How Leeds Digital Festival plans to attract a virtually new audience

Kane Fulton, April 17, 2020 3 min read

Entrepreneurs are a resilient bunch – they have a knack for adapting to situations and dealing with adversity in a way that few others can. Today’s unprecedented scenario created by COVID-19 has meant that many are being tested to the limit.

It’s more vital than ever, then, that Leeds Digital Festival (running from April 20 – May 1) has found a way to support digital tech founders and other workers from the city’s collaborative community during the pandemic.

It’s now a virtual festival, and – instead of taking a seat in Duke Studios’ industrial space, AvenueHQ’s underground chamber or the Open Data Institute’s spacious loft – attendees will have the option of logging onto more than 80 virtual sessions from their well-familiar lockdown surroundings. Some inevitably focus on COVID-19 (see: this and this), but the vast majority are – refreshingly – on typical tech and business topics.

It kicks off on Monday (April 20) with an exclusive Tech Nation Talks: Yorkshire event that will delve into the data behind Tech Nation Report 2020. The festival’s physical version, which has more than 240 events lined up, has been shifted to a new slot of September 21 – October 2.

Festival director Stuart Clarke says that there was no pressure from sponsors (who are getting “two festivals for the price of one”) to host a virtual festival. However, Leeds Digital Festival’s organisers were determined not to leave a gap in activity between now and September and are now hoping to attract a new audience from beyond Yorkshire’s border.

A new audience

The inherently accessible nature of online events has presented an opportunity for the festival to attract those who wouldn’t usually attend its physical events. Though cautious, Stuart says that initial numbers make for promising viewing.

“We’re finding that more people are signing up for online events than physical ones, which is interesting and great to see,” he says. “For example, Berwins Digital’s GDPR session attracted 30 people last year, and around 80 are signed up to this year’s online version.

“When we do the wash-up afterwards, it will be interesting to see how many people have dialled in from outside of the city region – particularly further afield in places such as Sheffield, Manchester, London and even overseas.”

Supported on the events and marketing side by Hayley Barnett and Katie Gascoigne, Stuart and his small team managed to convert the physical festival to a virtual one in record time. “The sheer flexibility that they showed to turn it around within days was brilliant,” he says.

The unusual feat was picked up by publications such as, which hadn’t previously featured the festival. “It’s been good to communicate ourselves externally and create wider awareness,” Stuart adds. “We’ve even been mentioned in the same breath as some huge international festivals, which is nice.”

Advice for founders

In addition to leading on Leeds Digital Festival, Stuart works with several Leeds-based tech companies including The Data Shed and is a Non-Executive Director at Synap, and Jigtalk. Though he acknowledges that the current situation is “difficult” for startups (particularly bootstrapped ones), he says that founders can help themselves by adopting a certain mindset.

“If you’ve got a strong product or service and you’re confident in what you’re building and the team around you, then you just have to keep going and hold your nerve,” he says. “Remember that the lockdown won’t last forever – and when we get to the other side of that, I think we’ll see the investment market open up again which will see more help flow into the tech sector.”

In the immediate week (or so), he says that founders have more than 80 free sessions to sign up to for accessing advice, connections and support – and you don’t even have to leave the couch.

Community, Yorkshire