Defining digital for cultural organisations

In the past couple of weeks I’ve had a few conversations about ‘digital’ in the cultural sector – the challenges, opportunities, and what to do about it all.

The thing is, a term as broad as ‘digital’ is only a useful shorthand up to a certain point. You can only get so far before you have to put the brakes on and say ‘wait, what do you mean by that?’

That’s because we use it to cover a huge list of activities, technologies, and processes that each have their own, very different considerations.

To make things easier, I’ve started trying to draw a line between the ‘administrative’ and the ‘artistic/mission-driven’ side of things. It’s not a perfect divide (and maybe those aren’t great names) but so far I think it makes more sense to generalise at that level.

Administrative digital

This covers any back-office functions that make use of digital media and technology (which is most of them). So that includes marketing, comms (although there’s an argument for this sometimes being in the other category), fundraising, ticketing, ecommerce, finance, venue management, volunteer management, HR… all that sort of thing.

If we’re talking about helping cultural orgs to make use of digital technology then, as far as this stuff is concerned:

  • The cultural sector isn’t alone – the rest of the world is trying to figure out most of this stuff too, so solutions can come from anywhere. In fact, I usually recommend people start by looking outside the cultural sector.
  • The benefits for going digital in these areas are mostly pretty evident. People don’t tend to need convincing, as much as they need help choosing, adopting, and making the most of what’s available.
  • There are plenty of external people that can help – software providers, agencies, consultants, etc.

I think the key thing is that senior buy-in isn’t really all that critical. An Artistic Director, Chief Exec, or board member only really needs a passing understanding of the details so they can support and resource those areas sensibly.

Beyond that, it’s mostly about cultural orgs having sufficiently skilled employees and giving them the resources to do their jobs. Done right, digital media and technology should be able to make the back-office stuff run more quickly, effectively, cheaply, and/or profitably.

That’s not to say that ‘doing it right’ is always easy, or that hiring sufficiently skilled employees is always possible on the salaries available, but guidance is usually available for those who seek it out.

Sidenote: there are loads of agencies and software providers that specialise in working in the cultural sector. They solve problems across multiple organisations, giving them a really interesting viewpoint and making them amazing repositories of domain knowledge. In some cases they go to lengths to educate their clients. It often strikes me as odd that these people aren’t seen as more of a resource. Maybe it’s tricky to engage with the more commercial players and easier to turn to the publicly funded support agencies.

Artistic/mission-driven digital

This is much more specific to the cultural sector and there aren’t going to be many templates for success that can be imported from elsewhere (no matter how many digital transformation case studies you Google).

Here I’m talking about the work of directors, composers, curators, artists, musicians, educators, workshop leaders, etc (you get the idea). The thing that the audiences, visitors, and participants come to experience.

Senior buy-in is also going to be much more crucial here than it is with the administrative stuff. For two reasons.

Firstly, this activity is going to be much closer to the core of what the organisation is and does. It might even require them to make room in their programming – maybe doing less of what they’ve been doing up to this point. Unless they’ve been ‘doing digital’ as a box-ticking, inconsequential bolt-on to the real programme of activity, but what’d be the point of that?

Secondly, the case for digital activity in this area may not be as clear cut as it is on the administrative side of things. If it’s difficult to show a clear return on investment then you need a strong, senior advocate.

But here’s the tricky thing. I expect there’s a sizeable cohort of senior people for whom this kind of work is outside their comfort zone. They maybe don’t yet have the necessary frames of reference for what’s possible, or the common ground to have useful conversations with people who work in tech and the artists and others who are already active in this area.

Bridging that knowledge/comfort gap is a challenge, but it could be an important and interesting one.

That’s because the artistic/mission-driven digital activity has far greater potential for being transformative for an org than the administrative digital stuff.

A new CRM, or ticketing system, or website might be nice – even necessary – but they’re not going to be revolutionary. They’re not the point of the organisation. Whereas creating and presenting new types of work with new partners (artists and funders), reaching audiences in new ways could well be.

Everything is about people

If you’re ever doing a talk about the state of the sector you work in and are struggling to think of something profound, try this simple formula:

“[subject matter] isn’t about [actually pretty crucial thing]. It’s about people.”

Then soak up the applause, give people a chance to tweet pictures of your incredibly insightful slide, and revel in your newfound role as a fearless iconoclast.

The great thing is, this works for just about anything. Here are some examples I’ve come across lately :

  • Digital engagement isn’t about technology. It’s about people.
  • Business isn’t about generating profits. It’s about people.
  • Photography isn’t about cameras. It’s about people.
  • Property isn’t about bricks and mortar. It’s about people.

Have a quick look on Twitter. I bet you find a few more.

I mean, I get what people are trying to say, but there must be a better way.

A website critique

In a recent Cultural Digital email I said that a newly-launched website for a visual arts venue (I’m not naming them here) fell short in terms of “accessibility, performance, search engine optimisation, and other modern website standards/basic common sense”.

I wanted to write something a bit more constructive about the kinds of mistakes and omissions I spotted, so here goes.

Taking the four areas I mentioned in order…

1. Accessibility

You shouldn’t need perfect use of your body and senses to use a website. Just like you shouldn’t in order to enter the venue itself. As well as the obvious ethical reasons for making your website accessible, there are commercial and, possibly, legal ones too.

There are some standards for this. W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are widely used. Let’s run the website in question past their most basic accessibility issues and see how it does:

  • Page title: This should be an easy one. Each page should have a distinct title to tell people what page they’re on. However, on this site they’ve just got the website’s domain name as the title for every page.
  • Image text alternatives (“alt text”): There’s no alt text for any of the images that I looked at.
  • Text:
    • Headings: There are no H1, H2, etc tags to give structure to the page and help people (or screen readers, or search engines) understand the structure of the page.
    • Contrast ratio: In several places there’s not enough colour contrast between the text and the background. The WebAIM colour contrast checker can help with this.
    • Resize Text: Finally, something that’s ok! You can resize the text in your browser and it doesn’t cause terrible layout issues.
  • Interaction:
    • Keyboard access and visual focus: Some of the most important elements aren’t accessible via keyboard shortcuts – specifically the menu and any of the buttons to buy tickets or memberships.
    • Forms, labels, and errors (including Search fields): This is fine.
  • General:
    • Moving, Flashing, or Blinking Content: This is generally fine, although there is some overlapping text in some places.
    • Multimedia (video, audio) alternatives: I didn’t spend much time looking for multimedia content. I did find a YouTube trailer and it was possible to select and control that via keyboard shortcuts, at least. There was no transcript though.
    • Basic Structure Check: Everything’s laid out in the right order, but it’s as if structural, semantic HTML doesn’t exist – it’s just div after div. Designing With Web Standards came out fifteen years ago but the lessons still apply.

All in all, that makes for gruesome reading, and I’ve only just scraped the surface.

A proper accessibility audit needs to be done manually but, if you’re interested in getting a headstart, you can get some of the way there with a few tools. Google’s Lighthouse is one.

Lighthouse scored the site 10 out of 100 for accessibility.

2. Performance

This is all about how quickly the site loads for the user. Site speed is important for all sorts of things, not least a decent user experience.

Site speed tests don’t tend to tell you how fast the site loads as such, because that depends on a person’s internet connection. Instead, they look at the size of the website you’re serving up, and then look to see how many techniques you’ve used to deliver the website as quickly as possible.

This site is pretty simple, but still manages to be a lot slower than it should be. The main problems are:

  • The images. The sites asks you to download much larger ones than it needs, shrinking them down in your browser. They’re also not optimised.
  • The site could also make use of caching.
  • It could also handle the 12(!) CSS scripts better.

Of the tools for grading website performance:

  • Lighthouse scores the site 8 out of 100.
  • Google PageSpeed gives it an F.
  • YSlow gives it a C.

3. Search engine optimisation

If you want to show up in search engines for relevant keywords then you need a website that features relevant content, that’s easily understandable by search engines, and that’s linked to by other relevant and reputable websites.

With cultural organisations there’s often minimal competition for the most relevant keywords and their sites usually attract good quality links without much effort. If you just care about being found by people who already know you exist, then that’ll usually be enough. You can even get by with a poorly optimised website.

That said, there are still plenty of reasons to get the basics right.

Many of the accessibility and performance issues above are also basic aspects of search engine optimisation. A quick glance shows that the site is also lacking:

  • The name of the organisation on the homepage.
  • A robots.txt file.
  • Schema markup.
  • Meta descriptions for each page.

On that last one, Google displays the meta description on the search results page when your website shows up.

If you don’t set a meta description for each of your pages then you’re at the mercy of whatever Google happens to pull out. Here’s a random example of what can happen…

ica london - Google Search

You don’t really want phrases like ‘Please check back soon’ and ‘There is nothing available here’ showing up.

4. Other modern website standards/basic common sense

There are some other technical issues, and some others that I’d flag as potential usability banana skins. For instance…

  • I’m willing to bet that a quick test (on something like UsabilityHub) would show that nobody can guess where the menu is.
  • The homepage defaults to showing what’s on, but shows today’s date at the top. That confused me, because I was looking on a Monday and they’re closed that day.
  • The date picker feature is just a pain all round.
  • Can you guess the difference between Red Membership, Green Membership, or Blue Membership? Those are the titles shown in the menu.
  • There’s no Open Graph markup.

I bet there’s more. I’ve only looked at a few pages.

UPDATE: I ran a very quick test and yeah, 84% of people failed to guess where the menu was. That’s crazy. They also took on average of 30 seconds to complete the test – that’s a lot of time to do such a simple task.

It’s common enough to use a logo as a link to the homepage (and from the user testing I’ve done before, even that’s not universally understood), but I’ve never come across it being used to open the menu before. Apparently I’m not alone.

To sum up

There’s nothing here that can’t be fixed, and presumably the website is a work in progress. But…

It’s not as if the things I’ve pointed out here are fancy ‘nice to haves’. They’re the basic building blocks of a competently built website. This stuff isn’t hard, and I really can’t see why a progressive, forward-looking organisation can’t reach that minimum level.

Finally, I just want to make clear that I’m not talking about the general look and feel of the site here. That’s much more of a subjective thing. It’s not my cup of tea, but then I don’t think I’m their target audience.