Bringing Your Community With You: A Case Study From Irish Film London

Posted on April 6, 2023 by Gerry Maguire

Categories: Inclusivity, Pop-up and Event Cinema

Led by members of the Irish community living in London, Irish Film London‘s mission is to promote and amplify the impact of Irish art to audiences in the capital, and beyond. In this blog, we hear from Head of Irish Film London, Gerry Maguire, on the work they’ve done to understand their audiences, and how their programming can best serve them.

Over the last couple of years, everyone in the exhibition sector has had to take time to consider how we stay in touch with and engage our various audiences. Here at Irish Film London we’ve been doing the same, as well as reflecting on the nature of the events we deliver for a very specific community group. We’ve learned a lot about the importance of engaging directly with these communities and bringing them with us on our journey of development. The insights we’ve gained from this part of our journey may be beneficial in supporting organisations working with other diverse or specific communities, so we wanted to pull some thoughts together here and offer some insights and outline some strategies we’ve developed to bring our community with us for our events.

A crowded lobby in Riverside Studios during the Irish Film Festival.
Riverside Studios during the Irish Film Festival. Photo by Liz Isles.

Background/About Irish Film London

Irish Film London operates year-round to deliver a programme which is largely focused on providing content for London’s significant Irish-identified communities. We support people across the city who use the protected characteristic of Irishness in their identities. Our events take many forms but are focused on theatrical film experiences, either through one-off screenings or as part of one of our annual festivals, the largest of which is the Irish Film Festival London taking place every November. As you might expect, we find that our audiences are mostly Irish identifying, but some events – particularly those happening around St Patrick’s Day – attract a significant non-Irish audience too. Since we started in 2009 we’ve screened more than 600 Irish films to nearly 20,000 event attendees. As the Irish film world continues to enjoy a bit of a golden age, we’ve ramped up our activity to meet demand with more events than ever before.

We take a multifaceted approach to reaching our audiences. But it always starts with…

1. Audience Research

The first part of knowing how to engage with any audience group is learning who they are.

At IFL, we’re lucky to have a body of evidence which gives us significant insight into this, collected through post-event feedback forms and also through an annual survey we send out in the summer, which asks everyone who subscribes to us or follows us to share a bit about themselves.

We’re quite proud of the level of feedback we can get from those event-focused feedback forms. That’s the stuff that goes back to individual project funders, but the standalone survey allows us to interrogate what we think we know about our audience by asking them who they are when there’s no event involved (answering a survey at an event can skew the results towards a thematic or demographic interest from the film or event itself). The results provide important info for us to show funders, and help us set a longer term strategy around reaching people.

From this combined set of data, we know that our audience skews female, skews older and that around a third of our audience describe themselves as something other than “heterosexual/straight”, giving us an important insight into the type of content they might respond to. In other words, we can be confident programming overtly feminist-focused or LGBTQ+ content, should that question arise.

This has real world impacts when we’re programming content for specific events: like our St Brigid’s Day festivities which take place every February, for which we can expect a largely female audience; like our LGBT-focused events during Pride month; the collaborative programmes we often deliver during Black History Month, highlighting the work of partner organisations who represent the wider Irish diaspora; or when programming work which represents the GRT community (Gypsy, Roma and Traveller), which we know has a very high user experience rating.

What’s more, as our data has been collected over a number of years, we can refer back to how our audience demographics have changed over time, or in the case of a statistic like gender, how we’ve managed to maintain a female audience skew over the years.

Irish actor Andrew Scott in conversation on stage with Irish Film London.
Irish actor Andrew Scott in conversation on stage with Irish Film London. Image by Noel Mullen.

2. Audience engagement

Building an audience is one thing, but maintaining their interest involves staying in touch.

At IFL, we use all the usual methods to do this – a regularly updated website with event listings and essential info, social media pages which have daily updates, and our monthly newsletter.

Our online content is designed to be relevant to the work we do – promoting Irish film culture – so our audience can expect to hear about new releases, award nominations, or juicy Irish film gossip on our channels.

We’re particularly proud of how our newsletter has developed over the years, having brought it through a refining process which has drastically increased its open rate. It’s something we recognise as a key sales tool, so a lot of work goes into making sure it’s right each month.

Crucially, all of these avenues offer people chances to feedback directly: they can interact with socials, reply to our emails and get in touch with us about anything on the website. Interactions of this nature have helped us create dozens of relationships with people who are invested in the kind of event we deliver, which is to say we recognise how important it is to respond to the people who care enough about what we do to contact us in the first place.

A packed cinema audience seated before a panel on Aftersun (2022, directed by Charlotte Wells )
Photo by Liz Isles.

3. Outreach

Alongside the audience you already have, who might be interested in your work who doesn’t already know you exist?

Another outcome from our survey work is a sense of how many people have attended our events in the past. From this, we know that we regularly attract new audiences (which is great!) but that means it’s important we make sure those new audiences are able to find our work. That’s why IFL dedicates time to researching potential audiences for events.

For instance, how do we find people who might be interested in a black and white, experimental feminist film set during the Troubles (Maeve by director Pat Murphy, which we screened in 2022)? For this event, we made primary and secondary contact lists for groups we thought might be interested in the event and devised a number of approaches to each.

That highly-customised approach felt necessary for a more esoteric title. But it’s the basis of the approach we use for all our events.

A reception at the Irish Film Festival.
A reception at the Irish Film Festival. Photo by Liz Isles.

4. Membership offers

A way to recognise and add value to the people who support your work the most.

Over the years, those relationships we built up have resulted in people who want to support what we do all year round. In 2021 we launched a membership programme which allowed people to get more out of the events they were already attending. Our membership programme has two tiers, with very different offers. Festival Friends is £50 a year and is purely transactional – if you use the perks it gives you, you’ll get more than its worth in free tickets, discounts and invites. Meanwhile, the Festival Champions package is £225 a year. It’s aimed at people who want to be seen to be supporting an organisation like IFL, but also comes with the very exclusive perk of an invitation to our annual Awards Ceremony, taking place at the Embassy of Ireland in Fitzrovia.

While it’s great that people sign up to become members and provide us with that little income boost, we’ve always treated our members as more than customers. Members get their own exclusive email newsletter and regular invites to events that no one else sees. What’s more, as a community organisation, we know many of them by name and face, so seeing them at events really is a joy, as well as a chance to thank them for their continued support.

In this way, members are ambassadors for the organisation; they are the people most likely to tell their friends about the work we do and encourage others to attend events or even to join as members themselves.

Gerry Maguire is Festival Director and Head of Irish Film London. Having started his career in Newcastle Upon Tyne, delivering BAFTA nominated films such as I Am Nasrine, Gerry then went on to produce at Berwick FIlm & Media Arts Festival and London Short Film Festival, while continuing to produce film content through his own production company Pins & Needles.

Read More: Harnessing FOMO, Five Ways to Make an Unmissable Film Event

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