Getting real about young audiences

Over the course of several months last year my Culture24 colleagues and I worked with an amazing group of 18 arts and heritage organisations on a collaborative action research project called ‘Let’s Get Real: Young Audiences’ (LGRYA).

We set out to explore ways of engaging children and young people with cultural content using digital tools and channels – an imperative for any organisation with a mission to serve young audiences, increase inclusion and broaden their reach. It was the first time we’d focussed on a particular target audience strand in one of our Let’s Get Real programmes and proved to be a fascinating experience.

This article outlines the challenges as I see them, what we did and a taster of what we learnt.

A formal photo of a group of about 20 people standing ona  pavement, in front of large windows, with colourful lit-up glass displays behind the glass.

LGRYA participants outside the Wellcome Collection, who kindly hosted our workshops.

Our LGRYA group was made up of one staff member from each of a diverse bunch of organisations – an orchestra, a mixture of local authority, regional and national museums & galleries, a theatre, a university library, a mixed arts venue, a classical music venue and a couple of cultural consortia & cultural publishers. What we all had in common was organisational strategies with learning, inclusion, increased diversity and public benefit at heart. We all shared the desire and need to capture and hold children and teenagers’ attention via digital means. That’s a really hard thing to do for a host of reasons.

Online, we’re in competition with gaming, shopping, messaging, Netflix and the like. Offline we’re in competition with life in general and with schools in particular. Making the distinction between ‘online’ and ‘offline’ is increasingly problematic as the lines are so blurred, but bear with me, it’s a distinction that helps with organising thoughts and research projects!

The current online attention-grabbers: Pokémon Go, Snapchat, X-Box, Instagram, pornography (sad but true for swathes of our target teenage audiences), Minecraft, YouTube – whatever happens to be the latest flavour of the month, are only going to strengthen in their time-gobbling appeal to young audiences. We can’t beat them so we must understand them. We need to understand their offers and attraction; understand the behaviours and motivations they encourage and support in young audiences and understand when and if it’s relevant to join them. Finding our place amongst all of that noise is one challenge.

There are huge tensions for us as cultural organisations in the general offline competition life brings. We all want children and teenagers to be playing, doing, making, talking, listening, creating, learning and living offline, outside, at home and in our venues. Much of our effort is spent tempting them away from screens into pursuits deemed by society to be more ‘worthy’. Yet at the same time we want young audiences to find us online, to use our stuff, to contribute, to collaborate with us and to advocate for us with their peers in social media. Balancing that tension and understanding and appreciating the value digital culture can bring young audiences is another challenge.

Tensions around the competition for time and attention that school brings are especially frustrating. Time spent in lessons and time spent doing homework online and offline is a serious competitor for attention and resource. In an ideal world cultural organisations would be working hand in hand with the formal education sector to deliver and support digital cultural learning as a matter of course and cultural digital resources would be woven into those lessons and learning journeys. We’re not there yet.

Many cultural organisations do create and publish digital content that would immeasurably enrich and enliven teaching and learning for children and teens but word’s not quite out about that yet. The vast majority of schools and teachers, if they can weave digital content into everyday lessons and homework (by no means yet the case for many), are using commercial software packages that deliver trackable activities and directly, easily relate to quantifiable learning or progression outcomes. As cultural organisations most of us haven’t quite cracked the format and functionality that will make our digital content findable, appealing and truly usable, whilst teachers and young audiences don’t yet think of us as sources of information and inspiration that are woven into their thinking when it comes to planning or research. Bridging those gaps is another challenge.

So, engaging young audiences via digital is really, really hard, let’s be honest about that, but it’s not impossible. Most cultural organisations understand how to grab and hold young audiences’ attention in their physical venues. They know the kinds of stories, objects, pictures and pieces of music that work when they have a child or teenager in their physical space. That’s a fantastic starting point.

Here’s what we did over four workshops and in action research back in our own settings. We began by listening and talking to some children and teenagers, inviting them to come and tell us what’s relevant to them and what they spend their time doing with digital. They weren’t there as tokenistic representatives of their kind but to set the tone and bring some reality into the room. They sparked a host of ideas and insights.

We added in expert voices from cultural, digital and media organisations – people who have cracked it, even momentarily, with successful digital engagement and had lessons to share. We then set about planning and carrying out content experiments. Co-creation and collaboration were key – involving target audiences, be they children, young people and/or teachers, in our experiments and learning directly from them. Over three months or so participants worked on a wide range of experiments, with mentoring from experts to support and keep them on track.

The range of experiments organisations undertook surprised me. I had begun the project thinking the emphasis would be squarely on engaging the target audiences online. The definition of ‘digital’ the group took turned out to be wide and flexible. There was a strong appetite for working with digital tools and content in the venues and in other environments. There was also a strong emphasis on re-purposing, packaging and on testing out different formats. Several people looked at working with what they already deliver offline to make more of it and widen offers and experiences beyond those accessing services in physical spaces. Consultation was also a central theme – many of us ended up exploring how best to learn from our audiences.

This small selection of experiments gives a flavour of the work that went on:

- Derby Museums tested a range of ways of making ‘how to’ videos with children and for children, on making and then tested their reception on YouTube
- York’s Pilot Theatre experimented with using a free animation app on smartphones in storytelling workshops
- The V&A looked at ways to build on their onsite activities with 13-25 year olds by experimenting with different blog formats
- ArtUK tried out different ways of engaging teenagers with digital content about sculpture, making connections through humour and their local environment
- The Longshop Museum ran an after-school club, in a local school, experimenting with ways of telling and sharing museum stories through filmmaking
- Brighton & Hove’s Royal Pavilion & Museums gave their Instagram account over to a teenager as they created their Fashion Cities Africa exhibition.

One of the most valuable elements of the Let’s Get Real projects is the opportunity to take time out of the busy everyday to think about audiences and to explore the transformation that digital technologies and behaviours necessitate in our working practices. Learning from peers dealing with the same issues and hearing the insights they bring as their experiments develop is invaluable.

Photo of three women in conversation, sitting at a table strwn with documents and coffee cups.

Hard at work in an LGRYA workshop.

We will be publishing a report on the results of the LGRYA project, including case studies from all of the participating organisations, in 2017.

Edit update: please note that this page was edited on November 8th 2016 to remove the links to a potential re-run of this project. We’ve decided to postpone the next phase of research until later in 2017.

Anra Kennedy, October 2016.