What Online Marketers Can Learn from the Arts Sector (and vice versa)

I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference on digital engagement in the arts sector. The conference took place in Brighton and was hosted by Culture24.

Culture24 is a non-profit organisation with a mission “to support the cultural sector in reaching online audiences”. The conference was in some sense a launch event for their newest research, in the form of a report titled Let’s Get Real 2.

[Quick sidenote: The first Let’s Get Real report was released in 2011, and became the starting point for an 11-month research project which brought together 22 cultural organisations to learn about “the practical use of technologies to gather data and how to draw meaningful insights from this”. The result of this research is the Let’s Get Real 2 report.

The full report can be downloaded from the Culture24 website.]

But what I want to talk about today is how we, as SEOs and digital marketers, can learn from this research coming out of the arts sector and use it to help us do our jobs better. So I’ve put together a few  general takeaways from this conference which resonated with me, and which I’d like to see us SEOs and online marketers thinking about more:

1. your target market is an ‘audience

One of the recurring buzzwords of the day was ‘audience’. I know that we as marketers do sometimes use the term ‘audience’ to describe our target market, but how often do we think about what that word means?

Consumers and customers seek you out in order to satisfy a need for a product or service. This is not engagement, this is purely transactional.

Audiences, however, come to see and hear you because they are interested in what you have to say and/or show to them, and in some sense they want to engage with that. For performing artists, the audience is an active participant in the performance.

This concept of a target market being an ‘audience’ is also related to the idea of ‘communities’ and ‘community building’. But while the term ‘community’ correctly emphasises the leveled playing field and the conversational aspect of good online marketing, ‘audience’ reminds us that our communities still need to get value from us as part of that conversation. There needs to be an element of added value for your audience to bother engaging with you.

The main reason that I like the concept of an ‘audience’ is the performative aspect. How often do we think about our work as performance? But in some sense it is. And what I love about a live performance is the spontaneity, the playfulness, and the fun that comes from interacting and engaging with an audience.

So how can we translate that interaction to the world of marketing? What are you giving your audience to engage with?

2. driving organisational change through data-driven insights

‘measure what you value, don’t value what you measure’ – Jane Finnis, Let’s Get Real 2013 conference

The emphasis of this report was on data, and there are two sides to this data issue.

1) First, there is an issue of getting people onboard with data-driven decision-making. Even at big companies this can be a problem. Ben Cordle, from TimeOut London, described how they had to make the shift from evaluating content based on whether the editor liked it, to evaluating content based on user response. Charlotte Richards, Head of Insight at Penguin Books UK, said that when she first started at Penguin, many employees thought they didn’t have any data to work with, despite all the spreadsheets and files they worked with daily. (For more on the Penguin Insight Hub, you can read her blog post here.)

This is one of my favourite takeaways, actually: the need to educate your entire organisation about the use and value of data. Charlotte did it at Penguin by hiring approachable data geeks that other employees felt comfortable asking questions.

The V&A Museum takes the approach that, when asked a question about analytics data, they provide Google Analytics access to the employee asking the question along with training in how to use the GA interface.

The Tate made a point of running GA workshops throughout the organisation to make sure that all their employees had the opportunity to understand and use GA.

So the first step in instituting data-driven decision-making is to make sure that everyone understands and values data.

2) The second issue, however, is that even when people see the value of data-driven insights, they still want to use the wrong metrics. This happens a lot for arts organisations who have to report to funding bodies with useless metrics such as Facebook likes. For cultural organisations, ROI is an especially non-useful metric.

But even for those of us working in more corporate environments, we often see the same issue with executives and C-suite officers who don’t know what metrics they should care about. This is where the quote above comes in: ‘measure what you value’. The report notes that ‘measuring value is subjective and must always be personal’. Nevertheless, they recommend that organisations approach this issue by thinking in terms of value:

For cultural activities, where success criteria (or performance indicators) are often not financial, this becomes a search to measure value

To better understand digital engagement, cultural organisations need to explore what and who they value, as well as understanding what their audiences value, before exploring how these can be enhanced through digital channels. 

Combining these two things then: an understanding of the value of using data, and then an understanding of what is actually valuable data, is an essential part of a digital strategy.

3. digital should be an aspect of everything we do

This is another insight from Jane Finnis’ keynote presentation (in which she presented some key findings from the report):

No one under the age of 20 even talks about ‘digital’ anything anymore. It is simply a part of everything – communications, transport, retail, entertainment, education, medicine etc.

She makes a valuable point about the importance of having an integrated marketing strategy, without hard distinctions between the ‘sales team’ and the ‘marketing team’ and the ‘digital team’ and the ‘content team’ (and so on). This is a topic which has been much discussed recently in a more corporate context over on the Econsultancy blog.

It’s so easy for us, who are surrounded by industry jargon, to get caught up in the web of ‘digital’ this and ‘mobile’ that. But if we want to think like a consumer it’s far better to think in terms of user behaviour and user intent. We need to create a ‘seamless user experience’ across devices and offline as well. The future of search will focus much more on user intent and behaviour than on explicit keywords or individual devices. Will Critchlow has spoken about this topic in-depth recently at MozCon.

4. your ‘About Us’ page shouldn’t sound like a funding application

“Your About page shouldn’t sound like an Arts Council application”

This was a tip gleaned during the website critique session, which featured a panel with Anra Kennedy from Culture24, UX expert Andy Budd, founder of Clearleft, and Adam Gee from Channel4.

This is obviously a soundbite geared towards arts/culture organisations, but surprisingly corporate ‘About Us’ pages are very guilty of this. They tend to use bland, corporate language and lack any sort of brand voice.

Hannah Smith recently wrote a great post on ‘why great content shouldn’t just live on your blog’, and she points out the Innocent Drinks ‘About’ page as a great example of a brand doing it well. Innocent are frequently used as an example of this type of thing…because they’re one of the only companies who are doing it right.

Your About page is a great chance to showcase your brand’s personality. But so many companies have About Us pages which read like a funding application.

So what about yours?


So far, I’ve focused on what we can take from this research and apply to our own work.

So lastly, I do want to flip it around and say to the arts and culture organisations:

5. SEO is important too

Throughout the course of the conference, no one really mentioned ‘SEO’, or ‘keywords’, or even ‘search engines’. The only time we came close was in a presentation from GOV.UK’s team, when they were describing how they used the Adwords Keyword Tool to determine how people searched for government information.

And while we SEOs can perhaps spend too much of our time worrying about minor keywords and links, there is a good reason: it’s important.

You can have the most beautiful website in the world, the best venue, the greatest product, but it’s not going to succeed if no one knows about it. And to me, that’s why SEO is valuable. SEO is how you help people find you. So don’t neglect the technical aspects of digital.

I asked this question during the conference:

The heavy emphasis today at #LGR2013 seems to be on web analytics; but what other elements should go into a good digital strategy?

— Bridget Randolph (@BridgetRandolph) September 16, 2013

And I got a response which said:

@bridgetrandolph Personally I believe the key is to not have distinct digital and offline strategies, but one fully integrated strategy.

— Graham Jones (@_gtj) September 16, 2013

Now I don’t mean to pick on Graham, and it should be stated that on a ‘big picture’ level he’s absolutely right. He’s right to point out that Digital is not some mysterious ‘Other’ thing, separate from the rest of our marketing and engagement efforts.

But we can’t forget that digital technology is a technical subject and requires technical expertise to do it well. And therefore, the only way to have a ‘fully integrated strategy’ is if we understand the technical elements which go into a successful website/online presence.

SEO is an integral part of that success. Don’t forget about it!


Do you work with an arts/culture organisation? Do you think these concepts are valuable in other arenas? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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