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.

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?

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.

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.

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!

Hanging out at Derek Jarman’s and the nuclear power station

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Yesterday I fulfilled a long-held ambition to go and check out the weirdness that is Dungeness – 2 lighthouses, Derek Jarman’s house, a nuclear power station and one of the strangest landscapes I’ve ever seen in this country.

I reckon by bike is pretty much the perfect way to do this, especially if you’re blessed with good weather like we were. The route is below

Twitter, not all bad

Sometimes Twitter showcases the very worst of humanity, however sometimes it also gives you an insight into how lovely most people are. That happened twice for me this week, the first was the discovery of @BrianPiltonthe Twitter account of a 75-year old grandfather living in Exeter. My cynical side hopes this isn’t a parody account, my nice side is glad to read about Brian’s life because he sounds like a lovely man and I love that he is apparently really getting something positive from being on Twitter, the internet at its best can eradicate physical constraints and open you up to a whole world of new people, ideas and whatnot and it seems that’s what Twitter is doing for Brian, as this tweet says:

The second time Twitter was good this week was after this fairly upsetting screengrab of some people being twats was shared, a load of (better) people decided to try and find the bloke in the photo and tell him that he is great, people are great, dancing is great and they want to invite him to a big dance party.

AND THEY DID: @Dancingmanfound

So, there you go; Twitter, not all bad

Writing thus doing

If I write these things down then there is a slightly increased chance they’ll actually happen, they’re less resolutions than vague aspirations for the year ahead:

  • Read a book a week
  • Get better (actually competent) at German
  • Take more photos
  • Do at least 1 marathon
  • Do at least 1 decent (3+ day) bike ride
  • Go up some mountains
  • Go bouldering outdoors

There, fascinating as ever I’m sure you’ll all agree.

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.

North -> South

THE NORTH

At the end of March I’m moving to London. By the time I move I would have lived in Leeds for the best part of 10 years and I have, unsurprisingly, been feeling a bit sad about leaving the north. So here is a bit of a list of stuff that I’ve liked about/noticed whilst living in Yorkshire.

I was born in London and grew up in towns and villages twenty minutes or so by train from Kings Cross so I am, most definitely, a southerner. I don’t think I had ever really been to The North (as it is referenced on ALL road signs once you leave London), I’d briefly been to Manchester and Nottingham to watch sport, I’d been to Bradford ONCE when my dad worked there for a few months and I’d been to the Lake District a couple of times but I hadn’t really spent any time in any northern cities.

I moved to Leeds in 2004 to go to university and have been here more-or-less ever since.

Leeds has changed so much in the time I’ve lived here. My first year was spent on the south side of the city centre at the – then new – Mill Street halls of residence, near enough to the brewery for everything to constantly smell faintly of a combination of yeast, marmite and stale beer. My flat was on the sixth floor so I had a pretty good view of the, admittedly low-lying and uninteresting, Leeds skyline. The same area now has loads of new hotels, the LCM halls of residence, redeveloped blocks of flats and the brewery itself has been turned into an art gallery.

I don’t think I really explored, or appreciated, the area properly until I had finished uni and moved out of the city to Horsforth (about 5 miles north-west of the city centre). Being slightly out in the suburbs made me realised how brilliantly located Leeds is to be able to easily access the countryside. Within 10 minutes of my front door I could be in the woods and the canal towpath was only a little further away (on which you could walk to Liverpool if you felt like it), the Dales were within half an hour’s drive and it was easy to take in some amazing scenery on a Saturday morning bike ride. It’s also pretty to get north, south and west from Leeds by train.

Someone recently said that Leeds is an ‘easy’ city to live in, I think I’d probably agree with that in so much as it is incredibly compact and pretty well-equipped so that almost everything you need is within easy reach. However it is also a slightly odd, grumpy place that has a fairly sizeable chip on its shoulder when it comes to trying to pull together and get anything done. It is almost like it succeeds (when it does) despite itself. I am also constantly amazed at how, in such a relatively small place (which really does just feel like a big town most of the time) there are so many things going on of which noone really seems to be aware. The left hand rarely seems to know what the right hand is doing, in fact I’m often convinced the left hand has forgotten the right hand ever existed.

However despite that I have loved living here, people get on and get things done, being ‘up yourself’ isn’t tolerated in any way, everyone more-or-less rubs along together without too much fuss and the stereotype of everyone calling each other ‘love’ is completely and gloriously accurate. More recently (over the last 2-3 years) there seems to have been a real explosion of ‘stuff’ in terms of bars, and gigs, and galleries and things opening and happening, I suppose this can only be a good thing. I remember when I was a student the nightlife in the city was fairly rubbish, that could no longer be said to be the case.

It is also nice to be outside the London/South-East bubble just in terms of having a slightly different, more representative perspective of the country you live in.

So, I will miss the people, I will miss the countryside and I will miss being able to get to Edinburgh, Sheffield, Newcastle, Manchester, York or Liverpool easily by train. I will not miss the terrible and expensive transport within the city itself, the inept urban planning and the constant message that Leeds=shopping.

I also hope that, one day, I will be back.

Learning to be bored

A friend said to me once that there were lots of things that I didn’t enjoy (that he did) simply because I hadn’t yet “learned how to be bored properly”. I think he said as a joke at the time (we were discussing jazz which he loves and I don’t really get) but since then I have often thought about that remark and the more I think about it the more truth it seems to hold.

I think quite a lot of ‘grown up’ or ‘long form’ cultural experiences require a certain amount of tolerance on the part of the audience. A lot of these things were created to be experienced before broadcast media even existed, before attention spans began to tumble in (reported) length and before there was an expectation for immediacy in almost every part of everyday life.

Maybe what I’m trying to describe is some combination of patience and wisdom, the patience to endure the boring bits because you know there will be something brilliant just round the corner. Or perhaps it could be better understood as having a bit more of an idea of the bigger picture, i.e. “I am perfectly happy to experience this quiet/uneventful/non-descript/verbose/unengaging element because I understand how it fits into the wider experience”. Something to do with only properly appreciating the highs if you have some idea of what they’re high in relation to.

Clearly there are lots of other factors to consider such as education and previous experiences so this is a poorly-formed and unfinished thought, but one I wanted to try and articulate. I’m interested if it strikes a chord with anyone else?

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?