When audiences become family: A case study of the Duncairn
The Duncairn, located in North Belfast, was one of the first arts centre to close when Covid hit, and one of the first to deliver an online programme, with the first episode of their Virtual Cabaret airing on 4th April 2020. When we received their nomination for our Audience Delight Awards, a very special number caught our eye. 89% of the Duncairn audiences said they make them feel part of a community. Other words their audiences used often to describe the Duncairn were inclusive, welcoming and uplifting. Not only they feel that way but they also attend often. The audience feedback the Duncairn received on the back of their online programming over lockdown showed audiences were returning week on week. This is in stark contrast to what we see going on in NI as a whole. We know from our own research that as loyal as we think audiences may be, the reality is that the vast majority don't attend venues year after year, and don't attend often during the year. Results from our latest Foundations report revealed that two-thirds of audiences don't return to cultural events at a venue the following year, and 80% of audiences only attend a venue once a year. So what is it about the Duncairn that makes people click? What is their secret recipe for success?
A bit of background
When the Duncairn opened its doors in 2014, North Belfast was the last area of the city to have its own designated arts centre. They had to start from scratch in an area where arts engagement didn’t yet exist and they very much wanted the centre to be led by the local community. They weren’t interested in creating a programme based on assumptions and thought the best way to find out about their future direction was to simply communicate with the community at their level.
The first thing they did was to put on a series of live events where they invited local artists and residents, and asked them how those events went, how they had been received and if they met the needs of the community, to inform their future offer. Their biggest challenge remained to increase the engagement from the immediate working-class locality. They understood people from the area enjoyed staying local and doing activities with their close family. People who grew up there largely tend to choose to live nearby even after university and finding job security. This group was the most likely to engage with the Duncairn so they targeted them first and asked them to become the centre’s ambassadors with their own families. Their strategy relied mostly on word-of-mouth and it proved to be the most effective. Their first free community day attracted over 350 people with long queues out the door and their café selling out of food.
Located in a working-class area, they’re well aware people’s finances can be a barrier to accessing their programme so they tailored their pricing to suit their audiences’ needs. Their large community events are free and a 3-tier pricing model is available for other smaller events and classes, from full price to subsidised tickets to completely free.
Communicate with the community at their level
We know some arts centres and venues’ buildings can be intimidating because of their design and the distance between the entrance and meeting a member of staff. The Duncairn wanted to address this issue by providing a warmer and friendlier environment.
As soon as someone comes into their space, this person is welcomed by a member of staff or a volunteer who asks them how their day is going and walks them to their class or event. They also make sure every single audience member leaves with a thank you. Their main goal is to put people at ease and show them the Duncairn team is very much like them, with the same worries, passions and interests. By being so personable, the whole team, including all their volunteers, got to know their returning customers and regulars inside out. They know their names, their families and their life stories.
Ray Giffen, creative director of the Duncairn, shared with us a few of these stories and how they each connected to the centre. Like Michael and Eleanor, both in their 70s, who used to come to every single event with their respective partners. When both their spouses passed away around the same time, both Michael and Eleanor felt the only place where they had friends was the Duncairn. They continued to attend the centre’s reading group, this time, alone, and that’s where they met, became friends and later on became companions.
The Duncairn wouldn’t have heard such intimate stories if they hadn’t been talking regularly with their audiences at every opportunity. And it’s important to note that Ray doesn’t talk about their audiences in those terms, he simply calls them family.
“We’re more than an arts centre”
Another goal they wanted to achieve was to remove the barriers between artists and audiences. In their words, they want to personalise the artist and destroy this myth that the artist is the person who comes in, performs and leaves. In their eyes, the artist is as much part of the community as everyone else, at the same level. They held specific events where they encouraged discussion and debate between audience and artists, with the purpose to create a relationship between the two. Similarly, the green room in the venue is strategically located at the back of the hall so artists must walk through the audience to get to the stage. There isn’t one instance where you couldn’t find the artist chatting to the audience at the end of each gig.
What happened during Covid?
When the Duncairn realised they weren’t to open for a while, they came up with the concept of the Virtual Cabaret. They invited artists to submit videos of themselves performing in their own houses. This way, they continued to offer a similar music programme while still aiming to break the barrier between audiences and artists. Each artist is shown in their own living room, sharing the same pandemic struggles as the people watching them – toddlers running around, dogs barking and cats deciding their favourite place to sit was in front of the camera.
The Virtual Cabaret aired on Youtube and Facebook Live every Saturday evenings for 2 months, offered for free with a link for donations. And each week, they noticed the engagement on the live chat was as entertaining as the music. They had a volunteer for each channel to lead the conversation and respond to comments, but it’s almost as if they didn’t have to. People who used to go to the Duncairn were chatting away, saying they hadn’t seen each other since the last in-person gig or that they tuned in the week before and it was nice to chat with everybody again. The feedback they received went from “it’s a breath of fresh air” to “it’s the only thing that gets me through the week”.
Their engagement rates grew week after week, reaching up to 10,000 viewers for their latest Ring of Gullion Session in South Armagh. They’re now not only reaching their immediate locality but also people from everywhere, from San Francisco to New Zealand. We know reaching international audiences is one of the perks of delivering an online programme. However, these new audiences for the Duncairn not only tune in but also return, sign up to their newsletter and start following them on social media. Of course, they enjoy the music but the conversations happening in the live chat during every single event play an important part. The Duncairn know people like the feeling of belonging so this is what they offer.
Empathy is the driver
We asked them for tips for other organisations who want to strengthen their own relationship with their audiences and this is what they said:
- Be personable and communicate with your audiences.
- Show people your appreciation that they chose to spend their time and their money with you.
- Don’t guess what your community wants. Engage and learn from them because they are your most valuable assets.
- Don’t create barriers between you and your audiences. Your most important customers aren’t the ones with a disposable income who come to everything but the ones who have built up the nerve to come to their first event or class. Make them feel welcome from the moment they enter your space.
- Don’t put pressure on your audiences and let them go at their own pace.