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How Cultural Organizations Can Shift to a Digital-First Strategy

Incorporating a digital-first strategy for the first time can be daunting, but cultural organizations should meet their audiences where they are.

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Cultural organizations have historically relied on the ability to connect, whether it is connecting with art, objects or performances. The ability to create a shared and meaningful connection is a driving force for these types of organizations. However, the Covid-19 pandemic caused many of them to close or to pivot to digital to continue business operations as normally as possible.

While many of these organizations had a robust digital strategy in place, many did not. This shift in 2020 has made these organizations — some that are antiquated and hesitant to incorporate digital into their strategy — recognize the importance of digital media to keep their audience connected. This is why in 2021, the need for a digital-first strategy will be more important than ever. Being digital-first means considering the user’s needs within the context of digital for any project in a meaningful way.

The way we interact has changed. Cultural organizations should have a digital-first solution to keep us connected as consumers, whether driven by objects or experiences.

Include a digital strategy at the start of every project.

A successful digital strategy should be included at the very start of planning. It can be difficult and expensive to retrofit a digital solution to an already planned project. To be fair, not all projects need full-scale digital integration, but it is important to think about an audience that may not be able to visit your in-person experience. This could be an opportunity to meet your audience where they are.

Use meaningful digital programming to provide a parallel experience comparable to being in a gallery or in the audience.

Incorporating digital should be meaningful and not for the sake of using buzzworthy new technology. As organizations shift to accommodate the need for digital, cultural institutions are in an interesting position. How do you shift from in-person experiences to virtual ones while maintaining the integrity of the experience?

Another question I often think about is: How do you reach those who may be unable to visit your brick-and-mortar establishment? There is so much untapped potential reach that traditional organizations miss when they keep the experience based in a specific location, especially if the gallery experience can be virtual. Or the presentation. Or the performance. Also, virtual reality is becoming more and more cost-effective. It is becoming more and more possible to bring these virtual experiences to homes everywhere.

Digitize everything.

The response to the pandemic has highlighted the need to digitize everything. That paper brochure may now be irrelevant when you have virtual galleries. The object that you thought people would be traveling hundreds of miles from their homes to see may be delivered digitally. While I am a digital advocate, I do not think that the digital experience should replace the in-person. There is something to be said about experiencing Van Gogh’s “Roses” at the National Gallery of Art, but there is also something to be said for being able to digitally zoom in on every intricate detail, to see the texture of the paint, the use of color and the unique features of each flower.

Use digital to enhance the experience for everyone.

Digital can be used to enhance the user experience in almost any situation. Cultural organizations should use digital to be more accessible to users that may be visually or hearing-impaired. Digital can be incorporated through the use of voice-enabled technology that can give visual descriptions of the object or show subtitles for experiences that involve spoken word. Also, keep in mind that any webpage with these experiences should be ADA compliant.

Use bots and AI if you are short on human resources.

Many organizations can save time and resources by making digital work for them. Chatbots and artificial intelligence can be used to help automate tasks, such as answering questions like “What time do you open?” or “When can I buy tickets to Hamilton?” This technology can be used on the web or through mobile, or even in person through kiosks or roaming robots.

Consider alternative device-only solutions.

2020 has seen the resurgence of QR codes since businesses started to reopen after initial lockdowns during the pandemic. Now when you go to a restaurant, instead of getting a leather embossed menu, you typically scan a QR code using your smartphone to view the menu online. The same strategy can be used in cultural organizations that may have high-touch surfaces such as interactives or flip boards. The option of having a QR code is rising in popularity as users are hesitant to touch shared surfaces. Beacon technology is another way to push content to mobile devices as someone explores a physical location. For example, you can strategically place beacons throughout an exhibit, which then push content to the users’ devices as they roam the gallery.

It’s all about your audience.

Incorporating a digital-first strategy for the first time can be daunting, but cultural organizations should meet their audiences where they are. Or else what is the point? Everyone should have the opportunity to experience Van Gogh or the New York Philharmonic Orchestra no matter where they are — and digital can do just that.

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