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Hoipolloi: the future is digital

  • Date: 18 August 2011
  • Artform: Theatre
  • Area: South East
man with grey hair looks intently into camera with model white house in picture Hugh Hughes' 'Story of a Rabbit', Photo: Geraint Lewis

Arts Council England funded theatre company Hoipolloi, in Cambridge, is leading the way in showing how digital technologies can help to build and develop impact for arts organisations in a variety of ways.

Over the past six years the company has explored how digital can not only expand its creative capacity, but also dramatically increase the possibility of audience engagement with its work.

Simon Bedford, Executive Producer of Hoipolloi, explains: 'For us, digital work is wide-ranging. It includes promoting our work online and the way we interact with audiences via a variety of social media tools. It is video work, audio clips or the creation of projects that incorporate photos, text and/or illustration.'

It began in 2005 when the team were looking for ways they could create a real world identity for their fictional comic character Hugh Hughes in his show Floating. It was the first of their shows to incorporate mixed digital media, from filmed elements to PowerPoint presentations and photographic slides.

After finding inspiration at a Connecting Worlds digital conference in 2006, held by the Arts Council and the BBC, Hoipolloi re-launched www.hoipolloi.org.uk, expanding the site beyond its initial, basic existence into a more useful and vibrant tool for sharing marketing information (copy, photos, tour dates) about the company and its shows. The company also started to explore social media through MySpace and launched a separate Hugh Hughes website for archive material and show information.

Later in 2006 Floating was performed at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, winning a Total Theatre Award and Hugh Hughes started to gather a cult following. In 2007, the company discovered a fan had created the Hugh Hughes Appreciation Society on Facebook, a group that eventually grew to more than 500 members. More recently Hoipolloi has been experimenting with blogging and Twitter, where Hoipolloi and Hugh Hughes have a combined following of approx 3,000 people.

Following this surge of digital activity, and as a participant in the Arts Council's pilot AmbITion scheme, Hoipolloi again re-launched its website in 2009 to incorporate its social media sites more effectively and enable audiences to enjoy even greater access to online content.

In June 2010 the company produced a full digital strategy that looked back over the digital work to date and built on lessons learned for the future.

The strategy covered topics including audience engagement, IT infrastructure, income generation, partnerships, social media and future projects.

Simon continues: 'One of our big decisions in 2010 was to focus audience attention solely towards Hugh Hughes, which the digital strategy took full account of. Following some extensive branding work, and with the financial support of a successful Grants for the arts application from the Arts Council, we launched the first, full Hugh Hughes website and a variety of new social media sites for the character on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube'

The company also produced Hugh Hughes' first film, premiering at Cambridge Film Festival, and used social media to help raise more than £1500 through digital fundraising platform the Big Arts Give.

Georgia Ward, Relationship Manager for Digital and Creative Economy at the Arts Council, said: 'Hoipolloi has demonstrated the huge potential offered by new technologies and how they can be used to drive bigger audiences, maneuver new funding streams and even broaden the possibilities of their creative output.

'The Arts Council is committed to supporting organisations like Hoipolloi to increase their use of digital media, working in partnership with the BBC, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) to provide the right tools and funding to make this possible.'

To find out more about Hoipolloi go to the website [www.hoipolloi.org.uk].

To learn more about Arts Council England's approach to digital and the new funding available, go to the website.

Simon Bedford's top tips for digital success:

Connect the dots
Make sure everything links properly together. I was amazed at the increase in dialogue from our audiences once I'd fed Hugh Hughes' Twitter feed so that it automatically updated his Facebook page on a regular basis.

Never underestimate the need for good data
Online engagement directly with our audiences really helps and I constantly strive to build a strong community around Hugh Hughes. But when we started our first experiment with crowd funding through the Big Arts Give, it was hard work because we lacked the quantities of people to go to and ask for money.

Monitor and learn from mistakes
There are plenty of free analytics tools for you to use. Facebook and YouTube have their own inbuilt insight features and Google Analytics is an excellent way to monitor web traffic. Track usage and spend time really understanding how people are arriving and using your sites.