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?

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

Simple customer benefit schemes – learning from outside the arts?

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

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 14.31.08

 

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

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

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

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

Attempting to Trigger Digital Change and Ticketing Conferences

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

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

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

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

Plus ça change…

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.

Living Symphonies

Living SYmphonies

Last Saturday I went to see/hear/whatever a sound/music-installation in forest.

It is all a bit too complicated too explain properly (I can’t do it justice) but essentially a weather station and computer model generate a constantly-evolving musical soundscape that’s comprised of thousands of fragments of music that were composed to represent the flora and fauna in the area of the forest where the installation is…installed. All of this is then played back through a 24-speaker system which has speakers hidden in logs, buried under moss and strung up in trees.

The experience was incredible, beautiful and actually (for once the word isn’t misused) completely immersive. As I walked into the area where the installation was, I was totally enveloped in a wash of strings and percussion, when I say enveloped I mean that the sound seemed to rise from the ground behind me, travel up and over me and disappear off into the distance, like a flock of birds…or something.

The installation is called Living Symphonies, you can find a proper explanation of it here http://www.livingsymphonies.com/about, it’s the result of a collaboration between James Bulley and Daniel Jones and it is – in my opinion – a flawlessly realised concept. I was totally blown away, rarely do installations fully deliver on the promise of their grand ideas, this was totally successful.

The only problem is that it is a little bit difficult to get to, but it is well worth the journey. The installation is currently in Thetford Forest and tours:

  • 24 — 30 May 2014 – HIGH LODGE, THETFORD FOREST Suffolk, IP27 0AF
  • 20 — 26 June 2014 TOP LODGE, FINESHADE WOODS Northamptonshire, NN17 3BB
  • 26 July — 1 August 2014 BIRCHES VALLEY, CANNOCK CHASE FOREST Staffordshire, WS15 2UQ
  • 26 — 31 August 2014 BEDGEBURY NATIONAL PINETUM & FOREST Kent, TN17 2SJ

 

 

 

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.

1-sentence film reviews

A few things I’ve watched recently….(I know I mention central performances a LOT but…there was loads of good acting in there)

12 Years a Slave: an intense, harrowing, powerful and beautiful film that deserves every award it wins but which I found slightly emotionally unengaging at points.

Dallas Buyers Club: Mcconaughey’s weight-loss probably deserves to be mentioned because it is shocking to see, the performances from him and Jared Leto carry the entire film, I really enjoyed it but the historical and political questions which have been raised by some critics are probably valid too.

Inside Llewyn Davis: almost perfectly paced and a great central performance from Oscar Isaac, far fewer obvious ‘ticks’ than the Coen’s sometimes employ, although I found the ending a little frustrating (in a bad/unsatisfying way).

The Wolf of Wall Street: big, brash, way too long, Di Caprio’s performance is great but you could easily lose 90 minutes and the film would work far better, I was also left pretty cold by the story, almost every character in this is a demonstrably awful human being.

The Selfish Giant: a beautiful little British film, the two boys (Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas) in the main roles put in incredible performances, the direction from Clio Barnard is outstanding and Mike Eley needs to take credit for how the film looks, the emotional punch doesn’t quite land with as much force as I think it should/could have but that may be more down to me than any failing on the part of the film.

 

Come as you are (Hasta la vista)

On the subject of “wonderfully human films” (see my last post), I watched this last week. The blurb makes it sound fairly trite and terrible:

Come as you Are follows three disabled young men in their early twenties who embark on a journey to Spain, in search of wine and women…

Some of the reviews I’ve since read have given it a bit of a kicking for being overly saccharine but I think it manages to just stay on the right side of the ‘schmaltz’ line, every time it starts to veer off in that direction the script usually lands a fairly sour punch in the ribs to ensure it never becomes cloying. It is really well acted and, as I said above, wonderfully human. Definitely worth a watch.

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?

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.

In praise of Parkruns

At the beginning of November I did my first ever Parkrun (18:54 since you asked, not spectacular but not as bad as I feared), it was something I’d been meaning to do ever since 2007 when I first heard about the weekly, timed run that went around Hyde Park’s Woodhouse Moor (a quick glance at the website – http://www.parkrun.org.uk/leeds/ – indicates it has been going since October 2007 so I guess that’s about right).

In case you’ve no idea what a parkrun is here’s a description lifted from their site:

parkrun organise free, weekly, 5km timed runs around the world. They are open to everyone, free, and are safe and easy to take part in.

So basically, they’re organised runs, that are about running, and nothing else. There’s no entry fee, no minimum sponsorship level required, no goody bag. In short there’s none of the paraphernalia that is slowly but surely turning me off mass-participation runs.

I was talking to my brother the other day after we both entered a race, he was commenting on how he’d felt like “a complete bastard” when he didn’t choose to tell the organisers which charity he was raising money for, because…he wasn’t raising money for a charity, neither of us were, we were entering the race because…surprise surprise, we wanted to do a run.

Now I want to be clear, I have no problem with fundraisers, there are some incredible people, doing amazing things in order to raise money for a charity that they believe in, and that is completely brilliant. Fundraising is also a great way into running for a lot of people. My slight problem lies with the fact that it has now become an assumption that if you are doing a race then you must be raising money for charity, people seem unable to understand that maybe you are simply doing a run because you enjoy running.

And that is part of the reason why I love parkruns, there is none of that ‘other stuff’, it’s a straight-forward experience, that’s just about running. I also like the fact that it is staffed by volunteers (who are normally participants giving up the odd Saturday, the rest of the time they’re there taking part with everyone else) and that it is 5k – a distance that more or less everyone can complete. It is incredibly well-organised, and by 9.30 on a Saturday morning you’ve already done something constructive with your weekend.

Long live parkrun.

p.s. I have since done a second parkrun, got my time down to 18:49, aiming ultimately for sub-17.30 but…let’s see.

Leadership in the arts sector

I was reading Sunny Widmann’s piece on leadership in the arts sector (Getting Unstuck: Developing Skills to Climb the Leadership Ladder)

Marc Vogl, who works with arts and culture organizations in his role as Principal of Vogl Consulting, aptly describes the problem as a clogged and leaky pipeline. Basically, there are a small number of leadership positions at the top, often held for many years by the same people (that’s the clogged part) and therefore more junior employees are stuck at their current level, growing increasingly tired of waiting around for these positions to come available. Eventually, financial realities of working at a nonprofit and the monotony of a static career path push workers to leave the cultural sector (that’s the leaky part).

This rang pretty true, even just looking at the 10 organisations who receive the most cash from ACE you can see a pattern (FYI, never do this research, it is very very tedious):

  • Royal Opera House
    • CEO: Alex Beard, in post less than a year but previously in senior roles at The Tate for over a two decades
  • Southbank Centre
    • CEO: Alan Bishop, in post since 2009, previously the Central Office of Information and Saatchi & Saatchi. Artistic Director: Jude Kelly, in post since 2005, previously artistic directo at the West Yorkshire Playhouse 1990-2002
  • Royal National Theatre
    • Artistic Director: Nick Hytner, in post since 2003, previously – The National Theatre
  • English National Opera
    • CEO: Loretta Tomasi, in post since 2005, previously senior role at ENO, previously to that a senior role at Really Useful Theatres for 12 years. Artistic Director: John Berry, in post since 2005, previously senior roles at ENO
  • Royal Shakespeare Company
    • Executive Director: Catherine Mallyon, in post since 2012, previously senior role at the Southbank Centre. Artistic Director: Greg Doran, in post since 2012, previously various roles at the RSC and in theatreland (hopefully he’ll never read that summary)
  • Opera North
    • General Director: Richard Mantle, in post since 1994, previously General Director of Scottish Opera
  • Birmingham Royal Ballet
    • Director: David Bintley, in post since…can’t quite work out but it’d seem to be at least since the late 1990s/early 2000s. CEO: Christopher Barron, in post since 2005, previously CEO at Scottish Opera.
  • English National Ballet
    • Executive Director: Caroline Thomson, in post since 2013, previously senior roles at the BBC. Artistic Director: Tamara Rojo, in post since 2013, previously – ENB/Royal Ballet
  • Welsh National Opera
    • Chief Executive and Artistic Director: David Pountney, in post since 2011, previously Intendant of the Bregenz Festival from 2003.
  • North Music Trust (essentially: Sage Gateshead)
    • General Director, Sage Gateshead: Anthony Sargent, in post since 2000, previously senior role at the BBC.

Now don’t get me wrong, these are huge organisations that require stable leadership from people who have experience leading similar-sized organisations, that’s perfectly sensible. HOWEVER in relation to my thoughts earlier this week about the lack of understanding and ambition in relation to ‘digital stuff’ in the sector I think this is potentially a big problem.

The reality is that digital simply did not feature in the world all of these people ‘grew up’ in, you could argue that good leaders would draw on the experience(s) of those around them to assist them on issues they didn’t have a view on. However I really think that such a fundamental shift in understanding is required that is just not going to be forthcoming from people whose experience for the last 15-20 years (or longer) is in running medium/large arts organisations, in an environment in which digital has never figured. Now of course there are exceptions to this, I’m not going to go into them here.

This lack of input from people whose whole lives haven’t been spent within the sector strikes me as a real problem. I’m sure it isn’t unique to the arts sector but of all the people I’ve listed above I can only see 2 who genuinely have experience at a senior level working outside the sector; The Southbank’s Alan Murphy and ENB’s Caroline Thomson (maybe 3 if you count Anthony Sargent but his BBC experience was…a long time ago). That’s 2 (maybe 3) out of 15 which is…not very many. I’m fairly confident that this is replicated across most arts organisations, now of course you could argue that the arts require a particular set of skills and experience that you can only get by…running arts organisations (although I guess this is far more true for the role of Artistic Director or whatever). Equally I am not, by any stretch, saying that this is the one reason for the lack of urgency around this issue in the sector, there are far more issues at play and nothing is that simple. However I am fairly sure that this lack of external expertise cannot be helping anyone tackle this particular problem and I think it is becoming clearer by the day that the arts sector probably can’t tackle it on its own.

Am I being completely naïve? Are there, in fact, lots and lots of organisations who have convinced fantastic people from outside the sector into senior, permanent positions (I’m not talking ‘associate whatever’ because that can mean…absolutely anything – including precisely nothing)?

You would maybe expect ACE to set the agenda, or at least try to help guide, on such an important issue. However given what I have seen, read and heard over past few years ACE have just as much problem understanding it as anyone else hence their eagerness to try and adopt things like live broadcast into cinema on a sector-wide basis – equally does this new-found love of broadcast (albeit in a mildly different form) come from the fact that ‘Baz‘ comes from a broadcast background so this is simply a solution that he can get his head around? Which, in a way, I think comes back around to making my point for me, people’s solutions to problems are invariable based on their own experiences, if you have no experience of digital solutions, interesting digital projects and all the rest of it, and all your peers come from precisely the same background then, really, are you going to be able to understand this threat/opportunity and react accordingly? I’d argue you probably aren’t. And that’s a real shame.

What’s the solution (I’ve been told, rightly, that I can’t just moan, I have to suggest solutions too)? I see the main problem at the moment being one of a lack of understanding, a lack of skills and as a result of this, a lack of ambition.

  • Clearly the money available in the arts sector is never (or very rarely) going to be able to attract the top, top digital talent, quite simply they are always going to end up at the big tech and media companies. So why not try and forge links with those companies? A ‘geeks in residence’ (Scotland, Australia, England) -type programme at a far more senior level than has already taken place would be an interesting avenue to explore.
  • I also see increasing the digital capacity of the sector as a whole as an important step that is needed, and quickly (this is something I’ve talked about before), this will ultimately ‘filter up’ and eventually result in leaders who at least have some knowledge in, and understanding of, digital.
    • And by this I DO NOT mean anything like the ‘digital capacity in the arts’ programme that has been run over the last 18 months
  • Alongside all this is the wider need for the arts sector to start to have some proper career development/progression opportunities for people, I know the AMA are trying to set the agenda in this area in relation to marketing and comms and there seem to be similar moves in fundraising, I see a need for this in relation to digital as well. But I am not just talking about courses for people to learn how to send emails, I’m interested in the artistic implications/possibilities that digital presents, we can’t just focus on upskilling the ‘support/admin’ side of the sector and leave the artists behind, that would almost be worse than doing nothing.
  • Unrelated to leadership but: there needs to be more digital ‘messing about’ as a matter of course, I’m not convinced that as a sector we’re particularly good at trying things out and being happy if it doesn’t quite pan out as expected, and then learning from that. This sort of low-level, iterative play would then help to at least build some momentum around digital thinking and start to provide a foundation for people to start to understand the possibilities and what might, or might not work.
  • Also digital needs to stop being talked about as just a distribution channel. Yes, that is one of the potential applications but it is by no means the only one and it’d be short-sighted and narrow-minded to only pursue this.

So, what do you think? Does the arts sector have a problem with a lack of diversity in its leaders? Is this lack of diversity then having an effect on things like digital ambition across the sector? I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts.

important p.s. although this doesn’t relate to my point about digital, only 5 of those leaders (out of 15) are women. 1/3? That’s pretty disgraceful.

‘Digital’ in the arts

So, returning to an old subject, about which I’ve got very annoyed in the past.

Last week Arts Council England (ACE) published the second version of their 10-year strategic framework for 2010-2020 (you can read the whole thing here). Now they mention ‘digital stuff’ quite a lot (the always excellent Chris Unitt has done a good job of breaking this all down here). I use this by way of an introduction, not to explore the specifics of the ACE framework (Chris U does a much better job on that front than I could anyway – see previous link), but more to draw attention to the fact that, yet again, ‘digital’ is being put front and centre. My point of desperation and frustration comes from the fact that despite positive noises that have been fairly consistent (certainly in the 3 or so years I’ve been at Opera North and anecdotally for longer than that), there is very very little by way of actual, tangible signs that anyone in the arts sector really ‘gets’ digital in any meaningful way. By that I mean there still seems to be no understanding of, or desire to confront the reality that digital/technological development has brought about. I can sort of understand why this happens, arts organisations find themselves confronted with an uncomfortable reality, audiences are down, funding is reduced (and from certain sources, gone altogether), they’re expected to do more with less, people are accessing and experiencing the world in a ways that – for the most part – arts organisations are completely clueless how to engage with. I get that, it’s scary, it’s difficult, there isn’t really an obvious answer to whether or not it’ll pay for itself, ever, it’s easier to just do what they’ve always done, change just enough to tick a box on a funding form and hope that the situation will improve one day. Unfortunately I can see absolutely no way that that is going to happen.

I was following the tweets from a conference the other day (I forget which one, there are so many, how do people find the time?), and one of the speakers was quoted as saying “an industry has to nearly collapse (like media, TV, music) before it realises the power of digital“. That feels like the situation we’re currently in in the arts sector. Everyone sort of grudgingly accepts that ‘digital’ is something you need to at least pretend to be doing but the situation hasn’t quite reached the point where reality has caught up, we can still kid ourselves that having a website and ‘doing Twitter and Facebook’ is enough.

And this situation, in my view, fundamentally undermines all the worthy words that ACE come out with. The reality, at the moment, is that arts organisations can basically do the bare minimum in relation to digital/online and, at the moment, there are no consequences. The depressing thing is that this is simply storing up a whole world of woe for the medium term. The lack of ‘digital capacity’ in the arts sector is something I’ve bemoaned previously, the lack of impetus, the lack of ambition and the lack of understanding is exacerbating this situation horribly and nowhere, do I think, is this more painfully obvious than with the websites of most arts organisations.

What should the website of an arts organisation do? What should it look like? What function should it serve. I’d say that 90% of the sector couldn’t really answer these questions with any degree of confidence. Maybe they’ve never asked them, maybe there are too many conflicting agenda within the organisation for them to be able to have a clarity of purpose. But worryingly this seems to result in a lot of websites that seem to serve the purpose of being an online brochure. I’d argue that this does noone any favours, not only does it reduce the websites of arts organisation to the level of blandly ‘selling some products’ and presenting a load of tedious information that serves no purpose than to be some sort of odd, permanent funding application, but the lack of ambition that these sort of websites represent point to the fact that, for many organisations, digital is still something that ‘sits with marketing’. There is no desire for – say – the programming or education teams to embrace the possibilities of digital and use that to represent their activities online in any meaningful way.

Some examples: this is the website for the National Portrait Gallery http://www.npg.org.uk/. Boring, huh. Unengaging, flat, unexciting. Here is how they’re displaying some portraits from the Tudor period: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/explore/by-period/tudor.php (crikey that’s dull…so, so, so dull). Now, this is the website for the Google Art Project: http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/project/art-project. How is that a technology company can so comprehensively understand how to present artwork and a NATIONAL GALLERY can so comprehensively fail to? It’s so depressing. The NPG’s Tudor collection is presented like some sort of never-ending brochure of tedium. Google makes the art feel vivid and visceral and present (Google also provides far more information about each artwork but that’s by the by). NOW THEN, I’m probably being slightly unfair (in fact I almost certainly am), Google is a multi-billion dollar, global company who can afford to fritter away millions on ‘hobby projects’ like the cultural institute, the NPG is a gallery that receives almost 50% of its funding from government and a large proportion of the rest from donations. But to provide a bit of balance, here’s a website of an organisation (in a similar field) that I think really do seem to ‘get it': https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/ – exciting, dynamic, engaging. Everything that the NPG isn’t. Add in the fact that the basic, underlying design architecture of the NPG’s website is hopelessly outdated (try using it on a mobile…or any screen that isn’t 800×600) and I think it provides a fairly good example of the worrying situation I think we’re in. This is a bloody national gallery. A national gallery should surely be setting the tone for the rest of the galleries in the nation? Or at least be subjectively ‘good’. This, quite simply, doesn’t, and isn’t.

Think this is unique to galleries? Nope. Soz.

The National Theatre is widely acclaimed for their NT Live stuff, broadcasting (live) from the NT itself into cinemas around the world. This seems to be celebrated as a great example of ‘digital’ – I’d argue that it isn’t really, it’s just sort of doing broadcast in a slightly different way, this essentially could have been done in exactly the same way 30 years ago. Again, have you seen their website? http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/ – I mean it’s not terrible but it’s hardly interesting, or exciting, or engaging, or representative of theatre in any real way. Now I suspect they are in a slightly less bad situation compared to other organisations in that a) they’ve got fucking loads of money, b) they’ve got blimmin’ loads of content and c) I’m sure someone, somewhere is working on a new site for them so my opinion will shortly be out of date. But once again this, to me, feels, at best, like a catastrophic missed opportunity and at worse a clear sign that they don’t get digital at all. I don’t know the people at the NT, so I couldn’t say which of these views is more accurate. But surely as the NATIONAL Theatre, as well as championing new writing (which I’m told they do quite well), they should also be championing and exploring what theatre is, or could be, in the 21st century and the future. At the moment they really, really aren’t. And don’t tell me NT Live is them doing that because, it isn’t. Spending £150k a go to shoot and stream a play from a theatre into cinema isn’t innovative or exploratory, it’s a great exploitation of proven distribution techniques and a proven brand being used in a slightly new way and it is very successful on those (and commercial/profile) terms, but an example of theatre in a digital world? No. Someone who had never been to the NT, who knew nothing about what it was, would not get an accurate or interesting impression from visiting that website. Equally it’s not particularly great at selling you a ticket (but I’ve rarely found a theatre that does this well) which, I assume, is probably its primary purpose at the moment.

I know these are just two examples, and some would say the NT are doing just fine, ACE certainly seem to subscribe to this view seemingly ignoring the fairly substantial financial barriers to entry for this particular model of ‘doing digital’ (I don’t know about the NPG – I think they were advertising for a Director of Digital recently so maybe they’ll have their revolution soon), however these are two ‘national’ organisations, based in London, they are well-funded, they are in the capital surrounded by incredible digital talent and if THEY aren’t doing stuff that’s great then god help the rest of us.

I know it’s not easy to get websites built for arts organisations (I’ve been there, I’ve done it), a fundamental lack of understanding regarding the potential results in the organisational website being treated like a glorified brochure, the number of agendas which are suddenly ‘all equally important’ means that design by committee is, at present, an unfortunate reality in most situations. However I’d argue that arts organisations need a watershed, and soon, they need to grasp the nettle, and start getting their heads around what they can do with digital. Why is it that websites for theatres, galleries, dance companies, west end musicals and opera companies all, for the most part, look exactly the same (and uninspiringly so) when what these companies do is so different?

We need to move to a point where the websites of arts organisations are as exciting, inspirational and engaging as what the organisations do. Now don’t get me wrong, by that I do not mean that websites should be flashy and difficult to use and clever for the sake of it. They just need to be better and they need to be representative, this is the arts sector, not a bloody wallpaper shop. (wikipedia to the rescue here) ” Goethe defined art as an other resp. a second nature, according to his ideal of a style founded on the basic fundaments of insight and on the innermost character of things. Leo Tolstoy identified art as a use of indirect means to communicate from one person to another. Benedetto Croce and R.G. Collingwood advanced the idealist view that art expresses emotions, and that the work of art therefore essentially exists in the mind of the creator.” Do the websites of arts organisations, as they currently exist, even come close to achieving any of these things? Websites aren’t just catalogues, they can be, and should be, so much more than that. And the fact that they aren’t is deeply worrying.

To round this all off I want to credit a few places that I think are doing good things (although these are by no means flawless examples I think they’re worth a look). I’ve already mentioned the Rijksmuseum above but they deserve mentioning twice, not only do they look like they get it: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/ but they act like they get it too https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/rijksstudio-award. The Southbank Centre’s new site is a million times better than their old one, it actually looks vibrant and exciting and diverse (which, I think, is what they want) http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/ – not only does it give a sense of the place but the design would also seem to provide a fairly flexible platform for ‘messing about’ in the future. Important. Another decent effort is from National Theatre Wales (who genuinely are exploring what theatre might look like and be) http://nationaltheatrewales.org/.

Please feel more than free to disagree with me, or to point out other people who are doing ‘good stuff’ (they should be commended) via the comments below or on Twitter, I’m @biglittlethings.

p.s. I do worry sometimes that maybe I just misunderstand the entire situation and I should be more forgiving and patient and there are in fact lots and lots of completely great things happening that I’m simply unaware of. However the more I look, and the more I ask, the less convinced I am this is the case. I am aware there are some people doing good stuff, but I’d say they are very very much in the minority. Equally I am aware (as people have been quick to point out in the past) that this malaise is not unique to the arts sector, I know, but I work in the arts sector, I care about the arts sector and this post is about the arts sector.

Related:

Responses:

This seemed to strike a little bit of a nerve on Twitter n tha’, a few responses below…

Valid point about design vs function from @ammeveleigh

@etiennelefleur indicated that he thought my focus was too firmly on websites and digital at the expense of organisations’ core mission/purpose (which I disagreed with but it was an interesting discussion)

and then the always-excellent Chris Unitt wrote this very good response (far better researched and referenced than my original blog! I’ll write something properly considered in response to a couple of his points)

Some people definitely thought I’d over-exaggerated the importance of digital, although I’d argue this viewpoint is part of the problem that could land us all, as a sector, in trouble quite soon. And I am never arguing that digital is more important than ‘core’ activity, core activity/purpose/mission/whatever is the starting point for absolutely everything.

But it was also good to see that people seemed to agree (and yes this is bordering on the self-congratulatory but I don’t care)

Digital strategy: why, how…wait…why again?

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months pondering questions of strategy, partly because I’m a deeply boring person and partly because it’s sort of my job.

I was half following the discussions at today’s Leeds Digital Lunch which was attempting to define (or at least explore) the question of a city-wide digital strategy for Leeds, now I was only following things at a distance, via Twitter, so there is no question that any sort of nuance was completely lost on me but it did make me even more sure of a few things that’ve been on my mind of late.

Every now and again I’m asked to help define a digital strategy, whether that’s at work or inputting into things other people are doing elsewhere.

Let me say this now, and loudly (imagine all this is written in caps): a digital strategy, on its own, is a pointless thing. Completely pointless. You may as well have a ‘chairs strategy’ or a ‘conversation strategy’ or an ‘indoors strategy’. Saying you have a digital strategy, or you need a digital strategy doesn’t really mean anything. I understand why these conversations happen, digital (especially in the arts sector) has come to be an awful, nebulous, catch-all term for…well, sometimes it seems to cover anything that involves electricity, or technology – i.e. it is so broad and indistinct as to be almost completely meaningless.

Someone said recently (and I forget who so, sorry): “it’s a layer.” Now, the fact that they didn’t really define what ‘it’ was seems to back up my earlier point, but this definition seems to get closest to what I think people are describing when they talk about ‘digital’. And this brings me to my second point of frustration about the drive towards a digital strategy, it isn’t really a thing, digital (or at least what I think people mean when they say ‘digital’) is reaching a point of all-pervasiveness which means it enables, represents or engages with almost every single thing we do. In and of itself it isn’t really anything, social media is just conversations and other socially interactive behaviour but carried out and represented via the internet and web-enabled technology. Take it out of that context and into the real world and it’s just…talking and that. The same could be said of many, many ‘digital’ activities and functions – ‘digital’ (and yes I’m keeping the apostrophes every time I write it) is something that bleeds into everything your organisation does, and if it doesn’t at the moment it will do in the not too distant future. The advance of digital, technological development and all that jazz has fundamentally altered (or some might say irrevocably damaged) industry after industry, and it’s not going to stop.

Your digital strategy, if we’re still admitting that it might be a thing that exists, should be something that exists in terms of how you’re going to think about every other element of what you do. It is something that enables other activity. It is, in my view, probably more influential over tactical activity than your strategy itself.

“We aim to reach new audiences” – strategic aim. How you achieve that can be done in any number of non-digital ways, however digital can also play a part in helping you meet this aim in conjunction with the non-digital, revelation time – you do not need a digital strategy to accomplish this.

Saying “we aim to reach new audiences online by filming our work and putting it on youtube” is NOT A STRATEGY, that is a description of tactical activity.

All too often I see and hear people describing a succession of activities that don’t really have anything at all to do with anything and trying to call that a digital strategy. Being more active on social media, improving your website, creating more content, making better use of your data – not a digital strategy. Just ‘doing more stuff online’ isn’t strategic if you don’t have any clear idea about WHY you are doing it.

The sooner we stop thinking of ‘digital’ as this thing we can put a ring around the better, the relentless speed at which technology develops (and behaviours and attitudes along with it) means that the moment you start trying to define it you’re already out-of-date and becoming less relevant with each passing moment. People get far too hung up with specific technology, or platforms. We should be able to step back and look at what we are are trying to achieve and assess the tools available to help us do that. Now many of these tools are likely to be technological (or ‘digital’) in nature, however we don’t need a separate strategy to tell us that. I really feel that a sensible organisation would have, by now, realised that the ‘digital strategy’ debate is a distraction, it should simply be part of everything we do, because it probably already is.

So there we have it, my two problems: 1) I think a lot of people misunderstand what strategy actually is and 2) a digital strategy makes no sense, “it’s a layer”.

Discuss!