Digital Culture report 2015 digested

Author: Ash Mann

First things first let me introduce myself, I’m Ash – Substrakt’s new Strategic Director. I’ve been working with arts organisations and in the higher education, media and charity sectors for the past 10 years or so. I expect I’ll be writing fairly regularly here and elsewhere on a variety of issues that we (Substrakt/the sectors we work in) find ourselves faced with.

If you’d like to get in touch to discuss anything I’ve written (or to tell me why I’m wrong) then drop me a line at or I’m on Twitter @biglittlethings. We’re also totally taking requests/suggestions for future posts.

Just before Christmas the 3rd annual ‘Digital Culture’ report was released, this is a longitudinal study looking at the adoption and impact of “digital technologies” in the arts sector. Given that so many of Substrakt’s clients operate in this sector we thought it might be sensible to take a look, below are a few of the report’s key findings and Ash’s thoughts on them.

Ash has written a longer response on his blog.

Marketing leads the way?

One of the main findings of the report seems to be that the vast majority of organisations surveyed see digital as important for marketing first and foremost.

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 14.52.14

Whilst we are usually approached by senior marketing or communications folk about new projects, their ambition typically extends beyond simply making the website ‘a better marketing tool’. Although it does seem that the adoption/understanding of ‘digital’ seems to have been swifter amongst arts marketing professionals than other parts of the sector, in which case it makes sense for them to be the ones leading a project.

It is, of course, disappointing that digital isn’t more widely seen as a route for distribution/exhibition or creation. I suspect this is due to both budgets (which are discussed in more detail below) and the apparent lack of digital professionals employed within the creative departments of arts organisations – I don’t know why this is; perhaps a combination of a lack of money, a lack of understanding around the potential benefits and a lack of available people.

Budgets are tight

As ever, budgets are very tight and this is stopping people from doing things. The people who are spending the most are typically those organisations who have more money anyway (i.e. NPOs – National Portfolio Organisations, specifically the bigger NPOs):

  • more organisations have highlighted concerns around access to finance, with 73 per cent of organisations now seeing lack of funding for digital as a barrier to their aspirations (up from 68 per cent in 2013).
  • National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) are more digitally active, experience fewer barriers, have better access to skills, are more likely to be engaged in R&D activities, and are more likely to report positive impacts. There is also evidence that the gap between NPOs and the others is widening
  • significantly fewer organisations (especially smaller ones) report that they exhibit the R&D behaviours that the survey suggests correlated with digital success, such as experimenting and taking risks, and evaluating the impact of digital work

The most distressing aspect of this being that not only are the NPOs doing more digital activity than other organisations, the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ is widening.

The lack of digital experts is a real problem

respondents report a number of organisation-related factors which might inhibit use of digital technologies. More report there being no senior digital manager in their organisation, IT systems being slow/ limited and there being a lack of suitable external suppliers“. I think the first part of this is most important, if there is no senior, or at least dedicated, digital person in an organisation then digital is never going to get the attention or understanding that it requires (this also relates back to an excellent Chris Unitt post on digital leadership) and if an organisation has very limited funds then they’re not going to free up space on the payroll to employ a dedicated digital person

This issue is even further exacerbated when digital is not seen as important to business models and/or revenue (as indicated by the graph above). It’s hard to make a case for something that you don’t believe is ‘mission critical’ or will have any impact on the bottom line when funds are tight.

The point around there being a “lack of suitable external suppliers” is, I believe, untrue. Although if people are reporting this then clearly work needs to be done around making organisations more aware of the numerous, talented suppliers out there (although, again, if you have no dedicated digital resource looking at this then of course your understanding of the options available is likely to be limited or non-existent), Chris (Unitt) has, once again, done something useful to this end; a big database of suppliers, split by services offered – which can be found here.

Last but not least a project that has a digital specialist on the client’s side is almost always going to be more effective than one without that person. Quite simply they (the digital specialist) will have fewer other issues that they’ll be required to think about and their understanding of a digital project is likely to be deeper and more sophisticated than someone who is picking up digital responsibilities as just one of their many other duties (although this is, of course, not always the case).

The basics are still very patchy

  • 41 per cent now accept online donations (up from 35 per cent in 2013)””
  • outside London around 41-44% (depending on area) of organisations sell tickets online, compared with 54% of London organisations”
  • 40 per cent of organisations still do not have a mobile-optimised web presence”

The above quotes indicate that a majority of the organisations surveyed do not sell tickets or take donations online. Implementing an online ticketing service can seem expensive, intimidating and complicated but it doesn’t need to be any of these things. Whilst it is disappointing to see there are so many organisations who haven’t managed to achieve this yet it is perhaps understandable given the lack of digital expertise in the sector. Taking online donations is far more straight-forward to sort, there are numerous platforms available to charities of all sizes including, for example, Just GivingVirgin Money Giving, BT’s MyDonate and many others.

It also reports that a significant minority do not have a ‘mobile-optimised web presence’ – given that many of our clients are now reporting upwards of 60% of their traffic comes from ‘non-desktop’ devices (i.e. mobile/tablet) this is very worrying. Even amongst those who have some sort of ‘mobile friendly’ website you see those who have implemented online ticketing suffering with a very mobile un-friendly ticket purchasing experience. Encouragingly we’ve had a number of meetings with ticketing providers in recent weeks during which almost all of them have mentioned responsive frameworks are in the offing, if not already being rolled out to clients.

What can we do?

On the one hand the sector clearly has a number of issues around dealing with the adoption and impact of digital; both in the (lack of) adoption of technologies by the sector itself and also in the response of the sector to the impact of a radically shifting digital landscape (and the resulting shift in audience needs and expectations). However we believe that we (and many other talented agencies) are well placed to help the sector respond to these challenges. We don’t just operate within the arts sector, and our broader experience has equipped us with a number of tools, solutions and approaches to dealing with many of the problems the arts sector finds itself grappling with.

It isn’t all doom and gloom, we’ve seen a marked shift in the way clients are thinking about projects, there is a move away from the ‘big bang’ approach (i.e. build something big and complicated over the course of 8-12 months and don’t release anything until it’s all ‘ready’ and then don’t revisit it until it is falling apart 3 years later) of seeing digital expenditure as a capital expense in favour of a more iterative approach (and thus the shift to seeing digital as an ongoing, operational cost), which is to be welcomed and encouraged (this issue is by no means confined to the arts sector and the the always-excellent Paul Boag covers it in this blog post).

The funding issue cannot be ignored, digital needs to be resourced (with people, time and money) just like any other activity that an arts organisation undertakes. I can completely understand the reluctance of organisations to spend money on things they feel are unproven and risky (and this is only going to be exacerbated if there isn’t someone internally with the knowledge and expertise to convince them otherwise) and there were some, seemingly to-be-welcomed, moves from bodies such as NESTA to try and fill the gap when it came to funding ‘experimental’/research projects with their Digital R&D Fund for the Arts. However I’m still not convinced that this has been entirely successful and I certainly see a lot of frustration from within the sector itself that the Fund is ‘focused on the wrong things’ (up for debate) or that its funding model (a small number of fairly significant grants as opposed to micro-funding many projects) is flawed (I’d possibly agree with that). I think there is a clear and growing need around helping organisations achieve a minimum level of digital competency and understanding – perhaps only funders are placed to resource this?

However I think the key issue that this report identifies is the lack of ‘digital people’ within the sector, particularly at senior levels. There can be as many agencies and suppliers as you like but if there is no impetus for change coming from within the sector itself then those external suppliers may as well not exist. Unfortunately this is something the sector has to fix on its own, perhaps those organisations who do have senior digital personnel should be encouraged to share the benefits of having that sort of expertise available within their organisation. There is undoubtedly a growing awareness and acceptance that digital is ‘important’ (even if that is only in a marketing context) but without experienced and effective digital bods in management positions then I’m not convinced that the situation will change as quickly, or as radically as it needs to.

Ash is part of Create Hub’s Industry Experts 2016 panel – more details can be found here.