Digital in the time of coronavirus – if not now then when?

Author: Ash Mann

The last couple of weeks have been chaotic and extremely stressful for most cultural organisations, and the swathes of freelancers who make the sector happen.

As we transition to a new normal where performances are cancelled, mass gatherings are banned and social contact of any type becomes fraught with difficulty, danger and worry the core business of our sector, that of bringing people together, becomes impossible.

However as others have written this situation will end, it may take months, but it is temporary.

Digital resilience, and opportunities

I am under no illusion that the next few months are going to be easy but when thinking about how we can all look to try and use this situation as an opportunity I think we should all be trying to, as much as we can, prepare ourselves to come out of the other side in as strong a position as possible. Because as my pal Rob Macpherson (Managing Director of Creating Impakt) has said, “looking ahead optimistically is good for well-being and can galvanise your team, donors and audiences.

If nothing else this crashing, crushing change will have shone a light on all aspects of the digital agenda in our sector.

Whether that is maturity around flexible and remote working (in terms of both tools and processes but also the required shifts in organisational culture), the robustness of artistic thinking around how we deliver our ‘thing’ online (and whether or not the thinking and market analysis has been done to monetise this), the effectiveness of our digital communications and above all the engagement with our audiences and the role we play in the world.

Whilst some organisations have managed to have thoughtful, nimble, effective and appropriate responses to this new normal others have seemed to struggle – in the shift to an online-only model of engagement and delivery (and the basic operational realities of becoming remote companies overnight) but also seemingly in understanding how best to remain meaningful and relevant.

This current situation, where digital is the only way we can really communicate and engage with our audiences is a radical repositioning of the digital agenda for many organisations – and, perhaps, a big opportunity to challenge some existing thinking.

Consumer behaviour is going to be irrevocably changed by this, how can it not be, we are moving to a situation where most of, if not all, of the world’s population will be confined to their homes for most of the next 3-6 months (or longer).

Digital channels, for many, will be the only way they can communicate with the world and – aside from books – access culture.

What was perhaps seemingly confusing or ‘not for me’ will become normal – see the examples of grandparents (and, even, my parents) comfortably using tools like Zoom.

Whilst I also firmly believe that however many months of enforced isolation will also lead to a noticeable appetite for live experiences. I think we are fooling ourselves if we think this unavoidable shift in routines and behaviour isn’t going to have some lasting effect.

This change is going to be noticeable in every area of our lives, and expectations around cultural experiences aren’t going to be immune to that. We should embrace it.

In order to be able to shift to better meet that challenge I wonder whether some of the following areas are worth your consideration:

  1. You are not your building(s)
  2. Digital requires different skills
  3. Digital requires thought, and resources
  4. Know what bad looks like
  5. Know who you are, who audience is, and what they want from you (and make sure they know what you’re offering)
  6. Digital thinking, digital working
  7. Measure what you value, don’t just value what you can measure
  8. Don’t hesitate

1. You are not your building(s)

The interior of the Natural History Museum in London, sunlight is shining in through the skylights and illuminating the ornate brickwork

This is not a new thought, Ed Vaizey had this to say after his stint at the DCMS:

So if Ed had his time again what would he do differently? “Access – create genuine meaningful access to the arts. The arts is very traditional: I recently had a conversation with a curator from the Natural History Museum. I said ‘if I had my way, I’d turn this into luxury flats and build a purpose-built museum somewhere off a junction of the M25’. It’s great that it’s in the centre of London but it’s a massive Victorian building that costs a fortune to maintain – and the building dictates the experience. If you think about our [arts] collections and the UK’s diverse communities, there are parts of the country where our collections would have the most relevance [beyond these London venues]…”
Arts Professional meets Ed Vaizey

Physical spaces have an undeniable impact on the work we do, and people love the buildings we all get to work and perform in.

However many organisations seem to have shown that they are so synonymous with the building(s) they work in that their thinking can struggle to respond to those buildings being unavailable to them and their audiences. If we as a sector are going to make the most of the current situation then there needs to be a real shift in this.

Whilst we are lucky to work with many organisations who operate beautiful, iconic buildings if we cannot make the distinction between the work we do and the places we do it then we are never going to be able to make the most of the opportunities that digital affords us.

If digital continues to be seen as a ‘just’ a marketing and sales channel then we, as a sector, will get left behind.

It has been interesting to see one of the organisations responding most swiftly has been the National Theatre of Scotland, an organisation who doesn’t have a “home” venue, commissioning digital streams of work within days of shutting down the ‘physical’ programme.

The V&A’s Kati Price shared this fantastic piece from Andrea JonesEmpathetic Audience Engagement During The Apocalypse” which asks “Who are we now that we don’t have visitors?”, and talks about “Letting Go of Our Pre-Virus Identities”. Whilst the piece is written looking specifically at museums I think there are interesting points in there for any type of audience-focused organisation to consider.

2. Digital requires different skills

I wrote my first ‘content is king’ blog post over 10 years ago but sadly all-too-much cultural content is still focused on marketing rather than delivering a meaningful experience or value in its own right.

Whilst marketing is, of course, important the demands and opportunities of digital content now need to be met by experts.

I’ve been interested in this growing field of specialisation for years and am currently reading a couple of good books on the subject (Why you need a content team and how to build one by Rachel McConnel and Content Design by Sarah Richards) which eloquently make the point that the best digital content is produced by, or with the involvement of, content experts.

Often the attitude is that anyone with an English GCSE can turn their hand to copy […] so it’s often deemed acceptable that whoever is available at the time ‘conjures up some words’
Rachel McConnell – Why you need a content team and how to build one

This observation could easily be applied more broadly to attitudes in our sector around lots of content thinking and creation.

I think (/hope) we’ll see a lot of people suddenly realising (if they haven’t already)  that you can’t just stick a camera in front of something and put it online.

Translating “the art” for appropriate digital delivery requires skill and a totally different skillset to delivering it in a physical space. This will likely require you to make connections with digital producers, editors, engineers, multi-camera directors, AR designers, or whatever it might be that’s appropriate for what you’re trying to do.

The time has come for cultural organisations to invest in this reality, allied to the shift in artistic and curatorial thinking that I’ve outlined above you also need talented teams of strategists, directors, designers and producers to bring these artistic visions to life in a way that will hit the mark.

It has been interesting to see artist development organisations like Papatango Theatre setting funds aside to make digital opportunities available with their Isolated but Open programme of commissions .

I wonder if we’ll be left with a more digitally-literate, digitally-confident cohort of playwrights and artists once we’ve come through this. A genuinely exciting, transformative prospect if that is the case.

3. Digital requires thought, and resources

A timelapse image of blue and purple neon lights in a multi-storey car park

I’ve seen a lot of examples of beleaguered folks in digital roles at cultural organisations suddenly being expected to come up with replacements and solutions to the ‘physical programme’ being cancelled at the drop of a hat.

This simply isn’t realistic, effective digital activity takes time and thought to achieve impact. Whilst there are lots of great examples of organisations being able to swiftly respond to events (these examples mostly exist on social media) those examples are usually the result of digital teams who have been invested in and who are embedded in their organisations.

Expecting an (often junior) member of staff who was seen as ‘the digital person’ to immediately shoulder the weight of delivering your organisation in a newly digital-only world (whilst they will also be trying to effectively respond to the maelstrom of change in wider society themselves) is simply ridiculous.

You wouldn’t expect your artistic or curatorial teams to plan, develop, produce and deliver an entire season of activity with no notice so have the same respect and patience with your digital staff.

You don’t need to rush to put stuff out if you don’t have a good idea of why you’re doing it or what value you’re actually delivering for the people you’re aiming things at.

And already this situation is exposing the chronic underinvestment in digital resources and thinking. I don’t just mean money, I mean the lack of engagement between artistic teams and their digital colleagues and the lack of importance that many organisations have historically given to their digital thinking.

This has surely got to change, if not now then when.

4. Know what bad looks like

A half-eaten, rotten apple covered in black ants

Already we have seen a flood of activity as organisations and brands have scrambled to shift to an online-only mode of delivery.

What this has done is meant that the amount of, frankly, terrible content has reached incredible, and incredibly noticeable, levels.

You don’t have to say something. A silence doesn’t always need to be filled.

And for god’s sake if the number of poorly-timed or tone deaf automated marketing campaigns haven’t hammered home the importance of thoughtful, meaningful, useful communication then I don’t know what will.

I have said elsewhere that I think the sector needs to review how it engages with digital – and this probably means doing less, but being more thoughtful about the tools, platforms and approaches that are taken.

As we are subjected to ever more digital ‘stuff’ over the coming months I think we will all develop a keen sense and understanding of what bad looks like, and hopefully this will inform all our thinking.

5. Know who you are, who your audience is, and what they want from you (and make sure they know what you’re offering)

The organisations who have most effectively switched to meaningful online-only mode are those who have a clear and deep understanding of who they are and who their audience is.

See The Met, the National Theatre and the Berlin Phil making their performance footage available for free and switching to digital-only modes of delivery, and the Royal Academy setting challenges around drawing

and encouraging conversations about the art in people’s homes

The ever digitally-impressive Rijksmuseum has been responding with a mix of their digital assets alongside tours around the empty, closed museum

Tate have had hundreds of submissions for their Sunday Sculpture challenge in which they challenged people to pose for one minute with nearby objects to feature within their Stories

View this post on Instagram

🍊 SUNDAY SCULPTURE 🍊 We challenge you, in the spirit of @erwinwurm, to create a one minute sculpture from the comfort of your own home (or garden!) Erwin Wurm (born 1954) is an Austrian artist born in Bruck an der Mur, Styria, Austria. His series of One Minute Sculptures began in the 1990s, using whatever objects, people and settings were nearby. These living sculptures are made of people – anonymous participants, performers, curators, artists and even the artist himself – engaging in unconventional and sometimes physically challenging interactions with everyday objects such as clothing, buckets, balls, doorframes, bicycles and fruit. The improvised nature of the images declare the fun, playfulness and spontaneity that went into the making of each picture. We challenge you to make and hold a sculpture for one minute and post to your story (remember to tag @Tate so we see it!). We'll make sure to share the results so you can see the other masterpieces. Have a funny, sunny Sunday! 🍳💡⚽

A post shared by Tate (@tate) on

There are, of course, numerous other examples.

I’m aware that all of the organisations I’ve just mentioned are large and resource-rich, however they have also spent time, energy and resources exploring how to meaningfully deliver things online (and to whom) over a number of years by trying things and evaluating their efforts.

It’s not a fluke or an accident that they’re now able to respond to the current situation.

Nor does relative wealth guarantee that you’ll be good at this stuff, there are plenty of large cultural organisations who haven’t done anything particularly good at all so far, nor will they.

When I pondered the reason so many orchestras and opera companies seemed well equipped to respond to the new normal the ever-insightful Seb Chan summed it up:

Seb touches on an important point, your audiences are only going to engage with what you’re putting out into the world if they know about it and it’s suitably developed and delivered – this is not something that you’re going to be able to do overnight.

But the current situation allows you to experiment and see what works, or ‘allows’ (forces) you to carry out the critical, analytical thinking to understand what your audiences want, and how you can meet that need.

At the heart of so many cultural organisations is not a mission that necessarily has to be delivered through in-person activity. Shifting core thinking to properly embrace digital will be a challenge for many, but it allows you to embrace the current situation and set yourself up far more robustly for the challenges the modern world will continue to present long after this current crisis is over

Our core mission is about gathering people and so we are going to try to do that digitally now, if we can’t do it physically any more.
Kwame Kwei-Armah
Young Vic artistic director

This is an opportunity to look anew at who you are, and what your purpose is. And if digital is the only option currently available to you, what does that mean? I promise, this will not be wasted thinking.

6. Digital thinking, digital working

It has been sad to see just how few cultural organisations were well set up to shift to remote working. Whilst this sort of operational shift may not seem particularly shiny (I can’t get particularly excited by a shift to Office365), this shift is going to be the way that more and more people work (and want to work, wholly or at least in part) in the not-too-distant future.

And the potential this holds for cultural organisations can’t be under-estimated. As I mention above, what if we see being freed from our buildings as an emancipation rather than a loss, what does that allow you to do that you couldn’t properly consider before?

However alongside a change in tools and platforms, this way of working requires a behavioural and cultural shift to be truly successful. Many of the behaviours that underpin other successful digital activity – open communication, collaboration – are also key ingredients to making this shift successful rather than frustrating. As this article from the Audience Agency says, virtual working is 20% technology and 80% organisational culture and ways of working. ]

Tessitura’s Andrew Recinos has written a good piece outlining his tips for highly effective remote meetings, and Trello have put together a useful guide focused on remote working.

More broadly, successfully working in the digital space requires a relentless focus on your users.

User-centred thinking shouldn’t be new to our sector; audiences, visitors and participants are at the heart of much of what we do, but it can be an initial struggle to shift to the new and different ways that digital initiatives require you to think. Embrace the opportunity to properly and effectively make and embed this shift.

7. Measure what you value, don’t just value what you can measure

A pile of tape measures

Alongside everything I’ve mentioned above I’d encourage you to think critically about how you judge success.

Because if you’re going to have honest conversations about your purpose and the value you deliver to the world, if you’re going to have new ideas, test things and experiment then you also need to have a framework within which you can tell whether or not the idea in question is worth pursuing and is measuring up against the things you’ve decided are important. The Audience Agency’s Katie Moffat has written more on this, “measuring online activity in a locked-down world”..

I want to see us move beyond the vanity metrics we’ve clung to for too long around our digital activity. Whether that existed because of a lack of understanding from colleagues, boards or funders this situation hasn’t really benefited anyone. This attitude and thinking seems to be shifting – not least in the things funders are starting to ask you all to report on and I’d encourage you all to take full advantage of that.

Again this will probably require new thinking around how you measure and evaluate success around engagement, impact and quality – and that will probably require conversations with experts like our friends at Impakt, One Further, Baker Richards, the Audience Agency, MHM and others. Have those conversations.

8. Don’t hesitate

A societal shutdown of 3, or 6 months may sound like a long time, but in reality it’ll be over before we know it.

The current crisis is also an opportunity, an opportunity that has removed some of the overwhelming, all-consuming day-to-day workload that goes into making a cultural institution function.

Whilst we are all grappling with stress and childcare and the demands of remote working and keeping our organisations above water, I really hope that some of this time is used to really engage with thinking around digital.

Use this time to focus on the opportunities we’ve been ignoring for far too long.

We want to help

We are here to offer advice and support, or simply as a sounding board for things you might be pondering.

Whether that’s around working remotely (keeping focused, running meetings and effective internal comms can be the most challenging things when you’re suddenly not co-located with your colleagues or not used to working from home), exploring options around new digital initiatives or simply making connections to people with some of the types of skills we’ve mentioned here.

No charge. It doesn’t matter whether we already work together or we’ve never met, I want to help.

Drop me or Caspian (Head of Strategy) an email on

We’ll get through this together.

Last week we launched Culture Fix, which is our attempt to help aggregate and organise the masses of cultural content that has come online over the past month – whilst also making it easier for audiences to donate to support cultural organisations. You can explore the content that’s been added already, spread the word, and we’d love to hear your thoughts:

We have also made our next Digital Works event, Digital Works #10 free and open to all. This online event will take place on Friday April 17th and will explore Digital Storytelling. We’ll hear from experts including Matt Locke, Hannah Hethmon, Anika Meier and David Sabel.

And last but not least, Caspian has written about “staying relevant in the time of coronavirus“.

Image credits