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What does the future hold for online events?

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What have your favourite online events been over the last couple of years? Have you been enjoying plays at home (thanks National Theatre!)? Joined a digital dinner party, à la AVM Curiosities lockdown event for the British Academy? Or maybe you’ve sung in a cyber choir like Opera North’s From Couch to Chorus?

If necessity is the mother of invention, the pandemic has certainly led to innovative and massively engaging online events. But as the culture and heritage sector sets its focus on getting audiences back to on-site visits, many of us are wondering – what we can take forward from these projects?

And, will online events stick?

Trends in online attendance

So firstly let’s take a look at some of available data and see what we can learn about the success of online events.

Initially, online offered visitors a way to engage during lockdowns – and its success showed that the public interest in museums has not been dampened by a lack of physical access. In 2020/21, The DCMS reported a drop of 94.3% for in-person visits to sponsored museums, compared to a drop of just 5.2% in website visits.

The power of online events seems to have been to sustain engagement – rather than reach new audiences. Research suggests that online access did not motivate non-traditional arts audiences – rather as the authors of the Cultural Consumption and Covid-19 report commented “it seems that the ‘new normal’ of pandemic life was much like the ‘old normal’ of an art and cultural audience.”

Then, as the sector started to open back up in 2021 the trends in online and actual visits are intriguing.

In January 2021, NEMO’s third iteration of their survey on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on museums in Europe found that after reopening online visits have remained strong – “Almost 50% of the museums responded that online visits have either remained at the same level since reopening their museums, or seen an increase overall.” In comparison, just 8.7% responded that their online visits are decreasing since reopening.

ICOM’s third Museums and Covid-19_report (released in spring 2021) found that over 50% of responding museums planned to increase their digital offer.

Yet as we go further we go into the year, this picture starts to change.

By the autumn it seems that the appetite for digital events was shifting. In the two-part survey ‘Digital Transformation in Museums’ (which looked at the period May- September 2021) researchers found that “while the majority of respondents reported offering virtual, online, and/or digital content during lockdowns, the later survey found that only 39 percent of participants were “going strong with digital programming,” while 54 percent had reduced their digital offerings and 7 percent had ceased their digital output entirely.”

Echoing these findings, in November 2021 The Audience Agency’s Cultural Participation Monitor found willingness to attend was rising slightly, and in-person engagement had (unsurprisingly) doubled in comparison to 2020. Online engagement, however, was reported as starting to trend down – “from 31% in 2020 to 24% in 2021, and just 13% in the last two months.“

So what next?

While the data suggests that museums are moving away from online events – there’s still plenty that we can take forwards from our experiences of running events digitally during the pandemic.

– Audiences have high expectations for online services – they need to be easy to use, secure, and enjoyable. As Socitm explained  in their public sector digital trends report “the public will be increasingly intolerant of poorly designed digital services, or having to cope with the lack of safe and effective data sharing between public service organisations.”

– Digital events can be a targeted part of your communications strategy. Online events can be used effectively to target specific audience segments – for example educational resources, or for professional/academic audiences. Training sessions, symposia and conferences have all successfully migrated online, as the LSE note on their blog “it is imperative to consider virtual as a “location” site, among other geographic locales, for future conferences. Fully virtual academic conferences are more equitable, accessible, and sustainable.”

– Digital events can provide enhanced data collection. NEMOs survey on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on museums in Europe pointed out that “Comprehensive digital transition should include addressing the development of sound metrics, frameworks and methods to track digital activities and success, which a large part of the museums claims to struggle with or do not apply within a comprehensive strategy or framework. Improving museums’ digital offers will require a comprehensive evaluation strategy.”

– Online events offer opportunities for income generation. In the two-part survey, ‘Digital Transformation in Museums’ researchers found that “Only half of respondents monetized their virtual programs, charging between $5 to $10, with some institutions only accepting donations.” Likewise, ICOM found that “museums relying mainly on private funds or earned income showed a greater impetus” in developing digital content, but that “A majority of participants, 59.1%, answered that they have not experimented with new sources of revenue, specially small to medium-sized museums.” Of those that had tested new sources of income, 7.4% tried paid virtual tours and 8.4% developed paid online learning programmes. And even if online events aren’t charged, they could provide moments for cross-selling and up-selling.

The development of online events has been fast-tracked during the pandemic, and there’s still lots to be learned for post-pandemic planning. While online events may not continue to be a core activity for many museums, elements from this activity are likely to now be integrated into museum processes and offers gain in insight, income generation and user experience.

About the author – Rebecca Hardy Wombell

Rebecca Hardy Wombell is a freelance writer who works with a broad range of creative organisations, including artists, galleries, museums and design-led retailers.

Her writing aims to develop and delight audiences by putting her clients’ beautiful works to well-crafted words.

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