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The speed of innovation in the digital world can be hard to keep pace with and, as Katie Moffat writes, this is going to be a rollercoaster year – so hold on to your hats.

Digital image of planet earth

2009 was a seminal year for digital. It was the early days of social media. Both Twitter and Facebook had launched publicly in 2006 but in the first couple of years the platforms were mainly only used by early adopters. 

But in February 2009, Stephen Fry was a guest on the Jonathan Ross show and much of their conversation was about how much they loved Twitter. That single programme gave Twitter a huge bump in users. By the end of that year, Twitter was named the Word of the Year by the Global Language Monitor, who declared it "a new form of social interaction". 

Over the following five years there was an explosion in social media use which caused fundamental changes to how we use the internet, where we get our news and information and how we interact with companies. 

I mention all this because - from a digital perspective - the stage is set for 2024 to be a similarly groundbreaking year, as you can see from the following trends.

From social graph to interest graph 

For years, the advice for cultural organisations was to use social media to connect and engage with audiences from a social perspective. Your social channels were for customers to engage with your organisation online, to have conversations and interaction. 

While this is still true in principle, most platforms are now following TikTok’s lead, tweaking their algorithms to favour content about people’s interests, rather than their networks. 

Organic social reach has been in decline for years and this is likely to continue in 2024. Arts and culture organisations need to take a hard look at their analytics and ask themselves honestly if their posts are being seen. Are people engaging with them? What is the real value of social media profiles to the organisation? 

Perhaps you’ve largely given up on organic social media and your strategy is to use paid advertising on those platforms to help sell tickets or drive visits. There are examples of arts organisations using social media brilliantly, and they get fantastic results because they understand that their value (to audiences) is in creating compelling content that aligns with their users’ interests.

Splintering of social media

Alongside the ongoing decline of organic social reach, one of the most high-profile platforms, X (formerly Twitter) is widely thought to be in a death spiral. Even before its takeover by Elon Musk in late 2022, Twitter use was declining. 

The 2023 Ofcom Online Nation report summarised it like this: “According to Ipsos iris data X/Twitter has been experiencing a gradual decline in UK online adult reach in recent years, with the number of visitors to the service dropping by 11 percentage points between May 2021 (61% UK online adult reach) and May 2023 (50% UK online adult reach).” 

Since Musk took over, X has changed substantially. The algorithm now favours those who subscribe to the service and content that is more likely to go viral and therefore attract revenue.

For most arts organisations, X has been more useful as a route to external stakeholders, journalists and other peers, rather than a channel to directly reach customers. But this year expect to see more organisations closing their accounts, either because it is no longer providing benefit or for ethical reasons. 

Of course, there are lots of alternatives from Mastadon to Bluesky and Threads but, for smaller organisations who don’t have big digital teams, it can be tricky to build an audience from scratch.

For more on the decline of social media I recommend this excellent article

Search engine shake up

Search engines have been a vital - and usually the primary - channel to send traffic to websites. While this is likely to continue to be the case, there are some changes arts organisations should be aware of. 

First, Google continues to tweak and change its algorithm and an update in late 2023 caused significant drops in traffic to the websites of major publishers.

In addition, Google - and Bing – are experimenting with showing AI-generated results, keeping users on the search engine and stopping them from clicking away onto the listed website for the insights or content they are looking for. 

At Substrakt, we haven’t seen any significant negative impact of either of these changes on the search traffic of clients’ websites, but it is important to continue optimising websites for ‘people-first’ content. In 2024, expect more changes in how tech giants run their search engines.

AI changes everything

All predictions/trends articles mention AI. Just as social media in earlier years, AI will cause significant changes to many aspects of our lives. From a marketing perspective, tools like Chat GPT and Google’s multi-modal AI tool Gemini can help with administrative tasks, analysis, campaign planning and creative tasks. 

But they also bring concerns - from the ease with which tools can be used to create fake content, to privacy concerns and issues around how the large language models (LLMs) powering tools like ChatGPT are hoovering up content across the web with no credit to the original creators.

As more of us use these tools in our day-to-day roles, it is sensible to ensure your organisation has an AI-use policy to guard against ethical, practical and legal risks.

Cyber attacks 

In the latter half of last year, many arts and culture organisations were victims of hacking. Sadly for some such as the British Library, it was a devastating attack which affected all their digital systems

It is vital you have a cyber security policy, that staff are trained in that policy and that when you work with any third-party suppliers such as website developers, be sure your digital infrastructure is protected.  

Importance of owned media

Several areas covered in this article underline the importance of optimising your owned channels, particularly your website and your email. In the early 2010s, when social media was on the rise, email newsletters fell out of favour.

But as platforms like Substack have demonstrated, there is currently an appetite for good content delivered by email. And research has found that across a variety of sectors, email remains the most effective channel for driving sales. 

So in 2024, focus on what you can control and improve, keep a close eye on developments from the big tech companies and take the time to consider how AI will impact your specific organisation. It’s going to be a wild ride.

Katie Moffat is Director of Sector Strategy 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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Really helpful to read your analysis, Katie, which aligns with our own experience as an outdoor arts organisation looking to identify commissioning partners and promoters interested in making work in public space, almost always working B2B. We now focus more on LinkedIn than X/Twitter, in its death spiral. Our small marcomms team support Walk the Plank's clients and work with our producers to generate new work, and our social media profile, SEO and website have been key tools, and more recently paid ads...and now AI too - exciting times as the speed of change accelerates daily!