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Jane Thomas suspects that many small arts organisations are missing a trick in terms of how they make use of low cost IT solutions.

Danza Antigua outside Salisbury Cathedral 2007. Photo: Adrian Harris

When it comes to using IT at work there are a number of different types of people out there in the arts world. There are those who are scared of all things ‘e’; those who use computers, mobiles, WiFi or the Internet at home but not in the office, restricted perhaps by cost, resources or habit; then there are those, like me, who can no longer remember how work was even possible before the commonplace usage of a PC, but would not consider themselves anything close to the techy types who appear to speak an entirely different language (although they will generally ask, “Have you tried switching it off and on again?”).

At the British Arts Festival Association conference last year, ArtsProfessional ran a session entitled ‘Online Marketing and Web Development Tools’, designed to help the attenders make more of technology to improve their business. I sat there for the most part feeling pleased that Salisbury International Arts Festival has already implemented most of what was being suggested, but was amazed by the number of people who, when a show of hands was asked for, did not employ the techniques being discussed.

This brings me to the nub of what this Spotlight is about: IT can have a huge impact on your arts business, whether through marketing, communications, the box office or other areas of your organisation. And it doesn’t have to be expensive, in fact, a lot of it is free – and it’s really easy, too. So, read on and I’ll tell you what we do at Salisbury International Arts Festival, and I hope I can persuade you to try it too.

Exploiting the basics

First and foremost, the website. Almost everyone has one these days, but if you don’t, you should. Once you have one, there are plenty of ways of making more of it, including blogging. It’s easy to do: just Google ‘free blog software’ and pick one of the many sites that appear. In no time you’ll have your own web-log (blog), which you can use for talking about forthcoming events, changes to your programme or to gather customer feedback. [[There are so many simple and cheap ways of using IT that are not being exploited by the arts]]

Once you’ve set up your blog, send it to all your friends and ask them to post their comments, then go online and look at other people’s blogs and leave your own URL there. You’ll have a thriving debate going in no time. Search engines seem to like blogs, so your site will move up the rankings. It’s important to remember to update your blog regularly: if you don’t, people will stop reading it. The same is true of your website. Visitors to your site will lose faith in your organisation if the information they see on your website is incorrect or out of date.

Another good way to engage with your audience is via email. We use PatronMail and email our database once a month with news, special offers and event information. The PatronMail system is easy to use as it provides a template to create the newsletter. It then sends the email to people on your database you’ve selected, and does clever things such as updating the database with any bounce-backs, and reports of how many people have opened the email and which links they’ve clicked on.

At the Festival we always send the e-newsletter on the same date each month using the same format so that it becomes familiar to our customers. And we never bombard people with spam: it’s just once a month, as we feel that anything more will make people unsubscribe from our database. We always notice a peak in sales the day after we’ve sent out an e-newsletter, so it’s definitely worth doing from that point of view, and it’s also a useful tool for building customer relations.

New ideas online

We also have a MySpace site and become ‘friends’ with artists who are appearing in the Festival. The way social networking sites work is that our artists’ ‘friends’ can see us, and so we are instantly brought to the attention of a ready-made supporter base, some of whom go on to buy tickets and, the theory is, go on to become committed supporters of the Festival.

In the next few months, we plan to include a series of podcasts on our website. As well as podcasts with members of staff we want to include interviews with artists who are coming to the Festival and afterwards samples of their performances (taking copyright into account, of course!). I have also thought about including video footage on YouTube, but for now we simply link to other people’s video files which they are hosting on their own websites.

Effective use of data

My final recommendation is to use the data that all these technologies provide effectively, since it can be mined for valuable customer-behaviour information for free. The analytics package that comes with my website reveals how many people have visited my website, which pages are most popular, where in the world they are visiting from, what time of day is most popular, which key words most people search on and which other websites people are coming to ours from.

I have also bought a piece of software called Vital Statistics, which analyses my box office data and tells me such things as where bookers come from, how many booked in advance, how many left it to the last minute, and what proportion of the income these types of behaviour represented – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

My reason for writing this piece is because I feel that many of us are missing a trick. There are so many simple and cheap ways of using IT that are not being exploited by those of us in the arts. I’m certainly no expert, but if I can do it, then so can you!

Jane Thomas is the Communications and Development Manager for Salisbury International Arts Festival.
e: jane@salisburyfestival.co.uk;
w: http://www.salisburyfestival.co.uk

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