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.

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.

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

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.

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)

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!

2016: new job

Exciting news, as of January 2016 I shall be starting a new job with the lovely, talented folk at Substrakt as Strategic Director. Sadly this means I will be leaving the equally lovely people at Directors UK after almost 2 years as Digital Manager.

I have had a completely great time at DUK, and I think we’ve managed to achieve a lot since the beginning of 2014. They had restructured prior to my arrival to increase the importance of, and focus on, digital and since I started we have radically reworked the way that the organisation uses social media and digital comms in general, particularly around the diverse events programme and the increasingly ambitious and wide-reaching campaigning work. We also found time to launch an entirely redesigned and redeveloped website and have a number of other projects being readied to go live in 2016. We have also managed to lead a comprehensive shift in the way that the organisation views, understands and utilises digital. So I will leave feeling immensely proud of what we’ve achieved and also confident that I’ve left the place in a better position than I found it.

It feels like a very exciting time to be joining Substrakt, with the expansion of their London studio and some very prestigious clients recently won I feel like I’m making the move to a brilliant agency stuffed with excellent people doing inspiring work, hopefully I can bring something useful to the party!

Live-streaming: a quick how-I-did-it guide

Last week (30th September) I organised the first in what I hope will be a series of live-streams in my current role as Digital Manager at Directors UK. The event was a Q&A with George Miller following a screening of his latest film Mad Max: Fury Road (big, loud, stupid, fun) at BAFTA.

george miller screenshot

Now that Youtube’s live-streaming platform is (seemingly) properly established it is really, really straightforward (and free) to stream events like this. It was essentially a 1-camera, 2-speaker event (with a few audience questions at the end) which means that the technical demands were…minimal and as such feels like it could fairly easily be explained for anyone who is interested in this sort of thing.

I’m still of the opinion that live-streaming isn’t always necessarily the right choice when covering an event but for last night it seemed appropriate; it was a sold-out, members-only event for which there was huge demand, it was not going to be repeated and it allowed members who were unable to make the screening (the membership is spread across the country and globe) to enjoy the Q&A with a hugely experienced and respected director.

Technically the setup was as follows:

  • The visuals were provided by a Sony EX-1 camera locked off on a wide shot
  • Both speakers were mic-ed up with wireless lapel mics that were going into the BAFTA front-of-house PA. There were also a couple of hand-held wireless mics that we used for audience questions, these were also going into the PA.
    • We then took an audio feed from the desk and ran that into the camera.
  • The combined audio/video feed was then run via the SDI (BNC) output of the camera into our Black Magic Ultrastudio 4k which was hooked into the company’s Macbook via thunderbolt.
  • We were running the basic version of Wirecast which took the AV feed from the Ultrastudio and streamed it to our Youtube channel

Oh and we were using a dedicated, wired, highspeed internet connection at BAFTA.

This isn’t always the way I’d set things up but as it was the first time we’d done anything like this I wanted to have the backup of everything being recorded on the camera in case the laptop blew up or whatever.

In the future we’ll probably experiment with making the setup more sophisticated. We were just running the raw feed from the 1 camera, no titles or anything this time around but this has shown that achieving a relatively watchable feed from an event like this isn’t overly expensive or difficult (in fact we were probably hugely over-specced for this particular job). We owned all of the equipment apart from the camera and the mics (camera was hired, mics were a combination of hire and BAFTA’s). The Ultrastudio is probably the biggest piece of overkill for this particular job, Black Magic (and many other manufacturers) do lots of cheaper, simpler pieces of kit that’ll enable you to do the same thing.

Anyway, hope this was of some use, I wrote it mainly because there was a total dearth of first-person accounts from people who have done this sort of thing. If you’ve got any questions…ask!

I think this sort of setup (or something slightly simpler) could be entirely appropriate for lots (most?) Q&A/discussion-y type events and, as I have said above, is cheap (ish) and easy to do.

Further, final thoughts: I wrote a bit of a doubting piece about live-streaming last Spring (you can read it here), however I think what I didn’t do particularly well in that piece was differentiate between live-streaming performance and live-streaming far “simpler” events (such as the one I’ve described above). Also (fortunately for the coherence of my argument) I think that this particular event does tick a lot of the boxes I’d raised when questioning the need for live-streaming (around “must-see”-ness) – we were also tweeting from the event, and some of the issues around cost and expertise that I raised in 2014 are now either no longer relevant or easy for others to look after in the line of what they were doing anyway for this event (lighting, sound etc).

There are definitely things we can look at exploring around how we bring the online audience more “into the room” so it isn’t just a broadcast (how might we incorporate any discussions that may develop on social media etc as a result of the live-stream).

New websites

Today Directors UK launched their new site. This project has taken up a good portion of my working life over the past 10 months.

It seems to be the first thing that most digital managers attempt to convince everyone is needed when they start at a new organisation but at Directors UK a new site was well overdue and I didn’t have to do too much convincing in order to get the wheels in motion.

This was by no means the first (or hopefully last) new website project that I’ve lead but Directors UK, being a membership organisation, presented a set of requirements that I hadn’t had to deal with directly before. Luckily we enlisted the lovely, very talented (and very bearded) folk at Substrakt as our web agency for the project, a good agency can make or break a complex project like this where you are dealing with numerous existing IT systems, an extremely diverse array of stakeholders and a typical primary user who is very visually literate. Demanding would be an accurate description.

At its best a project like this can help an organisation really interrogate and analyse its purpose and whether things are working as well as they should. It offers space to take a step back and reflect on things, which is always a valuable exercise (incidentally if you want to just undergo this part of the process then I’d thoroughly recommend Chris Unitt who helped us out by running a couple of workshops in which we took a fresh look at our user groups, stakeholders and, as a result, the actual requirements we should have of the website).

Directors UK has, as an organisation, grown considerably in both size and complexity since the old site was developed in 2011. The new site (hopefully!) supports the organisations current needs and ambitions and will also provide a suitably robust platform for them over the next few years.

I always forget just how much blood, sweat and tears are required for a successful relaunch and I’m really proud of the work that we have done on this. Special thanks are due to all the boys at Substrakt (in particular; Max, Mark, Andy and Jim) and my colleague Marc at Directors UK, it quite literally wouldn’t have happened without them.

I’ll do a bit more of a considered reflection on all this once things have bedded in.

Onwards!

Television and Social Media

I went to a thing for work (Directors UK) organised by the Westminster Media Forum which discussed “TV and the second screen: social media, innovation and regulation“. It was the closest I feel I have ever come to what might be described as “lobbying”, which was a bit weird. I tweeted so much my phone died, I’ve embedded the Storify we did for work below which filters out (most of) the crap and focuses on the director-relevant stuff.

What struck me was how many of these lessons/observations could easily be applied to the arts sector in one way or another. Although obviously the sizes of audience being discussed here are beyond what most traditional arts organisations could expect to reach…

Anyway, enjoy.

Live-streaming

One of the last things I was involved with before I left Opera North was a live-streaming project called Inside Opera: Live (more info about that here http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/may/05/inside-opera-live-stream-youtube), and one of the first things I was asked about when I started at Directors UK was whether or not we should live-stream our AGM/conference. It’d be fair to say that live-streaming is still very much ‘a thing’. But I’m not always entirely sure why it is so widespread (or at least the desire for it seems to be).

Definition

I think typically what people are describing when they talk about a ‘live stream’ is a live video and audio feed of an event, although it is always a bit disappointing when you realise that is the sum of their ambition. I am firmly of the belief that there are loads of different ways you can represent/showcase your event/performance/discussion/whatever in close to real-time in a way that’s meaningful for people who can’t physically be there. Quite often this wouldn’t involve a video OR audio feed, and everyone would be much better off for it.

Expertise

I think the main problem with the rush towards live-streaming every single thing that happens is that to do live-streaming well requires a level of technical and logistical expertise that is not a) widely available or b) cheap. You can, of course, get up and running with a live-stream using nothing more than your phone and a free wi-fi connection (although I personally wouldn’t ever watch something like that) but to do it well requires a not-insignificant amount of equipment and people.

Rationale

You also have to question why people are seemingly so keen to live-stream whatever it might be they’re keen about live-streaming. Is there really an audience out there who can’t get to the event and who want to sit at (most likely) a computer for an hour or more and watch the thing unfold in real time? Really? I mean, really? Have you done that? Do you know anyone who has done that? Would those people be just as happy watching an edited video of the event a few days later? I don’t really have a definitive answer to that and of course it’ll depend on the specifics of what you’re wanting to live-stream but my instinct is that most people probably won’t get much less out of watching the latter.

I am also surprised at how often people live-stream something and then you never see or hear anything from it after the day of the event, I know there are sometimes issues with rights etc but if you’ve gone to the effort and expense of having cameras at the thing do you not want to capture it for posterity? Surely you believe there is some value in what you’re doing or you wouldn’t have live-streamed it in the first place! And more people are likely to watch something that is available for them to watch whenever they want to.

Of course sometimes it is completely valid to want to live-stream something, especially if it is an interactive thing and you are offering some way for those watching the live-stream to engage with the event – even though they’re not physically present. Or if the thing you are live-streaming is something of an ‘event’ and there really is a ‘must-view’ aspect to it that would totally be lost if you don’t watch it unfold in realtime (although, be honest with yourself, how many things really fall into this category?).

Expense

People frequently comment on their surprise when they discover the cost of live-streaming something ‘properly’ (and I’m not even talking about live-broadcast into cinema a la NT:Live or similar which involve OB trucks and all sorts of incredibly expensive gubbins). But once you start to break it down it is, maybe, less surprising. If you were live-streaming, say, a panel discussion you might want to consider: at least a couple of cameras (and probably accompanying camera operators), audio feed (which would at the very least require a decent feed from the venue’s pa), someone to direct the thing and vision mix between the camera feeds, some way for the director to talk to the camera operators so they got the shots they wants, maybe some basic lighting, all of the switchers, cabling and whatnot that’d connect all of this together. In addition you’d want some way of getting your audio and video online and out of the venue, this would ideally require a good internet connection and a decent computer. You’d really like to have someone worrying about the technical side of things too, you might want someone monitoring social media, and suddenly you’ve got a fairly big pile of people and cameras and cables and all you’re really doing is filming in a pretty controlled environment where nothing particularly exciting is really likely to go wrong.

Creativity

I DO think there is something to be said for the view that in creating a live-stream you are creating an entirely new experience. It is fruitless to try and merely think of it as a ‘relay’ or extension of the live experience that you are covering, you are actually reinterpreting that performance/whatever, for a new audience, who are experiencing it in an entirely different way to the audience in the same physical space. You are directing that experience and you could shape something that is wildly different to what physically-present audience experiences. There is clearly a hugely interesting discussion to be had about the potential creative implications of that, although there doesn’t seem to be a massive debate on those terms just yet (or maybe I’m simply unaware of it).

I was thinking the other day and I don’t think I’ve ever really watched a live-stream of anything so I’m probably not the target market which may account for my scepticism. Equally it may come from the fact I’ve seen this sort of thing discussed ad nauseum over the last few years so I am just completely bored of hearing about it. I also have some sense of the time, money and hassle involved in organising a live-stream (it could conceivably be more difficult and expensive to sort out than the event it is covering).

I’d be interested to hear from any live-streaming devotees. I am not one of you.

Oil tankers, learning, issues and NPOs

Big data, performance capture, digital commissions, audience engagement, new platforms, digital marketing. Blah blah blah. These are a few of the many “digital issues” that have presented themselves whilst I’ve been at Opera North.

I’ve already started and given up a few times on trying to write something that summarised what I’ve seen/done/learned over the last 3.5 years or so, here’s another try, I’m not going to go into too much detail because…it’s probably quite boring. So, here are just a few observations/thoughts from my point of view having worked at a National Portfolio Organisation for the last few years.

I am aware that this post strikes a fairly pessimistic note, so, first, here are some positives:

  • the sector is built on, and functions because of, some extraordinarily talented, enthusiastic and hard-working people.
  • the collaborative spirit which enables so much “stuff” to happen within the arts world is just the sort of thing that’s needed to be able to confront and harness digital.
  • there are some people doing genuinely interesting, clever and great things.
  • the evident frustration that appears in this post is because I can see the potential that exists, not being able to see that realised makes me very sad…and annoyed.

1. The gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” is just going to keep getting wider. I first wrote about this quite a while ago (Building Digital Capacity in the Arts), my experience of working directly in the arts sector extends to my time at Opera North and when I first started here I was shocked and worried at the sheer lack of digital skills and knowledge within the company and more widely within the sector as a whole. This lack of understanding and awareness seemed fairly all-pervasive and no-one really seemed to have much of an idea how to address it. The Arts Council certainly didn’t (I’m still not convinced they do, even if they now seem to be acknowledging that it may be a problem) and any of the limited money that was  available was sucked up by the (mostly larger) organisations who had some apparent understanding of the problem, or at least an idea about how they might approach tackling it. I get this, allocating money to things where you’re fairly sure you’ll see success is understanding, but is just (as an unintended side-effect) solidifying the skills/capacity gap that already exists and, in my view, making it even worse. Also the money seems to have gone towards funding, frankly, unimaginative projects and, until recently (admittedly Native is good and getting better) the sharing of any outcomes was…limited to say the least, and in many cases completely non-existent. But more generally there is still a huge issue with fundamentally basic understanding of the opportunities (and threats) that digital offers and how to grasp (or confront) that and there seems to be no real momentum towards addressing that…which I would say is a problem. Referring back to the 2011 post I’ve linked to above I certainly don’t think we’re at a point where “digital capacity” in the sector has been built to a level that could be described as resilient…

2. The arts sector is its own worst enemy. I could ramble on at length here but I think what I’m trying to describe is how the structures and processes that are inherent within the sector, the union agreements that govern ways of working and the historical practises regarding “how things get done” are just too out-of-step with how the world now is. I am fully aware that artists need protection, intellectual property is hugely important and rights exist for a reason. But all of these things need to be addressed in light of how the “landscape” currently is, not how it was 20 or more years ago. I know that the level of change we have witnessed over the last decade has happened at such a pace that means lots of people feel intimidated and scared but hiding behind restrictive and outdated working practises and agreements won’t hold back the tide, it will simply mean that by the point that the impetus for change becomes irresistible many people and professions will find themselves in a position of almost complete irrelevance or that the level of change required will be crippling, far better to be flexible and realistic and roll with the punches than try to out-Canute Canute.

I still really think that this quote is so relevant, and I’m annoyed I didn’t jot down who it was from: “an industry has to nearly collapse (like media, TV, music) before it realises the power of digital” – imagine if the arts sector could try and get ahead of the curve, being brought to the brink of collapse doesn’t sound particularly enjoyable for anyone.

3. Digital strategy isn’t really a thing. I got quite uppity about this a while ago (Digital Strategy, why how…wait, why again?) but I’m still concerned by the number of quite important and seemingly intelligent people I see yammering on about “digital strategy”, my issue is with the way that digital is thought of, and talked about, as a separate thing, a new tool that we need to work out how to hold and to hit stuff with. In my opinion it is more and also completely different to that, it requires new terms of reference, or at least a more sophisticated understanding. My thoughts were articulated far better than I could ever manage in this piece from Paul Boag, Are We Thinking About Digital All Wrong?. Paul goes further (and writes far more coherently) than I did. Here are a few excerpts from his piece: “when I write about forming a digital strategy, I am not referring to a strategy for using a tool. I am talking about forming a strategy to adapt to the fundamental changes that digital has brought upon society” in my post I talked about understanding digital as “a layer”, I didn’t quite get to the level where I was discussing understanding and adapting to the level of impact the digital change has had on the world, although I should have. “I am often surprised at how resistant managers are to adapt their companies’ structure to accommodate the new reality of digital. They persist in trying to squeeze it into their existing mental model by making it an IT problem or a communications tool” – now I’m not sure Paul has any arts clients but this description could easily be applied to the arts sector, maybe it is due to lack of understanding (I think it probably is) but until this is addressed I’m worried that, once again, opportunities will be missed. I think the best excerpt I could grab from Paul is: “The key is to recognize that digital-focused thinking will not be required forever. One day, companies will not need Chief Digital Officers, the way we no longer have Chief Electricity Officers. We also need to recognize that the most important role of a digital team is not to own and implement a digital vision, but to facilitate company-wide change and to educate colleagues about the potential of digital in their areas of responsibility.” In many ways the things I am most proud of having achieved at Opera North are the changes in understanding and approach to digital. I am not claiming that Opera North is a “digital first” organisation, it most definitely isn’t, but the most fundamental changes I’ve overseen have come through intangible things such as a shift in discussions so that digital  is (in some cases) just considered as another channel through which the company performs/communicates/reaches people. It is by no means the same as being in the same room as an audience but that brings both pros and cons, and the fact that people are at least beginning to understand that is going to have the biggest and most long-term impact on the company.

4. Real change is a slow process. This is perhaps stating the obvious but the pace of change in the arts sector seems glacial (and that is putting it mildly), the reality of funding cycles and all that jazz means that the sector moves to certain rhythms and stimuli, none of which are particularly urgent. The last funding cycle was…5 years I think, the next will be…3? The impetus to do anything outside of this natural, externally-imposed timeline seems non-existent. For example it is only now, with the next round of funding applications happening, that ACE is beginning to talk about enshrining some level of commitment to “digital stuff” in its funding criteria. Maybe this viewpoint is skewed by working at a fairly large NPO organisation but at times it feels less like trying to turn an oil tanker and more like trying to turn a fleet of…whatever is bigger and slower than an oil tanker.

I’m not sure I’ve arrived at any particularly earth-shattering conclusions, I don’t think I ever expected to. As I say above, change is occurring, it is just a very (very) slow thing, maybe I’m just impatient, and undoubtedly my sight of what might be possible inevitably feeds my frustration and leads me to be a grumpy bastard. Hey ho. Good luck to the arts sector and all who continue to sail in her, I will watch from a not-so-great-distance with interest.

Useful/interesting things #3

Interesting:

Mapping Leeds

I was reading this article about the 6 Days of Ghent over the weekend and something (other than all the cycling fun) jumped out at me. Namely, this: “The Ghent Free Map, produced by Use-It (use-it.be) and made up of tips by locals“.

Now I have always been of the opinion that you will inevitably end up seeing and doing much more interesting things when you visit places if you either a) just wander around and see what happens or b) tap into some local knowledge. Inevitably the ‘official’ tourist information (and most guidebooks) will push you towards the big, shiny obvious things to do/see which, in my experience, are usually never the best things to do/see. Even more so in my experience of Leeds.

I like the idea behind the “Ghent Free Map“, could something similar be achieved – online initially – for Leeds? The Leeds Free Map?

I do worry that this idea has a little bit of a ‘reinventing the wheel’ feel about it, I’m sure there are endless ‘undiscovered Leeds’ (or equivalent) guides and a crowd-sourced map seems to stray quite far onto territory already covered by Google Maps BUT my (admittedly brief and shallow) research seems to indicate that nothing really quite fits the description, there are numerous blogs which detail the delights of the lesser-known corners of Leeds and then the shopping/arena/sport-focussed (as you’d expect) “official channels” but nothing really seems to draw all of the insights of the former together in one place, in a way that easily shows you where everything is.

Anyway, I’d be interested to try and get a feel for whether this is an idea that’s worth pursuing (it feels like it might be).

Thoughts?

CulturalDigital

http://culturaldigital.com/

A new thing I’ve been involved in setting up, you can read a bit more about it here http://culturaldigital.com/t/welcome-to-culturaldigital/15

This is a place to discover and talk about the areas where digital technology and arts, culture and heritage overlap with each other.

It doesn’t aim to solve all of the problems at a stroke but it is a start, an attempt to provide one place where people can share and discuss with other, interested/relevant people.

Sometimes it’s best to start simple and small and then see what happens, so that’s what we’ve done.