Going digital

Neil Barr on how digital technology can nurture a healthier arts sector

Squeezed by budget cuts and with reduced access to funds, it’s not an easy period for the arts. But solutions are in the works, many of which can be linked to digital technology, helping to streamline processes and communications thus saving time and money. There are plenty of funding opportunities for innovative projects, born out of the collaboration between arts and creative organisations with digital   specialists, posing some extremely lucrative options for the sector in difficult times.

A prominent example is Nesta. An independent charity working across the UK, the organisation aims to foster innovation and growth in the economy by providing significant investments and grants to mobilise research, networks and skills. Last year it gave out £7.5m (€8.9m) to arts bodies across England and Scotland, helping to develop projects using digital technologies, such as Culture Cloud – a digital portal that allows artists to upload and sell their work online and engage audiences.

Additionally, the Open Innovation Project has been encouraging similar creative collaborations, leading to a number of high profile success stories, with the   Popcorn Horror mobile app, offering users short horror films, being a particularly strong example. For Alienation Digital, this initiative has resulted in us working with Festivals Edinburgh on an innovative new prototype and digital project, which aims to further improve the accessibility of the city’s 12 festivals in 2013.

The beauty of these opportunities is the wide range of areas which proposals can tackle, from user-generated content and social media to mobile   applications, education and learning. Equally as promising, these themes are not restrictive and provide great scope for innovation in the arts.

Besides the cash incentives for pursuing such projects, delving into digital has many other benefits for organisations. Take, for example, the challenge of how to interact with audiences. Traditional methods such as direct mail and offline advertising are quickly becoming outdated, with technology such as social media presenting vast opportunities to make new connections with highly targeted groups.

However, like any successful promotional strategy, content is a major part of the communication process. It should inspire audiences in the same way any good production would, encouraging them to share it with their friends just as they’d discuss a show over   post-event drinks.

Regardless of how creative your outward promotion is, a company can only be as strong as the programmes it curates. Once again, digital technology can further   these ambitions, helping information to be shared between organisations, allowing collaborations to ensue. Collections and archives can be made available to the public, while ‘members only’ areas on websites provide the ideal host for the fermentation of ideas and efficient internal communication.

This is all well and good, but many organisations will still be concerned about the bottom line. Budgets are constantly being squeezed; surely a move to digital will eat into the coffers? Fortunately, this is not the case. In fact, entirely the opposite is true. Digital channels are a great way to stretch marketing budgets in the long term, attracting new cash-paying audiences from far and wide with direct and targeted messages at very little cost.  Integrating robust online ticketing and customer management systems can further expand the reach of   budgets, enhancing overall efficiency and processes.

Scotland’s Pitlochry Festival Theatre took this very approach when it decided to integrate the Tessitura booking system with its new website, improving the online ticket purchase process for customers. The system was put to the test after a huge surge in last-minute sales for its Enchanted Forest event, which led to an increase of 600 per cent in daily ticket sales via the Internet alone, compared to the previous   year. This influx of ticket bookings would have been difficult to manage without the online system and taken considerably more administrative resources.

With the advent of ubiquitous WiFi and mobile technology, digital is also one of the few mediums which can be accessed by fans of the arts from almost anywhere, garnering interest regardless of location. Their activity can then be tracked in detail, allowing organisations to gauge what punters are viewing, helping to refine the overall on and offline offerings. The collected information can be measured, analysed and compared to develop a digital strategy which aligns with quantifiable goals and achievable targets.

Despite all this potential, a succinct digital strategy will only be successful if aligned effectively with overall organisation objectives and integrated with offline   marketing activities. All too often, regardless of sector, organisations feel the need to blindly keep up with trends, immersing themselves in a relatively unknown   medium – thus wasting time and money chasing perceived objectives.

Our advice inverts this practice: encouraging digital strategy to grow out of objectives, ensuring new technology is not adopted simply to keep up with the Joneses. Digital technology can help you achieve your goals and foster creativity, but it can only do so based on a thorough understanding of your organisation, objectives and audience.

Neil Barr is the managing director of UK creative digital agency Alienation Digital. His experience with arts and cultural organisations includes work for Venue Cymru   and Edinburgh’s Usher Hall.