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A focus on niche audiences and regular content formats could be key to amplifying a new type of storytelling, writes Zosia Poulter.

Delegates sitting on a stage with banners for Digital Works conference
Digital Works Conference 2024 hosted by Substrakt at Leeds City Museum

Thom Bartley

Digital content in most arts organisations is primarily used as marketing. Content is seen as a way to support transactional relationships - to ‘convert’ audiences in some way (usually to sell tickets or get people through doors). 

This content brings in money, but its value is short-lived. Once a show or exhibition has had its run, so too has the content. And for the producers, their focus moves on to the next thing to start pushing and promoting. The result is an endless cycle of content, produced and quickly extinct, often gathering dust in some corner of the internet. 

Such ephemeral marketing content has a place. But there are other forms that can forge a different kind of connection with your audience - a type of storytelling that is deeper and more considered. 

These stories offer insights into themes that transcend your programme cycle. They’re not explicitly about selling something, but about sharing the knowledge, experience and craft of your institution. It’s less like marketing and more like journalism. This approach has the power to build longer audience relationships and make your organisation more than simply a space for leisure or entertainment. 

Develop a core proposition

If you have a collection, there are tangible foundations in place for stories like this. Art and objects inherently hold histories and narratives that won’t easily become tomorrow’s chip shop paper. The V&A’s How was it made? series is a great example of this content in action. It brings objects into focus by unravelling the material techniques involved in their creation. 

These stories sit in that sweet spot between audience needs and business goals. They speak to audience curiosity and support the organisation’s mission of promoting knowledge of the designed world. Importantly, even though each video is loosely tied to a temporary event or exhibition, the content has a longer shelf life. 

At first glance, it might seem that this approach wouldn’t work for organisations without a permanent asset (like a collection, attraction or venue). Admittedly, it is harder, but not impossible. It’s about identifying a core value proposition outside commercial activity. That might mean having a handful of topics or themes - known as ‘content pillars’ - that your brand wants to be known for. Factory International does this brilliantly with their collection of series uncovering how artists make work. 

“Every organisation has (or should have) strategic goals that go beyond putting bums on seats or feet on gallery floors,” says Danny Birchall, a content strategist who helped Wellcome Collection develop their editorial approach. “Find a way to make digital speak to your organisation’s desire to mean more to more people.” That could mean stories that are rooted in your locality or that provide a peek behind the curtain into your creative process. Look to your organisation’s vision, mission and values as a starting point. 

Standardise story structure through formats

Taking a more editorial approach to your content isn’t just about what you publish but about how you publish it. According to Ofcom, UK adults spend an average of 3 hours 41 minutes online every day. And there’s a lot of content competing for our attention.

Formats provide a consistent story structure and force you to think about a regular publishing schedule. They’re a mechanism used heavily in magazine publishing, television and radio. By designing a format, you’re inherently inviting your audience back for more. But there are other nuanced benefits too. 

Building stories through regular structures can take the cognitive load off your audience. “Structure, like genre, injects a certain predictability into things,” writes Ian Edgar, former VP of Creative Strategy at Condé Nast. “It gives the viewer that feeling of safety they need before allowing themselves to be swept along on a journey.” Formats can also take the load off your team as you stick to pre-determined shapes for your stories. 

This is the approach Wellcome adopted in 2019 with their editorial strategy. A focus on six well-known content formats combined with a new commissioning model created the conditions for a hugely successful journalism-oriented platform that saw traffic grow and readers engage for longer.

Quality over quantity

As cultural organisations differ in size and resource, committing to an editorial strategy might not be right for everyone. A recent study of culture websites found the proportion of overall traffic to blog content ranges considerably - between 0.12% and 13.7%. Carrying out audience research and using data to inform your strategy is pivotal to ensuring you don’t fall into the trap of creating vanity content that’s of little interest to your audience. 

Digital sustainability is important to the sector. Every piece of content published on the internet contributes to carbon emissions and environmental damage. If the internet were a country, it would be the 4th largest polluter in the world so content quality rules over quantity. 

Crafting quality content means not trying to be everything to everyone. Your audience might be broad but your content doesn’t have to be. “The future of content strategy is in understanding and empowering niche audiences and producing content that people actively need and want to commit to, rather than copycat formats aimed towards algorithms,” says Matt Locke, founder of Storythings. “Tell stories with and for humans instead.” 

Take baby steps and align your organisation

Developing an editorial approach means embracing the long game. Aim for an iterative approach and be clear about the type of audience engagement you’re looking for. You won’t get it all right the first time - but that’s not the point. 

This work can’t be done in a silo. It’s got to stem from your organisational strategy and align holistically with the work and activities of all your stakeholders. Embracing this type of storytelling approach isn’t easy, but it will be rewarding. 

Zosia Poulter is Content Strategist at Substrakt.

This article is part of a series contributed by Substrakt exploring the many ways in which arts and cultural organisations can embrace the world of digital.

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