How should arts companies use digital? Lessons from SMI: Arts

Over the six years of NativeHQ’s work, we’ve been developing our approach to delivering the best social media learning and development process for our clients. We aim to improve our clients’ own capacity to deliver good quality online social media communications that actively serve their mission.

We have developed a method that helps them to understand relationships with their networks, think through their digital strategic goals and develop skills and knowledge for turning their ideas into reality. We call it our Social Media Insights (SMI) programme. It takes place over a series of half-day sessions, which are scheduled between two weeks and a month apart.

Social Media Insights: Arts

Between 2013 and 2014, we worked with Arts Council Wales to trial this method with five arts companies at different stages in their development, working in a range of art forms across Wales in both English and Welsh. This post is about that project, and the lessons that we learnt through the work.

The SMI process starts by exploring the networks of people and organisations the company works with, who has relationships with them and how those connections impact on work. We then pin down their artistic and business aims within each set of relationships. This is the basis of a creative ideation process that helps us to develop ideas about how specific uses of digital media could improve the effectiveness of the work they do.

From this set of possibilities, we draw up a shortlist of initiatives, and the training and launch processes they need in order to start. The company picks the initiatives they want to prioritise and we plan a bespoke programme for them to take place over the remaining sessions of the programme.

NativeHQ’s work with Arts Council Wales

SMI: Arts Applicants Map

SMI: Arts. Applications

Arts Council Wales was interested in learning about how we support arts organisations in this way and commissioned us to deliver this service to five arts companies in Wales, and to learn from the experience.

We announced the project via social media and our call for applications received 45 applications from a variety of companies all across Wales.

There were many high quality applications and only space for five (MOSTYN, Dawns Powys Dance, Urdd Gobaith Cymru, Hijinx Theatre and Response). We then set about delivering our service to them between October 2013 and June 2014.

Responses to the programme

Here are a couple of the positive responses to the programme:

“Social Media Insights came at just the right time for Hijinx. We were in a period of change as a company, so it was the right time to stop and reflect on who are we, what we do, and how digital and social media could help us do that at a foundational level. NativeHQ have helped us to take a holistic approach to digital and social media as a company: to see digital’s potential for serving the company’s entire mission, rather than just as part of the marketing strategy.”

Vanessa Morse, Hijinx Theatre

“When we embarked on the Social Media Insights I really had not anticipated quite how the project would touch on every aspect of what we do and how we operate. Instead of some glib, generic advice on what to do / what not to do on social media, the project went so much deeper than that and required us to unpack who we are, how we do things and how we want to be and do. It was very, very bespoke and accommodated everyone’s’ skills and needs as well as the organisational needs. As a result of the SMI Arts, we now manage our projects; communicate within the team; manage our time; market ourselves; make and edit films and of course, use social media – much better than before!”

Amanda Griffkin, Dawns Powys Dance


While writing our report to Arts Council Wales, we reflected on some of the lessons we had learnt. We are constantly learning and updating our methods and have now adapted our programme to incorporate them. Here are a few:

Blocking of essential internet services

Many arts companies, especially those working within the public sector, are struggling to access consumer web services (e.g. Facebook, Google Drive) that are being widely adopted by collaborators and audiences beyond their firewall, often because of IT security concerns. We now work with clients to help them tackle these issues within their company.

Need for strategy and the centrality of social media

Many people are still unclear about why they are using digital media and social media, which is increasingly a normal and central aspect of their network’s communications landscape. A result, they struggle for clarity about what their learning needs are, or how to manage their competing digital priorities. We start by helping them to think through their strategic priorities before we begin to plan a training programme.

Broadcast approaches

Many people take a broadcast approach to their social media presence, continually pushing information and talking at people. As this approach often fails to develop the potential of the medium, we work through alternative communications patterns, such as listening and conversations, collaborations, research and investigation. We seek to think through the possibilities of these digital patterns within their work objectives.

Leadership, sustainability and resourcing

While many organisations leave the work of social and digital media to the communications manager, digital media impacts on the whole organisation and is best tackled by a group that includes wider leadership and a breadth of team representation. While many organisations are worried by the resourcing requirements of a good social media presence, there are areas where more efficient communication skills can win time for them to make the work more sustainable.

The need for bespoke training programmes emerging from strategy

Having started with a focus on strategic aims, the training programmes that we delivered to the organisations involved in the Social Media Insights: Arts were unique to each company. Over the programme, we delivered training sessions on a very wide range of topics.

Training types chart... SMI Arts NativeHQ

One interesting statistic was that 58% of the training topics we worked on were delivered to just one organisation, and only a minority of topics were prioritised by more than one of them. The lesson from this was that there is limited value in “general” social media training, because the training needs of organisations are unique to them, if you pay close enough attention.

We have taken encouragement from this finding that our approach of focusing on thinking about strategic priorities first with our clients will result in a bespoke programme that will accurately prioritise their development priorities.

Programme adjustments

We learnt lessons about the programme, which we delivered as an eight-session programme over eight months. During the strategic development process, we have found value in compressing the sessions so they’re closer together to concentrate the thinking and creative process. Our training programme remains one in which sessions are spaced out by at least three weeks (preferably a month), so that new learnings have time to be embedded into working practices. Our current Social Media Insight programme is now structured as follows:

The programme’s impact

In our evaluation of the programme, we asked each company if they had experienced a change in confidence in their ability to:

  • understand how their work on digital platforms contributed to the company’s mission;
  • develop tactics for projects and initiatives;
  • how they resourced social/digital media;
  • innovate and develop new approaches;
  • run their own media, with existing skills and knowledge;
  • evaluate their own digital work effectively by knowing what metrics mattered to them.

Across all categories and organisations, there was an increase in confidence of 45%.

Dig deeper

If you would like to know more about this programme, our approach, or how we might be able to help enable your organisation, please leave a comment, or question, or get in touch.

Social Media Insights: Arts programme gets underway

NativeHQ recently started a project working in partnership with Arts Council Wales called Social Media Insights: Arts. It’s similar to the Social Media Insights service that we offer commercially, and is based on meeting with clients for monthly sessions to address digital strategy, tactics, training, tools and analytics.

We think this is one of the most effective ways to improve client’s effectiveness on social media platforms for clients who want to retain control of their internet presence, and avoid outsourcing it to an external agency.

We put out a call for Welsh arts organisations to apply for the five places on the scheme, and were very pleased to receive a total of 46 applications, which has obviously made it very difficult for us to narrow down to five, but demonstrates the a very strong demand exists within the Arts scene in Wales for more support in this area.

We were very interested in getting a diverse portfolio of organisations to work with, in terms of the artforms they work in, their geographical location in Wales, their organisational size and the languages that they work in.

We have made our decisions and have informed all the applicants of the results. The final list of the organisations we will be working with over the next eight months is as follows:

  • Oriel Mostyn, Llandudno
  • Hijinx Theatre, Cardiff
  • Urdd Gobaith Cymru, National
  • Powys Dance, Llandrindod Wells
  • Response Wales, Vale of Glamorgan

This is a pilot project, and will involve a research element which will explore some of the common challenges and needs of the sector in creating effective work in social media, which we will make available to Arts Council Wales. We are currently getting underway, booking our initial sessions with the organisations and conducting benchmarking surveys to assess their perception of the issues they face at this point in time.

As we deliver this programme, we’ll post occasional updates on our blog to keep you informed, and we’ll explore the issues that the arts sector is presenting us as we help them get to grips with this transformed media landscape.

Eight things we’re learning about social media training

This year NativeHQ have been running social media training courses in collaboration with Cyfle and also running workshops with our clients, who ask for training as a bundle with other services like strategy and campaigns. Here are some provisional thoughts we’ve had about the training experience. Some might be useful to trainers in other disciplines.

There are eight of them because I thought of eight.

1. Practices and platforms

When an organisation asks us for YouTube training (say) or Platform X, then they already know about that platform and they’re looking for relevant ways they can use it. Usually they don’t need us to tell them how to set up an account or that posting video or whatever is possible. They are looking for creative practices, inspiration, guidance, mentoring, feedback and the benefit of our experience. They want to know how it meshes with other activities. They want to know if it’s actually relevant for them or just a time sink and are relying on us to give them honest answers not hype. All this can get lost in the discussions of the role of social media in organisations and the role of the experienced trainer. A lot of people are using Platform X now but exactly HOW are you using it? These are the things that are worth talking about – practices as well as platforms.

2. Publicness

Usually, for social media training to work, real things have to be posted on the public web. Although there are good examples of social software that are not on the public web, e.g. a private collaboration wiki for a team, many of the joys of social media learning happen without such restrictions – or safeguards, depending on your point of view. If you’re wondering then there are ways of managing the reputational risks of that – for example, using a pseudonym or an individual person’s account/identity with appropriate disclaimers instead of a company account.

3. Group dynamics

In our experience there is a group dynamic for hands-on training with one trainer which can be sustained with up to eight to ten participants. After that it starts to break down – the session becomes less of a hands-on practical session and more of a presentation.

4. Shared note taking

We approach training workshops like mini-conferences with a ‘backchannel’. In practice I mean that at the beginning we invite everyone to a Google Doc for sharing of notes and links. This is suggested as a potential replacement for eight (say) separate sets of notes and thus reduces repetition, allowing more time for learning. It’s a snap to share links within the group. We are also trying to illustrate how shared notetaking can be amazing for collaboration with colleagues for other kinds of work beyond training. Sometimes people like to take additional private notes on paper or on a device, which is fine, but once they’ve tried shared notes they often tend to like it. One day maybe all training courses will adopt this – from video production to healthcare.

5. Skill levels

It’s obviously good to have a diversity of participants. An exception to this guideline: we prefer that the skill level of everyone is roughly level. This is to avoid causing frustration for the confident and for those less experienced on social media. This can be managed with clear publicity before the course.

6. Language

We distinguish between language as medium of instruction (a training course offered through the medium of Welsh or English) and language as content (discussing and exploring multilingual use of video, blogging, WordPress, etc). In practice the two are distinct but related because we are talking about the Internet, where content, communities and networks converge in particular ways. We are based in Wales which is a country with two official languages. For people who normally work in Welsh it’s important that they do training in that language where possible. In an organisation if you are planning to offer both Welsh and English medium training then both should be clearly publicised as equally valid choices from the beginning. Oh and a single session labelled as ‘bilingual’ tends to please nobody!

7. Initiatives vs. projects

It’s important that participants gain practical hands-on experience. We have heard of social media training courses which are actually just presentations. We love presentations but would question the effectiveness of these if billed as training. A big part of some of our courses is the practical initiative. We try to avoid ‘mock’ projects as much as possible. There is only limited relevance in something which is worked on for a few hours then abandoned, especially online where things take time. If each participant can work on a real initiative then that is much better. The word ‘initiative’ allows for things that don’t have a definitive ending; ideally they continue beyond the end of the course. If you can think of a better word than ‘initiative’ to capture this meaning, let us know.

8. Principles vs. platforms

We hold each service lightly because they in turn hold us lightly. What I mean is, there is no guarantee of the long-term future of many social media platforms. What we try to impart are principles. We can use WordPress to illustrate the main features of blogging. But from that if we can help people to really understand blogging in its essence then that will be useful on the web in the long-term, whether they are using WordPress, Tumblr or blog-like services and post-blogging services (as it were) such as Pinterest, Google+, Facebook or Twitter. Beware of the “Google+” training being offered by some at the moment. Why? Well, will your community be using it in the future? Is your community there now?! It’s far better to discern the principles that underlie the social web. Right now I’m not sure that these principles change radically with the arrival of each new platform pretender. That’s a topic for another post.

Social media training with Size of Wales

Size of Wales training

Size of Wales is a great charity that is working to unite the people of Wales (and those who love us) around a project to protect an area of rainforest the size of (you’ve guessed it…) Wales.

They have made a great start to their work on social media with a fantastic effort to gain over 5500 fans of their Facebook Page, a brilliant Facebook application on their website that enables people to get together in Tribes to raise funds and regular interaction via Twitter.

The team wanted to come together to look at how they are using social media in support of their strategic goals. They also wanted to come up with creative ideas for creating digital content and promoting conversations about rainforests and action on fundraising.

We developed a process for the Size of Wales team which included evaluation and creative ideas generation. We also looked at specific issues with the functionality of platforms and ways in which the work being done by the whole team could feed into their communications work.

Find out more about our social media training

A465 social media surgeries – Merthyr Tydfil and Ebbw Vale

We are currently organising social media surgeries in Merthyr Tydfil and Ebbw Vale, Wales.

Have a look at the following two events hosted by, an initiative for people living and working in the Heads of the Valleys.

Wednesday 22nd February 2012

Orbit Business Centre, Merthyr Tydfil
8:30AM – 10:30AM session for businesses
12:00 noon – 2:20PM session for community groups

Friday 24th February

The General Offices, Steelworks Road, Ebbw Vale
9:00AM – 11:00AM session for businesses
12:30PM – 2:50PM session for community groups

As you can see above there are two dates, each of which has two sessions. You can find a whole lot more event info on the A465 site or have a look at the flyer for business and the flyer for community groups/projectsBook your free place now.

National Theatre Wales Community in the Guardian

The Guardian published an article I wrote about the National Theatre Wales Community today in their Culture Professionals Network. Here’s the link – it’s called “The next step to social networking is to build your own online community” and looks at how the community, which is built on the Ning platform,  has been used by the theatre to develop as a company.

One of the most important ways in which the community has affected the growth of the company has been to enable them to invite participation in their development of policies and initiatives. Everything that they do is communicated through the community, including the framing of their approach to commissioning, casting and theatre criticism. The community site allows the to throw the virtual doors open and invite comments and debate about their work and the direction of theatre in Wales.

Encouraging people to participate in an online community isn’t easy – it’s not just a simple matter of ‘build it and they will come’. It takes commitment from the people at the top to set participation in online discussions by the staff as a clear priority for the work of the company, something that John McGrath the Artistic Director has given in spades.

John is one of the most committed bloggers on the site, regularly sharing his thoughts and reflections about the work of the theatre, responding to people who seek his views. We trained their staff to administer the network, to blog and to help people to feel welcome and encourage them to participate in the debates and discussions held online/

One thing is certain – setting up an online community for a major national institution has been an exciting process and has brought some changes to the way that the company operates – it changes the demands on the staff team, requires training and guidance and it changes the feeling that people have about the institution – hopefully people have felt more involved and listened to.ask for his thoughts and leading debates about where theatre is going – see for example this recent discussion on the shape of political theatre.

There is still a lot to do for the company to realise all the opportunities to connect and communicate with the arts community in Wales that this resource offers them, but they have made a tremendous start and we wish them all the best as they continue to develop their online community, and the theatre community as a whole in Wales.

National Rural Touring Forum and the quickest way to start blogging #ruraltouring

I’m working with National Rural Touring Forum at the moment. In their words they’re:

the organisation that represents a number of mainly rural touring schemes and rural arts development agencies across England and Wales. Our touring scheme members work with local communities to promote high quality arts events and experiences in local venues.

Just wanted to say a quick word about one aspect of my work which is the new NRTF blog at

Part of my brief was to help the organisation to help its members in the use of digital media when organising gigs and events in villages and rural communities.

While already equipped with a website I thought there was a need for somewhere where we could quickly post news, videos, images and notes from the conference. We also wanted to allow comments and sharing of the posts around the web.

We had to get it online quickly in time for the beginning of the conference. So this time I opted to use

The blog could have been hosted and accessible from their main domain, in the background running WordPress code from I am no stranger to installing WordPress code, running completely independently, with all the customisation and design flexibility that brings.

But rather than spend time discussing and planning that and going back and forth with visual design and other issues, I just set the blog up on and added some team members as users so they can post.

I think far too often people agonise over all kinds of comparatively small issues (branding, design tweaks, everything under one domain, what could be possible with the technology) at the expense of the THING which just has to be DONE and available.

In the long run we can still do many things.

Maybe we want to lose ‘wordpress’ from the address to have a more branded name – but make sure any inbound links don’t break. In that case we can use WordPress’ paid service to redirect a subdomain (such as, just an example) to the blog on Automattic’s company servers. Any visitor will not know any differently, other than the neat domain name.

Alternatively, if NRTF build a new website (hopefully using an open source system such as WordPress itself or maybe Drupal) they might decide to include a blog as a section. In that case we can export the content from the posts on the existing WordPress blog and import them on to the new website. Unlike many other web services, WordPress is very good at letting you export your data and move it elsewhere. (Dear web services: if you love someone, please set them free.) We could post one final entry on the existing blog with a link to the new home and a brief explanation.

Or we can just carry on with the blog as it is.

I’m happy that the NRTF team are up and running with a blog, which is probably the quickest way to publish long-form content on the web. They also have freedom, they are not locked into this system, which is important.

The annual gathering of NRTF is about to start in Caerleon, Newport. The hashtag is #ruraltouring. I’m doing three presentations and a social media surgery. So I’ll be pretty busy – but please make sure you say hi to me if you’re attending!