Last year After Digital produced a series of Digital Landscape Reports, including one which looked at the environment in which arts and cultural organisations were operating. Since then we’ve gone on to work with some of the UK’s most prestigious arts institutions, such as Wigmore Hall and London Philharmonic Orchestra, and explore some of the opportunities and challenges that digital technologies can offer arts organisations. Now we’ve gone further and invited industry professionals to offer their insights into their own working practices and how they see digital taking shape within their organisations.

In this installment, London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), the Barbican Centre and the National Theatre explain how digital is become pervasive in everything they do, and increasingly no longer centre stage, but the stage itself.

Many will be familiar with the centralised model of digital marketing, where digital production, social media, emails, online advertising and so on, are centrally managed, usually by the marketing department. When digital was in its infancy it made sense that a few, technically-minded specialists managed what few digital tools were available. Digital strategy was considered in isolation and supplementary to traditional marketing. Now, the tools are more accessible, and audiences more expectant and organisations have been reorienting to the digital landscape.

Ryan Nelson, Digital Manager at the Barbican, states that “Digital is just another channel, and is as important as any other marketing channel. Each campaign and project needs to be approached with its own balance of the marketing channels”, suggesting that digital marketing has matured to a point where it is integral to overall marketing strategy. "As a collection of tools that sit alongside traditional channels, marketing teams can employ digital with campaign objectives and the needs of the audience in mind."

This view is similarly reflected at the LPO; Alison Atkinson, Digital Projects Manager explains: “Strategically digital is integrated - there is no separate work effort between digital and physical marketing. One person covers both for each campaign that they are assigned." However, arts organisations, particularly, must remain attuned to the requirements of the audience, the decision to; "go digital first should depend on the audience - LPO’s most loyal and regular audiences are not as digitally savvy,” Alison continues.

This concern for the capability of the audience is drawn from the marketers mantra ‘to be where the customer is, not where you’d like them to be’ even if that means staying offline. The Shed is a pop-up theatre venue that aims to attract new and young audiences, Lena Zimmer, Digital Marketing Officer at the National Theatre explains: “The audience for The Shed is much more likely to engage with us online, so it gives us the opportunity to experiment more than with our regular audiences”.

Experimentation with digital tools and channels may be easier because of lower cost barriers. Often basic web tools, such as social media channels, will be offered free to increase user base and will charge for premium features, such as analytics and advertising. Ryan Nelson offers an example from the Barbican: “when a new app comes out, or social network, we have two options - doing nothing and watch to see if it takes off, but then you might have to play catch up or you just have to jump on, such as vine. If it doesn’t take off you’ve got a bit of content, and you haven’t wasted much money, just a bit of time”.

Time is an important factor, demonstrating that ‘free’ online services are never truly free. Some team members are much more able to capitalise on emerging tools and channels. Ryan continues: “some key members of staff are invested personally in certain channels, so in some areas you take a big leap forward whilst others lag behind”. The situation is similar at LPO, where “different people within the organisation will take a different approach and use different tools”.

Resources and budget can often determine whether an organisation takes an experimental approach or a tried and tested one. Alison of LPO explained that it was often difficult to keep up with technological and social changes on limited budgets and resources deciding to “take the tack of carefully maintaining a few tested channels as opposed to the opposite strategy of trying everything new, which doesn’t suit the majority of [the] audience”.

For larger organisations, centrally controlling and implementing digital strategy can be a daunting undertaking, often resulting in stifled and unengaging content and communications. It is becoming much more apparent that to form real connections with audiences and meet their expectations, digital marketing, and particularly social media, needs to be more relevant and more authentic and that might mean relinquishing a bit of control.

Ryan Nelson argues that digital needs to; “move from having specialist digital staff who have all the answers to become digital enablers, quality control and strategy for all other parts of organisation”. At the Barbican the digital team do little of the day-to-day campaign work, leaving art form marketing managers to manage social media, email communications and ad buying, which; “makes things faster, more efficient, more authentic, staff are empowered to do things themselves”.

Whilst at the LPO there is not current; “internal procedure to manage risk or social media failure,” but “multiple stakeholders have access to social media to offer a more rounded perspective of the organisation”. At the National Theatre a digital marketing team that incorporates data analysts sits within the marketing department working on standalone digital projects as well as supporting digital elements of the main campaigns. Lena Zimmer explains; “we have a big digital content department, which is separate, and marketing works closely with them to use that content and commission content for campaigns”. Lena cites production trailers as commissioned content, whilst content that might be relevant, such as an education video about Greek theatre that could be used to promote a Greek play that is on sale. She continues; “we also have a digital working group that brings together people from all departments to coordinate strategy and share experiences”.

The experiences of digital marketers in the arts has shown that there is a move away from centralised control structures. Digital marketers and their teams are transitioning to an enabling role as coordinators of strategy and a repository of skills and experience. This can be drawn upon not only by marketers, but all the departments that engage with customers and audiences. A decentralised structure facilitates integration of digital and traditional marketing strategies and allows marketers to deploy much more sophisticated campaigns. This has multiple advantages, not least a more efficient use of time and resources, more technically empowered staff, increased innovation, and greater and more authentic engagement with audiences.

In the next blog in this series we will look at how arts organisations are harnessing the incredible amounts of data they collect and how this impacts marketing decisions.