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What Does it Mean to go ‘Digital First’ in the Arts?

That’s the question I asked myself after the AMA’s one day digital spectacular at Sadler’s Wells. From the day’s sessions, it seemed that for the arts, the conference’s title ‘Digital First?’ is pertinent for many in the arts at this moment, especially because for different people, ‘digital’ means very different things.

The arts are at an interesting crossroads when it comes to discussing digital. Some speakers talked about the need to play a game of catch up by using digital to compete with other organisations in the sector while others, such as Kneehigh are carefully making sure their use of digital tools grows out of a creative need. Others told us about the big leaps they’d made into the digital unknown such as Nordiska Museet whose first Digital Navigator Katja Hartig, talked about how her role is distinct from marketing and more as digital curation.

With the diverse range of approaches to digital, it’s exciting to think that as the use of digital in the arts mutates and grows, the possibilities are almost endless. In some ways, it would be a shame to silo digital off into its own department. I got the impression that the truly ground-breaking experiments into digital were the ones where they really put ‘digital first’ and worked out how the overlap between different departments (particularly artistic direction and marketing) would work later on. Like the Royal Shakespeare Company's production 'Midsummer Night's Dreaming' which was performed in real time while simultaneously staged online in collaboration with Google’s Creative Lab. Sarah Ellis, the RSC’s Digital Producer made a big impression on everyone in the room by showing us how producing playful digital content alongside the play and fragmenting the text transcended reality for the audience and stirred their imagination.

There wasn’t a whole lot of talk on social media. When it did come up, it was to hear about Abhay Adhikari’s refreshing approach to it. In his presentation, (which you can see here), he shared a rigorous process for thinking social media through from every stage so that it becomes a process of measuring, testing, and refining to achieve meaningful engagement from an online community.

I also heard Louise Garner of Watershed talk about their decision to completely cut their much-loved printed brochure. Perhaps it’s the “digital native” in me, but I was slightly in awe at the outcry that ensued. It was great to hear how they’re being inventive with how they bridge the gaps between digital and analogue to make sure they don’t alienate anyone – like printing out their email campaigns and sending them in the post to people who don’t, or can’t, use the internet. As arts organisations make the transition from analogue to digital, the ability to be agile will be increasingly important to make sure certain audience segments don’t get left behind.

It was also clear from the day that going truly ‘digital first’ requires a big change in mind-set for the arts – and Jonathan Drori’s talk stuck out for tackling this issue with his 15 big avoidable blunders, particularly at the higher echelons of arts organisations. His advice included: don’t underestimate the importance of a coherent strategy above doing something just because it’s a ‘neat idea’; emulate digital leaders; consider the user experience holistically at every stage; and don’t be terrified of launching without perfection – instead telling people you are experimenting manages expectations and opens up possibilities for collaboration.

If I was to draw any kind of conclusion from the day, it’s that it’s not enough to just be open and wait for digital to happen, you have to arm yourself with experts in the field, do your research, and experiment without fear of messing up.

Thank you to the AMA and to everyone who stayed for wine and a chat with the Spektrix team afterwards. It was great to hear from so many people about their thoughts, surely one of the best things about these events. We hope to see you all again soon!

Image credit CC.