Cape Breton Island (unceded territory of the Mi’kmaw people) is a Canadian island off the Atlantic Coast and part of Nova Scotia. Every October, the island is host to a widely known festival celebrating Celtic music and culture called Celtic Colours International Festival. Each year, the festival brings many international visitors to the island for nine days of musical performances, workshops, exhibitions and dance.
In 2021, Celtic Colours turned 25 years — considering the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic, a somewhat inconvenient time for a celebration that involves travel, music venues and big crowds. For the second year in a row, the festival couldn’t happen in person and had to be held online. And that affected the anniversary celebrations as well.
However, the festival organisers found a solution that allowed Celtic Colours fans from near and far to celebrate this milestone together.
Celebrating together online
Celtic Colours asked everyone previously involved with the festival to share what Celtic Colours means to them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or even via email or voice message. They set up a social wall that displayed everyone’s memories and messages.
The social wall was embedded on the “25 Years Celtic Colours International Festival” anniversary page on the website.
We wanted to know more about Celtic Colours 2021, the festival’s 25th anniversary and their interesting approach to a direct post feature for the social wall. So I talked to Jason Jardine, Marketing Director at Celtic Colours International Festival.
Could you tell us a bit about the Celtic Colours Festival and its meaning and significance for Cape Breton Island?
The Celtic Colours International Festival is a unique celebration of Cape Breton Island’s living traditional culture. For nine days in October, you’ll discover hundreds of events and activities taking place in communities across the Island.
Since its introduction in 1997, Celtic Colours has grown to become one of Canada’s premier musical events and a cultural highlight of Nova Scotia’s tourism season. The festival has also been successful in extending Cape Breton Island’s tourism season well into Autumn and introducing the musical culture of Cape Breton to tens of thousands of visitors from more than two dozen countries. Celtic Colours International Festival is recognized as a world-class event locally, nationally, and internationally.
Our team had been discussing different projects, activities, and various ways to help mark the 25th year for a while. One of the main goals was to create opportunities for people connected to the Festival to share what Celtic Colours means to them and to have a place to collect and showcase best wishes for such a milestone.
The idea of using a social wall came from our web developers who have used Walls.io for a number of other clients. After a quick review of how it worked and the features available, we instantly knew it was the perfect solution for us.
To encourage people to post and share with us, we created a campaign called “Celebrating 25 Years”. This was featured prominently on our homepage and had a dedicated page on the site that gave folks a simple explanation of what we were hoping they would submit and how to do so.
We encouraged people to post on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter using the hashtag #CelticColours25 and set up a 25years@ email address. To promote and generate buzz around this, we posted across our social channels and sent a newsletter along to all of our subscribers.
We wanted to make sure people could share in whatever manner they were most comfortable, so we did offer a few ways to reach out, including setting up a web form directly on our site, which ultimately gave us the most content from folks.
It was very easy and quick to copy/paste messages and upload photos to the social wall on people’s behalf. It was by no means a laborious task, and I found it to be a little highlight of my day!
Your festival is usually in-person, but you’ve had to switch to a virtual festival because of the pandemic. Has online accessibility changed your audience in any way?
In 2020, after deciding to present a virtual festival, we had a goal to reach as many people as we could. We presented a series of 11 live-streamed concerts, created a video series highlighting different communities on Cape Breton Island, and worked with our cultural partners to film informative videos, all of which were offered completely free of charge.
We knew we could count on a large number of our regular attendees to tune in, but we were blown away by the response and the reach our online offerings garnered. The number of new viewers, subscribers, and followers told us we had reached a much broader audience than we could have anticipated.
Celtic Colours 2021, which featured nine live-streamed concerts and a series of nine pre-recorded performances, was very well-received and kept the spirit of the Festival strong. We are very curious to see the impact these past two years will have when we go back to presenting an in-person event in 2022.
What tools did you use to create an immersive online festival experience?
Rather than just broadcast performances online, we wanted to ensure people felt connected and had the opportunity to be a part of the experience. To engage with viewers, we created a live, half-hour nightly pre-show. This light and casual show allowed the hosts to chat about upcoming performers, tell stories, interview folks, and ask trivia questions.
Our streams were made available to watch on our website, YouTube channel, and Facebook Live, and each of those had their own lively chat/comment feature, which gave viewers a chance to interact with each other and with the moderators who shared artist information, answered questions, and kept the party going on behalf of the Festival.
How did you handle participatory events during the online festival?
A huge part of Celtic Colours in normal times, in addition to the dozens of concerts presented across the Island, is a series of workshops, participatory events, exhibits, and learning opportunities we call “Community Cultural Experiences.” Offering these types of experiences online can be a bit of a challenge, if not outright impossible.
We felt we could better inform and engage by creating a number of culturally-relevant videos that explored the diverse and unique culture of Cape Breton Island and all the things that Celtic Colours normally highlights and celebrates… the music and the people of this great place in the world!
A series of special presentations was created with some of our community partners that explored aspects of Gaelic culture, such as milling frolics and ceilidhs, demonstrations of instruments like the bagpipes and fiddles, and a presentation showing different styles of step dancing.
Perhaps the most popular feature offered was a Road Trip video series developed for the 2020 edition of the Festival that took viewers on a virtual trip around the Island showcasing the incredible scenery and chatting with residents who shared some of what makes their particular community so special.
As a decentralized Festival, travelling around the Island to attend concerts and events is part of the experience. The Instagram widget used on our site is highly curated to showcase the spectacular fall scenery found here on Cape Breton during the Festival.
The social wall was very targeted to be a place to share photos, memories, and best wishes as we celebrate the 25th year.
Our takeaways from Celtic Colours International Festival
Social walls allow people to take part in something regardless of location, and the Celtic Colours International Festival shows how true that is. Celtic Colours reached a much wider audience in 2020 and 2021 when the festival happened online. Now, of course, an online festival can never be quite the same as an in-person one. But especially where travel is involved, a virtual festival can be a great way to see how you like something before committing to an international trip. And some of those people who first tuned into Celtic Colours in 2020 or 2021 might very well come to the festival once it can happen in person again.
Similarly, offering some form of direct posting also widens the target group, including those who don’t have social media accounts or don’t feel comfortable opening up their privacy settings to post publicly with a hashtag to a social wall.
Celtic Colours provided people with various ways of sharing outside of social media accounts: via email and even by leaving a voice message on a phone number. Jason said that the option was well-received and that they ended up getting most of their contributions that way. Just imagine how much content they would have missed out on if they had limited posting to social media only!