Feature | Understanding your audiences' digital engagement

Jane Finnis of Culture24 draws on her expertise and personal experience to reflect on how digital is impacting cultural organisations and their audiences...

This article reflects on how the fundamental shift is touching everyone and in particular the impact it is having on cultural organisations trying to understand and adapt. 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.

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 and adapt. 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.I am a digital immigrant, with an online presence on Twitter, Foursquare, Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn and I edit five different Wordpress blogs. I am also a woman who goes to a gym, a bookclub, a singing group, flamenco classes and knows how to edit super8 film. I live one life but don’t really have an online or an offline Jane anymore. I just dip in and out of the digital world without really thinking about it anymore. I’m not saying I am always online, just that it’s become a fluid thing. This realisation has been dawning on me as my interaction with technology has become impossible to separate from what I used to call my real life. I haven’t decided if I like it but I don’t think there is any going back for me - or you.

Digital is not really something separate. No one under the age of 20 talks about ‘digital’ anything, it is just 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 policy areas and funding strands? As the Arts Council now move to integrate arts and museums, why not digital too? Wouldn't it be better if instead of a digital strategy, we thought about the use of digital tools and channels simply within our wider mission and 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 a separate supplement called OnLine, to an online branding as Guardian Unlimited - separate from the newspaper - before in 2008 integrating and repositioning everything under guardian.co.uk. They went even further in 2011, announcing plans to become a digital-first organisation placing open journalism on the web at the heart of their strategy. The Guardian’s evolution has been a fight for survival but also a response to changing consumer behavior and expectations.

I wonder what a digital-first museum, gallery or arts venue would look like? The fluidity that digital natives take for granted, is I believe, largely missing in the organisational development of the cultural sector. To quote my introduction to the second Culture24 Let’s Get Real action research report.:

“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 this means our public and their relationship to our stuff. Trying to understand 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, their age, income and gender). But you can also look at peoples motivations (what they want to know/buy/get to) and their behaviours (searching, browsing, learning, watching, contributing etc).

When looking at digital engagement, behaviour is a key factor as the very nature of many digital platforms, channels and devices changes user’s behaviour. Mobile technology is accelerating this rate of change as we keep moving between screens, books, websites, shops, apps and cafes in a seamless and continuous online and offline dance. The touch points for our experience vary based on our motivation 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 21 hours a week online, more if you live in the USA or 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 well documented stories of community empowerment, and world changing projects that were only possible because the technology facilitated people to behave in a different way. Projects such as the Ushahidi Platform, Tedx in a box, change.org, Flickr Commons, 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 a huge fan base of over nearly 2 million subscribers. 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? Anything is 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 twenty three people, one who’s in Madrid, are looking at the culture24.org.uk website. Three are reading how a master perfumer is recreating the fragrance of Jacobean London, two are looking at the address of the Pankhurst Centre in Manchester (one on a mobile), one is reading an oral history 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 watch in real-time as people leave a digital footprint from their visit in your GA software. It is very compelling and ultimately quite satisfying as you actually see 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 degrees of engagement but not ‘kinds’ of engagement (see Avinash Kaushik’s books). The truth is that the right kind 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 Tate, say this about their work in this area:

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 led”.

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 they mix off and online statistics which present 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 takes time and it is a long way from the kind of top level digital metrics that are collected by ACE from their National Portfolio Organisations. These are almost useless without applying relevant audience segmentation, benchmarking of statistics overtime and a contextual framework for defining success against mission.

Let’s talk about content

A good starting question would be - 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 it differently? Could you try a small scale action that combines examining a quantitative (metric) with qualitative (ask the user) evidence? Might this 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 GOV.UK have produced some excellent Content Principles as a style guide for their site. These combined with their Design Principles make a valuable set of reference points for improving your own digital output.

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

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 in his brilliant Age of Scale presentation, makes it clear that there is a lot of room at the top and 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 give away all their TV shows on YouTube for free. Or the 1.3bn views of the Gangnam Style music video with its £8m 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. Through their new online Rijksstudio, the public are encouraged to copy and transform the museum’s 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 the cultural sector should watch and learn from. Let’s set our content free.

As a culture addict I love 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.


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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