Running in the Alps (redux)

 

Last month I went for a week of running in the Alps (on my own). I based myself in a basic hotel room in Chamonix, got up early each morning, went running before the weather turned (which it did with clockwork regularity at about 2pm each day) and then took a nap most afternoons before heading out for a wander and some food each evening.

That might not sound like your idea of fun but for me it was absolute heaven and I returned feeling properly refreshed and rested.

Anyway, it was fucking great, and here are some photos

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Running the 3 Peaks

The path petered out ahead of me, I’d been following footprints in the snow with the odd check of the route on my watch for the past 15 minutes. In an ideal world a map would’ve been involved but the howling wind made any attempt to get anything out of my bag, let alone something that was a potential sail, almost impossible.

We were heading to the top of Ben Nevis, the first of the three summits that make up the UK 3 Peaks, from about 400m up we’d been firmly surrounded by cloud and the visibility had become increasingly rubbish as we got nearer the top. By now I could see about 5-10 metres in front of me and beyond that everything was enveloped in in edgeless whiteness.

ben-nevis-ashTaken about 15 mins before I decided to turn back…whilst taking a photo was still a viable task

I’d spent most of the previous few days reading about the hills we were running up and it had been difficult to avoid the warnings that kept cropping up about the top of Ben Nevis, with the summit of the mountain enjoying close proximity to some pretty serious gullies and cliffs. The presence of late-winter snow would make it difficult to spot the edges of these hazards, and the terrible visibility further exacerbated this heady mix.

As I stopped to check my compass and was nearly knocked sideways by the wind I decided to turn back, I didn’t want to be one of those people who had pressed on regardless of the elements and for no real reason other than ‘to get to the top’. I’d reached (my watch later told me) 3,862ft, which was more than enough for the day.

About 10 minutes after I’d turned back I caught up with Stu who agreed with the decision, the slippy, wet, windy conditions weren’t enjoyable in any way and the prospect of 2 more hills over the next 20 hours (along with a significant amount of time sitting in the car) didn’t make either of us any more determined to get any wetter than we were.

I clenched my fist as tightly as I could to try and wring some of the water out of my drenched gloves. Then Stu pointed out my lace was undone. Trying to do wet laces up with gloves on is impossible so I took them off; my wet, cold, stiff fingers were almost useless but I eventually managed to fasten them with a sort of cackhanded triple knot.

As we made our way back down the mountain we passed a few other bedraggled groups of walkers heading towards the top. A few of them were woefully underdressed for the conditions (shorts, tshirt and gym shoes) but didn’t really pay any attention to us trying to describe how difficult the conditions were nearer the top. One group seemed to be blasting Jerusalem out of a small, tinny speaker strapped to one of their backpacks. I don’t know if it helped, we didn’t see them again.

ben-nevis-murk

We drove through the night to the Lake District and our next hill, Scafell Pike. Stu and I dozed as much as we could whilst Alex drove non-stop.

We arrived at Seathwaite at about 2am, it was total darkness and as I got out of the car to stretch my already-tired legs I looked up to see a sky spattered with stars, it was beautiful, and silent.

Our plan was to start out for Scafell at dawn which gave us the chance for a few hours sleep. Sleeping in a car is never the most comfortable experience but almost immediately I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep only waking when my alarm went off at 4.45.

I clambered into my running gear feeling strangely awake and energised, given we’d had about 3 hours sleep, and had a breakfast of a slightly squished banana and an energy bar.

It was a clear, still morning and as we looked around us at the sheep and silent fields we stood under mostly cloudless skies. It looked like we had left the terrible weather behind us in Scotland and as dawn began to break over the surrounding hills it looked like it could be an absolutely beautiful day. The only potential problem was that the hill we were heading towards was still wreathed in cloud, the only summit that was. Hoping that the cloud might lift as the sun rose we trotted along the slowly rising path from Seathwaite Farm towards Great End, with Glaramara on our left.

scafell-path-clouds

We were soon run-walking through a cloud (again) and I began to worry that we weren’t going to enjoy any good weather. Much as I love running in the hills it’s far more enjoyable when you’re a bit dry and can see some of the surrounding scenery!

Fortunately it was pretty warm and there wasn’t much of a breeze but going uphill in a cloud means that everything quickly gets totally soaked.

However as we started through the edge of the boulder field at Ill Crag the sun began to stream through the cloud and we were soon striding across the top of the fell, above the clouds under a bright blue sky. It was glorious and there wasn’t another soul in sight (the fact that it was about 6.30am probably helped).

scafell-clouds-01Above the clouds

As we began to clamber the final section towards the top of Scafell Pike a few blokes passed us having come from the opposite direction but as we reached the top we were completely on our own.

On our way back down a Mountain Rescue helicopter buzzed overhead, taking off and landing at the top of Great End. We passed the Rescue team, who looked like they were out on a training exercise, before we left the sunshine and back into the cloud which still wrapped the lower slopes of the mountain in a damp blanket of fog.

I was feeling pretty good as we came down so had a nice, mostly unbroken, run back to the car passing a growing number of people heading up the hill we’d just been at the top of. Alex was waiting for us still wearing his slightly ridiculous outfit of fleece everything that he’d slept in.

scafell-alexFleece trousers, fleece fleece (possibly another fleece under his fleece). It’s the fleeceman

2 Peaks down. 1 Peak to go.

As we drove out of the Lake District we passed an endless stream of vehicles, cyclists, walkers and runners heading the other way. It was shaping up to be a beautiful, hot, sunny weekend.

We drove down towards Snowdon, we were going to do the Snowdon Ranger route up from ‘behind’ the mountain (in comparison with most of the more popular routes) which I had hoped would be a little quieter in case it was a nice day (as it turned out to be). It’s also supposed to be one of the easier routes, and after 2 hills in under a day and lots of sitting around in the car an easy route seemed like a really, really good idea.

En route I realised I hadn’t brought enough dry socks with me (pair #1 had become sodden on Nevis and pair #2 hadn’t really stayed dry in the clouds on Scafell). Alex suggested hanging them out of the window and letting the sun and the wind do their thing. If you ever need to dry some socks whilst driving down the motorway I can report that this method is very effective.

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We drove along the north Wales coast with everything looking so green, the countryside seemed to have exploded into Spring. To our right the sea stretched into the distance, flat and waveless. As we passed Llandudno a weird fog enveloped the horizon, it was so thick and localised that we thought it must be smoke but there was no obvious source. It was strange, with the beautiful weather all around us, to stare at this thick smudge on the horizon.

We turned into northern Snowdonia and the landscape changed again, the hills all got bigger and bigger but at the same time seemed softer and more rounded than those in the Highlands and Lake District.

We parked up by Llyn Cwellyn, Alex made plans to go and dip his feet in the water whilst we went to slog up the final hill.

The path zig-zagged up the steep sloper behind the Snowdon Ranger Hostel, it was ace to see so many families out enjoying the good weather. Much like the route we’d taken up Scafell the initial couple of miles (after the first steep bit) of the path was a pretty gradual, forgiving incline and was quite runnable.

However once we hit the slopes of Snowdon proper we slowed to a crawl, partly because of the streams of people coming in the opposite direction but mainly because, by now, our legs had turned to lead and no amount of gels, jelly babies and energy bars could coax our bodies into anything faster than a trudge. In the distance you could see the Snowdon train slowly winching its way up the side of the mountain to the top .

But the views were incredible. You could see for miles, across the rooftop of Wales, in the distance a pointed peak was poking through a nest of clouds, a plane flew overhead, the sun glinted off lakes in every direction. Despite the fact my body felt like it was weighed down and moving through treacle I was grinning to myself, grinning as much as I had as we run up above the clouds on Scafell, grinning in the way that only running up a very big hill on a very nice day can make you grin.

IMG_4032

As we neared the top, the Rangers Path (the route we’d been following) joined the other (much more popular) paths for the last section up to the summit. Suddenly we were surrounded by loads more people, it was noisy, it was crowded, and the glorious isolation we’d been enjoying evaporated as we became just another part of the bank holiday traffic.

It was difficult to feel any real sense of achievement amongst all these people. Although, I’ve often felt this weird…nothing feeling at the end of a big challenge (maybe this says something deeply troubling about me). I guess it’s because I enjoy the planning and the doing more than the finishing and the completing. Maybe it’s a sort of sadness that the thing is finished.

We headed back down the mountain and once we’d left the summit behind us we were once again, more-or-less, on our own.

As we rejoined the flatter, final stretch I tripped over and took a fairly heavy tumble (directly in front of a group of walkers). I hit the dirt, and skidded along on my front. Without thinking too much about it I tried to bounce back onto my feet and carry on running. Fortunately there didn’t be too much complaining from my legs but my hands and forearms (which had taken the brunt of the fall) were really sore. I looked down to see a brown crust of blood and direct smeared across the knuckles of my left hand and my right palm was pink and raw. I’d also chosen this run to wear my white vest which was now similarly filthy and, on closer inspection, my legs hadn’t survived unscathed and there was blood dribbling down my shin.

As I ran past a family a small boy turned, pointed and said “eurgh, what has that man done!? he’s all dirty”. And it’s true, I was all dirty.

I arrived back at the car slightly ahead of Stu, Alex was sat there basking in the sun. Whilst we had been running he’d been a good samaritan and had shuttled a father and son who had come down the ‘wrong’ side of the mountain back to Llanberis, he’s nice like that.

alex-stu-ash

So that was it, 3 Peaks, in a little over 24 hours. The weather, after a horrendous start, couldn’t have been better. It was really good fun, I’d totally recommend it. We couldn’t have done it without Alex agreeing to do the driving. And I’m not sure it would’ve been much fun on my own, so you need a good running buddy – thanks to Stu for filling that role.

So, what next? I’ve always fancied giving the Yorkshire 3 Peaks a go, and I’m off to the French Alps at the end of May.

If you’d like to donate some money, I was raising cash for Cancer Research: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/ashmann 

Reduced visibility

I run without my glasses, this makes people ask “but how do you see!?” and the answer is I don’t really, and it’s great – an intrinsic part of my running experience.

I’m very short-sighted (very). However I can rarely be bothered with contact lenses. What this means is that when I go running, and I run without my glasses (because when you run with your glasses on they eventually bounce down your sweaty nose and fall off your face, which isn’t that great), I can’t really see much of what’s going on around me.

Due to the fact I can’t really see any detail the whole world softens into a pleasing blur, and that just seems to heighten the ‘lose yourself’ feeling that you get when running.

I can see enough that curbs and pedestrians and lamposts and whatnot don’t cause too much of a hazard (although overhanging branches sometimes catch me unawares – I’ve got a few rips in some of my running tops thanks to brambles and rose bushes that I didn’t see in time).

But by reducing my ability to see in any detail what’s going on around me I give myself an excuse to relegate everything around me to the status of obstacles to be navigated. And this allows me to just get on with enjoying the sheer physical joy of running.

Of course if I’m running somewhere very beautiful then I’ll ‘put my eyes in’. But most of the time I’m running around north London, at nighttime. And I know I’m really not missing anything.

Am I alone in this? Would be interested to hear from fellow four-eyes.

 

Work smarter not harder (aka send in the robots)

Everyone I know who works in-house at a cultural organisation is ridiculously, demonstrably, upsettingly time-poor.

When I worked in-house I watched with dismay as colleagues floundered under never-ending to-do lists (someone’s reached 7xA4 pages at one point, which seemed a bit silly). Now I work for an agency with a lot of cultural clients I’m often trying to work out solutions that’ll save people time and effort and free them up a bit to do some planning and *gasp* personal and professional development and generally feel a bit less beleaguered, noone likes feeling beleaguered.

I wrote an article for the AMA earlier this year looking at ‘future trends’ which is obviously a fool’s errand, however one of the things I touched on was automation and how it could be utilised to make your life a bit easier. Because frankly lots of people spend lots of time doing stuff that is very boring and could just as easily (and probably more efficiently) be done by someone else, especially if that someone else is a computer, computers are great at doing boring things.

But yeah, yeah, that all sounds great and a bit complicated and frankly you probably don’t have time to put any of it into practice, right? WRONG. Stopit, take 5 minutes, read this post, and do some of these things and save yourself some time. Jeez.

Not only will this save you the actual time it takes to do some of these things, it will also go some way to alleviating the constant nagging worry and stress that starts to build up when you know you’ve got a to-do list you’re never going to see the end of.

This is also NOT AN EXHAUSTIVE LIST, I’m just trying to outline some solutions to some of the most common problems I see. I think there are enough tools here to cobble together a fix for most situations. Never underestimate the power of a good bodge.

Social media activity

You’re probably already familiar with tools like Tweetdeck, Buffer and Hootsuite which allow you to schedule social media activity (also lots of platforms now have scheduled posting built in). Obviously this isn’t something you’d want to completely automate but there is likely to be some that you can, so do!

Digital marketing campaigns

Digital marketing used to be a bit of a dark art, now – with some many campaigns taking place predominantly across social media channels and adwords, you can automate much of the optimisation that you used to pay an agency for (or spent lots of time monitoring and doing).

Tools like Opteo and Adespresso (which is made by the same people as Hootsuite) seem to offer a pretty cost-effective solution (caveat: I’ve not used either personally but have heard positive things about both) so they must be worth a go.

Data analysis and reporting

Cultural organisations do slowly seem to be waking up to the value of reporting on all their activity, unfortunately this means that someone has to pull these reports. Often this will mean having to log into lots of different systems and extract lots of different reports in lots of different systems and then try to collate them all into a master report that may not even get read. Ugh, rank.

So, enter dashboards, dashboards are fun for lots of reasons but mostly they make reporting far more straight-forward and you can link them up to live data feeds. A tool like Google Data Studio is great and free and pretty easy to use for most types of reporting you’ll want to do (from fairly simple stuff to more complex bits and bobs), however it’s easiest to use if you’re linking together Google products, which means finding a way of getting data out of the various platforms you’re trying to report on and into Google Sheets, I’ve come across two tools that does this pretty well: Blockspring and Supermetrics, there’s an article comparing the two here.

You can also schedule reports in Google Analytics, which is helpful

Image processing

This isn’t, strictly-speaking, automation but everyone seems to spend an inordinate amount of time processing images, that’s silly. Especially when it’s simply editing around resizing and optimising for the web. We use ImageOptim (a lot) at Substrakt. And the ever-helpful Chris Unitt has pointed out that Cloudinary is good too.

Emails (specifically transactional emails and lists)

Most email platforms and CRM systems will enable you to set up automatic segmentation (to varying degrees of complexity) of your customers based on specific behaviours, or the origin of the customer, etc. This is probably a bit of a rabbithole and generally I’d recommend keeping to the KISS rule of thumb but if you’re not making use of these tools then you’re probably making your life harder than it needs to be.

Also lots of these email tools will enable you to set up activity that’s triggered by specific conditions being met e.g. a new customer signing up, or an anniversary of them signing up, or their birthday, or someone completing a purchase, etc. And if they don’t, or you don’t use a system like this then you might be able to put something together with Zapier (or something similar) – more info on that below.

General automation

Tools like IFTTT and Zapier allow you to connect various platforms and services together to trigger actions in one another.

Personally I have an IFTTT applet that puts all of my Discover Weekly tracks into one big playlist (cos I always forget to listen to them at the time) and at Substrakt we use Zapier to link together various services we have (e.g. linking our kanban boards and time tracking software so that we don’t have to manually set up tasks in both).

I’m not going to be too prescriptive about this one because the possibilities are pretty huge but basically if you do a task or action based on something happening in a particular system then that can probably be, to some extent, automated. Zapier have a bunch of case studies on their site that is a good starting point.

Outsourcing

Your time is limited, and valuable. People-per-hour sites like UpWork can be a great and cost-effective way to shift standalone pieces of work (which will often cover lots of the nice-to-have things you’d like to do but are never going to have time to do). Similarly there may be things you’re trying to achieve in-house that it’d make far more sense to shift onto someone else’s plate. You can’t do everything.

Too busy for automation?

I’m not going to pretend all of this stuff can be set up in 5 minutes (although some of it can be). However the time you spend setting up will more than pay for itself.

Once you start using a few of these tools stuff just starts getting done without you having to constantly worry about it. I bet half the things on your to-do list are actually relatively small or straightforward tasks that you just never get around to. Set up some simple systems and these tasks can be ticked off your list, never to return.

Of course it’s not a silver bullet, you’ll never automate everything, but if you can – you should.

In addition, automation will keep getting more sophisticated, especially around the delivery of marketing campaigns. So the sooner you can start making use of it the better chance you stand of being able to make full use of all the tools that’ll soon be available to you.

Conversion rates – cut the crap / eyes on the prize

Conversion rates are often thrown about as a useful metric. And they are (with the usual caveats). They can provide a helpful indication about whether or not the various bits of your website are doing what they should. Or where there are issues that you need to address.

However I often have conversations with people who are beating themselves up because they are suffering with what they perceive as very low conversion rates. And I’m not sure they’re being all that fair on themselves.

The way that Google Analytics works out your conversion rate is it takes all your traffic (sessions) unless you tell it otherwise. It then takes the number of completed goals (transactions, or whatever it is you’re getting the conversion rate for) and works out your conversion rate from that.

So, for example if you had 5,000 sessions and 100 transactions then your conversion rate would be 2%. But is this number useful, or accurate? I’d argue it potentially isn’t.

If those 5,000 sessions include visitors who aren’t your target market and were never going to buy anything then they shouldn’t be included in your calculations.

As with so many of the metrics in GA, top level numbers often aren’t that helpful or meaningful.

Going back to the example above, what if half of those sessions had come from visitors from overseas who had been following a link to a blog post that cropped up on social media (an unlikely scenario but bear with me). Those visitors are unlikely to ever buy, say, a ticket for a performance so they probably shouldn’t be included in your numbers when you’re looking to calculate whether your production pages are converting traffic. Because that traffic was never going to buy a ticket and didn’t even visit the production pages.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts (such as this one on funnel analysis and this one on ‘clarity of purpose‘) each part of your digital activity should have a clear purpose, and should be measured on that basis. It’s no use judging your contact page on whether or not it’s good at selling tickets.

This means using custom segments, setting up clear goals, and utilising things like custom dimensions and events if you need to, so that you can accurately measure the effectiveness of your site.

Going back to our example scenario, if your current marketing efforts are aimed at getting people from the city you’re located in, onto your production pages, to buy a ticket, then create a segment that allows you to identify a) if that’s happening, b) to what level that’s happening and how, and c) whether or not it’s meeting the objective you’ve set to the level you need (i.e. buying a ticket). If it is, then great (and you can begin to further optimise your campaign accordingly), if it isn’t then this will at least allow you to begin to identify where the issues may be. You might be getting the right sort of traffic but it’s not converting and through isolating and being able to analyse this traffic you will be able to begin to see where and how users are being tripped up.

Don’t use ‘all traffic’ to work out conversion rates as there will inevitably be ‘irrelevant’ traffic being swept up in this. If a session is landing on the site and hitting pages that play no purpose in the user journey for the goal that you’re analysing the conversion rate for then you’re including traffic that plays no role in the scenario you’re examining. Which isn’t helpful for anyone.

Relying on top level metrics means you’re never going to be able to identify actionable insights. Your website will likely have a number of goals whether that’s newsletter signups, enquiry submissions, donations, membership purchases, account setup, ticket purchases (you get the idea).

Each of those goals should have a clear user journey, ending in the goal being achieved. By properly measuring the goals you can work out if your various user journeys are working as they should be. And whether or not you’re actually enjoying any success.

So, to summarise (as ever, I’ve gone on a bit).

  1. If your conversion rates are looking a bit sad, are you actually being fair on yourself or are you setting your terms of reference to be far too wide?
  2. Use custom segments and goals to identify whether your digital platforms are working as they should be.

Thinking about running #1

20th July 2017 – on a train from Birmingham to London

I finally got around to reading Murakami’s ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’ this week (whilst on another train to and from Leeds), it’s a really great read, an interesting insight into the man and also articulated a lot of the things I think and feel about running (it was also interesting just how much I didn’t really recognise around his motivations and frustrations, but he is in his 60s, and Japanese, and a different person, so maybe that is to be expected, afterall being ‘a runner’ is not a consistent, universal state of being).

Reading that book also made me think about how I feel about running, and writing. I’ve tried to write about running a bit in the past – some pieces have been more successful than others (this one tries and partly fails to capture a transcendental run I went on in Switzerland in 2012). But I liked the idea of a running-focused diary of sorts, so I’m going to try and do a bit of that. To what end I don’t really know but I think I’m someone who realises what they think and feel about something by talking or writing about it so, if nothing else, it’ll help me work out what my opinions are.

It also made me realise that, more than anything else, I define myself as ‘a runner’. I’m not a husband, or a father, or any of the things that people seem to define themselves as. But I am, most definitely (in my own head at least) a runner. Maybe this desire self-definition is a modern thing, the natural result of a thousand different channels all asking you to summarise yourself in a 100-word bio.

Anyway, last night when I got home from Leeds I went for a run with my brother. We’re both training for a marathon later in the year (the same marathon) but we do a lot of running together, running is the strongest thing we have in common. We own a flat together so we live together, but often the only real time we spend in each other’s company, is on a run. And it’s nice, it’s uncomplicated, we go out for a run, we chat a bit, but mostly we just run.

We’ve run lots of races together, in lots of different countries. It’s a weird unspoken thing that we never really seem to question too much, we both run – a lot –  we are runners, it is something we are both serious about, but not obsessive over. I couldn’t tell you why he runs, and I doubt he has much to say about my motivations. But I know he loves running as much as I do. So it’s nice that we’re once again training to run the same marathon (we’ve run marathons together in Edinburgh, Copenhagen, Berlin, we also went running in the French Alps last year) in York later this year.

Over these longer distances he is better than me, there’s no getting around that fact. I’m not a particularly competitive person but when it comes to running it’s difficult to say that’s still the case. But my brother, over anything longer than a half marathon, is quicker than me. His body just seems to work that way, he starts and can hold a pace for far longer than I can. He has run a few ultra marathons (distances over the 26.2 miles of a ‘traditional’ marathon) and this week finally convinced me to do one, so next January we will be running 48 miles from somewhere in Suffolk to the coast in Norfolk. I fully expect it to be very very difficult. But when I first started running I never imagined that I’d be able to run a marathon, and now I’ve run 5…I think, I can’t quite remember: London, Edinburgh, Chester, Copenhagen, Berlin. Plus some longer things like the time I ran from Salisbury to Southampton carrying a film canister in the cultural olympiad. So really it’s just a case of putting in the training and your body will probably be fine.

One of the great things about running a lot, in fact doing any endurance exercise that pushes you (I’ve also done some longer distance cycling like riding from John O’Groats to Lands End and cycling across Wales) is you discover a lot about your body and what it’s capable of. These adventures also teach you a lot about who you are, what you’ll tolerate, what your motivations are. I’ve learnt that my body is pretty resilient if I do something approaching the right training and I can be surprisingly bloody-minded – I never used to think of myself as particularly gritty but I’ve put myself in enough difficult situations to know that I will see something through to the bitter end if I can, no matter how much I might not be enjoying it at the time. I suspect the ultra marathon will be one of those times, horrible at the time but a good story to tell once you’ve finished it.

Putting the fun in funnel analysis

No, really.

Typically at Substrakt the primary aim for our sites is simple: sell tickets. What a customer sees as an organisation’s website is often comprised of two (or more) separate systems, this can make funnel analysis tricky, and may limit the amount of conversion optimisation you can do.

I have recently been doing some funnel analysis across all of our sites to look at the user journey that supports that primary goal (i.e. the purchase pathway) – initially just to see if there were any noticeable trends or patterns that stuck out. And two things did:

1. Mobile traffic wants to be booking traffic. The amount of mobile traffic that gets 50-75% of the way through the booking pathway and then drops out is staggering (there will be some valid research-related reasons for these drop-outs, but the volume of traffic starting but not completing this journey indicates a broader, underlying issue) on many of our sites mobile traffic accounted for the majority of entries into the booking pathway, but usually the smallest number of transactions (when traffic was split by device).

2. There is a huge discrepancy in how good ticketing web products are at converting mobile traffic. Arts websites are usually comprised of two main ‘bits’ the ‘content’ side of things (which is what Substrakt build) and the ticketing web product (which we can usually style and implement some basic UX tweaks in, but our options are very limited).

purchase funnel
(an example purchase pathway)

Our clients use a range of ticketing platforms including, but not limited to, Toptix’s eSRO, Tessitura’s TNEW, Spektrix, and Access’s Gamma. When looking at traffic going from clicking a booking button on the ‘content bit’ through to completing a transaction on the ‘ticketing bit’ I was staggered at the divergence in mobile conversion rates. The worst performing system had an average conversion rate of under 3% on mobile whereas the best was converting mobile traffic at an average rate of over 25%. This is a huge difference. For comparison desktop conversion rates ranged from ~19% to ~36%, and tablet from ~15% to ~35%.

What this does show is that some ticketing web products are actually quite successful at converting mobile traffic, and some are not very good at all. The reasons for this quickly become clear when you try to use the various products on a mobile – some aren’t responsive at all and others are but are lumbered with an almost completely baffling user experience.

Hopefully the next wave of updates to these products will see improvements in this area but what these numbers show is that some are failing to achieve their core purpose when it comes to the fastest growing area of web traffic, and that’s a worry.

I thought some supporting context may be helpful.

This shows the growth of mobile traffic (as a proportion of total web traffic), averaged across our clients (over the past 4 years) it also shows the growth of mobile transactions (as a proportion of total web transactions), averaged across our clients over the same time period.

This shows how the proportion of traffic from each device type is changing over time (tablet seems pretty static, whereas the growth of mobile – and the accompanying decline in desktop – is significant).

This last graph shows the split of sales by device, there is far less movement in these splits than we saw in the traffic data.

So what does this tell us?

This isn’t news, but the relentless uptick in mobile traffic looks to continue. Even if this rise begins to stagnate (as tablet traffic has), at current levels it is likely to be almost the largest proportion of traffic to your digital platforms.

I’m sure some people will say that this shows that people research on a mobile before buying on a desktop, which may indeed be the case (and probably is).

But if we accept that as true then that is a slightly precarious position to be in, the number of points of potential failure in your transaction process has just doubled if you’re expecting people to read about your product on one device before completing their transaction on another device.

I’m not convinced this is a particularly optimal user experience either, if this scenario is indeed the case then why aren’t people buying on mobile? I’d suggest it’s because the user experience is often not very good and it’s simply easier to abandon the purchase, or do it on a larger screen, where you have a mouse/trackpad and a keyboard (rather than a small touchscreen).

And lastly are we really willing to think that people ‘just don’t buy’ on mobiles? Because numerous other sectors show that this just isn’t the case.

How can we fix it?

There are likely to be many, many things you can optimise on your website (or at least the bits you have control over), alongside design and layout tweaks we often find that simple changes to language and microcopy can yield significant improvements.

Alongside this I would hope that the ticketing suppliers can begin to improve the web products they offer to the organisations they work with, because some of them are demonstrably underperforming – and that’s not good for anyone, supplier, organisation or customer.

If you’re interested in a free ticket funnel healthcheck then get in touch: team@substrakt.com. All I’d require is access to your analytics and tag manager accounts and I can let you know how you stack up against the benchmarks, and what can be done to improve things.

Food

Last August I decided to go vegetarian. In reality this didn’t really mean changing much, I hardly ever ate meat at home and half the time when I was eating out meat didn’t feature in any meaningful way in what I chose to eat.

The tipping point came when I was in America last summer and was slightly disgusted by the sheer volume of meat I’d consumed whilst there. I’d begun to notice more and more that any real dip in my energy levels or general sense of happiness usually coincided with either eating lots of meat, or eating badly (and usually those two things went hand in hand). Conversely I usually felt good and perky (annoyingly so) when I ate lots of fruit and veg. By labelling myself as a vegetarian I thought I might force myself consciously to do a lot more of the latter and a lot less (ideally none) of the former. It was never really an ‘ethical’ decision in any way, sure I like animals but also, for my whole life, had been basically okay with eating them.

So, how has it been? Absolutely fine. I sometimes feel like I’m being slightly awkward when I’m asked if I have ‘any dietary requirements’ but I suspect that’s simply because the answer to that question always used to be ‘of course not’ and now it’s ‘yes, a bit’. It has been interesting to learn new ways of cooking and thinking about food. It’s funny when people ask whether there’s anything I ‘miss’ because the honest answer is there really isn’t.

And has it had the hoped-for effect on my mood, energy and general sense of well-being? It seems so! I’m not going to entirely credit that to my diet but I used to suffer fairly regularly with almost chronic fatigue on a daily basis and that’s rarely ever the case (and if it does occur it’s usually obviously traced out to a late or boozy episode the night before).

The idea of eating meat is now fairly repellant to me, am I going to go vegan? Almost certainly not, I like butter too much. But the entire experiment has been interesting and, so far, a success. Which is nice.

Other things I have noticed:

  • Some people cannot comprehend of a meal without meat, which is weird in and of itself
  • Vegetarian options in restaurants are either great, interesting and numerous OR boring and limited. And when they’re boring and limited they’re really boring and limited. I’ve been surprised just how piss poor the veggie options have been in otherwise ‘decent’ restaurants.
  • You end up spending less on food (meat is expensive).
  • The fetishisation of meat is everywhere and it’s really weird. Maybe I just never noticed before but so much food advertising revolves around meat and so much advertising involving meat has an almost sexual approach to looking at and describing what is, in reality, a glistening chunk of dead animal. That is a strange thing, no?

Failure is real, but that’s ok. Agile is not a magic bullet. Your audience are customers

I was following the tweets at today’s #AMAiterate digital marketing event, all of the following is said with the fairly hefty caveat that following a conference via the tweets from attendees is reductive and unhelpful at best. However a few themes seemed to emerge and I thought I’d throw my thoughts into the mix as well.

1) failure is a good thing, or doesn’t exist, or is something you should seek out.

If I’m being kind I can see the sentiment behind this. However when taken at face-value (which is totally unfair as this particular person goes on to provide lots of useful context for this initial statement) my take on it is that; failure is not a good thing, failure does exist, and you should be trying to avoid it. Failure should not be your aspiration.

Learning from failure is essential, but that’s only possible if your acknowledge when failure has occurred, and that’s only possible if you acknowledge that it’s real in the first place, and know what it might look like.

Failure also shouldn’t be the only thing that triggers reflection and learning. Having an ongoing dialogue with your colleagues about what’s working well (do more of that) and what is working less well (try to do less of that) is essential to build a truly progressive, effective working culture.

I feel like I should emphasise that I actively endorse a working culture in which failure is recognised as an expected, and acceptable, inevitability of being a human who does stuff (show me someone who is 100% successful and I’ll show you a liar). Looking to apportion blame is a tedious waste of time and energy and does no-one any good. Rather than saying failure is good/aspirational/made-up would it not instead be more helpful to say that a culture of questioning, feedback and learning is something to strive for. Maybe that is what they said, but I guess that’s less tweetable.

2) Agile is totes the best ting evz and should be applied to everything

It seems there was a lot of talk about Agile (the capital A was intentional) and how it should be applied to…well, everything.

I’d argue there’s a big difference between Agile (I.e. A project management methodology that is absolutely not appropriate for every circumstance) and an agile (small a) influenced approach if that second term means a culture that aims to deliver things in smaller, more frequent chunks and then iterate through the project based on feedback. Agile (big A) can result in people getting bogged down in following a specific approach whereas agile is a cultural approach to project delivery.

It’s important to try and keep that difference in mind, agile shouldn’t be some sort of weird, cultish badge of honour, or sledgehammer approach that you attempt to apply to every aspect of what you do.

Appropriately applied it can yield great benefits, but it isn’t a panacea, it isn’t always appropriate and it requires more than simply stating you’re now agile and having a stand-up every few weeks.

In quite a software-specific way my lovely and handsome colleague Max wrote about this difference a few years ago.

This sums it up quite well:

https://twitter.com/pheebsgeebs/status/804684711750680576

However, as that tweet hopefully hints at, you can see this might not always be the most appropriate approach to take. Take an agile approach to your agile approach, or something.

3) everything is digital so nothing is digital

Yep, totally agree, which is why I wrote a fairly long rant about it…3 AND A HALF YEARS AGO, why is this still being presented as revelatory new information? Why hasn’t the sector started to respond to this reality, given that it has been the reality for getting on for half a decade now? That probably warrants being the subject of a separate post…

4) your audience are customers, they have expectations

https://twitter.com/spektrix/status/804718688762990592

Calling your audience customers may immediately get some people’s backs up, which is fair enough, it’s probably more nuanced than that.

However something we are always aware of at Substrakt is: people coming to buy a ticket on your site probably spend a lot of their time buying things on other sites, as such they have expectations about what their purchasing experience should be like. If your purchase pathway is 70x more complicated and difficult to navigate than Amazon’s, or Asos, or Sainsburys then they will notice. 

The fact that they’re willing to battle through that to buy a ticket should not be seen as an excuse to give this part of the ‘customer experience’ little/no attention, for many people your website (and buying a ticket there) may be their first interaction with you as an organisation, if it’s as easy and enjoyable as pulling a rotten tooth then surely that’s a bad thing?

tl;dr: judging a conference based solely on the tweets is unfair

Running in the Alps

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After a couple of years of thinking about it (and probably boring everyone within earshot), last week I finally went running in the Alps. And it was bloody great.

Armed with a few maps and this book, we rented a small “hut thing” (technical term) just outside Chamonix to use as our base for the week. We were blessed with totally great weather and inadvertently arrived just as the summer tourist season in Chamonix ended so everywhere was pretty quiet which added to the general sense of relaxation.

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A few observations:

  • Running up mountains involves almost as much walking as it does running, and that’s ok (everything is, inevitably, quite steep).
  • Running in the alps involves continuous uphill stretches longer than anything you can find in the UK (again, not a surprise but worth noting…living in London means it was almost impossible to do any really appropriate training ahead of the trip)
  • I noticed this last time I was in that part of the world but…all the food involves cheese and potatoes.
  • If you go just outside the summer season that means all of the lifts will be closed which will probably ruin some of your plans and make everything a little bit inconvenient.
  • The book I linked to above is mostly great however one of the routes in particular involved some fairly ridiculous scrambling (that the book made no mention of). It was all fine (/fun) in the end but worth bearing in mind.

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Clarity of purpose

I’ve written another article for Create Hub. This one focuses on things I think the arts sector could look at to try and have a better time when it comes to delivering digital projects.

One thing I debated including, but ultimately didn’t, was about purpose, and justification. Your project has to have a reason for existing. “Because everyone else is doing it” or “we’ve been given some money” are not really good reasons to do anything.

In the not so distant past I did the PRINCE2 Practitioner qualification, PRINCE2 is a project management methodology that is used relatively widely on large, complex projects. Public sector projects are frequently delivered through this methodology (and I believe the UK government actually has a stake in the company that delivers the PRINCE2 qualifications). Anyway, all of that is fairly irrelevant. What is relevant is that there is a stage within the PRINCE2 process called IP, or Initiating a Project. This stage, amongst other things, aims to “Agree whether or not there is sufficient justification to proceed with the project” and “Document and confirm that an acceptable Business Case exists for the project”. Once again I am not evangelising on behalf of a particular methodology but both of these points seem, to me, to be useful and vital discussions that should be had with all projects. I have seen so many digital projects in the arts for which there seems no sensible justification and no real business case.

What I’m trying to get at is that if your project doesn’t have a clear purpose it will be almost impossible to deliver successfully. Not only will you end up with frustrated stakeholders but it will be difficult to brief any 3rd parties you need to work with and, if things go wrong, it will be difficult to prioritise to solve whatever issues you run up against. Not only does it need a purpose but there has to be a clear justification for that purpose and, ideally, some sort of business case to support it. Not only will this make your life easier it’ll make it easier to manage the project because everyone will be clear on what you’re all trying to achieve, it’ll be easier to sell to colleagues, work out how it should be funded and generally make everything better.

The best projects I’ve worked on have came from a starting point of solving an actual need/problem and had a clear set of goals in a sensible order of priority. Everyone working on the project understood what the goals were and why they existed and as a result were all bought in and pulling in the same direction from the start. The worst projects I’ve worked on have started because someone was awarded some money for no clear reason, or wanted to copy a competitor – there were conflicting agendas from the outset, noone really understood what was going on and they descended into near-farce. Noone wants to be involved in the latter type of project, it’s rubbish.

Common sense is not so common

Earlier this year Substrakt launched a new site for ENO, econsultancy wrote a nice case study on the project which garnered this comment:

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 16.29.34

So far, so the-bottom-half-of-the-internet. However what Mr Francis touches on here is something that I believe is fundamental to the success of the new ENO site, and – more importantly – something that arts websites so often miss. Namely that your website should have a a clearly identified primary purpose or aim, and you should then proactively focus on achieving that purpose. Of course a website will often be trying to achieve multiple things, but you should be able to apply a hierarchy to that list.

The situation is certainly changing but in the recent past websites for arts organisations often seem to become a brochure for every single thing the company does. I empathise with the never-ending struggle to ‘be on the homepage’ or ‘have our own section’ but unfortunately your website visitors probably don’t understand (or want to understand) why your website’s structure mirrors that of the organisation’s staffing diagram or why there are 15 competing things on the homepage. Equally why is there such a battle for the homepage when the majority of the traffic to your site probably doesn’t even land there? (a conversation for another day).

So, yes Damien, common sense. It’s difficult to do, and not so common.

Cycling the Highlands

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A while ago I read something about the North Coast 500, weirdly marketed as ‘Scotland’s answer to Route 66′ or something. A Scottish Route 66 wasn’t really a thing that appealed but a continuous 500 mile loop around the Highlands did. Ever since I did the end-to-end in 2011 I’ve been looking for an excuse to go back and cycle in the Highlands – it is, if you forced me to have an opinion – probably the most beautiful landscape in Britain and the roads are (mostly) surprisingly good so it’s a fun place to cycle.

I managed to convince Alex – my eternally cheerful cycling buddy – that he wanted to do it too (despite the fact that our Wales ride last summer utterly broke him, the poor lad). So we got the 11.5 hour train from Euston to Inverness (proTip: if you do this make sure you book a bunk, we didn’t book bunks and 11.5hrs spent trying to make yourself comfortable in an airline-style seat is precisely 0% fun).

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However, the Highlands proved themselves to be just as beautiful as I’d remembered. The only thing that was a slight ‘challenge’ was the weather. Wind, hail, sun, rain, all within the space of an hour – it was constantly changing and coming off the top of a 5-mile climb with winds that felt strong enough to take the bike from under you and horizontal hail was one of the less enjoyable moments.

DSC_0047 (1)

Alex and I also both caught a rather nasty stomach bug which meant we had to cut the trip short (we only did day 1, 2 and then half of day 3) so we didn’t quite get up to the north coast.

He ended up looking like this (asleep in a tiny train station):

DSC_0050

If you fancy doing the route this is how we broke it down, once you’re out of Inverness the roads are really quiet and pretty good quality (aside from day 1 which is a bit shitty).

Day 1 – Inverness to Lochcarron
Distance: 65 miles
Ascent: 2,259 ft
Route: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/921603097
Accommodation: Loch Dubh b&b (absolutely lovely, would totally recommend)

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Day 2 – Lochcarron to Drumchork
Distance: 90 miles
Ascent: 8,340 ft (however you can, as we did, cut out the Bealach Na Ba if the weather is bad/you don’t fancy it)
Route: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/921606773
Accommodation: Drumchork Hotel (basic but friendly and fine – they have a distillery next door)

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Day 3 – Drumchork to Drumbeg
Distance: 92 miles
Ascent: 7,347 ft
Route: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/921608879
Accommodation: We were booked into the Drumbeg Hotel (we didn’t make it, we went to Garve and got the train back to Inverness cos Alex was so ill by this point)

DSC_0029

Day 4 – Drumbeg to Bettyhill
Distance: 86 miles
Ascent: 7,628 ft
Route: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/921611669
Accommodation: We were booked into the Farr Bay Inn (again, we didn’t make it but it looked really nice!)

Day 5 – Bettyhill to Inverness
Distance: 97 miles
Ascent: 4,381 ft
Route: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/921614219
Accommodation: We stayed in the Glen Mhor Hotel, totally nice and fine.

On the whole though, when it was good it was amazing, there’s nothing better than cycling on empty roads in a beautiful part of the world. If you’re thinking about doing it, go! It always blows my mind that there’s somewhere this beautiful in the UK, who needs the Alps (although I am off to the Alps later this year…)

Hacking Rambert

I went to a talk last week by Leila Johnston about her ‘digital-artist-in-residence’ project at Rambert. The talk was entitled ‘does dance need tech? does tech need dance?‘ and whilst it didn’t really answer either of those questions (or try especially hard to really) it was an interesting insight into what can happen when the right amount of curiosity and expertise is smashed together, with no brief, and left to get on with things.

I think Leila would perhaps be the first person to admit that her residency came up with very little in the way of answers, or obvious paradigm shifts or any real, big shiny things. But perhaps that’s really how these things should work. Talking to a friend afterwards we both agreed that perhaps these things are most successful when really they don’t have any tangible outputs immediately. Sure it would’ve been cool if there had been some sort of big thing as a result of this but what is far more interesting and will probably have a deeper and more meaningful impact is that change that it appears Leila managed to at least begin to trigger – namely interesting the dancers (and aspirational choreographers among them) in technology and how it can extend and deepen their practice. It was refreshing to hear about her approach and her open and honest interest in the dancers as people and how she could trigger and facilitate their curiosity. Ultimately if Rambert had wanted a big, shiny digital thing then they could just pay an agency to come up with a big, shiny digital thing. It seems that this project is far less focused on specific outcomes, and that is probably to be admired and applauded.

Leila fielded some pretty tough questions at the end of her talk – to be honest I think a lot of people in the audience were expecting (and disappointed by the lack of) a big, shiny thing, but she made a convincing case for her approach and, by the end, everyone seemed fairly convinced it was the right way to go about things.

Anyway, you can read about what she did at http://hackingrambert.com/ – it’ll be interesting to see what the subsequent digital-artists-in-residence come up with, but I think Leila has set down some laudable foundations.

Simple customer benefit schemes – learning from outside the arts?

This morning I got an email from Wiggle (the cycling/running/whatnot shop):

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 14.31.08

 

The Wiggle ‘Platinum’ scheme is automatically offered to anyone who has spent over a specific amount of money within a specific period (more than £500 in the previous 365 days – that Platinum status is then activated for 365 days from the day when you meet the threshold and is maintained if you spend more than £500 during the subsequent 365 days). I needed to get a few bits anyway so I promptly went and spent £80 on new cycling and running stuff and lo my discount is secured for another year. This seems like a relatively straight-forward and easy-to-administrate way of encouraging customer loyalty and incentivise people to spend more whilst also giving an obvious benefit to customers.

It got me thinking about the various loyalty/membership/multibuy/etc schemes I’ve seen in the arts sector, which always seem fantastically complicated. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that has been as simple to explain (the benefit, the criteria, the everything) as this example from Wiggle, whilst I understand that there will always be arts audiences who want priority booking and all the other benefits that usually come with being a Friend (or whatever the membership scheme is called) why isn’t anyone trying something ‘simple’ like this? It seems to be a straightforward way of trying to get people to spend more without all the extra complexities of a multibuy scheme or membership structure. People won’t always want to spend a load of money in one go (which is what multibuys often require) and not everyone wants the faff of joining a membership scheme (if all they want is a discount this seems like overkill). It seems like there’d be numerous benefits for venues, you’d reasonably expect it to trigger an increase in some people’s spend (to meet the threshold) then once that threshold had been met you might also reasonably expect those people to try events they may not have otherwise considered (thanks to the discount).

I may simply be unaware that people are already doing this? Are there any venues that say ‘once you spend £x within a certain period we will offer you % discount for the following number of days’?

Equally I may be blissfully unaware of the 100s of perfectly valid reasons why this would never work. Either way, I’d be interested in hearing what people more qualified than I think about this.

Attempting to Trigger Digital Change and Ticketing Conferences

I’m writing for Create Hub as part of their ‘Industry Experts Panel 2016‘; my first article ‘Attempting to Trigger Digital Change‘ was published earlier this week in which I attempt to highlight some of the obstacles I’ve observed in the arts sector in relation to digital stuff. I don’t think any of it is particularly new, and are probably all things I’ve raised repeatedly over the past few (10?) years.

I’ll be writing a few more articles for Create Hub over the next 6-8 months in which I’m hoping to try and identify examples of good practice and a few ideas of my own so it’s not going to be a total onslaught of gloom. However I have spent most of the past couple of days at the Ticketing Professionals Conference 2016 and this only served to confirm a few of my fears around the sector’s readiness and capacity to embrace digital change. The level of fear or willful ignorance, the lack of understanding and the hugely varied level of supplier competency was fairly shocking.

There were a few bright spots; Minor Entertainment’s Andrew Collier gave an entertaining and sharply insightful session that showcased a few relatively straight-forward but beautifully-executed techniques around pricing and audience engagement. He also demonstrated the value of experimentation, acting on data insights and not being afraid to risk failure (and was honest enough to admit afterwards that it had taken a while for him to reach a point where he, and his organisation, were comfortable with working like this). There was also an interesting presentation from The Royal Danish Theatre (apparently ‘like a combination of ROH and the NT)’s Christina Østerby discussing complex organisational change. She led an organisation-wide digital transformation project at RDT which seems to have resulted in tangible and significant levels of change and success. However it is worth noting that the level of resources she outlined (in terms of time, people and money), the mindset/attitude towards this sort of change and the leadership demonstrated are all significantly ahead of what I’ve observed in the UK cultural sector to-date.

There was also a lot of depressing and mildly ridiculous talk about ‘millennials’ as if they were some sort of hitherto undiscovered alien species and the sight of a session that purported to present the new rash of TLDs (of which .tickets is one) as ‘a paradigm shift in the way the internet works‘ which is, frankly, almost dangerous nonsense.

Plus ça change…

Digital Culture 2015: a few thoughts/observations

Just before Christmas the 3rd annual ‘Digital Culture’ report was released, this is a longitudinal study looking at the adoption and impact of “digital technologies” in the arts sector.

There seem to be a number of idiosyncrasies with the survey, namely that it tries to force everything into little Arts Council shaped boxes that have come straight off a funding application, also that the number of participants that have participated in all 3 years (240ish) is far fewer than those who have just participated in 1 or 2 of the years (350) – which renders longitudinal comparisons slightly tricky. But leaving all that aside, I read the report and have vomited up some thoughts on it all below. Something perhaps worth noting, I have only read the report, I haven’t taken a look at the raw data, thus my observations are made on the assumption that the analysis in the report is correct.

TL;DR:

Digital is apparently becoming less “important” for arts organisations, everyone seems to see it as a marketing thing and not much more than that. Those that are making the most of digital are those with more money, particularly NPOs who seem to be leaving the rest of the sector behind somewhat.

Headlines:

National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) are more digitally active, experience fewer barriers, have better access to skills, are more likely to be engaged in R&D activities, and are more likely to report positive impacts. There is also evidence that the gap between NPOs and the others is widening

The above, not-really-all-that-surprising, quote is the main thing that jumped out at me (and seems to be the main thing that others have picked up on). Unfortunately this seems to be becoming applicable to more and more aspects of arts organisations’ activity, this probably points to deep-rooted funding inadequacies and entrenched sectoral issues but I’m not really qualified to answer either of those particular problems.

If you look at the “factsheets” for each artform covered in the survey it would appear that “business models” and “distribution are the two things that the organisations perceive “digital” least important for. Pretty much everyone says that it is “most important” for “marketing” and most artforms also seem to stick “archiving” in the “most important” box (I’d argue there could or should be a fairly tight link between distribution and archiving but hey ho, these are the labels they’ve gone with).

Interestingly, or misleadingly, the executive summary presents this as “Digital technologies have also become more important for revenue generation, with 45 per cent of organisations now reporting that this is important to their business models, up from 34 per cent in 2013” i.e. most organisations in the study do not see digital as important to their business models (which Chris Unitt explores, under the wider scope of “digital leadership” a bit here).

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 14.52.14

The depressing thing is that the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts (which conducted this report) clearly sees these things, particularly business models and revenue generation as the more important areas for the sector to try and focus on (judging by both the “guides” on the homepage of their website and the premise of the Fund i.e. “supports ideas that use digital technology to build new business models and enhance audience reach for organisations with arts projects“) so this points to either a failure on the part of the Fund or the sector in this area. Either the Fund failed to push money towards the right projects to achieve its aim of proving new business models that are adoptable and adaptable across the sector or the sector has proven itself incapable of understanding and utilising the findings that these funded projects have thrown up (I suspect it’s a little of both).

Bad stuff:

Basically, no-one has any money and this is stopping people from doing things. And the only people who do have money are the people who have loads of (or at least more) money anyway, for everything (i.e. NPOs, specifically the bigger NPOs):

  • more organisations have highlighted concerns around access to finance, with 73 per cent of organisations now seeing lack of funding for digital as a barrier to their aspirations (up from 68 per cent in 2013).
  • National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) are more digitally active, experience fewer barriers, have better access to skills, are more likely to be engaged in R&D activities, and are more likely to report positive impacts. There is also evidence that the gap between NPOs and the others is widening
  • significantly fewer organisations (especially smaller ones) report that they exhibit the R&D behaviours that the survey suggests correlated with digital success, such as experimenting and taking risks, and evaluating the impact of digital work” which chimes with the other finding that “Take-up of data-led activities has also stalled or fallen back, for example 43 per cent now use data to develop their online strategy, down from 47 per cent in 2013” given that data-led activities and effective evaluation share similar skillsets this possibly highlights a bit of a skills gap.

Perhaps related to the above was the finding that “respondents report a number of organisation-related factors which might inhibit use of digital technologies. More report there being no senior digital manager in their organisation, IT systems being slow/ limited and there being a lack of suitable external suppliers“. I think the first part of this is most important, if there is no senior, or at least dedicated, digital person in an organisation then digital is never going to get the attention or understanding that it requires (this also relates back to Chris Unitt’s post that I linked to early on digital leadership) and if an organisation has very limited funds then they’re not going to free up space on the payroll to employ a dedicated digital person – this issue is even further exacerbated when digital is seen as not important to business models and/or revenue. It’s hard to make a case for something that you don’t believe will have any impact on the bottom line when funds are tight. The point around there being a “lack of suitable external suppliers” is, frankly, untrue. Although if people are reporting this then clearly work needs to be done around making organisations more aware of the numerous, talented suppliers out there (although, again, if you have no dedicated digital resource looking at this then of course your understanding of the options available is likely to be limited or non-existent), everyone’s favourite Chris (Unitt) has, once again, done something useful to this end; a big database of suppliers, split by services offered – which can be found here.

Further on that “digital person” point, rarely if ever do I see digital people employed in anything other than an administrative capacity (which this report would back up). I understand that these skillsets (i.e. being able to input on the administrative or creative sides of a company’s activity) are (or can be) quite discrete from one another, maybe that’s because I’ve lived a sheltered life or maybe it’s because, as still seems to be the case, the arts sector very much sees digital as a “marketing thing” that shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near creative practice. Which is a shame and, I think, fundamentally shortsighted. Especially when you get to the point of “distribution”, if you as an organisation have no history or understanding of how to integrate digital into the artistic side of your work then how will you ever be able to meaningfully adopt any form of digital distribution for that work. Anyway, that’s possibly a thought for another day.

Lastly on this particular point, the basics still seem to being ignored on a fairly vast scale:

  • 40 per cent of organisations still do not have a mobile-optimised web presence
  • 41 per cent now accept online donations (up from 35 per cent in 2013)” – what on earth are the other 59% doing!? Most of them are registered charities! All the charities I am aware of accept donations online, through JustGiving or whatever.
  • 72 per cent are now publishing content onto their websites (77 per cent in 2013)” – I think maybe this was a poorly-worded question cos…like….content makes up the vast majority of what websites are. But, regardless this sticks out as one of the strangest things in the whole report…
  • outside London around 41-44% (depending on area) of organisations sell tickets online, compared with 54% of London organisations” perhaps this is such a strangely low statistic because they’ve lumped in organisations who simply don’t sell tickets for anything (museums and whatnot) but, taken on face value, this seems very surprising and worrying.

Good stuff:

Whilst this report cannot hide the fact that the sector on the whole isn’t doing brilliantly, there are pockets of good practice. This is usually to be found within organisations who have the time, money, willingness (or a combination thereof) to invest in digital things

  • it is the digital experimenters (those that are willing to embrace and take risks with technology) and digital leaders (those that place the most importance on digital) that are most likely to see positive impacts on their organisations – in the audiences they reach, the way they operate, and in their creative capacities.
  • NPOs have continued to increase the number of digital activities they are undertaking

A few other (mostly depressing) tidbits:

  • Over three-quarters (78 per cent) plan on introducing something new next year, with crowdfunding being the most anticipated activity” – it then, about half a page later, goes on to say “Crowdfunding and livestreaming, for example, have sometimes been more difficult and resource-intensive than expected
  • We moved to a new booking system which works very well except in terms of online booking. This relates to a lack of resources to integrate into our website, which is not fit for purpose. We need to build the ‘front window’ for the technologies we invest time and money in by developing a new website. The Garage [performing arts venue in Norwich]” – I’ve seen this in numerous sectors I’ve worked in, organisations end up lumbered with (more-often-than-not) legacy systems which were never conceived for the modern, interconnected technological landscape that we now have to deal with. Luckily there are a growing number of forward-looking suppliers in this specific area (i.e. ticketing) so that pretty much any size organisation should be able to find something that suits their needs/budget.
  • in many arts and cultural organisations, particularly the smaller ones, an earlier appetite for more digital innovation has been replaced by greater caution.” – whilst caution is, of course, a perfectly valid element of approaching new things if it is replacing an appetite for trying out ‘digital stuff’ then that is perhaps not good news

Other responses:

Hannah Nicklin also had a very worth-paying-attention-to rant on Twitter, a few excerpts below but it’s worth checking her feed for the whole thing:

I’d agree with all those points to a certain degree (although I think distribution can/should be important, just the best option hasn’t been cracked yet) and have written about them specifically in the past.

A couple of people also made the point that the model of funding works counter to the low-level, iterative, agile experimentation that NESTA apparently want to see (which, again, I’d totally agree with)

What to do?

I’m not sure this all tells us much that we don’t already know although I was pretty shocked by the lack of basic activity being undertaken by a significant minority of organisations. Maybe the Arts Council/whoever should be looking to raise the capabilities of the bottom end of the sector before it tries to do anything too fancy, the fact that you still can’t give so many organisations your money via the internet is pretty ridiculous. Narrowing this gap would surely then help to create a more solid foundation from which ‘innovative’ things could be explored. It also seems clear to me that funders should be looking to seed-fund projects which could benefit the whole sector and provide micro-grants to encourage experimentation, whether or not either of these things will actually happen is open for discussion though.

Around some of the issues such as there ‘not being enough/good enough suppliers’ I think there are simple things that can be done, I’m not talking about anything as OTT as the RAR (http://www.recommendedagencies.com/) but maybe something that is trying to achieve similar things, although I do think Chris U has almost achieved this with something a straight-forward as a simple spreadsheet (although why it took Chris – off his own back – to do this – about 3 years ago – is beyond me)

Running above the clouds

switzerland

I was visiting a friend in St Gallen, Switzerland in 2012. St Gallen is situated relatively near the Bodensee (Lake Constance) and seemingly every time I have been there seems to enjoy some pretty apocalyptic fog, whether or not that is actually due to the proximity of the (massive) lake, I’m not sure, but it felt like it might be.

When I visited I was training for the Chester marathon, I was in that point of training where you have become a near-hermit and the entire concept of doing a marathon has turned into something you are beginning to resent, but have spent too much time on it to give up.

I was only going for a short visit, but I had taken my running stuff anyway – more as a prop than with any intention of doing any actual running. However one morning I figured I may as well head out for a few miles, I was feeling slightly nervous that I hadn’t done enough training so any extra miles I could fit in felt like they were probably worth doing.

When I go running I always leave my glasses behind and rarely replace them with contacts, this has the effect of turning the world into the 3 feet immediately surrounding and not much beyond that. I am very short-sighted.

I headed out into the fog, it was really foggy, it was also pretty cold. I don’t know my way around St Gallen so decided to simply head out of town on a road that we had taken the tram up the day before, at least I wouldn’t get lost – my theory being that I could simply follow the tramtracks back into town. The road pretty quickly began to head uphill, “excellent” I thought, this is going to make the most of the few miles I can fit in. I don’t know whether it was because I had gone out particularly early, or maybe it was a public holiday, or simply that people were staying indoors because the weather was pretty rubbish but the streets seemed almost deserted. That, combined with the fog, the lack of glasses and the general sense of not knowing where I was all combined to make this a fairly surreal experience.

I chugged uphill, it was incredibly tiring and I was getting worried that I wasn’t in quite as good shape as I probably should have been…I mean…it was really difficult. It wasn’t even a particularly steep hill, it was just quite long. And I was beginning to get cold. I had assumed my usual running outfit of a vest and shorts which is fine for 90% of the time…I stupidly never make concessions for that other 10% and suffer accordingly (usually with the cold).

The further I ran up the hill, the thicker the fog seemed to get. I had the sense that I was running into a cloud, at least this was what I imagined running into a cloud would probably feel like, I couldn’t see anything, I was wet and cold and – thanks to the hill – knackered.

I began the mental cycle of berating myself into continuing for just a bit longer, I thought at least the return leg would be all downhill but I was feeling thoroughly demoralised, and tired…did I mention I was feeling tired?

Anyway, you may now be thinking, why is this person telling me about an unenjoyable run he went on 3 years ago, in the fog, in Switzerland? Which is a perfectly valid question. I am telling you because of what happened when I got to the top of the hill.

Just when I decided I had had enough of being cold and wet and tired and not being able to see anything the road started to curve to the right, I thought I’d just see what was around the corner and then I’d turn around and go back to my friend’s apartment and go to eat Rösti or fondue or something else suitably Swiss. As I turned the corner the road kicked up very slightly and I finally reached the top of the hill, the yellowish glow that had been getting slightly stronger for the last 15 minutes finally turned into actual sunlight and the fog all seemed to melt away. I was no longer cold. I stopped for a breather, because that’s what the top of hills are designed for, and turned around to see if I could see where I’d come from, I hoped that the hill looked something close to as impressive to run up as it had felt whilst I was doing it.

The view…was incredible. I had run through a cloud, or at least I was now stood overlooking what seemed to be clouds, they stretched thick and white and impenetrable for as far as I could see – punctured by the odd hilltop – and the sun shone in a completely clear, blue sky, in the distance I think I could make out the edge of the lake. I felt a sense of elation beyond anything I can put down in words, perhaps it was because I was tired, perhaps it was because I was cold, perhaps it was simply because I hadn’t seen anything apart from a white haze for the past half an hour and had been running, seemingly on my own, up a never-ending hill. Instead of turning around and going back down the hill I ran on, to the next town, in the warm sunlight above the clouds, or fog, or whatever it was, I felt like laughing out loud, I had a huge smile on my face, I ran and I ran and I ran until I was too tired to run any more.

I can’t really remember a single one of the other runs I did in preparation for that marathon, I don’t even remember the actual marathon all that clearly. But what I do remember, with a clarity that surprises me even now (I don’t have a particularly accurate memory), is that run in St Gallen, up the hill, into the clouds.

Directors UK website: post-launch reflections

Back in August 2015, Directors UK launched their new website (I wrote about this briefly here). Now we are 3 months on I thought it’d be a good chance to take stock and have a think about what went well, what didn’t go well, what went weirdly and what – if anything – I’ve learned from the whole experience.

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy

Not that I’m referring to Directors UK’s lovely users as “the enemy” but it is an almost universal truth that you wont’, can’t, and probably shouldn’t really expect to have thought of absolutely everything and to have tested for all eventualities. Something would have been missed, something will have been slightly misconceived. This is inevitable.

I would argue that it’s far better to launch a project like this expecting to have to (in the words of Monty Python) adopt, adapt and improve in a rapid and responsive way rather than trying to convince yourself that nothing will have to change. Managing your project in something like an Agile way is probably a good idea, I’m no fan of slavishly adhering to a set framework just for the sake of it but I think there are some useful principles in that particular methodology that are almost always worth following, it’s almost always going to be easier to fix or respond to something if you’re working with small, rapidly deployed, incremental changes than monolithic things.

You may (almost certainly will) find that some of the stakeholders in the project baulk at this sort of approach, even considering the possibility that things might not be absolutely perfect on launch is terrifying for some people. But you should make every attempt to convince them that this is worth doing, they’ll thank you for it in the long run.

Test, test and test again

Having said that (above) you would be mad not to test as much as you possibly can. Take the amount of time you think you need for testing, and add 50%. Get internal testing groups sorted, identify indicative user groups who will test things for you and even throw it open to totally random strangers. As long as you understand the context in which your testing is happening and how to qualify any feedback you receive within that context then you can’t go wrong.

Linking to my first point, testing will show you things that you can’t even envisage. No matter how immaculately thought-through your project, testing will show you something you didn’t expect – whether that is that a particular feature isn’t quite working as expected or a particular feature is working far better than you ever dreamed it would.

Testing is important, budget for it, allow appropriate time for it, and also ensure you have time to properly analyse and act upon the things that it tells you.

Your website won’t populate itself

I’ve done enough web relaunches to know that content migration is one of the most soul destroying tasks in the entire process. Even moreso when you have an extremely content-heavy site (as DUK’s was) which had been managed in a slightly…idiosyncratic way (the staff here had developed lots of ‘hacks’ and workarounds to get the site to look and work how they needed it to). There was very little in the way of consistency, and the new site was structured in a slightly different way. Luckily we’d allowed enough time for this part of the process, but it always takes ages.

Equally, if you can, you should always try to go live with some new content, a website relaunch will typically see a spike in traffic (shiny, new things inevitably attract attention). I’ve written in the past about how important content is, a website relaunch makes this even more true. Your site will be under scrutiny, if you have a blog but haven’t published anything for the past year then…well, I’d ask why you have a blog at all, but nonetheless, people are going to be looking at it – make sure there’s something there! Linked to this you should have a content strategy (you should have one of these anyway…) regarding how you’re going to feed the hungry beast that your new website will (almost inevitably) be. It’s also likely your new site will have different content demands to what you’re used to, in the case of Directors UK this involved us commissioning a lot of new photography of members at work (thanks to the very talented Giles Smith for that) to support the more image-led design that we were going with.

Review everything

A website is probably (although not always) the largest part of your digital portfolio, completely refreshing this will give you the chance to reevaluate every element of your digital presence – grab this chance with both hands and make the most of it. There will inevitably be some slightly underloved parts of your digital activity, a website relaunch gives you the context within which you can ask yourself whether or not this is still a needed tool, and if so why you aren’t using it and how you can fix that.

Trust the people you’ve employed for the job

You will have likely employed an agency (or agencies) for your project, you employed them for a reason, they are experienced, talented professionals. I know a project of this size is always stressful but the best work is achieved when the people you’ve employed for the job are trusted and empowered to do that job. Of course you need to oversee and manage the project ensuring it meets your needs and budget and that everything is going according to plan. But make sure that this is a collaboration, a partnership in which everyone feels able to do their best work. Communication, as ever, is key – being able to communicate what you want and need and give proper feedback is essential, as is trusting your agency (/agencies) to listen to and act upon this. Equally important is your ability to trust them enough to take on board any recommendations or opinions they may share with you. I’ve seen a lot of projects fall apart due to intransigence (on both sides) and an unwillingness to do what’s best simply out of pride, confusion or stubbornness.

Be able to see the wood for the trees

This project has (or will) probably taken up an inordinate amount of your time, money and energy. You will have thought and worried about little else. However make sure that you can still appreciate what you’ve achieved, too many people reach the end of projects absolutely hating the thing they’re working on. It’s probably really good, you’ve spent loads of time on it, be proud of what you’ve accomplished!