Can we transform attention share and engagement?

Posted November 28th, 2012

Our Chief Executive Jane Finnis was asked to speak at the Hello Culture conference at the Custard Factory in Birmingham on the 23rd November 2012. Read what she had to say about the problems our sector is facing with attention share and engagement online and some basic tips on what we can do about it.

I have a problem when I hear a lot of talk of digital innovation, new business models and technology solutions. I feel that digital technologies are often sold to the cultural sector (particularly by policy makers) as solutions for lack of growth, audience impact or financial sustainability of services.

The truth is that problems online go much deeper and often reflect a lack of clarity in the online offer of cultural organisations, a wishful hope that online is a road to democratising their assets and that through the web they will reach everyone and bring in new income streams easily.

I feel we are all rather guilty of fetishising technologies, when it is the culture itself that we should obsess over. As organisations we need to go back to our mission, find clarity of purpose online and get real about what is actually happening on the web.

We need to know ‘What is it and who is it for?’ and we need to unpack what we are doing and understand its value better. Basically, we need to be able to answer the question ‘Who cares about what we do online?’

There is a big issue with cultural websites and attention share online. We all know the truth about the web and how it is dominated by social media, sport, shopping and porn. Cultural websites are nowhere when it comes to attention share of visitor online.

Data from Hitwise in June 2011 showed that the percentage of web traffic to a cross section of 40 cultural websites (in fact the top 40 biggest museums, galleries and venues) represented less than 0.04% of the total UK web domestic traffic, or 5.71 million visits. This is equivalent in the same period to the traffic to

Pause for thought …

Looking at the data from the DCMS’s Taking Part survey published in 2012, on the surface it looks as if web visits to museum/gallery/theatre sites went up between 2005/06 and 2010/11.

However, if you map the growth in the percentage of the population looking at these websites against the growth of the population online you see a different picture. The percentage of the population online is growing much faster than the number of visitors to cultural websites, which means in reality that their attention share is shrinking.

Culture24 is investigating this through our collaborative action research projects, Let’s Get Real (LGR). These started two years ago with a group of people who wanted to know how to evaluate success online, how to understand what success is and how to improve their online work.

In 2011, Phase 1 involved 24 organisations (logos below) and we produced our first report: download Let’s Get Real: How to Evaluate Success Online here.

For Phase 2 in 2012 we are working again with 24 organisations, some different, some the same (logos below) and the final research will be finished with a report published in April 2013.

From our work so far, we know that organisations in the project are all struggling to:

- Work out from the mass of analytics and data the difference between what is interesting and what is actually useful.

- Find the right data to tell the right story, and to drive organisational change from within, to offer informed evidence to their leaders, and to reflect on what works and how to improve it. Crucially, digital needs to be part of every organisation’s overall strategy as a tactic that supports their core mission.

- Understand their constraints and how these contribute to failures. These might include a legacy of disconnected technical systems; internal politics; procurement procedures; or the lack of an agile, iterative approach to development. Remember, these are only failures if we don’t know they are happening! If we pay attention, then they become learning opportunities. With public funding, honesty about failure is not welcomed, but we need to have honest evaluation if we are going to get better.

With LGR we have sent everyone back to their mission to seek clarity of purpose: it is not good enough to say something generic such as ‘great art for everyone’ or ‘inspire learning through collections’. It needs to be specific, focused on a target audience / impact / learning. Importantly, you need to know what kind of behaviour you want to engender, and in who, specifically.

Within LGR we have also been trying to understand the difference between popularity and engagement online. By popularity we mean brand searches and likes. By engagement we mean conversations and participation.

The LGR research showed that there was a direct relationship between those organisations with the most popularity and those who spend the most money/staff time. However, this was not the case when it came to engagement, where success was not related to spend but instead to publishing specific targeted content at targeted audiences. In other words, niche.

On the whole, as a sector, we are not good at popularity (unless of course you have an existing real world brand such as TATE, the V&A or the British Museum). Therefore, we need to either:

-  Get better building brands online. This unfortunately needs money, which is in short supply, but it is also difficult to do – even for those brands that are born digital.


- Work together to build shared brands around our stuff. Maybe the brand isn’t our individual organisations but archaeology, photography or porcelain? Culture24 has had some success at doing this with the Museums at Night festival. This brand is a shared umbrella, built around a clear USP of doing something different in arts and heritage venues after hours, which is free for organisations to participate in.


- We need to focus on engagement, and identifying the specific kind of engagement that we want to create which actually fits user behaviour and is meaningful to the target audience.

So, can we fix this attention share deficit? Here are my three tips that I would like to advocate for – and they’re all simple, back-to-basic stuff.

1.      Examine your core purpose and clarify it online. Define your specific audience segments, find your niche and make sure it is genuine, reflecting the actual content your organisation has. That way it will be easy to explore stories and interpretations that will ring true for audiences.

I think we need to be bold here, finding our own style, editorial voice and personality. Be confident about choosing your key online audience, just like you do in the physical world. This might be local, small, social, age specific or subject specific. You need to think about planning online content as you would in your venue, for example targeted exhibitions or shows offering something special primarily for a particular group of people.

2.      Think about SEO. Research shows that search engines still drive between 50-70% of traffic to most websites. But this art is often neglected: very few cultural organisations think about it or spend money on it. Crucially, once you have defined your niche, you will find it much easier to optimise your online content to reflect that.

3.      If you are planning an app, stop it now! If the answer is an app, then what was the question? Apps are complicated, they eat money and are often driven by brand aspirations rather than user need.

Research tells us that growth of traffic to cultural websites from mobile rose by around 150% in the last year. So sort out your mobile friendly site first – that way you are solving a problem, not creating a new one.

For me, getting this basic attention-share stuff right would be real innovation!

Remember that yes, technology has changed the way we do almost everything but the transformative power for audiences is in the content we have, not in the technology we use.


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