The Arts Council's Digital Culture 2019 report, published last month, contained a lot of food for thought — for organisations across the whole sector, but particularly for the theatre industry. In some ways, theatres are diverging in really positive ways from other arts organisations when it comes to using digital technology. For example, the percentage of theatre organisations saying that digital contributed positively to their overall revenue and profitability increased by close to 250% over the past 6 years. The baseline, at 10%, was admittedly low, but to go from 1 in 10 theatres increasing their profitability through digital to 1 in 4 is nothing to sniff at.

On the other hand, the theatre-specific factsheet released alongside the main report also revealed several quite concerning trends that should sound the alarm bell for anyone in theatre management.

Missed opportunities

Probably the most glaring issue is that barely half of theatre organisations surveyed — 54% — sell tickets online. Even fewer accept donations (44%) or sell merchandise (28%), and vanishingly small numbers use digital to solve well documented problems in the industry — even the ones with well documented digital solutions! Only 6% use digital to prevent touts, and only 9% use dynamic pricing technology to improve yield.

I've written other posts about the importance of selling your own tickets online, so I won't belabour the point here except to say that 46% of theatres not selling tickets online is shockingly low. A bespoke website might be a big investment, but the figures show having one will likely increase your profitability and ultimately pay for itself. In any case, you don't need a bespoke website to sell tickets online, because there are dozens of others who will sell your tickets for you, like Eventbrite, Tickets Ignite, Brown Paper Tickets... Many cost you nothing except the commission on any sales made.

And when nearly all the theatres who do sell tickets online say it has a major positive impact on their business, not doing it is probably costing you a lot more.

Going in two directions at once

At the same time as the theatres in the report confirmed how important digital is to their bottom line, many also admitted that, versus 2013, they're devoting less time to publishing digital content, less time to engaging with their core audience online, and less time to using all their digital data to develop their business model.

The reasons for this are understandable. Nearly three quarters of theatres surveyed reported lack of staff time as their biggest barrier to pursuing digital, with almost the same proportion again citing lack of funding. The two of course go hand in hand. The big picture painted by the report was one where theatre staff are spread too thin and nobody — particularly in more senior positions — is specifically responsible for digital. It's no wonder it keeps slipping to the bottom of the pile.

The problem is compounded, according to the theatres surveyed, by senior management failing to appreciate or invest in digital innovation. As a result, when extra budget does become available it's often earmarked for something else.

Meanwhile, the wider ACE report also suggested other reasons why digital innovation is slowing across the arts as a whole. One is risk-aversion. It often feels like — and it's often true that — the arts are on a knife edge, with everyone just a few bad weeks away from total ruin. Never has this felt more true than during the current coronavirus pandemic.

As a result, when money for digital does materialise, organisations tend to play it safe. If you only get one chance to spend on your website every three years, it's understandable why you wouldn't want to blow that on something new and innovative and untested, which might end up a total waste of time. Instead you probably want to spend it fixing the things customers complain about the most — or adding the ability to sell tickets online at last!

The other problem, and a sadder one, is lack of co-operation across the sector, with only about a quarter of arts organisations seeking to share digital knowledge or partner directly with others. Again, it's easy to understand why organisations might feel they need to hoard their digital innovations in the quest for a little extra edge in a competitive and often financially perilous sector. But as long as arts organisations are spending their small digital budgets in small digital silos, it's no surprise that digital innovation is also small or even nonexistent.

Thinking outside the black box

There's one more thing that's striking about the theatre report in particular, and that's how little creativity there seems to be in how theatres use digital technology. That is, the most common things theatres are doing with digital are precisely the things you would expect them to be doing: email marketing, blogging, selling tickets online, linking to videos, Facebook advertising... The list reads like a Theatre Marketing 101 syllabus.

What you don't see on the list, on the other hand, are any really innovative, non-marketing uses of digital: digital experiences connected to an exhibition or artwork (15% of theatres surveyed); standalone digital exhibits or works of art (10%); augmented reality experiences (6%); online interactive tours of real-world spaces (2%); applying AI to existing works of art (0%).

One might argue that these sorts of things are better suited to other kinds of arts organisations, like museums and galleries. But even live-streamed or simulcast performances — a type of technology obviously very well suited to theatre! — is only used by 14% of theatres surveyed.

In any case, that seems like a very limited view of what theatre can be. Who's to say theatres can't offer standalone digital experiences separate from whatever happens onstage? Who's to say there's no value in an AI rewriting Hamlet, or a virtual tour of backstage, or an AR app that inserts characters from your favourite musical into the world around you?

The point isn't that nobody's ever done anything like this; it's that not enough theatres currently are. If more truly inspiring theatre experiences were available digitally, more people might be willing to give a bricks-and-mortar theatre a try. Making theatre relevant to a new generation has to mean more than rapping forefathers and Dear Evan Hansen.

Expanding your digital horizons isn't just about being relevant, either: it's about truly committing to making theatre accessible to all. Some people simply can't afford to visit the theatre, or live too far away, or have accessibility requirements that make leaving the house difficult. These people deserve to experience theatre too, and as long as that's dependent on a physical place they face fundamental barriers to doing so. Digital is a way to level the playing field, and reach new audiences who might never have experienced theatre otherwise.

Either way, it's clear that digital shouldn't be a frill or an afterthought. More than ever, it needs to be part of theatres' planning in a significant and meaningful way. If there's one thing you should learn from the 2019 Digital Culture report, it's that.

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