Last Friday was the annual Spektrix conference. Probably the best way to sum up this year's event — and indeed any other year’s — is with a text message I sent my wife during the lunch break:
"Having made fun of arts people before, I do want to be clear that these are 100% my people."
That, I think, is the most valuable thing about a conference like this: the immense feeling of affirmation you get knowing that, as uncertain and slapdash and anxiety-inducing and often ridiculous, frankly, as much work in the arts world is — I once had to remove a talking, papier mache turd from a box office — there are at least a few hundred other lunatics out there all regularly subjecting themselves to the same thing.
You'll object, of course, that I work in tech, not the arts. That's true these days, but I worked 13 Edinburgh Fringes and many more years in various arts roles in London, and I didn't get into websites because I got tired of it. On the contrary, one of the reasons I made the move to a web agency was to help the arts do better online, because more and more I was getting frustrated at how little attention people in the industry paid to their websites.
To be clear, this was as much a problem of time and money as it was anything else; indeed, I think lots of people in the arts these days have added “the website’s not good enough” to their list of constant, low-level anxieties. But doing anything about it was always such a struggle. Even if I could carve out the time to identify a concrete problem with our checkout flow — and that was a big if — what was I supposed to do about it? I certainly didn't have the time to figure out a good solution, and when I did occasionally manage to give it some thought, pulling at the threads usually just made me realise we were doing about five other things wrong. (Cue more low-level anxiety.) And it didn't make any difference anyway, because budgets being budgets, the only changes we could afford to to make to the website were usually urgent tweaks rather than long-term strategic changes.
Anyway. The point is: what I always wished I had when I worked in the arts, other than more time and money, was someone who would think about and worry about and improve on the website for me. I made the move to Ten4 so I could be that digital Guy Friday for someone else (or lots of someone elses), and to carry on helping the arts do better from a different perspective.
And I’ve been doing that, too, from fixing a cookies issue that many venues just had to live with (and increasing sales in the process), to devising a new way for our long-standing client Underbelly to automatically highlight good reviews as they come in and free up staff time for other things. This is exactly the sort of value that a good arts website can create if you allow time to really dig into what your organisation needs, and it’s been rewarding working on them.But it was still especially heartening to be immersed again among “my people”, and to hear about all the other struggles and anxieties arts professionals face these days — and the innovative ways they're dealing with their biggest challenges, online and off. Some highlights:
The Octagon Theatre's “Here’s to You” scheme — a surprise loyalty programme that rewards their customers who visit the most, regardless of whether those customers know it
Polka Theatre’s current refurbishment as part of their FUTURE Polka project, to completely reimagine the space after their first 40 years
The RSC’s impressive efforts to segment and survey their audiences, to better identify the 20% of customers who will typically provide 80% of their revenue
Boundless Theatre’s efforts to engage young people with theatre — and the really interesting idea of creating content that helps gather better data
Liverpool Philharmonic’s impressive use of their car park to increase membership revenue and the visitor experience
Battersea Arts Centre’s commitment to making their entire venue, programme, and experience as accessible as possible, by embracing the social model of disability
I left the conference full of ideas for how to incorporate some of these great ideas in further improving our clients’ existing sites. But again, the best part of the day was confirming that, yes, the arts are still alive and well — and yes, they’re as important and vibrant and bizarre as ever.