The National Theatre has announced it will be investing in theatrical virtual reality. Digital theatre is such a tangible concept that it’s also a brand in itself. We watch actors rehearse on YouTube, theatre live streamed to our laptops, and increasingly the way we find out about must-see things is via social media. But where does that place emerging theatre companies, rural touring companies, and basically anyone who doesn’t have much in the way of resources to invest in their communications strategy?

The main take away from Culture Geek 2016, a digital arts conference held at the Royal Institution, was that there is a lot to be excited about in live videos. They’re the broadcasts you might have seen on Facebook’s new Live feature, and photos and videos published live as Snapchat stories. Fiona Romeo, Director of Digital Content and Strategy at MoMa, said mobile video is the biggest growing platform for engagement and that the future is in “real live” video. This is actually really great news – especially if you don’t have a budget to blow on an expensively produced trailer. Let me explain why.

First of all, let’s look at Facebook and Twitter. Twitter retains its role as a conversational medium, a customer service forum and a place for well-formed opinions and networking. Facebook now turns into a live broadcast medium with the introduction of Facebook Live. If you’re a small company, you may have noticed your posts aren’t getting as much traction as they used to on Facebook. That’s because, unless you’ve got the cash to sponsor them, they’re getting lost in the mysterious mush of algorithm.

But back to live video; live broadcasting opens up whole new opportunities for under-financed companies, actors and organisations. This is because although it does have to be planned, it doesn’t have to perfect. It does need to be cool but it doesn’t have to be beautifully edited. Think about the quality of YouTube 10 years ago; you can probably get away with that on Facebook Live, and definitely on Snapchat. All you might need is a little mic that plugs into the headphone socket on your phone and a steadycam device to make sure your video isn’t shaky. The opportunity for things to be transient is freeing. You can engage your community in real time and all your page fans will get a notification on Facebook that you’re broadcasting.

Next up you need some ideas for content. But you’re creatives! Allow space for discussion and the ideas will come. Ask the question: “What thing do we take for granted about our show/organisation/company/people that other people might want to see or know?” There’s the potential, as Romeo noted, to show staff and artists at their best, speaking off the cuff and engaged in a task. Show the detail of your daily activity.

The news gets even better. Live streams aren’t just easier to make than lovely professional trailers and short films. Facebook loves its new live broadcast function so it’s more likely to show up in your fans’ news feeds. And research from MoMa shows that the watch time for live streams is twice as long as on demand videos. That means more engagement and more reach. Save your live streams and reuse, recycle, repatriate. With Instagram’s new video channels, they might even do well there.

Snapchat is a similar story to Facebook Live. It’s currently the fastest growing social network. There are 9K snaps per minute, 150M daily active users and 10B daily video views. You’ll be reaching a younger audience – mostly the Yik Yak generation, freelancers and students probably. Plus anyone who doesn’t feel awkward about taking selfies in their office. But the same thing applies: no one expects your Snapchat story to be a work of art. (Unless you’re LACMA, that is, and then their account is literally works of art, with jokes captions. Seriously. You need to follow these guys.) So give all the key people in your shows your Snapchat login.

It’s an on the go, snap of the moment platform. Andy Levey (Dragone) calls it “popcorn content”. You need your performers to be snapping in rehearsals; your director, lighting designer, musicians, set designer, craftsmen, playwright and anyone else who can wield a phone camera. People are desperate for the human in their digital feeds. They don’t want a corporate face, they want to get to know you and what you do.

For large arts organisations, Facebook has essentially become an advertising medium. That’s kind of scary. But it does come with benefits in terms of tracking and measuring your results. Georgia Taglietti, from Sonar Festival, spoke at Culture Geek about Facebook being the best platform for provable and trackable return on investment. For medium-to-big brands, pages who’d expect to have 10,000+ fans, Facebook is something you pay for. For small fry, unless you’ve got a really tiny niche you want to target, your money is only going to reach those closest to you. But the good part about all that is that you can track exactly who and how many people you are reaching with Facebook Insights. And it’s a good time to really invest – whether it’s time, creativity or funds – in making the most of Facebook’s features. In the future (Facebook just released a Messenger chatbot API) we will be buying our tickets to shows and gigs from bots on Facebook. But that’s another story…

Are there any theatre types already on Snapchat you love? Post their handles in the comments. See you on the snap-side.

Thanks to Culture Geek for a riveting day of talks and ideas to think. Have a look through the hashtag for more nuggets of insight, including sex toys for plants and choose your own adventure stories I’d never even heard of.

Image credit: Kirill Kniazev via Flickr