A think piece on digital

This is the longer version of a think piece on digital that I did for the new Audience Finder project. It was published to coincide with a whole set of extremely useful new (free) resources that were produced by Culture24 and address some of the most commonly shared digital sticking points such as: mobile change, SEO, Google Analytics segmentation and social media evaluation. They were commissioned by The Audience Agency as part of their Audience Focus project. Get them here.

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I am a digital immigrant and I am fluent in webtalk.  I love sci-fi, nerdy conferences and Lord Of The Rings. I have an online presence on Twitter, Foursquare, Facebook, Flickr, Linkedin and edit five different WordPress blogs. I daily use Basecamp, Dropbox, Google docs, iplayer, spotify, photoshop and skype.

I am also a woman and I am fluent in my own ideas.  I love sushi, conceptual art, and Italian architecture. I go to a gym, a bookclub, a singing group, flamenco classes and I know how to edit super8 film. I talk to my friends, my kids, my husband, my colleagues at work, around the UK and overseas, my family and random strangers in the street who I think look interesting.

I have a laptop, a desktop computer, an ipad and an iphone. I have a bike, a bank account, an office and my feet. I live one life, am one person and don’t really have an online or an offline Jane anymore. It is just me, doing what I need to do and trying to do it the best that I can and I dip in and out of the digital world without thinking about it anymore.

I’m not saying I am always online, or that I have sorted my work life balance (not!) but just that it’s become a fluid thing. This realisation has been dawning on me for the last few years as my interaction and behaviour with technology has become integrated and impossible to separate from what I used to call my real life.  I haven’t decided if I like it, or even if it is a good thing but nevertheless it is true and I don’t think there is any going back for me – or you.

This article is a think piece on how this fundamental shift is touching everyone and in particular the impact it is having on cultural organisations trying to understand, adapt and embrace the change. Don’t think I am suggesting that I have all the answers but I hope that you will agree I have some of the right questions.

Let’s talk about digital

Digital is not really something separate.  No one under the age of 20 even talks about ‘digital’ anything anymore. It is simply a part of everything – communications, transport, retail, manufacturing, entertainment, education, medicine etc. So why when it comes to cultural policy, the arts and heritage sector and building its digital capacity are there separate strategic policy areas and funding strands? As the Arts Council are now moving to integrate arts and museums, why not digital too?  Wouldn’t it be better if instead of a digital strategy, a gallery or museum thought about the use of digital tools, channels and technologies simply within its wider mission, existing content, exhibition, touring, education and audience development plans? Could you even go further and start with digital?

If we look at the development of the Guardian newspaper they moved from setting up a new media lab in 1995 and a separate supplement called OnLine, to an online branding as Guardian Unlimited separate from the newspaper, before in 2008 integrating and rebranding everything under one name guardian.co.uk, followed by guardian.com as they became increasingly international.  They went further in 2011 announcing their plans to become a digital-first organisation, placing open journalism on the web at the heart of its strategy. Their evolution has been a fight for survival and also a response to changing consumer behavior and expectations.

I wonder what a digital-first museum, gallery or arts venue would look like? I’d like to see that. In fact I’d like to run it!

The fluidity that has evolved in my personal life in recent years and that digital natives take for granted, is I believe, largely missing in the organisational development of the cultural sector.  To quote my introduction of the second Culture24 Let’s Get Real report:

For many cultural organisations the online world and digital tools are still unfamiliar and unknown. They are aware of the knowledge gap between them and those (often younger) individuals who feel fluent in this new language. This tension is made worse by the fact that although digital technologies are understood as tools that need to be used and shaped to a purpose, they also change the very nature of their users’ behaviour – allowing access to information on the move, facilitating connections between sets of previously separate data and offering a multitude of opportunities for sharing and participation.

As such, the shift needed for an organisation to feel confident in understanding these changes in user behaviour and then to integrate the use of digital tactics into their overall strategic mission in useful ways requires a significant shift in internal thinking at all levels. The time, space and commitment needed to do this well cannot be under-estimated.

Many cultural organisations also face a raft of internal pressures sparked by expectations such as: 

  • Online developments will significantly improve audience reach
  • Online developments will provide access to new audiences (especially younger ones)
  • We need to be seen to be using digital tools and not getting left behind
  • Senior management (directors/trustees) wants us to build a big, shiny new showcase digital ‘thing’ that will show everyone we are cool (app, kiosk, game, etc.)
  • Digital will help us earn more money
  • Digital will increase participation  

These expectations are often unrealistic and are strategically the wrong starting place for thinking about any new business development of any kind, but especially any using digital technologies. The starting point should, instead, be the mission of the organisation and the needs of the target audience. You need to know what you want to achieve and who it is for. A useful entry point for each cultural organisation to explore how their organisational missions can connect with the needs of their target audiences online is to examine the question ‘what is digital engagement?’

Let’s talk about engagement

Engagement is fundamentally about attention, inspiration or connection. For the arts and heritage sector this means our public and their relationships to our stuff.  Trying to understanding this public and reach them is not a new problem. The reality of inventing, making or producing something that other people don’t relate to, value or understand has been something cultural producers and organisations have faced forever.  It sits alongside the other big audience issue of the supply (this is what I have) vs. demand (this is what you want).

Audiences for anything can be broken down by demographics (where people live, how old they are, how much money they have and what gender they are).  But you can also look at peoples motivations (what they want to know, what they need to buy, where they want to go) and their behaviours (searching, browsing, facilitating, learning, watching, contributing).

When looking at digital engagement behaviour is a key factor as the very nature of many digital platforms, channels and devices fundamentally changes the users behaviour. Mobile technology is accelerating this rate of change at a pace that is now unstoppable as we keep moving between screens, books, websites, shops, tv, exhibitions, apps and cafes in a seamless and continuous online and offline dance. The touch points for our experience/information vary based on our motivation at any one time or the serendipity of our curiosity. Understanding these consumer experiences as a whole is crucial to curating our messages to our audiences.

Statistics tell us that people in the UK are spending as much as 21 hours a week online, more if you live in the USA and up to 40 hours if you are aged 18-24. But what are they doing? Isn’t the internet just full of rubbish? Of course it is, but that is a human issue not a technological one. For all the pornography, gambling and trivia, there are many well documented stories of community empowerment, educational revolution and world changing projects that were only possible because the technology facilitated people to behave in a different way and do something different.  Projects such as the Ushahidi Platform, Tedx in a box, change.org,  Flickr Commons[8], or kickstarter. They all plug together communities of users.  Writer Clay Shirky defines the channeling of this community capacity as Cognitive Surplus or “the shared, online work we do with our spare brain cycles which means while we’re busy editing Wikipedia, posting to Ushahidi (or even making LOLcats), we’re building a better, more cooperative world”. The cultural sector is only on the very edge of exploring how they might do this for the arts.

There is also a new generation of vloggers and bloggers out there, independent voices that are original and intelligent.  People like charlieiscocoollike who is sharing his love of ‘fun’ science with an absolutely huge fanbase of over nearly 2million subscribers he has built from nothing. If you are ever wondering where all this obsession with things like YouTube is going then check out Jamal Edwards at the 2013 TedX Houses of Parliament asking if the next prime minister could come from YouTube? Possible.

As cultural institutions we need to be one of those voices, sharing what we have, exploiting the depth of our knowledge and – crucially – our authenticity. This, along with our creativity, are our two greatest assets as a sector.

Let’s talk about evidence of engagement

While I am writing this 23 people, one of whom is in Madrid, are looking at the culture24.org.uk website. Three are reading a new article about how a master perfumer is recreating the fragrance of Jacobean London, two are looking at the address of the Pankhurst Centre in Manchester (one of them on a mobile phone), one is reading an oral history shared memory of the Scotswood Road in Newcastle, another is searching for museums in Tunbridge Wells. I could go on…

Anyone with a Google Analytics account can do this and watch in real-time as people leave a digital footprint from their visit to your website in your GA software. It is very compelling and ultimately quite satisfying as you actually see for yourself something happening live online.  But what does it tell me about the level of engagement on our site?  How can I know if people are even finding what they want?  Google Analytics will allow me to measure the degrees of engagement but not the ‘kinds’ of engagement (see Avinash Kaushik’s books and blog Occams Razor). The truth is that the right kind of engagement  is the one that meets your own business outcome and so will be slightly different for everyone. There is no one size fits all with analytics.

Identifying the outcome you desire, in a way that is measurable, is not as simple as it sounds. Sometimes it is hard to even know the questions to ask to start asking the right questions.  The Let’s Get Real action research work I lead has focused on these issues with a range of UK cultural organisations over the last three years and the two reports published are a good place to read case studies of how a range of cultural venues have approached this challenge.

The Tate talk about their work in this area and say: Understanding our audiences and evaluating the impact and value of their digital experiences is a vital element of Tate’s digital transformation. One of the aims is to establish a digital culture within Tate that is audience centred, responds to the audience needs and that is also iterative and evaluation lead”. Part of this work has been the creation and sharing of a digital dashboard template that offers a useful starting point for others to format their data into meaningful shapes. Other cultural dashboards can be found online at the Museum of East Anglian Life and the IMA.  What I like about both of these is that they mix off and online statistics that have been chosen as they represent what the organisation values, not simply a collection of what they are able to measure in any one platform.

Getting this right inside your own organisation is a process that takes time and it is a long way from the kind of top level digital metrics that are collected by Arts Council from their National Portfolio Organisations (NPO’s). These are almost useless without applying some relevant audience segmentation, benchmarking your stats overtime and a contextual framework for defining success against your mission.

Let’s talk about content

A good question to ask yourself is  – is your content fit for purpose digitally?  Are you using the analytics from your current digital activities to better understand the success and failure of your content to engage? Are these insights being used to drive internal change? Are you approaching this with honesty and openness? Do you have confidence in your content and knowledge? Can you try and think differently about what you have and then do differently? Maybe you could try a small scale action that combines examining a quantitative (metric) with qualitative (ask the user) evidence? Perhaps this might help you to consider ways to adjust your editorial strategy or content plans? Could you fail fast and get better faster?

The very talented team at the GOV.UK have produced some excellent Content Principles as a style guide for their site. These combined with their Design Principles make an excellent set of reference points for improving your own digital output.

Remember that online everything is content, your site architecture, navigation, headers, alt text metadata and URL’s and they all play a key role in maximising your SEO (search engine optimisation) and therefore the discoverability of your stuff with audiences.

Sadly at the moment, the cultural sector does not have the attention share online we deserve. We are not good at big. Michael Edson, Director of Web and New Media Strategy for the Smithsonian Institution talks about the fact the world has changed in three ways: scope, scale and speed and that some GLAMS (Galleries, libraries, archives, museums) haven’t noticed yet. In his brilliant Age of Scale presentation he makes it clear that there is lots of room at the top. He asks “Can we supersize our mission? Can we go to 11?”.

It can happen. Look at the phenomenal 23,000% boost in DVD sales that Monty Python received when they choose to giveaway all their TV shows on YouTube for free. Or the 1.3 billion views of the Gangnam Style music video with its 8 million dollars of advertising revenue, made possible by ignoring all the copyright infringements and rip-offs. This is scale, but not as we know it in the cultural sector yet.

The Rijksmuseum are perhaps the closest with their recent step of offering downloads of high-resolution images of their collection at no cost. Through the new online Rijksstudio, the public are encouraged to copy and transform the museums artworks into stationery, T-shirts, tattoos, plates or even toilet paper. The ultra-high-resolution images of works can be freely downloaded, zoomed in on, shared, added to personal ‘studios’, or manipulated copyright-free.  The scale of this use is yet to be seen but the ripples have been noticed.

All of these examples share a very progressive open approach to content ownership that I believe the cultural sector should watch and learn from.  Let’s set our content free.

To conclude

Personally, I am a culture addict who loves the physical experience of walking into a gallery, watching a live performance or handling an object but my digital experiences are gaining momentum as digital tools become more useful and support me.  I wonder when, if ever, digital culture will hold my passion on its own? Perhaps only with a relentless focus of quality and a commitment to turning our organisations relationship with the audience, inside out.

A few caveats:

This article takes the word digital in terms of the web based platforms, channels and digital collections of non-profit museums, galleries, heritage sites and arts organisations.  There is a bias towards cultural venues who are content holders such as museums. It does not address digital art or the use of digital technologies as an online creative medium in its own right.  That would be a different story.

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