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Open the Door digital only festival - a Q&A with Hannah Wright, Digital and Marketing Officer, Glasgow Women’s Library

by Chris Sharratt

Glasgow Women’s Library launched Open The Door in 2017 as a one-day festival celebrating the ‘brilliance of contemporary women writers’. Following a successful debut, it was decided that every second year the festival would be digital-only, taking place online across multiple social media channels and on GWL’s website.

With the second digital iteration running for five days from 18-22 May 2020, GWL’s Digital and Marketing Officer describes the practicalities of delivering an online-only festival and offers tips and advice for other small arts organisations.

Digital has always been integral to Open the Door. Why is this important?
This is our second digital-only Open The Door festival, the first being in 2018. For us, an online festival is one way of addressing the fact that not everyone has the luxury of attending in person – maybe they can’t attend due to access reasons, or maybe they’re too nervous to come in through our [physical] doors. This is another way to open our doors to more people, and potentially from all over the world.

What are the things you have to consider when programming a digital-only festival?
Accessibility is very important to us, so we wouldn’t just have an event happening and stream it live on Facebook. What we’re doing is creating content beforehand and then ‘live’ streaming it on the day. It’s about preparing the content in advance so that it can be subtitled, and so that we can make sure it’s accessible to as many people as possible.

The events industry can sometimes be quite unsustainable, in that you run one event and then it’s over. We’re a very small organisation and don’t have a huge infrastructure or huge budget, so we work in partnership a lot. We’re interested in the idea of no one-use events in the same way that we don’t want one-use cups: not everyone will have seen that event and by sharing it again you’re bringing it to more people who want to see it. So for a digital festival you shouldn’t be ashamed of reusing content in that way. It’s very green and sustainable in itself to have things shown again and to show it on different channels.

Should a digital festival look and feel like an in-person arts festival?
I think it really makes sense to think about it as you would for an in-person festival. It feels important to structure things properly and provide a festival schedule, rather than just put all this content online. Of course I don’t expect people to spend a whole day at a time with the festival, that would be crazy – although if they’re in self isolation, maybe they will. Most of the things will stay online afterwards, and so we hope it will generate people looking it up after the fact. The main thing we want to happen is create a week of discussion around women and writing and reading, and sustainability and environmentalism – all of that throughout the week in different ways.

You’re using different platforms– Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – for different elements of the festival. What’s the thinking behind the choices you’ve made platform-wise?
We want to make sure there’s a good spread of things on different channels – there’s nothing worse than if you’re on Twitter and you get the same account constantly tweeting, so we wanted to have a bit of breathing room on each platform.

Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are good for different things. Facebook is very good for being able to upload videos, schedule them to be streamed and then streaming them as live (while being clear that they’ve been prepared beforehand). So if there’s a good chunk of video we’ll put it on Facebook; if there’s more of a discussion to be had we’ll use Twitter; if something is a bit more visual we’ll put it on Instagram. It’s about working out what will fit each platform and what will work throughout the day to create a nice spread that won’t overwhelm each platform.

The first time we did the festival online I was very conscious of not overwhelming people with the content. For example, on Facebook we created a Facebook Event which people could say they were attending and then we kept all of the discussion around it within that particular event. That way, if you weren’t interested in that event you wouldn’t see the content. This year, though, we’re just going to do it on our Facebook page – we’ve decided to throw caution to the wind!

Using different, third-party social media platforms must present challenges. How do you make them work together in order to keep the identity and focus of the festival?
The reason that we use these platforms is because they’re ‘free’, and so we don’t have to pay to use them and it’s free for the users as well – that’s the main attraction. We then use our own website as the central festival hub and we’ll also have a resources page on our website where we’ll link to all the different things that have happened during the festival. So the GWL website is the thing that ties it all together. I think of it like a festival where you have different things happening in different tents and the website is like the festival HQ; that’s where the festival ‘map’ is so people can find their way around it. I’m sure that in the next few years people will be much cleverer and amazing with the way they put on digital festivals – this is our grassroots version of it!

Social media presents its own challenges in terms of appropriate behaviour and what to do if there are problems. How do you manage that?
As an organisation you need to know how you’re going to deal with things and pre-empt them. If something you’re doing is potentially going to upset or annoy people, think through beforehand how you can mitigate that and run your content by other people too before it goes public. Just be careful with your content and have a plan in place should things go wrong. It’s about knowing you’ve got processes in place to deal with any problems that might occur. Generally, though, we have such lovely, supportive audience that I don’t think there’s usually that kind of risk when we do something like the Open The Door festival.