• Share on Facebook
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Linkedin
  • Share by email
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Linkedin
  • Share by email
An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with Substrakt

The pandemic has forced cultural organisations to develop their digital infrastructure and programming. But, as Zosia Poulter argues, the role of content is still not sufficiently recognised. 


Youssef Naddam

The pivot towards digital during the last 18 months has mostly been regarded as a success. As venues closed around the world, it became essential for the sector to take a digital-first approach to programming. But for many organisations, it quickly became clear that their website, the ‘shop door’ to their offering, was not fit for purpose. And the drum that digital and marketing teams had long been banging was finally being heard. 

But there’s a problem with this story. Investing in digital infrastructure only scratches the surface of a much broader issue. Successful digital experiences are really about great content experiences. And to date, the sector has largely understood content solely through a marketing lens - the social media posts, event descriptions and email marketing campaigns. The bits that need ‘broadcasting’ to audiences. 

Yet, there’s a more nuanced and detail-driven side to content that is often overlooked. The content that’s less about the organisation and more about the user. The stuff we now know as ‘content design’ - a term coined by Sarah Winters who developed the practice at GDS (Government Digital Service). Content design puts the user at the centre of the digital experience, presenting information to them in the most appropriate and useful way possible. 

It’s not just the Government that has embraced a content-first approach to digital. From delivery apps to disability charities and even the NHS, companies across the public and private sector are now likely to have a team of content experts at the heart of their business. By deeply understanding user behaviours and mental models, these organisations have quietly been setting a new standard for digital experiences. 

Need for digital upskilling

Companies like Monzo now consider all their staff to be professional writers, whether they work in a content team or not. Every inch of content, from cookie policies to error messages, is meticulously considered and designed accordingly. This culture of care for content sits at the heart of their business model because they know that ultimately content is the primary way customers will experience their brand. 

Unfortunately, the arts just aren’t keeping up with this new content movement. DCMS’s 2019 Culture is Digital report prompted a wave of digital upskilling initiatives in the sector (e.g. the Art’s Council’s Digital Tech Champions) but the role of content was largely missed. It is, of course, encouraging that money is being pumped into well-designed websites, but too often they are filled with content that is ineffective and confusing. Huge walls of text paired with endlessly repeated Covid safety information, unclear navigation labels and vague button text. The sector is guilty of believing that audiences understand and care about their organisation through the same internal lens that they do. 

What Jakob’s Law teaches us

Of course, comparing a banking app to a performing arts venue doesn’t feel entirely fair. At the end of the day, audiences are motivated by the merit of an organisation’s creative work, not by whether their button copy is intuitive. But it does matter. In every sector, content has a role to play across the various consumer touchpoints, even if the impact is largely unconscious. And with content being considered and cared for in all other areas of their digital worlds, audiences will expect the same from every other digital interaction (a theory known as Jakob’s Law). 

The good news is that there are solutions. In her book Why you need a content team and how to build one, the content strategist Rachel McConnell sets out a model for understanding your organisation’s current content maturity level and makes recommendations for filling the gaps. Arts organisations are likely to fall into the lower levels of the model, where in-house content skills are limited, resource is tight and content is disjointed and out-of-date.

For these organisations, education is the first step in the right direction. It’s recognising that content isn’t just the occasional blog post or tweet but encapsulates all the other ‘stuff’ on a website. It’s acknowledging that parts of the organisation might be doing their bit of content successfully but the whole experience just doesn’t hang together well. It’s learning about the practice of content design, how people consume information on the web and what can be done to optimise content for web readers. At this point, it might be useful to carry out a content audit of the website to get data and insight that can be used for buy-in from senior leadership.

Passionate and curious content advocates

Once the case for content is clear, the next step is to bring a content specialist into the organisation. That might be a content designer, or in the likely case of most organisations where resource is limited, it might mean upskilling and reframing some of the current roles that already exist. Content design is still a fairly new practice and there are plenty of content experts working in the open, sharing resources and building communities (see list below). 

At this point, it’s also vital to map out a consistent content production process, assign responsibility across different roles and make sure the organisation understands how this new approach to content will work. Where the content specialist's role sits depends on the organisation’s size and structure but there are obvious intersections in the work of digital or marketing teams. 

It is of course important to recognise that most arts organisations are unlikely to be in a position to grow a full content team. But there are places to begin, and whatever the sector's version of a content team looks like, it’s vital that it’s full of passionate and curious content advocates. Because until the sector gets its head around what good content looks like, the whole digital experience will be mediocre and unfit for conveying the richness and creativity on offer by the sector. 

Beginner’s content design resources

Content + UX
How to write for an audience that hates to read 
Introduction to content design 
Readability guidelines 
The content design book 
The UX Writing Library 
What is content design? 
Why you need a content team and how to build one

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. 

Link to Author(s):