Agile commissioning and the arts

Arts organisation search engine

Last week I knocked together a search engine for UK arts organisations.

Why did you do that, Chris?

Honestly? It was partly for a joke and partly because it was easy enough to do. It started with posting the news that Arts Council England are commissioning a £1.8m ‘Multi-Channel Network for the Arts’ on the CulturalDigital forum.

That led to a few tweets, including this exchange:

Twitter conversation

Putting together a custom search engine on top of Google isn’t tricky. Just go to‎ and follow the instructions.

To populate the search engine I used the list of URLs for the 100 arts organisations in my Arts Analytics sample. Amusingly enough, a few people didn’t want to miss out on the fun, so I set up a submission form and have since added the illustrious likes of the Wellcome Collection, Shakespeare’s Globe and National Museums Scotland.

Other custom search engines of this ilk include:

  • JURN: a search-engine dedicated to indexing free and ‘open access’ ejournals in the arts and humanities
  • which searches about 50 museum website collections sites

I’m not expecting it to be used much. As far as I’m aware there’s no general clamour for a niche search engine of this sort. If it does pick up traction then maybe it could be turned into a thing, fleshed out a bit and supported properly. What’s more likely is that it’ll sit around for a bit and pretty soon be forgotten about entirely.

Ok then. Is there a bigger point to be made here?

Why yes, I suppose there is. This is from ACE’s guidance doc relating to the commissioning of the multi-channel network:

Our hypothesis is that there is unmet demand on YouTube and other video
platforms for high quality arts content from audiences, if it is aggregated, packaged
and presented in the right way.*

The Arts Council’s approach to testing that hypothesis is to commit £1.8m over the course of a four year project. I would humbly suggest that that approach is insane. Or brave. But mostly insane. And increasingly outdated.

If I was involved in this I’d be asking some questions:

  • Where has this hypothesis come from?
  • What’s the quickest way to validate it?
  • How different is the digital video landscape likely to look in four years time?
  • If the opportunity’s so good, why have the existing MCN companies not taken it upon themselves to create one for the arts yet?
  • Is an MCN definitely the answer or is there another way to meet the challenges that have been identified?

I’m not saying that an MCN for the arts is a bad idea – maybe it’s a great idea. It’s just that this way of commissioning grand projects is open to all sorts of things going wrong. There are smarter, simpler ways to start than jumping in with both feet.

An encouraging sign

I was very interested to see the Government Digital Service’s post last week about Getting approval for agile spending. They sign off that post saying:

This could be the most exciting administrative change this year in supporting an agile culture in government.

I hope it’s successful, because I think other areas would benefit from a similar approach.

* I really wish I could rewrite that paragraph for them, the grammar’s all over the place. That whole doc needs a spellchecker run over it too.

Announcing One Further

One Further - a digital consultancy

Last week I announced the launch of One Further.

One Further is a digital consultancy and it’s where I’ll be earning my keep from now on. I’m planning to keep working within the arts and culture sector (although not exclusively), mostly around:

  • Content: strategy, planning and production
  • Search engine optimisation: auditing and planning
  • Analytics: audits and training
  • Social Media: strategy, planning and training
  • User Testing: remote or in-person testing of web/mobile sites and prototypes

…and anything else along those lines – research, mentoring, training, workshops, website brief writing and that sort of thing.

I’m very pleased to say that I’ve got some good work lined up already, but I’m available to hire and am looking for projects now, so get in touch if I can be of use.

I’m also keen to mix client work with a few self-directed projects. There are two in particular that I’ll be working on and (fingers crossed) unveiling by the end of this year. If you’re intrigued, the best place to get early access to anything will be through the One Further mailing list.

Actually, I should add that if you want to follow One Further-related shenanigans you can do that on Twitter, Facebook, Slideshare, Google+, Soundcloud… basically anywhere you may care to look.

So yes, that means that, after three good years, I’ve left Made Media. It’s hard to explain just how good Made are and I learned so much there it’s untrue. For that I have to thank Jake, Tim and Carl for the opportunity to do some great work, alongside some excellent colleagues for some truly exceptional clients.

I know Made have got some superb work in the studio at the moment and it’s going to be tough not being a part of that. I’ll just have to cheer from the sidelines from now on.

Leaving a place like that isn’t easy but it does make you more determined to make it the right choice. On that note, thanks to everyone who’s offered congratulations and support so far – it’s very much appreciated.

Arts Organisations on Facebook: who’s doing best?

In this post I wanted to take a look at which of the organisations in my sample group seem to be getting some traction on Facebook.

I wanted to see who’s attracted the most attention, who’s making the biggest noise at the moment and (especially) who’s managing to punch above their weight.


Here’s what I found:

  • All 100 organisations have a Facebook page
  • 91 of them are using a vanity URL
  • Average likes: 18,488
  • Average number of people ‘talking about’ an organisation’s page: 794
  • Average ratio of likes to ‘talking about’: 0.04

The organisations with the most likes

This is the total number of people who have ever clicked Like on the page (not just an update on the page):

  1. London Symphony Orchestra
  2. London Philharmonic Orchestra
  3. Royal Opera House
  4. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
  5. Philharmonia Orchestra

The most ‘talked about’ organisations

This is the number of unique users who, in the past month, have engaged with the page in some way – this happens when someone likes a page, posts on the wall, likes or comments on or shares a post, answers a question, RSVPs to a page’s event, mentions the page in a post or take various other actions. You get the idea.

  1. London Philharmonic Orchestra
  2. Philharmonia Orchestra
  3. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
  4. London Symphony Orchestra
  5. Royal Opera House

It’s the same organisations in both lists, just in a slightly different order. That’ll partly be because (as you’ll see in the table below) the numbers for those five seem to be in a different league to everyone else’s. Beyond that though, some sort of correlation should probably be expected. Let’s have a look at a graph to check (I’ve actually removed the top five to make it easier to decipher at the lower end).

Facebook - Likes v Talking about

Yep, that’s about what I’d expected. How about those outliers though? Those are organisations that are being talked about more or less than you’d expect, going by the number of likes they’ve gathered. For instance, that dot in the top-left corner is someone being very popular.

Here’s the data, collected on 28 February 2014 and sorted by the ‘Talking/Liked ratio’ column.

The organisations punching above their weight

Divide an organisation’s ‘talking about’ figure by their number of likes and you get a ratio you can use for comparison. By this method, these are the organisations that are currently doing best on Facebook:

  1. Northern Ballet Theatre
  2. Aldeburgh Music
  3. Brighton Dome
  4. Opera North
  5. Theatre Royal Plymouth

These are the outliers from that graph. The positive ones, at least (scroll to the bottom of the spreadsheet if you want to see the others). Our ‘big 5′ from earlier on don’t look quite so hot by this measure.

I’ll let you click around and see what’s what.

What does this all mean?

Something to point out straight up – this is all very variable. That ‘talking about’ number could be affected by all sorts of things. For instance, a big announcement, a season onsale, a major event, a Facebook ad campaign… the list goes on. So really my table shows a snaphot of how things were at a single certain point in time. We’d need to check the standings over a longer period to be able to say that (for instance) Northern Ballet are absolutely the best at Facebook.

Beyond that, as always, this information can only tell us so much.

The number of likes a page has attracted is pretty much meaningless. In fact, here’s me when someone tells me about how many likes a Facebook page has:

Sorry if you’re reporting that number to anyone. All it can really tell you is how many people once heard of an organisation and expressed some sort of affinity for it. That’s about it. Ok, maybe it indicates how many people might show some propensity for engaging with your updates in some way. But that’s it.

The number of people talking about a page is a much more interesting figure. Those are people who do give a bother about you and have done recently. That’s the one that I’d be most interested in if I was running a Facebook page.

But even then, having lots of people talking about you on Facebook might just mean that you’re good at Facebook. If the point of your organisation is to make people click things on Facebook then you’re winning. If not, then you need to make sure it’s all being done to benefit your organisation in some way. Put more bluntly, what’s better?:

  • A picture of a puppy with a ballet shoe in its mouth that gets 3,000 likes and 50 shares; or
  • A link to a ballet performance show that gets no likes but sells 10 tickets?

Come to think of it, your answer to that would could be very telling in all sorts of ways.


I’m not about to turn this into a ‘how to succeed on Facebook’ post. There are plenty of those out there. All I’d say is:

  • Take a look at the organisations that seem to be doing well and take inspiration from them.
  • Look for organisations that you think are ‘doing Facebook well’ in a way that hits a sweet spot between pleasing users and furthering the goals of the organisation.
  • If anyone says ‘this organisation is doing well on social media because they have [n] likes’ you have my permission to roll your eyes at them and sigh theatrically.

This post is part of an ongoing series where I’m using digital metrics to see what a group of arts organisations are doing online. See other posts in the Arts Analytics series and sign up to the free email newsletter.