For businesses, charities and cultural organisations, digital platforms and tools have provided a myriad of opportunities – new ways to reach and engage audiences, improve the commercial model and, on the artistic side, to experiment with content and form. But alongside these opportunities comes a host of challenges. While in theory the internet gives us ever-increasing ways to reach existing or new audiences, in practice we’re all competing for eyeballs and attention.
A common mistake made by cultural organisations is to assume that if we put stuff out there, it will inevitably be seen. We believe that social media platforms are a hotline to audiences but, realistically, most people are spending far more of their attention elsewhere, on friends, on family, on things that make them laugh, cry or argue.
Added to the challenge of attention is the size of the task facing most organisations. To be successful we have to be experts in algorithms, analytics, paid social media advertising and content creation. This leads inevitably to issues around lack of appropriate skills, not enough resources and a sense that digital is overwhelming.
More recently, society is facing questions around the ethical stance of many of our favoured platforms. Facebook bosses were labelled ‘digital gangsters’ in a UK Parliament report, YouTube has for some time faced accusations of its algorithms promoting fake news in addition to disturbing content and Twitter is often criticised as a tenement of the far right.
So how should an arts organisation proceed?
Setting some standards
We are all aware that when it comes to digital there are huge variations in experience and confidence. While some organisations have embedded digital across their practice – artistically, as part of their audience development or within their enterprise activities – others are less sophisticated but no less ambitious.
To support that spectrum, in response to the Culture is Digital report, Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund have commissioned a digital self-evaluation tool and best practice model for the arts, culture and heritage sectors. Together with The Space, Culture24 and Creative Coop we are developing sector-wide guidance for organisations at all stages of their digital journey. It is in its early stages and will involve collaboration and consultation across the sector but its overall aim is to help organisations make a positive shift in their digital effectiveness in all areas.
Meanwhile, as we start to think about what best practice in the sector might come to look like, there are some fundamental steps that all cultural organisations can follow to craft a successful and sustainable digital strategy, however confident you’re currently feeling. Here is our four-point plan.
1. Establish your objectives
Take a step back. Digital is not a replacement for other channels and tactics, so you need to review your overall organisational strategy and consider the areas where it really can add value. Can it make you more efficient in your ticketing strategy, or help you access a particular audience that you’re struggling to reach in other ways? Maybe it will be instrumental in developing your artistic work.
Regardless, you need to start with your overall objectives and work from there. When social media platforms appeared, organisations initially took a ‘platform first’ approach: “Let’s get a Twitter account because it’s a route to people and everyone has a Twitter account now.” But how, precisely, will having that Twitter account help you to achieve one of your aims? Who are you speaking to? And how will you measure the contribution of that digital platform to achieving your overall objectives?
2. Research your audiences
Next, learn as much as you can about your audiences, their behaviour, their motivations and their needs. Website tools like Google Analytics and Hotjar are good but primary research can also be hugely valuable. We have worked with many organisations helping them to find out more about their target audiences’ digital behaviours, exploring how they use digital to find out what’s on, the digital touchpoints that inform their day-to-day life and what excites or frustrates them about online interactions with arts organisations.
Research doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. Simple focus groups can give you crucial insights and on-site or online surveys can build a quantitative picture of your audience composition.
3. Prioritise your resources
Third, focus ruthlessly and don’t allow yourselves to have your head turned by the latest shiny tool. That’s not to say that experimentation isn’t positive. It absolutely is, but when you have limited resources and time, opening a Snapchat account or trying to master VR before you get the foundations cemented, is probably a fool’s errand.
Build a plan that prioritises your activity, ensure your underlying systems, such as data collection, are set up correctly and regularly review the state of play. Ideally, you want to be able to articulate the whole-picture contribution that digital has made over the last 12 months. Statements like ‘increase in number of Facebook likes’ aren’t all that helpful on their own. Consider instead how a particular digital activity helped you to increase sales or reach more, or different, audiences.
For the less digitally experienced, some of this may seem a reach. If you don’t have the skills to be able to measure effectiveness, then how do you know where to begin?
4. Build a digital culture
Which brings me to my final point. Digital should be baked into the organisation and this in itself takes work. Everyone from the board and senior management to the wider team needs to understand the organisation’s digital ambitions and the contribution digital makes to the overall plan.
Lack of resources and knowledge is usually the number one barrier organisations cite to using digital tools more effectively. Without understanding how digital helps to move the organisation forward, it can be difficult to make a strong case for additional resources, training or support. As a result, organisations can get stuck in a holding pattern that sees substantial time and effort channelled into ill-considered digital activities, with little tangible benefit.
The self-evaluation tool and associated material will be launched later this year, though there will be a series of sector workshops very soon to help inform the project.
In the meantime, let's acknowledge that we are living through a societal change as significant as the invention of the printing presses, a change that gives us new models for communication, collaboration and engagement.
Written by Katie Moffat, Head of Digital at The Audience Agency. If you’re interested to hear more from Katie, you can sign up for her fortnightly Digital Snapshot here.
First published in Arts Professional, 12 March 2019.
This article, sponsored and contributed by The Audience Agency, is part of a series sharing insights into the audiences for arts and culture.
We're using our extensive research into online audiences' behaviours, motivations and expectations to work with arts, culture and heritage organisations of all shapes and sizes to help them understand and seize the new opportunities that digital can offer in a post-Covid world.