Opinion | Digital and the arts – where are we now?

We share our thoughts on Nesta's 'Digital Culture & The Arts 2014' report...

The recently released Nesta 2014 Digital Culture report paints a picture of a sector that is both innovative in its use of digital in the face of limited budgets, time and resource and yet simultaneously continuing to bear the collective legacy of being slower to adopt technology at the pace of other sectors.

It is reassuring that the report shows an overall upward trend in the use and adoption of digital technologies and yet although 51% of organisations see digital technology as “important or essential to business models”, up from 34% in 2013, this still leaves almost half of our sector unconvinced of the value of digital. A statistic that those outside the sector would likely find surprising.

Digging deeper into the report, it is encouraging to read that more organisations are using data to help them better understand, identify and engage with their audiences. It can be a huge technical and practical challenge to use data more effectively but we have no doubt that as a sector it is a key driver of success. Whether it is understanding how and why online audiences are engaging with us, through the use of Google Analytics, online segmentation tools and social media metrics or analysing box office, ticketing or CRM data. Ultimately becoming more proficient in managing and interpreting data leads to more effective use of marketing budgets and can provide the opportunity to identify potential areas for audience growth and development.

As a sector, the more we can work collectively to benchmark and share data, the more we will all benefit. This is at the heart of the Audience Finder & Visitor Finder projects, which seek to help arts and heritage organisations gain valuable insight into their audiences. And projects such as Culture 24s Let’s Get Real and our own work providing training sessions and webinars on areas such as Google Analytics, continue to aim to help upskill the sector as a whole in the area of data analysis and digital metrics. It’s also noteworthy that while the percentage of organisations using data to help with their fundraising activity has increased, from 44% to 51%, this is still a relatively small percentage and represents an area of potential growth. The Audience Agency is working in partnership with Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy to help organisations better understand how to use data in fundraising activity, the workshop which ran in January 2015 is an example of one practical aspect of this programme.

We are some way past the early adoption of social media as a communication channel and it is therefore unsurprising that 88% of organisations indicate that they are publishing content to platforms such as Facebook and YouTube. However, it is unclear whether or not most organisations have clear content strategies to help the effectiveness of their social media activity. And with the increasing algorithm changes to platforms such as Facebook, this will become a necessity. In our experience many organisations are still, for the most part, using social media as a ‘broadcast’ marketing channel and as a result, often have big variations in success when it comes to engagement and reach. In addition, in our opinion it will become increasingly important to understand the opportunities afforded by advertising on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. The myth that social media campaigns are the preserve of those with huge budgets must be laid to rest and we predict an increase in the number of organisations currently using social media advertising from the 2014 figure of only 18%. When used in conjunction with a clear organic social media strategy, digital advertising can be very effective at providing focus and boost to specific areas and events.

In relation to other digital activity there are some other surprises in the report. For example, despite Google and other search engines being widely recognised as one of the most important discovery platforms for audiences, only 45% of organisations indicated that they are actively undertaking website search engine optimisation, with an additional 8% planning to do so in 2015. It’s also unfortunate that only 8% of organisations actively measure conversion from their social media activity to sales and/or donations.

Lack of time, resource and funding remain the most commonly cited barriers when it comes to achieving digital aspirations and this echoes our own conversations with arts, culture and heritage organisations across the country. While there is of course no easy answer to these issues, they can be partially eased by increased focus on the professional development of the sector, a focus on sharing – of both data but also project learnings – and a focus on refining work already being done, on for example, social media platforms, to ensure that what digital technologies are already being used are being done as effectively as possible.