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Building Knowledge – Audience Engagement

In July 2020 Festivals Audience Lab had a session on audience engagement that featured Roberta Johnson (Vice President of Audience Engagement, Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance) and Norah Piehl (Executive Director, Boston Book Festival). The session was structured as a moderated discussion with key questions on this topic. The content here is based on their conversation, which also included discussion of how to pivot in the time of COVID-19, many examples of online engagement, lots of advice on tools and how to get started, and much more. You can view the full session with Q&A.

What is Audience Engagement?

What is “audience engagement” and how is it different from traditional marketing? A simple definition: audience engagement is how people interact with your content.

It’s not just limited to ticket sales or attending your event. That might be included in engagement, but there are people who never come to your event that engage with your content or with your organization by sharing that to other people who do come to your event. You can engage them virtually or on social media, you can have them interact with you. These things are not necessarily generating revenue, but are building connections to your organization. Traditional marketing is about building a specific type of visibility that provides a return on investment through ticket sales and event attendance.

Examples of engagement online and through social media are plentiful, but here are few examples of Boston Book Festival’s audience engagement programs that looked at in-person interaction and/or connections to current events:

  • One City One Story – 20,000 copies of a specially commissioned story are handed out for free in locations throughout Boston. At the festival there is a culminating session with the Once City One Story author.
  • BBF Book Hunt – Packages containing a book by festival author and a letter about the author’s session at the festival are hidden all over the city. BBF encourages people to find them and post a photo on social media.
  • At Home Boston – At the start of the COVID lockdown BBF solicited micro-essays (200 words or less) from people in Greater Boston about what they were experiencing; topics shifted as the months passed. These essays were posted on social media and the BBF website and a few were published by the Boston Globe. They will be archived as part of a national project with Northeastern University.

How to Get Started

How can festival producers get started with audience engagement?

Start with the programming and think about the opportunities to highlight the artists. If the opportunity is an event, also put some thought into who your moderator or host should be. Consider what kind of platform they have and how they can work us to help amplify what we’re doing and connect with the audiences that they already have and bring them to us and, and vice versa.

Try to keep things as simple as possible. If you keep it simple and keep it focused, you’re going to have a large return on that engagement. You can’t put too much into something because people will get really confused and distracted. The worst thing is making people dig to figure out what it is that you’re giving and then get disinterested in it because they had to go through the dig to figure out what it is.

Think about your social media platforms. If you have limited capacity it’s especially important to think about what social media works best for you. You should meet people where they are, but you don’t need to get in on every single platform. If you’re not going to invest the time for audience growth and engagement growth, don’t even go there.

It’s important to analyze your data. How are people interacting with you on social media? How are they reacting to your emails? How are they getting to your website and how are they navigating around on it? Be clear about your goal for engaging audiences and identify the data points that will help you understand if you are meeting your goal (these are often called key performance indicators). For example, if your goal is to increase your email list, you need to look at both the number of new people subscribing and the number of people unsubscribing. You have to think about your priorities and goals, which are not going to be the same as other festivals or organizations.

Remember that you do not need to do everything. If you have capacity constraints, think of the easiest ways to get started. You could start with your existing audience and trying out ways to increase your engagement with them. You could start with the social media platform you already use and work on increasing your followers, views, impressions, and clicks.

Tools and Resources

Accessibility for Festivals


Additional Audience Development Session Recordings

Festivals and Audiences: Emerging from the Pandemic
As we return to live arts and culture events, what are audiences thinking about? And how can festivals communicate your health safety information and programmatic adjustments to them? In this 60-minute interactive webinar for Mass Cultural Council’s Festivals Program, we take a look at data from the Audience Outlook Monitor, a national research effort—including local data from the Boston area—to understand audience opinions and comfort levels of returning to in-person events in order to help inform your festival planning. We also look at how this data and examples from other events might help you shape how you communicate with your future festival attendees.

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