Like, Link, Share: How cultural institutions are embracing digital technology

Like, Link, Share: How cultural institutions are embracing digital technology, is a report and web gallery released in January 2015 that launches a new effort by the Philadelphia-based Wyncote Foundation to understand and learn from legacy cultural institutions that are successfully embracing digital media in their work, whether in artistic creation and artistic programs, audience engagement activities, fund development, operations, or in all of these areas. The downloadable report and companion website describe the distinctive leadership and organizational capacities required for pioneering this work, and aim to help trustees, grantmakers, and colleague institutions understand the conditions and actions that are needed for cultural institutions to thrive in our increasingly digital culture.

Like, Link, Share follows the important 2013 Foundation Center report, Growth in Foundation Support for Media in the United States and its companion, Molto + Media, both created in partnership with Media Impact Funders. These prior reports document significant growth in grants made to cultural institutions for media and technology purposes, such as grants for websites, app development, digitization of archives, and audience development initiatives. Like, Link, Share extends this research by presenting descriptions and work samples from 40 leading organizations including art museums, symphony orchestras, theaters, dance companies, historical societies, libraries, and science centers in the U.S. and abroad. Based on site visits, interviews, and other research, Like, Link, Share’s summary report offers not only a window into what is being done but also how organizations are adapting and building new capabilities to reach and serve the public. Many institutions are finding significantly larger audiences via digital media than for their physical productions, performances, and exhibitions, and are experimenting with new revenue models enabled by their digital reach.

Content- and asset-rich legacy institutions have enormous cultural resources to share. Yet doing so digitally presents special challenges for decades- or generations-old institutions. Converting long-standing internal systems for patron development, audience engagement, and content management is a major undertaking that requires long timelines and significant expense. At the same time, the skills and mindset needed to participate fully and nimbly in digital culture are outside of the career experiences of many senior staff and governing boards in these institutions. As community and audience expectations for engagement change, and contemporary artists and practitioners forge new definitions of their practice, legacy institutions may struggle to adapt.

Five key themes emerged from this research:

  • Leading organizations are aligning digital strategy with overall organizational strategy. They have clear intentions about their media and technology investments and the metrics that will identify their progress. Strategies among organizations differ, one size does not fit all.
  • Organizations realize that they are building long-term capabilities, not short-term “cool projects.” While the majority of funding is awarded on a project basis, a much longer-term organizational view is needed so that projects can be sequenced for structured trials and learning.
  • Job responsibilities and organizational charts are in flux as organizations prioritize serving the digital audience. The immediacy required for social media and for sharing work-in-progress with the curious audience is a challenge for organizations whose experts are highly trained and who painstakingly curate the physical audience experience as a final product.
  • Digital audiences search for information and programming using tools that result in non-linear, on-demand content, while most cultural institutions carefully script a linear in-person experience. Learning to put the habits and interests of digital audiences first within the digital environment is challenging the ways organizations think about presenting programming.
  • Organizations are actively experimenting with new business models that will bring new revenue to support digital “channels.” Common investigations include loyalty programs based around membership and subscription to digital content, syndication of content to third parties, fees-for-service for online educational projects, and crowd funding.

What are some actions recommended for funders based on the findings in the Like, Link, Share report?

  • Talk to grantees, outside of the grantmaking cycle, about their investments in digital media and technology, and ask what they are learning about online audience preferences and trends.
  • Consider whether grantees’ digital media capabilities are “merely adequate,” or whether they are responsive to the audience’s increasing expectation to find and participate in cultural activities digitally.
  • Reflect on whether your own knowledge of digital media is sufficient to understand how organizations may benefit from potential investments.
  • Participate by sampling and following the digital offerings of nonprofit cultural institutions to experience what’s available to audiences online.

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