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Vaughan Rising Blog: How to Engage With Your Audience Digitally – Practical Q and A with Ontario Culture Days

In today’s world, where the vast majority of our connections are online, arts and culture entrepreneurs are searching for the best ways to engage with their audiences digitally.

According to the Government of Canada, “Arts, culture and heritage represent more than $53 billion in the Canadian economy and close to 666,500 jobs in sectors such as film and video, broadcasting, music, publishing, archives, performing arts, heritage institutions, festivals and celebrations.”

What does this mean for arts and culture entrepreneurs who are increasing digital interactions with customers?

As part of a nation-wide network of arts, culture and heritage organizations, Ontario Culture Days is a non-profit organization whose goal is to foster public engagement with a vibrant Ontario arts, culture and heritage sector. Each year, Ontario Culture Days leads a province-wide festival, and supports a wide network of organizers through communications, marketing, outreach and artistic programs. This year, as a result of the pandemic, festival programs largely took place digitally.

To discover how arts and culture entrepreneurs can best connect with customers who crave hands-on interaction or learn in a much more tactile manner, and are tired of endless screen time, the City of Vaughan consulted two experts on digital audience engagement from Ontario Culture Days.

The City has partnered with Ontario Culture Days for the last 11 years and the organization has been instrumental in the growth of Vaughan’s arts and culture sector, providing local creative industry entrepreneurs with support, toolkits and platforms for exposure.

 

For the 2020 edition of Culture Days, Community members from the Sault Ste Marie Indigenous Friendship Centre (IFC) created traditional Ribbon Shirts and Skirts. The makers modeled their creations at the Art Gallery of Algoma and photos were released alongside an article about the project. Photo courtesy of Kevanna Studios.

The experts

Meaghan Froh Metcalf, Outreach and Programs Manager

Meaghan Froh Metcalf is a museum professional in the Toronto area with 10 years of

experience in arts programming, outreach and administration. She has held positions at a variety of cultural institutions within Alberta and Ontario, including the Art Gallery of Alberta and the Town of Oakville.

Meaghan has been a part of the Ontario Culture Days team since 2017. In that time, she has led outreach and sector-development efforts to a network of over 500 organizers.  She has also produced a series of curatorial programming initiatives, including the 2019 exhibition DO BLUE BUTTERFLIES EAT PARTS OF THE SKY?, the ongoing Culture Days @ Toronto Public Library program and the new Creatives in Residence series.

Amy Wong, Communications and Administration Coordinator

Amy Wong is an arts administration and communications professional based in Toronto and the GTA. She has previously worked with the Markham Theatre and Craft Ontario to produce and promote both artistic and youth programming.

Amy has been working with the Ontario Culture Days team since the summer of 2019. While there, she has developed and implemented festival and year-round communications plans, published editorial content for the oncultureguides.ca “Things to Do” page, and provided support for Ontario Culture Days outreach and program development initiatives.

The consultation

1.   How are artists, cultural organizations and entrepreneurs in the creative industries responding to the new “normal” and pivoting to innovative online platforms to advance their work and creative business?

Quick take

  • Many are trying a hybrid model where people pick up an activity box or art kit then tune in to an online program.
  • Digital presents an opportunity to collaborate with out-of-town artists or organizations you have always wanted to work with.

Meaghan Froh Metcalf: During the recent Ontario Culture Days festival, we saw a number of organizations do a kind of hybrid model where people could pick up an activity box or art kit, and then tune in to an online program via video or livestream. We’re more than half a year into this pandemic, and I think people are wanting something beyond screen time.

Having everyone in the workshop working with the same materials helps people to feel connected with their neighbours and supports fair access to supplies and resources. Plus, getting hands on helps connect with more tactile learners, and encourages people to try something new.

 

Aurora’s Culture in a Box program created take-home kits for residents. Photo courtesy of Town of Aurora.

 

One thing that is really exciting about going digital are the opportunities for collaboration. Because we aren’t worried about the cost and time associated with moving people places, you can engage with an artist or organization you have always wanted to work with, even if they are on the other side of the country!

For example, I know the National Arts Centre has been doing some great collabs with theatre companies all across Canada through their Grand Acts of Theatre program. Plus, combining resources and partnering with another group is a great way to share resources, especially if budgets are tight.

2.   What advice can you give to arts & culture entrepreneurs (or even other types of businesses) that’s relevant right now?

Quick take

  • If you have an idea, even if it is off the wall, give it a try, and learn from what worked and what didn’t.
  • It is a great time to look for courses or workshops online as professional development.

Meaghan Froh Metcalf: I think we still have leeway for experimentation, but the window is closing. The public has been really accommodating as we all try and figure out the best course of action during this time. If you have an idea, even if it is off the wall, give it a try, and learn from what worked and what didn’t.

There are still a lot of online programs being produced. I’m predicting that next year we’ll see fewer programs, but with larger production budgets – especially for online experiences. Figure out what works now, and then use it to refocus for next year.

Amy Wong: It is a great time to look for courses or workshops online as professional development. I’m still seeing a lot of free webinars out there, and they are a great opportunity to learn a new way of programming, or how to try a new digital platform. If the webinar allows for discussion, it is also a good way to hear from others about their experiences, insights and the challenges they’re facing.

3.   What are some best practices on running workshops or performances online? Any examples?

Quick take

  • Plan to make programs accessible, and work this into your timeline from the start.
  • The best programs are ones that are planned with a digital platform in mind, rather than taking something that had previously been live, and putting it online.
  • Online programs take just as much time as, if not more time than, in-person ones.

Amy Wong: Plan to make programs accessible, and work this into your timeline from the start. Great additions might include audio or visual aids, take-home kits, recordings etc. In some instances, you can tap in to technology to help you do the heavy lifting.

We used a program called Veed to caption all of our Ontario Culture Days videos this year. Particularly if you have a festival or specific busy season, a monthly subscription is affordable, and a good way to only pay for what you need.

I know YouTube has a pretty good auto-captioning service too. But don’t forget that computers do make mistakes, especially with tricky or hard-to-pronounce words. Make sure to save yourself time to review the captions and edit as needed.

The Food to Palette Watercolor Workshop by Kanika Gupta and Amit Kehar was produced for the 2020 Ontario Culture Days Creative Residency program. It was delivered via Veed.

 

Meaghan Froh Metcalf: Think about the platform and how you can use it. The best programs are ones that are planned with a digital platform in mind, rather than taking something that had previously been live, and putting it online.

Each year the Art Gallery of Algoma and Sault Ste. Marie Indigenous Friendship Centre put on a fashion show of Anishinaabe Ribbon Shirts and Skirts. Instead of putting a recording of the fashion show online for 2020, we worked with them to produce a photo essay. The program was able to provide an engaging and educational piece that could reach new audiences, and took into account how the material would be presented.

Amy Wong: Online programs take just as much time as, if not more time than, in-person ones. If you’re livestreaming, make sure to do a few tests beforehand, and have all the presenters gather online well before the start of the event to iron out any connectivity issues. And it never hurts to make sure there is a backup agenda or script in case the moderator loses connection.

If you’re sharing recorded content, plan your work-back schedule to include time for editing. Sound in particular is tricky, especially if content has been recorded on a phone. If you can invest in an inexpensive mic, it goes a long way.

4.   What other advice would you give to creatives to maintain sustainability through this challenging time and beyond?

Quick take

  • Before saying yes to a new initiative, think about your brand, mission, message, budget and schedule, and only select what fits.
  • Take a break!

Meaghan Froh Metcalf: I‘m hearing from a lot of people who are saying yes to too many things! Because we don’t have to be mindful of physical space or timing, we take on every proposal that comes our way.

Think about your brand, your mission and your message, and only select what fits. I think we’re all realizing COVID is a marathon, not a sprint, and the best way to keep our engagement and produce quality content is by conserving some energy.

Online takes time and money – sometimes even more than in-person. Try something once, evaluate how much it costs, and then plan a budget and schedule for your future programming. Don’t plan 20 online programs before you’ve tried planning one!

Amy Wong: Take a break. With so many of us working from home it can be hard to disconnect from work at the end of the day. Don’t forget to take time to try a new creative project, book or hobby.

5.   Anything else you’d like to add?

Meaghan Froh Metcalf: Sign up for the Canadian Network for Arts & Learning newsletter. They have an ongoing series of roundtables with arts professionals that allow you to hear how others in the sector are handling the pandemic. Plus, they share other relevant tools and resources to the network.

Amy Wong: The Ontario Nonprofit Network has a great resource page for non-profits. Their professional development webinars are all free this year, too!

Quality digital engagement will keep your business rising

Be sure to use some of Froh Metcalf and Wong’s tips for creating quality digital engagement with your customers, clients or audience as you plan innovative strategies to get you through to the other side.

For more information or assistance in planning your digital strategy, please contact the City of Vaughan’s Economic and Cultural Development team.

The information presented in this article is provided solely for the purpose of bringing ideas to the attention of the business community, as a service to the businesses of the City of Vaughan.

The City of Vaughan does not, whether directly or indirectly, endorse, sponsor or sanction the opinions expressed in this article, nor any services or products that may be offered by the contributor/s in their normal course of business.  The City of Vaughan does not intend by this article to recommend the contributor/s nor to promote them as subject matter experts over any other business persons employed or engaged in similar lines of business.