Search This Blog

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Dancing with Digital

Things used to be so simple.  For good or ill, the world of arts marketing remained unchanging, relying on those campaign essentials, press advertising, direct mail and leaflet distribution to communicate our message and attributing any significant success to that mystical but immeasurable force, "great word of mouth". 

The arrival of digital has really shaken things up, forcing us to change how we plan campaigns, recruit staff and spend budgets. In the time I have been at Sadler's Wells the impact of digital has been marked. Online sales have increased from 20% to 75%. E-mail has increasingly replaced direct mail and social networking sites like Facebook have demonstrated massive potential to spread information, ensuring the power of word of mouth reaches further and travels faster.

Nowadays an understanding of digital marketing is essential for marketing staff. Not just how you use Facebook, Twitter or YouTube but Google Adwords and banner advertising. But for the arts, the shift online has usually been more one of adaptation to circumstance rather than organisational strategy. For many of us social media fell to marketing not through any great plan but simply as organisations went through the first rush to have any kind of presence on sites like MySpace. Marketing Assistants became Twitter and Facebook managers simply because they were the only people young enough to already be users, and bloggers were ignored completely until they picked an online argument. Meanwhile websites remained areas of contention, shared or fought over by every department.

I was fortunate at Sadler's Wells in that I could build a team encompassing marketing, digital, press and ticket office into one department. This type of joined up structure has always had advantages but in the digital era may become essential. The rise of social media means the boundaries are blurring between marketing and press departments, just as the boundaries between the public and the press have been blurred by the rise of the blogger. Newspapers are shifting online and making greater use of resources like video and increasingly everything we do drives the public to online ticketing.

For Sadler’s Wells, a venue that specialises in presenting dance, a very visual and diverse artform, embracing digital made perfect sense. The fact that 70% of income for the theatre comes from ticket sales fortunately meant there was no doubt about where digital should sit within the organisation. When we built a new website it was agreed it was purely a marketing led project (in fact no one apart from myself and our web manager were involved in the brief to the agency or design approval) which must have made it one of the easiest web builds of all time and ensured the focus remained primarily on our customers. This approach, plus a strict discipline over e-mail use (just two e-mails per month; no you can’t approve our copy; no we won’t send out a solus e-mail about your dying show at another venue) created a decent playing field where digital could work at its best.

The biggest shift has of course been the growth of Facebook and Twitter. Their role as a means of personal communication gives them huge power, but this strength is double-edged. Over the years different staff members have taken responsibility for our Facebook and Twitter accounts but we have tried to set a tone for our social media that is appropriate to Sadler’s Wells. In recent years a number of arts organisations have found themselves in the middle of social media storms and for any of us this is always a real risk. At present Sadler’s Wells has no formal policy on social media usage or online risk management but until we do I hope the close relationship between marketing and press teams, added to a clear internal understanding of the Communications department’s role makes us reasonably prepared.

In fact the challenges digital brings in many ways are greater for those who fill press rather than marketing roles. Marketeers are always actively pursuing new ways to reach the public (that dread fear of being asked what more you can do to get an audience for a terrible show never goes away). In contrast many press officers still work within a framework which mainly concentrates on generating editorial coverage in newsprint and dealing with critics on press night. Their focus is often on the press itself, rather than the public they reach through the press. The rise in citizen journalism and the move to online by newspapers is adding so much more to their roles. Plus of course they have to deal with the outcome of anything that goes wrong…

If social media maintains its influence I can see a need for more specialised roles in larger organisations; Digital Communities Officers who look after all this output, generating and commissioning content in text, video and photos. Last year we actually recruited someone into this type of role for our long running hip-hop dance project Breakin’ Convention. Unsurprisingly they were already an active blogger in the sector.

The challenge going forward is how we create a new effective style of marketing that encompasses digital. No one can deny that many traditional marketing methods still work and work well, so what do we keep and what do we lose?  We certainly cannot keep adding more lines to small budgets; cut your cake too thin and it crumbles. At Sadler’s Wells we have cut back on print distribution and direct mail but have not yet moved a significant part of our budget online. The emphasis has been on cost saving not reallocation.

Within arts marketing there seems to be a real desire to embrace the opportunities that digital offers. For those of us who have spent years putting ads in papers and leaflets out in racks digital offers something very exciting, the chance to get a live snapshot of the public mood. ZooNation's hit show Some Like It Hip Hop, which Sadler’s Wells co-produced, has been a huge Twitter story and to be able to observe the point where a show takes off, seeing that word of mouth happening in front of your eyes is thrilling.  Certainly while things are not as simple anymore, they are much more exciting.

This article originally appeared in JAM, January 2012

No comments: