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

Learnings

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.

Scratchr: towards an ‘open source’ for live performance

For a few months we have been designing, developing and growing an online platform and community called Scratchr in close collaboration with the team at Battersea Arts Centre, London.

Do watch the above video as it explains more about the scratch process the BAC team have been refining for several years, in which an artist has the valuable opportunity to try out work with an audience of participants who then help shape it. As a means of making art, the scratch process is more like a conversation than a one-way broadcast. If you know NativeHQ then you’ll have guessed that this mentality of conversation-not-broadcast and process-as-product twigged our interest straightaway! The brief which led to the nascent Scratchr software platform and community started out as a question: how do we take the offline scratch process into online? In other words how can we reimagine and support the outworking of the scratch process using digital technology?

It’s still very early in the life of Scratchr. Like the artistic process, it’s a co-creation with the community of people that is forming there. I like the idea of giving people a broad description ‘it’s a platform for artistic collaboration and idea development’ and letting them work it out in wonderful ways. We do need some guidelines on what features are intended for what purpose. But we don’t want to prescribe exactly how it’s used. One never prescribes to an artist.

Check out the Scratch Blog for a couple of recent highlights. See also: the Digital R&D Fund blog post about Scratchr.

A friend recently asked us if we could have done something similar with Facebook or a pre-existing platform. I would say ‘no’. It would have been very difficult to change people’s perceptions of such a general-purpose platform and also bend the software to our will. That’s why we took the decision to build using WordPress multi-site and BuddyPress. We are not tied as a company to this software other than the fact we like it and know it to be flexible. Still, it has taken a lot of coaxing to have it perform exactly as we want it and it would be rash to say that’s it’s all there even now (the beta test group is testament to this). The decision to take this more difficult route wasn’t about picking up more development work – if we could have picked a platform which allowed us to begin even more rapidly then we would have! But we felt that the requirements of Scratchr were unique. (Thanks go to Marc Heatley for invaluable work with us on this.)

WordPress and BuddyPress are released under the GPL which is a free software licence – in other words, the software gives us freedom to copy it, modify it and use it for any purpose, independently of the software developers. The principles and licence underlying the software itself are also happily in keeping with our aim of being unrestrictive to BAC as a client and to embrace the results of good collaboration around the globe. I mean, it would seem odd to pick proprietary restrictive software for a project that celebrates collaboration, freedom and openness.

If you’ll permit I’m going to offer some half-developed thoughts that have resulted from this project – and grown from previous work we’ve done with theatre and live performance.

Many people would agree that another valid term for free software is ‘open source’. Now, there is something in the way the artists are using Scratchr which could be described as ‘open source theatre’ or ‘open source art’. In other words, they are sharing the process, they are inviting collaboration, they are not as ‘closed’ as theatre and live performance can sometimes be. Maybe some of them wouldn’t mind if you borrowed their ideas and adapted them (but that’s a tentative observation rather than a piece of advice). But I’m still trying to resolve what it means to use the term ‘open source’ in this context.

As I’ve alluded above, the discussion as relates to software is very well advanced. For example there are four specific freedoms associated with the GPL and such licences have allowed for a galaxy of innovation from GNU/Linux to Firefox to Raspberry Pi to cloud computing. In the world of content such as text, video and images there is a parallel in Creative Commons and GFDL licences which enable reuse with conditions – leading to amazing projects like Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap.

But software and content are very different from live performance and its various offspring. In the world of theatre and live performance the conventions and rules of play for ‘open source’ are still being worked out. Sure, you could share a script or a planning document under Creative Commons BY-SA and many artists have done. But that doesn’t feel to me as if the potential for widespread collaboration has been fully realised. I appreciate that the original principle behind free software was user freedom but I think that this also changes the culture in the field and in the industry; it changes the way people and companies create.

A hallmark of success could be new forms of work that have never been seen before. We see this happening in other fields. Journalists are grappling with what the internet can do to improve their work to make reporting and analysis more collaborative – and to better serve society (hopefully). Businesses, filmmakers, musicians and other content creators are experimenting with crowd funding platforms like Kickstarter which promise to give us a wider variety of products and innovations.

What then is open source theatre? What would be the Firefox or the Wikipedia of live performance? I’m not necessarily referring to the scale of Wikipedia but to the fact that it’s living proof of newer forms of collaboration. If we believe that such a thing as open source theatre is possible and opens up new opportunities for more people to participate, what would that look like?

Engaging theatre audiences through the internet: presentation

Theatre and the Internet

I was recently invited to speak to an audience of theatre makers at Somerset House – a wonderful venue in London that looks out across the River Thames to the National Theatre (England’s, that is…). The presentation looks at some of the work Native has been doing with National Theatre Wales.

As well as developing the National Theatre Wales Community, we’ve been using the internet as part of a multiplatform theatre design for a number of productions, including the Passion of Port Talbot and The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning.

You can view the presentation file (I used Prezi) and listen to the presentation below (my presentation starts 32.20 minutes into the SoundCloud file):

Lunchtime video from Euan Semple about social networks and business

Now and again we have a lunchtime video session at NativeHQ. Our choices of video tend to have a strong emphasis on technology, innovation and creativity. We love to absorb influences from all over the place, especially as what we do is not a ‘pure discipline’.

This video is a talk by Euan Semple at the Do Lectures in Aberteifi and is called Why social network mess can benefit your business. (Embedding doesn’t seem to be encouraged so you’ll have to visit the Do Lectures site instead.)

Semple only partly answers the title question, in my opinion, but well worth a watch for his anecdotes about getting humans communicating properly in a big organisation.

The benefit of online collaboration (Guardian)

Here’s an interesting albeit teasingly brief set of examples of how arts and culture organisations used online collaboration tools and practices to be more efficient and save money.

Collaboration has been a good use of digital media for a number of years. But I suppose it’s inevitable that ‘feeling the squeeze’ is given as a key reason for looking at these collaboration opportunities, perhaps enough to bring what might have been perceived as a niche topic into the pages of the Guardian.

The emphasis in the article is mainly on collaboration beyond the walls of your company – with other organisations – although I’d argue that better collaboration can bring benefits within the team of an organisation too.

Talking about digital media at Think Digital Cardiff @tdcardiff

Next week I’m doing a talk about digital media.

I thought I’d put the emphasis on what I think of as ‘all the other important applications’ of digital media like collaboration, online communities, forming groups, user-generated content and so on. If you want an accessible introduction to some of these things then you should consider coming along.

It seems to me that sometimes people automatically associate digital media and social media with publicity, PR and marketing. I think marketing is a legitimate use of digital media, depending on how you do it, but it would be limiting to think of it exclusively as that wouldn’t it? What about all the other useful stuff people are doing online?

So hopefully the talk which I’m working on now will complement the talks by the other speakers. And I think I have a way to tie it all together.

The event is primarily aimed at business owners in south Wales who want to know more about online. It’s called Think Digital Cardiff and is organised by Big Eye Deers who specialise in creating ecommerce sites and web stores for people. Now, there are probably loads of companies who claim to offer these services. Big Eye Deers, while well established, are new to me and would be the Highest New Entry on my chart of favourite companies – if there were such a thing. What I like about them is their eye for detail and their use of open source software.

At the time of writing there are still spaces at Think Digital Cardiff for small business owners and all proceeds from the event go to charity.

For collaboration Google Docs often beats email


Here’s a useful new Google Docs feature – discussions and comments, which we’ll be testing in earnest over the next few days.
Some background might be handy here.

Google Docs is one of our favourite collaboration tools. I use Google Docs nearly every day now. It’s perfect for notes and planning as a simple wiki – and good enough as a word processor (no more cumbersome email attachments back and forth for multiple authors). You can publish a document to the web, download and view the history – give it a try. I also use it for my personal to-do list with a direct bookmark in my browser toolbar.

My rule of thumb is: email with colleagues should be for alerts and updates. Now I don’t blame anyone for relying on email for things it wasn’t designed for, it’s usually because they haven’t been shown anything better. But if you’re doing the nitty gritty of work inside email then there’s probably a better, quicker, more sustainable way to do it. Google Docs, particularly the word processor, is one such way. (We at NativeHQ also recommend project blogs, wikis on PBWorks and live notetaking on PiratePad, depending on what you’re trying to do.)