Is mobile the next frontier in audience engagement within the arts?
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Is mobile the next frontier in audience engagement within the arts?

The rise in use of smartphones has been exponential in the UK over the last five years. Ofcom’s research shows that in 2014 61% of the adults in the UK have smart phones, up 10% on 2013’s figures. The numbers for app downloads are more difficult to get your head around – Apple announced in 2013 that they had hit their 50 billionth download globally – an almost incomprehensible figure.

Within all this noise about download numbers and smart phone usage, how can the arts differentiate themselves to get a wider audience to their programmes and projects?

Keeping pace for the arts

Part of the challenge for the arts more generally in this area is about keeping pace with what audiences are being offered in other parts of their lives. If they can source a hotel from an aggregated booking website like, shouldn’t they also be able to find a cultural experience in the same manner through mobile? This isn’t reinventing the wheel, but applying the lessons of other sectors to the arts.

45% of arts and cultural organisations still do not have a website optimised for mobile devices

As an example, the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts supported the Royal Opera House (ROH) to create a mobile-integrated responsive website, to help boost mobile bookings, donations and the purchase of digital programmes. In an audit of the arts sector at the time, ROH determined that only a small number of organisations had responsive websites within the sector – a clear gap. Our own research at Nesta shows that 45% of arts and cultural organisations still do not have a website optimised for mobile devices.

When implemented correctly though, the results of this kind of change can be significant for arts organisations.  The gap in dwell time that users spent on the ROH website between desktop computer and mobile fell by around 50% when the new site was rolled out.

In other words, whereas users had previously been much more comfortable browsing on the site on a desktop computer, mobile was starting to provide a much better experience – particularly important when ROH estimated that over 50% their site visits would come from mobile devices in 2015. This is hardly new technology – but keeping pace with other industries is significant when potential visitors are accustomed to slick interfaces and functioning systems across all of their devices.

Increasing reach to audiences in new ways

The ROH project demonstrates the need for a ‘baseline’ of performance with regards to mobile, and the dividends this can pay in terms of user experience. However, the arts can also get on the front foot in this field, through harnessing their content in new and creative ways for a wider audience.

Two additional approaches stand out from the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts:

  • London Sinfonietta has been able to bring the music of minimalist composer Steve Reich to a new audience through an addictive game called Clapping Music. From its launch in early July the app has been downloaded over 37,000 times – bringing Reich’s 1972 composition to a whole new audience.
  • Sing London has delivered the ‘Talking Statues’ project which tapped into some of the current interest in playable cities to allow people to interact with the stories of statues around London and Manchester through QR codes and Near Field Communication (NFC) technology.   

Each statue was activated by the QR code/NFC, which would then ‘ring’ the mobile phone of the person and deliver a monologue inspired by the character, crafted by playwrights and writers and voiced by famous actors. Within the first six months of the project, 40,000 people had interacted with one of the statues. Chicago is the next city where Sing London will bring public statues to life in this way.

These projects show that the arts can reach new audiences with their digital and mobile technology, and compete with some of the mainstream games and content available on mobile platforms. While rivalling Angry Birds may be too much to ask, there is clearly an appetite and space for engaging content and experimentation to filter through from some of our strongest arts institutions into people’s pockets.

The challenge is two-fold then – the arts have to maintain pace with the rapidly changing wider landscape, optimising their listings, ticketing and venue information in a way that makes sense for mobile. Meanwhile they must harness the significant creative and experimental aspects of their work in order to captivate an audience that is now constantly connected.

Download our guide Making Digital Work: Mobile.


Sam Mitchell

Sam Mitchell

Sam Mitchell

Programme Manager, Digital Arts & Media

Sam Mitchell was a Programme Manager in the Digital Arts & Media team at Nesta

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