Digital R&D in the Arts Scotland - Case Study 2 - Culture Republic
Each day in the run up to Nesta Scotland’s Spotlight on Digital R&D in the Arts event we are going to share a case study showcasing what the ten projects from both calls of the fund have achieved.
Please note this event has already taken place.
A lot can happen in 18 months when you are working on a Digital R&D project to develop a Facebook app to sell tickets for The Queens Hall in Edinburgh. Two organisations can merge to create a new national audience development body for Scotland as Culture Republic, Facebook can change their regulations without any notice and consumers can shift their behaviour in ways which you haven’t anticipated. But the Digital R&D project has provided a huge amount of learning for any arts organisation considering social ticketing or similar developments. It let the organisations take risks, try it out and see what happened. We know that these will be used in future.
Culture Republic Facebook Social Ticketing App
Case Study by Rhona Taylor
“If people are thinking of working in this way, then the Digital R&D fund is a really good platform for taking a risk” Ros Lamont
Culture Republic worked with its technology partners, Whitespace and Ingresso, to create a Facebook app selling tickets for its creative partner, the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh. The partners have documented the learning outcomes from the project to share with other arts organisations across Scotland.
Culture Republic is a national organisation supporting arts bodies across Scotland, helping them to develop and increase their audiences. It was established during the Nesta Digital R&D project in September 2013, following the merger of The Audience Business, based in Edinburgh, and Culture Sparks, based in Glasgow.
When the R&D project began, Culture Republic was still operating as The Audience Business, a subscription-based organisation with a membership base of arts organisations across Edinburgh. The organisation had been working for a number of years on connecting box office technology to partner websites, and was looking to expand that to embrace the idea of an online box office using other technology, deciding that Facebook was the best platform for its member organisations to reach their target audiences.
“When we came up with the notion of using Facebook, we were looking for a partner organisation that had a wide repertoire, and ideally one where the audiences were active on Facebook,” says Ros Lamont, deputy director of Culture Republic. “The Queen’s Hall is very comfortable working digitally, so that was important, and we knew that there was an appetite there for exploring Facebook.”
The Digital R&D project was something the Queen’s Hall was keen to be involved in as a way of generating more ticket sales. “There’s a very strong overlap for us as a music venue between social networking — Facebook specifically — and music audiences,” says Andy Catlin, marketing manager at the Queen’s Hall. “For us this was an opportunity for an additional sales channel that would drive more business.”
There was also understanding and buy-in about the project throughout both organisations. “Our staff are very aware of the technology that sits behind what was going to become the Facebook ticketing app,” says Catlin. “So it was just an additional thing that they would have to take into their workload.”
The two organisations looked at several technology partners that already had experience using Facebook as a platform for ticketing apps, and decided to work with Whitespace, a creative digital agency based in Edinburgh that had developed a Facebook app for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. “We knew they were comfortable with the technology,” says Catlin. “They were very skilled in this area and they were local, which we think is very important in the tech-partner relationship. We didn’t want to speculatively invite a group of tech partners — we wanted someone we knew had the skills and expertise.”
Whitespace’s previous experience in developing a Facebook ticketing app meant that the initial technical side of the project was straightforward, and the organisation used the portal provided by their technology partner, Ingresso. The relationship between the partners worked well, with all partners keeping to the allocated timescales and budgets. However, Whitespace’s experience on a similar app also meant that all of the partners considered fewer creative ideas at the beginning of the project, and there was less research overall.
“Whitespace had done something quite similar with the Fringe, and they were looking to replicate a lot of the learnings from that,” says Lamont. “That managed out a lot of the risk, but it probably also reduced the creativity right at the very beginning. If we were looking to do it again, we might have a different original inception conversation, as opposed to saying, ‘Here’s what we want, how long will it take, here’s the timetable’.”
Using Facebook had huge advantages, but also proved to be one of the biggest barriers, as Facebook changed its regulations while the Queen’s Hall app was under development. “The advantage of using Facebook is it has a massive targeted audience — they have really mind-blowing amounts of data about their users,” says Catlin. “The flip side is that we have no control over what they do, and they give you no heads-up, no warnings about changes. It’s now increasingly driven by a commercial imperative, and if you’re not spending money with them, you’ve got to be cautious about the amount of effort you place into the platform.”
It is a significant learning outcome of the project, says Lamont, about exercising caution in using third-party platforms such as Facebook. “It’s a very fast-moving world, and when you have an 18-month development schedule, being able to predict whether it’s going to be fit for purpose in 18 months is a constant challenge.”
“When we first started talking about the project two years ago, we were looking at where Facebook was, and where the public was in relation to signing up and giving their data to be linked. But the world has changed a lot in those two years, and Facebook is changing constantly. People are a lot more cautious now than they were when we started the project. It’s not about just pushing out the information on Facebook — the Facebook user has to opt in as well, and that’s something there’s resistance to. What we couldn’t mitigate for was an idea from two years ago and how much currency it had when it was actually hitting the public. That’s a constant re-evaluation, but it was good experience for us.”
A significant challenge was that the app was developed only for desktop use, not for mobiles. The partners discussed creating a mobile-enabled app, but it pushed the project beyond its allocated budget. It is something they would now do differently, considering the significant number of Queen’s Hall customers who book their tickets using mobile devices. “We came back to the desktop scenario as being the most functional way of dipping our toe in the water,” says Lamont. “But again, the market has changed — the way people use mobile platforms to engage with all their lifestyle choices has escalated enormously in those two years, so the desktop aspect of Facebook is much less potent at reaching the people we’re targeting.”
The structural changes that took place with the merger of The Audience Business and Culture Spark also posed challenges, but the Queen’s Hall felt they were kept informed about the process. “It didn’t feel like we were cut adrift, or that there was suddenly a black hole that we’d fallen into, but it did create a speed bump of some description,” says Catlin. Communication was key to managing those changes, Lamont says. “Changing project managers was obviously critical but we also briefed all the partners regularly so they were very much in the loop. Communication is really important.”
The Digital R&D project has provided Culture Republic with lessons that it will now share with its member organisations across Scotland. “The concept is still there — it’s with Whitespace and it’s with us. Any other arts organisations who want to go in and try to use that model would probably need to try to make a link between what we’ve learnt from doing it and the model that we actually had on the table.”
It would have been beneficial to allocate more resources to marketing the app, but Culture Republic undertook a series of campaigns to test a variety of Facebook advertising channels. “That has been incredibly useful,” Catlin says. “There are still a lot of gaps in the cultural sector’s knowledge of how Facebook advertising works. That process took place at the back end of the project — we’ve just received the data back on that, and we’re more than happy to share it with other people. It’s all very well building a product, but if you’re not in a position to promote it after that, it’ll die on the vine.”
The timing of the app’s launch was also a significant factor in the project’s outcome. The launch was scheduled for August, during the busy festival period, and this was something that the partners would reconsider if they were doing another project. “It was a really busy time,” Lamont says. “To launch something when there’s lots of events on is great, but it also means that people are focusing on those events. We would change the timing and not try to launch it at a really busy time of year.”
Following on from the project there are further projects that the partners want to explore. “We’d like to have properly realised, impulsive, mobile ticketing,” says Catlin. “So when somebody sees a poster they can say, ‘Yes, I want two tickets to that’, and buy them. It needs to be better and sharper, and we need to respond to what our customers’ feelings are in that moment.”
Culture Republic will use the information from the Digital R&D project for future digital projects focused on audience engagement. “Our mission is to support other organisations grow their audiences and support public engagement in culture across Scotland, and the focus on digital is a really powerful aspect of that. That’s not necessarily about delivering profits — this project is a great example of having an opportunity, trialling it and learning from it. Maybe we wouldn’t recommend it to our constituency, but we’ve done that from a position of knowledge and we’ve got those learnings.
“If people are thinking of working in this way then the Digital R&D fund is a really good platform for taking a risk in a way that other funding sources aren’t. It’s a really good opportunity.”
Account Manager, Whitespace
“The real positives for us on this project were that our ideas were bought into, and that the partners had found our previous example and wanted to explore it further. Also, working with those different organisations, nurturing those relationships and making sure we carried that through from start to finish. It was great being able to work with Ingresso, Culture Republic and Queen’s Hall as the client.
“The trickiest part for us was that we were working with The Audience Business and then they went through the process of merging with Culture Sparks to become Culture Republic. We went through three project managers, and that was quite tricky because of the handover. Little bits were missed here and there, so it was difficult sometimes.
“We originally created the app so that it would have a couple of options. We could do quite a basic standard option, so in future if people wanted to have their own ticketing app they could either have a lower cost, lower end version or a more expensive, bespoke version. Because we’d built the functionality, it would be fairly simple to then replicate for other clients, so it was useful for us in that sense.
“In the future we would suggest a better tie-up and crossover between the different areas. For something like that to work it needs to be promoted in the right places and that wasn’t really done until later. Similarly with the Fringe app people weren’t using it in the way we would’ve liked — people were finding out about Fringe shows through different avenues.
“We had a few stumbling blocks with the portal and there were a few difficulties with Facebook itself. Their rules and regulations about what kind of information could be pulled through changed, so before you could even enter the app you were faced with three separate information boxes, and that’s a big barrier to many people. That hadn’t been in place for the Fringe app.
“It’s all about what work goes on behind the scenes, and from a project point of view, it’s how all the partners tie in to make it work. It’s about bringing everyone together, and everyone having the same understanding and the same kind of goal.”