Digital Transformation in Cultural Organisations

What opportunities does it present, and what are the challenges facing cultural organisations as they adapt to meet the needs of audiences in the 21st century?

Parts from four early computers, 1962

Parts from four early computers, 1962. Wikipedia. Public Domain.

What does digital transformation mean for cultural organisations, museums and institutions? What opportunities does it present, and what are the main challenges facing cultural organisations as they adapt to meet the needs of audiences in the 21st century? How can they develop effective digital strategies and adopt new technologies to connect with their audiences and showcase new kinds of artistic work?

‘Digital transformation’ as a phrase can mean a huge variety of things depending on your interpretation. But I want to focus on the opportunities that digital technology, and an associated way of thinking about openness, transparency and sharing, can bring to arts organisations and cultural institutions.

First of all, artists nowadays have a whole range of new tools, media and sources of inspiration to work from. The Internet, its culture and its aesthetics have inspired plenty of writers, artists, designers and musicians to work in new ways and to experiment with new formats and materials. The Internet has allowed a generation of creative people, who might never have considered themselves artists before, to create imaginative work.

In the UK, for instance, there has been an increase in new forms of interactive and participatory theatre. The work being done by Punchdrunk, Coney and Pilot Theatre has blurred the boundaries between audience and actors, and between theatre and game, in new, exciting ways. The Royal Shakespeare Company, led by head of digital development Sarah Ellis, has adapted its ways of working and commissioned a range of imaginative and stimulating digital work from a new generation of artists.

The relationship between artists, cultural organisations and their audiences has changed radically, and there are many ways in which organisations can capitalise on these changes to create a stronger and deeper connection with their audiences. Digital networks and communication channels allow us to gain deeper insights into an audience’s behaviour and preferences, and they help us talk to them as equals, as partners and co-producers, not just as consumers or customers.

One very good example of a museum making efforts to build on these new relationships is the Brooklyn Museum in New York, which has developed ASK, a new app aimed at enhancing the visitor’s experience with live chats, information and resources as they tour the collection:

Open data and the improved use of analytics are helping cultural organisations and businesses in the creative sector become more effective at what they do, improve the return on their investments and meet the needs of their audiences. Open data is also leading to the development of new applications and services based on ‘hacks’ or creative re-use of shared data.

Although ‘data-driven decision making’ as a strategy has not yet been widely implemented throughout the cultural sector, the implications of data and its potential to improve the efficiency of decision making in organisations is increasingly being recognised.

In 2011/12, Arts Council England, together with Nesta and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, launched the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts —a major, 3-year research and development funding programme for arts organisations and cultural institutions to work alongside a technology partner and academic researchers.

The goal of this programme was to enable experimentation and digital development in two main directions: testing new business models and new methods of engaging audiences; as well as fostering a more rigorous approach to research and evaluation in the cultural sector. The evaluation report makes for very interesting reading about the approach of cultural organisations to the changes that have been brought about by digital technology.

It is clear that changing the business models of cultural organisations (i.e. deriving new sources of revenue from digital channels/content) is more challenging than finding new, imaginative ways to deepen the relationship with audiences. The programme has resulted in the publication of a toolkit for arts organisations to help them develop new business models based on digital content, and this guide can be downloaded here:

The relatively few successful examples of e-commerce or income generation through digital distribution (e.g. National Theatre Live, Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall) point to a challenge when it comes to making money from digital content in the cultural sector, especially for small and mid-scale organisations. The initial cost of building a website, plus ongoing maintenance, can make it difficult for smaller organisations to benefit from the potential of new revenue streams.

But having said that, innovation is often led by the smaller, more agile organisations in the sector, who find imaginative and adaptive solutions to offer their work online or to enhance the connection with their audience (e.g. LUX, Beaconsfield, The Poetry School, to name just a few).

Crowdfunding and online donations have been used with increasing success and regularity, but they are not a reliable long-term source of funding for cultural organisations in the absence of sustainable commercial revenue.

Alongside their evaluation of the R&D Fund, Nesta and MTM London have published the results of a 3-year study on the digital habits of cultural organisations in the UK and how their digital ‘transformation’ has evolved over this period, showing how the use of digital technology and the adoption of digital strategies have impacted the cultural sector.

Digital strategy

So, what are some of the most important steps for cultural organisations to take when responding to these opportunities and planning their own digital strategies?

  • Ask the right questions. This first stage is absolutely vital, although it is unfortunately  ignored or put aside quite often. Organisations should be very practical when considering how to build an effective digital strategy and how to make the most of the opportunities afforded by new technologies. Above all, they should ask themselves: how can this help us reach our goals? How can it contribute to or improve our business model?
  • Be practical. Don’t just build a new website or app because you think you need one. Make the most effective use of your existing tools. Make sure that your investment in digital strategy is sustainable and contributes to your organisation’s objectives and business model.
  • Integrate the digital component into the organisation’s whole strategy, don’t just have it be an add-on. This way of thinking (which involves openness, sharing, better communication and collaboration with audiences) should permeate every part of the organisation’s work: from production to ticketing, from marketing to design, and from evaluation to research. If everyone in the organisation buys into the strategy, and understands how it will benefit them, the transformation process will be much more effective.
  • Understand the power of data. Data can be enormously useful if it is collected and used in the right ways. But understanding the data an organisation holds, gathering it and ‘cleaning it’ so that it can be used to inform decision making, takes time and requires a clear understanding of analytics.
  • Base your strategy on audience behaviour and evidence-based insights into your audience’s needs and preferences. Understand how audiences use your existing website(s) or respond to your existing social media presence and figure out what they want from it before investing in new platforms.
  • Create a clear action plan. Include regular reviews and clear responsibilities for each person involved.
  • Above all, think of ‘digital’ not just in terms of new technologies or infrastructure, but in terms of a new relationship with audiences (collaboration, co-creation, sharing and openness), and an opportunity to produce and showcase new types of work for a digital age.

Resources and links

  • Over the last five years, Tate has implemented an active digital transformation strategy that looks at the work of all the departments of the gallery. They have shared many of their templates, tools and knowledge from their own process through their website and blog. The series on how to understand audience metrics and an audience’s use of a website is particularly interesting.
  • The Let’s Get Real project, led by Culture24, has helped cultural organisations understand and evaluate the analytics from their websites and their social media accounts.
  • The Collections Trust has produced a helpful benchmarking tool for cultural organisations to measure the effectiveness of their own digital strategies and digital initiatives.
  • Chris Unitt writes an insightful blog on all things related to analytics and data collection for cultural organisations.

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Digital Transformation in Cultural Organisations