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Why we don’t work only with arts organisations — and why that’s good for our arts clients

Chances are, if you're a U.K.-based arts organisation and you're considering a new website, you've narrowed down your choices to a handful of digital agencies that specialise in arts and culture. If you've done even a little bit of research, or been to an arts marketing conference lately, you've probably noticed the same names coming up again and again.

These specialist agencies do great work, and it's obvious why their experience is a selling point. Arts budgets tend not to be huge, and if you're going to be dropping a big chunk of yours on a new website, you want to know you're in good hands.

But good hands doesn't have to mean an agency with a hundred other arts and culture websites in their portfolio. In fact, we think having a broader portfolio gives us an advantage — and more to the point, it gives the websites we build an advantage, because our clients benefit from ideas and technologies that "cross-pollinate" across many diverse sectors. That's something specialist agencies just can't offer.

The importance of being versatile

A good example of this is our work with the British Dyslexia Association. When we rebuilt their website, we had to meet the most rigorous standards from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), to ensure that the new BDA website was accessible by as many people as possible. This is the sort of compliance that takes a lot of time and effort to achieve, so it's something that arts websites—and their developers—understandably don't often prioritise. But thanks to our experience with the BDA, accessibility testing and best practices are now built into every new site we design, so you can get the benefit of best-in-class accessibility without needing to pay extra for it.

Likewise, our voting platform for the National Television Awards means we've learned how to keep sites running even under extraordinarily high traffic—sometimes painfully, it's true, but now that we've dealt with Ant & Dec tweeting a link to one of our sites, we can handle even the biggest of on-sales for our theatre clients.

There are lots of other examples too: thanks to our media-rich portfolio websites for architecture firms, we've set up infrastructure to deliver giant videos and imagery at lightning fast speeds, even on slow mobile connections; collaborating with citizen science projects at UCL means we're now trained sticklers when it comes to data, reporting, and GDPR; and working with charities to develop industry-leading donation portals has given us huge insight into how to grow a solid base of donors—and also how to nudge people into donating more, and more often.

And since we do have theatre clients too, we also know how to integrate with ticketing systems and CRMs, we know how to track cart abandonment and set up Facebook advertising pixels, and we know how to fix a broken iframe. We also understand the unique pressures that often face arts organisations, whether that's unexpected on-sales or cancellations, customers with very specific expectations about their ticket purchases, or producer credits that need to be a certain number of pixels tall.

When the wheels come off

There's another way we're helped by not specialising in arts and culture websites. Have you ever taken a wrong turn on the weekend because you were on autopilot and just following your weekday commute? Or ignored a step in a recipe because you've cooked something similar before, only to discover from your soggy pasta afterwards why the directions are the way they are? Cognitive science is full of this kind of phenomenon: when you've done the same thing a zillion times, your brain takes shortcuts and tunes out the details, whether you want it to or not.

This isn't a criticism of specialist agencies, just an observation about human nature. Once you've done something one way long enough, it becomes much harder to even conceive of alternatives. And though it's certainly not true that a specialist agency will build you a shoddy website, intentionally or otherwise—some of our favourite arts websites were built by specialists—it's also not likely that an agency with fifty Spektrix integrations to their name is going to reinvent the wheel for yours. Not when they have a perfectly good wheel that they can roll out to you already.

We don't work like that. Partly that's because we have fewer arts and culture clients to draw from, so we can't repurpose past projects even if we want to. But mostly it's because we think it's actually important to reinvent the wheel from time to time. That's why all our projects include a significant amount of time and budget for research before we even touch our design programmes, so that we can understand what your site actually needs to do—and, for that matter, if it needs wheels at all.

Kill the calendar

As an example, we recently took on a client who'd parted ways with their specialist arts agency. Each event page on their site featured a list of performances, so that to book tickets you had to first click "Book" at the top of the page, then click "Book" a second time for the performance you wanted. This makes sense if an event has multiple performances — but our client's programme was overwhelmingly one-offs, so the list of performances was really just adding an extra click for no reason. It was only in there because event pages always have a performance list, and so the client's specialist arts agency had dutifully built one.

We didn't get rid of it, because occasionally our client still needs one. But rather than accepting that every theatre booking needs to go through a performance list or calendar, we added a bit of extra code to check how many performances were present for a given event—and if it was only one, we skipped the performance list altogether and went straight to ticket selection. As a result, during the following two months, even while average session length on the site increased by about 30 seconds across all users, average session length for users making a purchase actually dropped by nearly a minute — while the overall conversion rate increased.

Simply put, by sidestepping conventional wisdom about what a theatre booking path should look like, we sold more people tickets and got them through the process faster.

So if you're a U.K.-based arts or culture organisation considering a new website... Well, why not sidestep conventional wisdom yourselves, and add us to your shortlist?