Tell us about your 2020 digital event
The original 2020 Edinburgh International Book Festival was cancelled in April 2020. While many staff were on furlough, a core team began exploring plans to create a digital festival instead. We began programming the online festival in late May, and it ran from 15-30 August (the original dates of the festival), comprising of just under 150 events. We created a broadcast studio in the centre of Edinburgh: some locally based authors and chairs attended the studio in person, while others joined remotely. All events were livestreamed, and many remain available to view on-demand via our website.
What platform did you use, and was it a success? What things worked / what didn’t?
We created a custom-built streaming area of our website, which had an embedded Vimeo player for each event. Unlimited numbers of people could browse, save their spot, opt to receive ‘watch’ reminders and calendar files, share on social media, and watch events. In addition, the events were streamed simultaneously to YouTube. Events were free to watch, with audiences being encouraged to donate. Alongside the set-up of the broadcast studios, building new web features and integrating with existing functionality and systems (customer accounts, programme database, Box Office) was the most significant cost; both were treated as an investment for the future. Bandwidth costs in 2021 will be significantly more to meet requirements.
What worked: having a custom-built studio meant that we were able to film events using several cameras, resulting in a dynamic viewing experience. For remote participants, our team ran thorough pre-event AV checks, meaning we had relatively few issues with connectivity or poor sound or image quality. When watching events, the user journey was simple, and felt familiar to existing audiences, resulting in a very straightforward customer experience. We created live online chatrooms and ran online Q&A sessions, creating an interactive, participatory element for viewers at each event, which were well-used.
What could be improved: because audiences were not required to log in to watch events, the data we hold is somewhat limited: this makes it difficult to draw accurate comparisons between who watched online events in 2020 and who had previously attended in-person events.
How did you monetise your event?
All events were free to watch, with audiences invited to make voluntary donations when watching. The rest of our 2020 costs were met through sponsorship income, donations from regular supporters, and grants from existing core funders.
By the end of Sept 2020, our online events had accumulated around 140,000 views; 9 months on, this figure has risen to over 280,000 views. In comparison, we would have normally sold c.145,000 tickets to events, with 265,000 visits being made to the physical site in August. At previous in-person events, a large proportion of attendees were local (60%) with a further significant cohort coming from other parts of Scotland (>30%). Just 1.5% of our audiences in 2019 were from outside the UK. By contrast, 2020 saw 30% international audiences, with 70% based in the UK, with our biggest international audience coming from the USA.
What were your biggest learnings?
We learnt a huge amount about how to produce and stream high quality broadcast literature events, and to ensure a dynamic viewing experience is achieved for viewers. We learnt how important it is to create a simple, integrated online user journey, and the data needed to gain insights into buying and watching behaviour. We also saw the potential online events pose in terms of audience access and development, in particular the scope to grow international audiences. We were able to deliver a festival with a significantly reduced carbon footprint, and feel it is imperative we seek to replicate this in some form in the future.
Can you tell us a bit about how this year’s hybrid event, how this will work?
Our hybrid festival in 2021 sees us relocate to a new site at the Edinburgh College of Art, where we will build 3 broadcast studios. We hope that in two of these we will be able to accommodate IRL audiences. In addition, we will create a vibrant festival site, encompassing a free outdoor viewing area, a bookshop, a children’s play area and various food and drink outlets.
Edinburgh International Book Festival will take place from the 14 – 30 August 2021. For more information, go here.