the word ‘digital’ means for their sector.

For some, the idea of a digital strategy is a challenging and often overwhelming strain on already stretched resources. Simultaneously, there is a growing awareness that ‘digital’ is becoming a necessity to survive competitively and innovatively and to continue to grow and diversify audiences.

So how does the arts industry become self-reliant in digital terms? How do we put it at the heart of what we do, not treat it as a functional add-on? The latter really doesn’t work.

The answer lies in something extremely simple – and that is the notion of self-publishing. That means thinking of yourself as a publisher as well as an artist: someone whose artistic practice encompasses not only the making of work, but its documentation for the purposes of publicity and audience engagement. Organisations must take more responsibility than ever before for how, where and by whom their content is broadcast and consumed.

When this works, it really works. So, the questions we should be asking are what new challenges and responsibilities does this world of self-publishing bring to the arts and cultural sector?

The Space is the digital commissioning and development agency founded by BBC Arts and Arts Council England to support arts and cultural organisations with the commission, development, production and distribution of digital projects. That means we’re here to help organisations – of all sizes, all over the country – with their digital strategy and output.

We do everything from funding and commissioning large-scale create digital works such as Playcraft, the world’s first live play in Minecraft, to finding specialist expertise to help organisations realise their vision for digital content production and distribution. We offer regular support and training for national portfolio organisations across the UK. With our support, these organisations have collectively reached audiences of more than 11 million; including four million on YouTube and 7 million on Facebook Video, transforming the potential for performing arts companies to reach directly to new audiences online.

With the NPO deadline for finalising funding agreements looming, the question ‘how do we become more digital?’ will be preoccupying arts organisations up and down the country, so here are some self-publishing resolutions to kick off 2018.

Understand your responsibilities

An age where anyone can become a self-publisher gives arts professionals, generally – and theatre and performing arts practitioners, specifically – an incredible opportunity to find an audience. There is always an audience, but if you’re not careful, you can end up being the victim of that opportunity.

It’s vital to understand exactly what it means to be a self-publisher. As creative individuals and organisations, you intrinsically understand your work and what you want that piece to be. In the same way, as a self-publisher you must understand the additional responsibility you are taking on. Whether that’s thinking about digital IP and other legal ramifications, how you work with different platforms as a content provider or what the audience data and analytics are telling you, it’s essential to have the full picture before going on the journey.

Be forensic in your planning and evaluating

There’s no sense creating a work and putting it out into the ether, untethered. To find that elusive audience, you need to think carefully about different ways of reaching them. And when you’ve got them, you need to look at the data that tells you how to keep them.

Examples of where this has worked include 5 Soldiers from Rosie Kay Dance Company, which was live-streamed on the British army’s Facebook page and garnered more than 32,000 views – many of those from audiences who were new to dance. Similarly, Slung Low’s enigmatic digital prologue to Flood for Hull City of Culture 2017 secured 95,000 views online.

At the Space, we talk to lots of artists and arts organisations about distributing digital content and are surprised by how often people overlook their current audiences. Seeing digital as something that speaks primarily to new audiences effectively suggests that the thing you don’t do or don’t feel very confident about doing should be directed at the audiences you don’t know. If you’re not considering how your work resonates with the people who are already watching or experiencing it, how can you work out what to keep and what to improve on when you try to reach new ones?

Above all, keep the idea simple

It can seem complex, but it doesn’t have to be. Some of the most effective projects we’ve been involved with have merely been a simple tweak of an everyday practice: a simple idea, brilliantly executed – or often just having the right people with the right expertise to bring audiences to you online.

In a crowded, chaotic and global landscape, it’s important to consider every possible route to profile-raising, harnessing existing networks and audiences to associate your project with your brand. For example, we worked with Opera North, where some simple SEO principles ensured they were on the first page of results for various search terms relating to Wagner’s Ring Cycle. This has helped increase traffic and further enhance the project’s profile.

We fervently believe that for your digital strategy to be a success, it has to be integral to your artistic vision and ambition. So perhaps the question shouldn’t be ‘how do we become more digital?’ but ‘how do we make sure there’s a digital element to everything we produce?’

Fiona Morris is chief executive and creative director of the Space

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