Understanding The Role Of Digital In The Arts And Culture Sector

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For arts and culture organisations, digital has become an effective ally in reaching audiences and achieving key objectives.

As audience habits evolve and the researching of places and events has moved online, arts and culture brands have had to move with the times.

A number of research reports over the past couple of years have been produced, looking into how organisations across the arts nationwide have reacted to these changes and the challenges they face as they develop to thrive in a digital world. We’ve rounded up the common themes that have emerged and taken a look at what arts and cultural brands can learn.

Digital should be more than just an extension of the experience.

Arts & Business produced a series of reports in 2013 on the use of digital platforms which segmented audience interaction with an organisation via digital into five main categories – accessing (discovering what’s on, filtering and planning), learning (acquiring new knowledge, for instance, the life of an artist), experiencing (using online as a platform to experience creative work), sharing (content, experiences and opinions) and, for the most digitally sophisticated, creating (using digital in the creative process). These segments serve to highlight the very different ways audiences experience the arts through digital, and how no one segment can be ignored.

Culture24, which is leading the Let’s Get Real action research, a series of collaborative action research projects with a range of cultural organisations aimed at helping define and measure their success online, believes that organisations ‘arranging themselves and their content around silos [channels and projects]’ is counter-productive in engaging an audience who want to feel involved in the whole story.

Just as audience’s digital experiences should not just be an add-on to their real ones, organisations should not think of their digital marketing teams, the content that they create or the platforms that they use as just a digital arm of the company. The concept of digital as separate is now outdated; as technology and resulting audience behaviours have outgrown it – Culture24 explains that as ‘we don’t “go online”, we simply exist in a world where the internet is everywhere and we dip in and out as we need to,’ considering digital should be intrinsic in all decisions and content creation.

Digital should not be viewed as a threat to real life visits

Although showcasing all that a venue offers online may seem counter-productive, a site that does not capture the imagination of the user may well stop them in their planning tracks entirely. The age of sites having mysterious edge and attempting to entice visitors has passed. Your site should encompass the atmosphere and ambience of your venue or collections, and should be part of the whole experience.

As far back as 2010, Arts & Business reported that engaging with the arts through digital media ‘augments, rather than replaces’, the live experience of visiting a venue, pointing out that just as live music has grown more popular in the era of iTunes, so people still want shared, live experiences in other arts and cultural genres – technology simply means that this can now be shared and consumed online as well.

Indeed, digital has opened up opportunities for collaborative unions between brands, moving aside the traditional sponsorship models, and allowing partnerships to be mutually beneficial and innovative, rather than narrow, one-way relationships. Encouraging collaborative innovation in this way can also encourage innovation hubs and groups to spring up around your organisation, in the ilk of Intel’s The Creators Project with Vice, and The Space, set up by the BBC and Arts England.

There is a ‘cultural digerati’ paving a way to best practice

There is clear evidence that digital art itself is being accepted as part of the scene – stunning examples of it can be found worldwide, and the Digital Art Museum has been set up as a comprehensive online resource. More established organisations have followed suit, with the Barbican’s Digital Revolution exhibition last year highlighted its eagerness to embrace interactive pieces.

From a marketing point of view, Arts & Business, in its Arts, brands and user-generated content paper in 2013 pointed to a ‘breed of new institutions’ for whom technology and its artistic exploration is at the heart of its mission (FACT here in Liverpool, and Watershed in Bristol are named as examples).

More recently, Nesta, alongside Arts Council England and the AHRC, has completed surveys over the past three years looking into the application, uses and skills issues related to the use of digital technology in the cultural sector. It noted in its 2014 report an emerging ‘cultural digerati’, who can be identified through their diverse, innovative uses of content and resulting large digital audiences, and have reported a much higher level of impact in relation to other organisations surveyed. The ‘cultural digirati’ are, according to the report, leading the way, and reaping the rewards of embedding digital skills across their organisation, and are more open to experimentation.’

Organisations can spread themselves too thinly

Many cultural organisations face very similar challenges, including trying to utilise too many channels and so not making full use of any of them. Brooklyn Museum, which runs a blog about its use of digital, has cut and condensed the channels it uses after noting what has worked and, more importantly, what hasn’t worked for it, including removing content from the digital blog itself after noticing that its audiences were mainly in the tech industry, and using Tumblr for more general content.

After facing some criticism following a move away from Flickr, from those who think it should have remained as an archive, Shelley Bernstein, the Vice Director of Digital Engagement & Technology, has stated in response that her strategic aim is engagement and not archiving. Whatever your objectives, the only channels worth using are the ones that actively serve to reach your objectives.

Culture24 points to both a lack of measurement and a lack of resource as the source of many issues within the arts industry. Lack of measurement, such as just counting visitors and not further actions, can result in confusing sets of statistics and reports which reveal little about user behaviour and feeling. Careful analysis of data against your objectives is the only way to yield proper insights – success needs to be measured properly to be acted upon later.

In terms of lack of resource, the Nesta report found 40% of organisations cited a lack of technical skills in-house, but 73% regarded digital as essential to marketing but not essential to spreading or creating work. Culture24 raises concerns that digital technologies are often seen as tools to be used, rather that facilitators for connections between data, and opportunities for sharing and participation. Ideas throughout the entire organisation regarding digital need to change to make an impact.

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