20th November 2017

Smarter Cultural Journeys: What we have heard

Andrew Larking
Creative Director

Our findings from 12 weeks research into the UK’s arts and culture sector.

This is the second post in our series for Smarter Cultural Journeys – a research project Deeson is undertaking with the support of an Innovate UK grant. The question to be answered is: can digital technologies help the sector to increase engagement and advocacy? And if they can, how?

We have now completed the research phase of this project and have moved onto the production of two technology prototypes which will be the subject of future posts. Here we describe our research processes, what we have been told, and how it has steered our thinking.

Research methodology.

In the first post we discussed at a high level some of the research we had undertaken and our initial findings. We used a variety of techniques during this phase including:

  • Surveying 1,435 school age children.
  • Surveying 160 secondary school teachers.
  • Interviewing 18 sector leaders covering most disciplines and geographic areas of the UK (we have spoken to several of these people multiple times).
  • Reading and analysing strategic and vision statements for the majority of our national museums and art galleries where available.
  • Reading and analysing sector led research into the use of technology for audience engagement.
  • Speaking to suppliers of digital technologies to the sector.
  • Interviewing people from what could be considered “competing” sectors. 

The interviews had a basic structure to keep them fairly consistent, but we did let people meander and we asked more contextual questions where needed. Everything has been recorded, transcribed, and anonymised.

The school surveys ran across five schools, both state and private. The data was collected on our behalf by school staff and after being normalised was also anonymised. Each student was provided background information on this project and the sector before the survey was run.

The research materials will be included in the final report and will be made available upon request.

What the sector said.

Our discussions with the sector and its audiences were refreshingly open and candid. It is rare to find a group of people so aware and so willing to discuss the difficulties they experience in their areas of work. The obvious and never ending issues of reduced government funding aside, we were surprised with some of the key areas the sector has highlighted as worrying:

  • Inclusivity is still a major issue.
  • Poor product definition.
  • Digital expertise is hard to find.
  • Reduced funding and low commercial awareness.
Community programme at Peckham theatre

Image from Peckham Theatre


The words “arts” and “culture” are loaded. For many, they conjure visions of smartly dressed white people listening to Bach or watching ballet. The sector has a major identity issue, which is sad because its offer is for everyone.

I like to believe that I would struggle to find someone who cannot appreciate the abilities of the performers, or the stories of the objects. However, I understand the perception issues and I understand that how the sector portrays itself currently makes many people feel uncomfortable.

..funding is the challenge to make sure that we are as inclusive as possible.

Anonymous respondent

The issue is not so much the available material but how unevenly spread the funding is, and how the sector speaks about itself. Part of this is historical – it costs more to maintain a large museum than it does a local community led project. However, the spread of wealth seems, from what we have heard, to be stacked against the non-national institutions.

Over time, this has led to more people feeling that the sector is not for them and has no interest in their culture or history. As a result, the smaller and more diverse groups have withdrawn and found alternative ways to move forward. It has now affected their ability to recruit from more diverse groups, resulting in a less diverse offer, which perpetuates the issue.

Is inclusivity a problem? Yes, absolutely. We can even see it in our recruitment. This is the least diverse organisation I have ever worked for.

Anonymous respondent

The obvious answer is outreach and planning a wider offer from day one of any new project. Having spoken to community groups filled with amazing talent, they would jump at the chance to work with a gallery or museum or theatre to help produce relevant material for their local community. While this is happening in some institutions, the level of outreach is not nearly enough.

The culture sector exists for all of us, yet at time struggles to understand its audience’s needs.. We have heard many marketing departments complain that they find it almost impossible to speak to anyone who wasn’t their core audience because they simply don’t know who these “other people” are. Outreach to, and analysis of, less understood groups will solve this problem. It will make people feel more welcome, and it will give the teams responsible for planning a roadmap of events the data they need.

Poor product definition.

The opera, ballet, and theatre can be sobering experiences. As is seeing the Apollo 10 Command Module, or the skeleton of a long extinct animal. The culture sector is incredible at creating these experiences but struggles to recognise that the experience is only part of the overall product.

Before 2007, people would buy a mobile phone, take it out of its box and consider the phone as the product. The novelty soon wore off and it became just what it was – a phone. This is how the culture sector currently works.

When Apple released the iPhone, they changed the game. The product is not only the device itself but the entire experience, from one keynote announcement to the next. The iPhone “product” has never lost its shine because it’s forever new. The way Apple teases its customers, the quality of design in the packaging, the way they talk about the phone as a work of engineering art, the follow up applications and improvements and new features, and eventually the next launch event and next level of anticipation. All of this comprises the iPhone product, and it has changed an industry.

Apple store queue

Image from cnbc.com

This is how the culture sector must start thinking of itself. Your collections, people, galleries, and experiences combine to create your product. They must all align in support of each other, and they must build upon each other. If they don’t, you start to look confused. People start wondering what you are, and your quality is lessened.

The marketing and public engagement teams that we spoke to understood this. The people who look after the brand specifically understand the importance of a considered and planned customer journey. They understand the need for a consistent offer across the physical spaces, the web, social, ticketing systems, the cafes, and the shops. However, they struggle to create business cases for this level and type of thinking, and to overcome the legacy of inter-departmental politics.

We heard many times that getting every department to think of themselves commercially, and to understand how their offer needs to align to a larger vision, is one of their biggest challenges.

We don’t have the technological knowledge in this building. Our knowledge is to present art to people.

Anonymous respondent

Digital expertise.

An understanding of “digital expertise” can mean, for this sector, primarily one of two things. 

  1. Understanding what modern technologies can achieve in public spaces and delivering them through world-class physical experiences.

  2. Knowledge of a customer experience-led service definition process that meets the wider strategic needs of the organisation. 

The sector has the first covered. The digital teams in this sector that design and build the galleries and events are world leading. They are called upon from all over the world to help and support museums, galleries and theatres. These teams are one of the sector’s brightest assets.

However, we see very little evidence that the sector is able to do the second. Broad use of digital channels, content marketing, profiling and customer targeting, mapping the entire engagement circle, and understanding the psychological nudges required to convert people into visitors is the role of a Customer Experience (CX) designer.

CX is a superset of User Experience (UX) and takes into account every touchpoint a person will have with you, from the first time they see your logo to the way they open the box your product arrives in. It encompasses but is not exclusive to digital – however, it has a major impact on how you use digital to attract more people.

When a business decides to hire and listen to CX designers, it’s usually because they realise their commercial offer isn’t competitive. The lack of CX designers in this sector is further evidence that the issues we hear about are not so much down to reductions in grants or not being able to attract digital expertise. They’re down to the sector not understanding that their offer extends beyond their walls and into people’s homes, and then hiring the people who work in these areas.

Your social media team may be the best in the business, but without a vision and an understanding of the wider picture they will be fairly ineffective. And so we would reframe the challenge as not a gap in digital expertise, but a gap in combining broader customer journey knowledge with the strategic needs of your organisation.

We have researched CX in museums and found that while many people have very recently started to talk about it, they think of it as the shop and cafe experiences. CX is much broader than this. It’s about the journeys people are on, whether they are in your shop or in another country. We predict that CX will be big in this sector starting in 2018.

Commercial awareness.

For centuries this sector has been considered a national expense worth paying for. The benefits to society outweighed the cost. Museums were places of cutting edge research and learning, inspiring people to engage in education and go on to form the next generation of great minds.

Our art galleries were there to inspire us, to show us the purpose and value of thinking in new and abstract ways. Our theatres and the opera were our entertainment, introducing new languages and cultures and platforms upon which to analyse our world. The sector was broad in scope and deep in impact – of course it was worth the money!

But the world moves on. And with it so must we all. 

People no longer need to travel to be entertained, to see great art, or to learn and be part of cutting edge research. Radio, television, the internet, and the yet to be named digital omnichannel mess we now inhabit have granted us immediate access to every piece of information we could possibly need; every song ever recorded, every film ever made, every documentary, every place on the planet. To access it, all we need to do is to take out our pocket computers and ask them to show us.

The culture sector is being left behind. The people we’ve spoken have told us “we haven’t even tried to keep up”. Official visitor statistics show the number of visits decreasing year on year since 2013.

When your income stream is no longer guaranteed and your primary KPI falling this fast, a lack of rapid and broad change to address it demonstrates poor commercial awareness. 

Museums, galleries, the theatre, the opera – they are businesses. They compete in a commercial world against every brand on the planet. It is just as common for people to ask “shall I go to the museum, or the park” as it is for them to ask “shall I go to the gallery, or buy some new shoes.” Nike, Lego, Angry Birds – they are all your competition.

Understanding how to position yourself commercially and create an offer that will increase visitor numbers whilst also driving a profit, is a crucial but alien concept to the majority of people who have spent their lives working in a sector primarily paid for by the public.

Let us be clear – the drastic change in how an entire sector has to behave over such a short period of time, and the huge challenges that brings, is something no sector is able to deal with quickly (look at what Apple did to Blackberry, Nokia, Blockbuster etc). There is no blame to partition here, however, the sector needs to speed up the recovery processes. Commercial thinking can be alien and difficult, but it brings with it new and exciting opportunities. 

A commercial entity is free to think of digital visitors as having the same value as physical visitors. You are free to pursue more partnerships, to produce, market, and sell new products. The shift in funding may be a challenge, but it is refreshing and brings with it new people with new ideas. 

Image from philharmonia.co.uk

Image from philharmonia.co.uk

The Philharmonia Orchestra’s Playstation VR experience is a beautiful piece of work and an excellent example of commercial thinking, as is the choice to publish it on the Playstation store. With one product they have demonstrated an awareness and understanding of a new audience type and the demands of that audience. They have began to talk to them on the platforms they already use. They are giving people the opportunity to experience their offer without a physical visit – one of the biggest hurdles this sector has. The experience cuts across physical, social, and cultural barriers. Anyone can have a go without feeling uncomfortable about what they are wearing or how they look. Use of digital technologies is not about being new and glitzy, it’s about making people feel welcome. The Philharmonia VR app is a perfect example. 

When speaking with school aged people they made it clear – they aren’t interested in going to a museum or art gallery but they are interested in what you have and fascinated at what you have to show. The sector has to abandon this idea that getting people through the door of a single building, normally in London, is how they will remain relevant.

And the sector shows clear signs that it understands this. Many people that we spoke to were crying out for digital delivery of their offer as a way to expand what they can say and show, and a way to attract wider audiences. We heard incredible ideas and met with people full of passion and energy. But something is slowing them down and we can’t believe it’s down to what we were told – lack of digital expertise.

A hypothesis.

We believe that many of the issues we’ve been told about can be fixed by taking two steps. The first is to understand that you are a business and that as such nothing comes for free. You have to earn your place in people’s lives, and you have to earn the money to exist. The second is that the sector has to actively engage in public outreach with a scope far greater than any seen before.

Deeson is a digital agency that designs and builds sophisticated platforms based upon user and business needs. Our process revolves around understanding why you need the product built. What will it unlock for you? What would not having it mean for your bottom line? How will people use it, and who are these people? If you asked any digital agency to reinvent the arts and culture sector we would use our standard processes to do it.

We’d agree on a set of strategic goals to achieve a vision, and we’d create a roadmap of smaller tactical deliverables which align to that goal. We’d then ensure that the teams accountable for delivering these smaller pieces understand the larger vision, and how their work will help the sector to achieve it.

We’d then talk to the users to find out what they want. And once we know, and we have a hypothesis for what we’ll do, we’d talk to them again to test it, and to see how much they care.

So this is what we will be doing next. We are working with two partners to test the theory. We will engage with an audience group the sector is struggling to impress, and through two different but readily available technologies we will create and test a new offer and measure the impact. In brief: does community engagement coupled with rapid development of relevant technology-led experiences allow you to build wider relationships and engage with more people?