13th October 2017

Is the culture sector doing enough to engage audiences?

Andrew Larking
Creative Director
Museum interior

Innovate UK has recently awarded funding for a Deeson-led research project called 'Smarter Cultural Journeys'.

Its purpose is twofold: to identify the gaps between the current cultural offer in the UK and the demands of modern audiences, and to test hypotheses for where digital technologies could help to engage with more people in more meaningful ways.

The Innovate UK grant is awarded to businesses delivering "game-changing, cutting-edge innovations with significant potential for impact on the UK economy". We're proud to have been selected for our work building transformative digital platforms for clients in the culture sector.

We've just embarked on the first phase of the research project, and this post is part one in a series that will reveal our processes and findings as we progress.

Why are we doing this?

Without the collective outputs of our artists, writers, museums, galleries, theatres, and performers the world would be a cold, dead place. There would be a dearth of dreamers and visionaries were it not for the sounds, sights, and stories that push us to do more. 

Culture drives the most innovative companies on the planet. Apple, Tesla, Amazon, Google, Space X, and Netflix all owe their greatest achievements to inspiring ideas from this sector. Steve Jobs said it best: "technology alone is not enough – it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing."

Take almost any disruptive product and it is possible to track the origins to a dream created by culture. You can’t escape it, and why would you want to? This sector is an economic driver as much as a socially significant one.

But is the sector doing enough, and does it have the support it needs, to engage with the breadth of new audiences digital is creating? Does it understand who it is serving, and will it be able to adapt to the needs of these new people?

What have we heard so far?

To date we have spoken to 15 leaders in the field and surveyed just over 1,350 school students. It’s too early to draw any definitive conclusions, but some patterns are emerging:

  • Government funding has steadily been reduced, and was slashed in 2013.
  • There is a lack of understanding at the senior level of what digital can offer and how important it is to younger audiences.
  • Customer expectations are evolving faster than teams can create new content.
  • This sector is “not for me” – inclusivity is still a problem. 

Let’s explore each in turn.

Public funding.

In 2013 the government announced a 7% spending cut to the culture as part of their Spending Review. This came as a terrible shock for many. Almost overnight the sector found itself having to think like a business.

Building a relevant brand, marketing effectively, understanding customer demands, and being able to gather and use data to pivot quickly were alien concepts to many. But we are seeing the changes; the sector is responding with new roles, new appointments, new capabilities, new vision statements, and new strategies to achieve them.

In fact the cultural sector is reinventing itself at a phenomenal pace, attracting and hiring incredible people into roles that give them the authority and accountability to transform their offers. And to create something that can compete alongside everything else that is clawing for our attentions.

These people, with the support and experience of their teams, are testing new ways to engage with the public using new technologies, brands, processes and platforms. They are driving their organisations and the wider sector forward.

Digital understanding.

Digital is changing at a rate fast enough that those who understand it best at the end user level will naturally be in some of the most junior positions. But while they tend to lack the business or leadership experience required to run a digital team, they are full of ideas that are going to help the sector engage with more people.

We have not yet heard of any organisation running innovation labs with this group, so it appears that the knowledge held by these digital natives is a largely untapped resource. This represents a potentially missed opportunity to gain insight from the very people the sector is trying to attract.

Customer demands outpacing internal capability.

Digital moves fast, and the demands of your audiences move right alongside it. The experiences that social media, video games, and content channels offer are fuelled by constant technical progression from Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft.

As competition between these giants increases so does the marketing spend and so do the available technologies. The sector in general, with some exceptions, is not embracing these new technologies as fast as the private sector and when they do it is not with a product mindset but a project delivery mindset.

The result is an exceptional experience for the first year, which then quickly loses its shine. 

Not for us.

Inclusivity is a recognised issue (for some institutions more than others) and a lot of thought has gone into improving it. It’s not always possible to tell a story from every point of view, especially in a physical gallery. Some people feel left out, some cultures can’t be accommodated, and some of the story remains hidden.

Digital technologies offer a way around this. You can tell the entire story; you can provide access to everyone no matter their location, language, or any physical challenges they have.

The difficulty is in building, funding, and managing a larger content team. Some organisations can manage this, but many smaller museums and galleries don’t have the funds. It’s a chicken and the egg scenario: you need the visits to get the cash but you need the cash to generate the content that secures the visits.

The general feeling.

It’s clear to us that the majority of this sector understands the importance of digital, that it is the primary method of communication among younger audiences, and that it offers potential for huge growth.

However, it is also clear that the sector is suffering from a legacy of technical and political debt, and that a radical shift away from stale thinking is needed if it is to gain ground over its competitors.

The people we have spoken to have vastly differing opinions on how well they understand and are accommodating the needs of all of their audiences, and even whether they know who all their audiences are.

But the one constant is that they are all open to new ways of doing things, and open to sharing the information they gather across the entire sector. They all believe in the power of digital to have a huge impact on the sector, and they all recognise the very real issues inclusivity and cultural diversity present.

We would like to thank the people we have interviewed so far, and the people we are scheduled to speak with. We’ll continue to publish blogs on this research over the coming months.

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