Only Connect

On a rainy day in September, I attended the Let’s Get Real conference in Brighton. This was the second Culture24 Let’s Get Real conference and is the culmination of ten months of collaborative action research by a group of 24 cultural organisations in the UK. The group is made up of national and regional museums, galleries, performing arts venues and arts agencies. Culture24 has led the research, with international expertise from Seb Chan (Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian) and Rob Stein (Dallas Museum of Art).

It was a day of musings, concrete examples of work and a space to really look at what it means to be digital in a fast changing world. The report of the action research is available here.

But for me, what really struck home was Culture24 director Jane Finnis’s key note speech. As she said:

“We are increasingly in a continuous online and offline dance, that sometimes feels almost fluid as we dip in and out, moving between our phones, the street, a train, a cafe, an office, an exhibition, a kiosk, a TV, a tablet, a walk.”

“Understanding how we, as consumers, experience things as a whole, the off and the online, is crucial to how we in the cultural sector curate our content for our audiences. This is really important, particularly if your core business is a building or a physical space that you want people to visit. Our audiences’ experience of us is no longer just about that space physically, it is about all of the other places where we put ourselves – or where others put us online without our permission, like Google place pages, Trip Advisor, Wikipedia, Foursquare, Twitter etc.”

What does that mean for us as cultural organisations? It means we don’t necessarily always have “control” over our digital “image”. But that’s no bad thing – think of the way that travel trade has actually benefited from TripAdvisor. And also it means we can speak to multiple audience segments with multiple voices. It means that we truly CONNECT with audiences – that we can have a dialogue WITH them rather than just talking AT them.

I’m old enough to remember being delighted at the prospect of being able to mail merge letters so that they could be addressed to Mr Smith rather than Dear Patron. All those years ago that felt like a real step forward and I was excited by the idea of creating a seemingly personal connection with Mr Smith.

Now we can connect with our audiences in a much more meaningful way. We can see and hear and respond to their comments. We can develop marketing strategies that connect with specific audience constituents in particular ways. But there’s the rub – because it does mean you need to segment your audiences and clearly understand what they want, how they want and how you offer this digitally. You can’t just send a brochure off to print and pop it into the post to the 1000s of people on your mailing list.

And that was what the conference was trying to emphasize. In order to connect to your audiences you need to understand them first. You need to accurately segment and only then can you begin to connect with them in a meaningful and productive way.

The constant dance of digital information and also means that we, as cultural organisations, are constantly fighting for attention amongst a myriad of other offers. We are competing with offers from other products vying for people’s scarce time. At any one moment, I can look on my laptop for films, books, entertainment of all sorts – and be “instantly” satisfied.

Where does that leave the arts organisations? It could leave us quite vulnerable if we don’t do anything pro-active. As Jane said:

“We need to stop feeling that each arts organisation is in competition with each other “

It is other industries and sectors who take our attention share online: BBC, eBay, Netflix, YouTube, Amazon, Wikipedia, and Trip Advisor. These are our real competitors online, not each other.”

What can we do about it? We need to do more TOGETHER. We need to join up our offers, join our systems, our data. We need be easily accessible to our audiences and their multiple choices. As creatives we are so often at the forefront of innovative thinking, we need to nurture that creative spirit but break out of our self-imposed silos and constraints. Let the digital world enable us to dance together in partnership.

All this lead me to think about E M Forster’s rallying cry:

“Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted… Live in fragments no longer

He was so right.