ACE annual submission

As part of my day job I’ve just had to fill out part of Opera North’s annual Arts Council submission. The ‘digital’ section is all of 6 questions long:

– Do you monitor web metrics for your organisational website? Web metrics are the measures used to quantify the performance of a website, for example page impressions, unique browsers, visits and visit duration.

Please provide the following web metrics for your organisation’s website over the last 12 month period.

– Number of unique browsers?This is the total number of unique devices (e.g. computers or mobile phones) that have made requests to the site in the period being measured.

– Number of page impressions? This is the total number of requests (e.g. mouse clicks) made for a site’s content by users of the site (i.e. unique devices) in the period being measured.

– Number of visits? A visit is a single period of activity by a unique browser.

– How much time have visitors spent on your organisation’s website (in seconds). 

– Does your website have specific content for children and young people aged 0-19 years and / or teachers?

I think that this helps to illustrate my ongoing frustration that it feels that the arts sector doesn’t really ‘get’ the internet/digital/whatever you want to call it, on any meaningful level. These are all ultimately meaningless, vanity metrics. What is this data going to help you to prove? What will it inform? Is there any qualitative information being gathered there? No. Will you get an idea as to how the growth of the mobile web is impacting arts organisations? How organisation’s content is being consumed? Whether audio is more popular than video? Whether blogs are more popular than podcasts? How much ticket buying etc is now happening online? No to every single one of those questions.

It’s interesting that the final question seems to hint towards trying to get some information of value, although when the answer is just ‘yes’ or ‘no’ I’m not sure how deep any insights are going to be. We could have an entire suite of carefully developed educational materials, or we could have a pdf of a handout that is completely unfit for purpose, regardless we would still answer ‘yes’.

But, as ever, maybe I’m missing the point, maybe this is intended to be one big, snapshot, bean-counting exercise designed to create a giant spreadsheet of essentially pointless information.

Although while this is the level of interrogation that the digital element of an organisation’s activity is subject to on a sector-wide basis, from the body that funds everything, I can’t really see things improving any time soon.

White label app development

Someone sent me a link to the Royal Opera House’s app the other day (, interesting – does all the things an app should do i.e. presents content, listings, allows you to buy tickets (to a degree).

I then did a bit of research into the app developer, CloudTix, it would seem they have developed very similar (the same) app for a number of arts organisations. Further research confirmed my hunch that this is a white-label product, specifically for organisations using the Tessitura ticketing system – details here

This chimed with a thought I had the other day (quite possibly whilst at the AMA Conference). Why can’t this approach by picked up more widely? Ultimately the requirements for many arts organisations are, when it comes to an app, whilst not identical, very similar in function at least e.g. sell a ticket, display event listings, deliver content, allow user to share/engage. When it comes to the slightly more complex issue of selling a ticket there are only a certain number of ticketing systems that are widely used – develop something that does the basics well, can connect with the ‘main’ ticketing systems and is developed for platforms other than just bloody Apple devices (Android’s market share is almost 39% at the last check compared to 18% for the iPhone).

Surely a project like this, funded by the Arts Council, would remove a lot of the fear-factor for arts organisations when it comes to developments such as this. Apps are expensive, they are easy to get wrong and to do them properly you need to develop for multiple platforms (i would say at least Android and iOS). A properly, carefully developed white-label solution could be relatively easily rolled out throughout the sector and allow organisations to properly consider, or at least start to consider, the explosion in the mobile web. Even better – make it a true open source project, properly engage with the digital community and get something that starts by doing the basics well and gets better and better without turning into a black hole for funding.

I still don’t believe that apps are the be all and end all, it’s just as (probably more) important to consider how your digital offering (i.e. website) is delivered to mobile devices. There needs to be a recognition that you cannot just deliver the same site to a desktop size screen as you do to a smartphone, the same content – sure – but not the same design and probably not with the same information hierarchy. My preferred route is carefully considered responsive design.

Thoughts, as ever, welcomed.

Building digital capacity in the arts

Back in March (I think) I attended the launch of a new Arts Council England/BBC initiative aimed at ‘building digital capacity in the arts’. Now in my (admittedly short) experience this sort of thing can’t happen soon enough, I’ve had so many conversations with people working in the arts and cultural sector who are either clueless about the potential of ‘digital’ or so fixated on how it’ll solve all their cashflow problems that it actually worries me. Unfortunately almost everything I heard from the speakers at this event seemed to reinforce the latter view i.e. that digital is important (agreed), that it is something that we as a sector need to embrace (agreed!) and that if we do so everything will be ok cos we’ll have an app and a website and everything will be fine (oh god NOOO *hangs head*). Not only did the programme seem misguided in its aims but it seemed to be proposing to take place in an incredibly blinkered way, a series of workshops would take place, mostly in London or Manchester – these would be videoed and then people could watch the videos. That was it, that’s the scheme. Some videos about how to make videos and apps.

The problem with digital capacity in the arts sector (in my view) starts with a widespread lack of understanding regarding a)how digital works, b)the potential of technology and c)how to engage with the technology in a meaningful and sustainable way. To ignore these fundamental issues just means it is surely inevitable that any investment now will have a limited short-term impact and almost zero long-term impact as the very specific short-term skills that’re taught (to a small group of people who can actually attend the workshops or can learn by watching a video of a workshop) will be out-dated relatively quickly and there is no widespread ‘bringing up to speed’ regarding ‘digital fundamentals’ that’d underpin any potential long-term impact or the a. Are ACE/BBC simply proposing to run a series of workshops every time a new technology presents itself? It all seemed hopelessly short-sighted and badly thought out.

There was some interesting chatter from a Google chap about the power of ideas or something similar but in reality that isn’t reflected in any aspect of the actual ‘capacity building programme’, which is depressing and will surely lead to a situation where, in 5 years time the arts sector will once again be massively behind the curve and will need a whole new training programme.

The scheme seems less to be about building capacity and more about teaching very-specific, non-transferable skills to a small group of people that’ll have little wider impact. Which is sad.

My proposal would be that the scheme does what ACE keep saying is important and empowers/equips the highly skilled organisations (there are some out there!) to upskill smaller organisations in their locality. This sort of scheme would surely have a wider reach, would get organisations working together and would be more sustainable than simply getting the Beeb to run a limited number of workshops to a limited number of people?