Our take on Digital Culture 2019

13 February 2020

Nesta and the Arts Council England released their latest Digital Culture report this week.

944 organisations completed the survey, providing data and insights into attitudes towards digital technologies and their use in the arts, culture and heritage sector.

The report highlights some key trends:
  • Large organisations, with a turnover of £500,000+, are far more likely to use digital technology.
  • Organisations feel their senior management are now less knowledgeable about technology, with just 13% thinking they are (dropping from 22%).
  • Perhaps most shockingly; income-generating activities, innovation, and data-led strategies are all down.

The use of digital technology is complex in the sector. We have neither the budgets nor the skills of commercial sectors, so always feel a little behind the curve. It’s disappointing to see some trends have dropped in the two years since the last report.

But there are resources, tools and strategies we can embrace to help us make the use of these technologies.

People and Skills

Research and development, data analysis, or adopting new technologies all require support from senior management. Without this support, these areas will decline (as the report shows).

One of the biggest challenges is the gap between skills and knowledge in higher management and the teams working day to day with digital technologies.

As a web agency, we’re often working with marketing assistants and officers. These people are full of enthusiasm, new ideas and energy, but they’re often at the start of their careers.

Making change happen, negotiating budgets and managing-up is a challenge for people in these roles. Simply knowing how the technology works isn’t enough, we need to support our junior colleagues and help them make their case to senior managers; so they can get on with what they know best.

The report shows organisations are risk averse, with 18% saying they prefer to let others experiment with digital technologies

The report shows organisations are risk averse, with 18% saying they prefer to let others experiment with digital technologies, compared with 13% who said they experiment themselves. Fear of failure, or feeling you’ve wasted precious time, is difficult to overcome. And if you’re just starting out in your career, having the grit to commit to experimentation is hard.

Digital technology is only as good as the people who use it. Organisations need to prioritise developing skills, and giving their teams time and budgets to make the most of the tools they have.


Despite ticket sales being one of the most important revenue streams in the sector, the report shows that digital technologies, including data, aren’t having any positive impact on how organisations engage with audiences.

Fewer organisations reported major positive impact of digital technology on audience-related activities in 2019 compared with 2017. And fewer organisations are undertaking data-related activities. NPOs, who are required to use data tools such as Audience Finder, are seeing a significant positive impact on audience engagement.

Over the past few years, there has been a shift in how organisations engage audiences.

Many have realised that data and segmentation on its own doesn't work. You need to go out to communities, engage people in your artistic product, and diversify both the people on stage and behind the scenes. Projects like Theatr Clwyd’s Mold Riots and Hull City of Culture, which 95% of Hull residents attended, are great examples of this.

But of course, these projects take time and resources. Organisations need to use data in combination with these projects. Understanding your audience, using segmentation, and tracking trends will only help organisations spot opportunities and improve efficiencies. (Freeing up time for more community projects!)

How can digital tech partners better support the sector?

There are a lot of digital tools on offer in the sector. From CRM and ticketing systems, to data analysis, websites, SEO, and social media support.

All of these services are releasing new features on a regular basis. They’re keeping-up with new trends, adding features that support revenue growth, and updating systems to work with latest browsers and policies.

Despite this, organisations say the importance of digital technology to different business areas is less essential than it was two years ago (with the trend generally decreasing over the past 5 years).

And whilst there were significant leaps forward in the positive impact of technology on selling tickets and processing donations between 2013 and 2017, little has changed since. Fewer organisations are using digital technologies for revenue generation than they were in 2017.

Fewer organisations are using digital technologies for revenue generation than they were in 2017

So why, despite the new features and tools, are organisations not feeling an impact or using these tools?

It could be that the sector is more understaffed than ever, with people just about treading water to keep their organisations running. Change is hard, and finding time to make it happen even harder.

NPOs are successful in using digital technologies to drive revenue. For example, 72% accept donations online, whilst only 41% of other organisations do. Perhaps making a commitment to developing more resilient business models, and a body to report back to (ACE) is holding those organisations accountable?

But I feel there’s a lack of support from sector technology partners. Developing and releasing new features is great, but if they are difficult to use or time-consuming (therefore costly) to implement, they just aren’t adopted. We really need to consider how new features will be implemented, and what the overall cost is (especially when those features require web integrations). We need to make new features easy to adopt and efficient to manage, and support organisations in doing so.

What can you do today?

Developing skills, building relationships and investing in digital technologies are clearly working well for a lot of organisations. NPOs are consistently benefiting from digital technologies compared with non-NPO organisations, and this could be attributed to their additional funding and support.

As the report explains; organisations’ lack of funding, skills and time are huge barriers to developing the use of digital technologies.

And, to paraphrase the report, with the proportion of all organisations agreeing that their "senior management are knowledgeable about digital technology" falling from 22% in 2013 to 13% in 2019, there’s clearly a problem with leaders’ approach to digital technology.

The report has been running for 5 years, and I wonder where the tech-savvy people from 5 years ago are now? It seems they’ve not made it to leadership roles. Maybe too many are leaving organisations to work for sector suppliers!

… it’s the partnerships with providers that really boosts what you can achieve with the tools. Their support and advice can help get buy-in, and make experimentation feel less scary

Those who are satisfied with their investments are more likely to innovate and measure impact. We should keep in mind that it’s not just the functionality, buttons, and processes that make digital technology worthwhile, it’s the partnerships with providers that really boosts what you can achieve with the tools. Their support and advice can help get buy-in, and make experimentation feel less scary.

The report highlights that we need to develop skills and find efficient ways of working.

If you feel your organisation could be doing better, talk to your partners and peers. Talk to your CRM suppliers, to the Arts Council Tech Champions, to your web developers.

Take the challenge to them; they'll often have smart solutions and resources that could get you started and help you make the most of digital technology.

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