Sector Snapshot: Digital Communications Challenges and Opportunities for Heritage Organisations

27th April, 2023

Based on a digital communications focus group held on 14th March 2023 in partnership with Media Trust. Facilitated by Jade Staiano, Digital Communications Manager, Media Trust.

A series of focus groups was run at the end of the Rebuilding Heritage project, in March 2023, to explore current challenges and opportunities for heritage organisations. The findings from each focus group are presented as a series of ‘snapshots’ of sector views and experience.

To see all of the sector snapshots, click here.

Purpose of Focus Group

To explore the current challenges of digital communication for heritage sector organisations and to look ahead to the future to learn how the sector can be supported in terms of training and digital communication resources.

Four people attended the focus group. They were drawn from different parts of the UK, different types of heritage organisation, and different roles. The discussion focused on approaches to digital communication over the last twelve months, training needs and skills gaps, and appetite for innovation.

Recent Approaches to Digital Communication

As a starter question, people were asked what their favourite social media platform is, or which platform is used most by their organisation. Twitter and Facebook are used most widely, but it was clear that people are interested in finding out about other platforms, trends and opportunities for innovation.

Reflecting on the last twelve months and the role that digital communication and social media play within the organisations represented at the focus group, everyone agreed that digital communication is a high priority for their organisation. For some, it acts as a ‘shop front’; for others, it is a means of connecting with local community groups; for still more it is an ‘epicentre’, used to engage audiences with the things that their organisation does or sells.

It was clear that different levels of resource and budget for digital communication and social media affect what people are able to achieve in terms of output. There was a high level of awareness amongst the group of the time that it takes to identify audiences, use the right platform for the right audiences and tailor content.

People reported that the lockdown had been transformational for their organisation’s digital communication activity, with great examples of new content and innovative use of technology. But in the transition out of the pandemic, some organisations are finding that the time they can put into digital communication is being squeezed, as well as a sense of fatigue amongst existing staff. For some, this results in an ambition to get new staff or volunteers on board who are dedicated to social communications. Other organisations are trying to involve a wider range of existing staff in communications activities, particularly visitor-facing staff.

Naturally, the type of content that has proved successful over the last year varies with each organisation and its audience. Some people find that images from their collection or site generate a high level of interest, while others find that stories from volunteers, members of their audience, or stories linked to a theme represented by their organisation, are the most popular.

Training and Skills Gaps

Members of the group have a range of skills and experience – from formal (degree level) courses, to self-taught using web-based resources. Turning to how organisations develop digital communications skills, there is also a range of approaches. Some have turned to consultants for bespoke training or support relating to a specific brief, whilst others rely on knowledge-sharing between colleagues to fill gaps. The latter is especially popular when learning about how to use different platforms or interactive products. This form of intra-organisation learning has the added benefit of getting people on the same page in terms of content and approach, as well as developing new skills.

In terms of filling skills gaps, people find it difficult to recruit and attribute this to low salary levels in the sector. There were many examples of the type of content that people would like to see addressed by future training or support initiatives, including:

  • Tangible, exciting and inspiring examples of best practice.
  • Help with developing mini-campaigns.
  • ‘Future direction’ information, for example about using Web3 and AI.
  • Understanding how algorithms work.
  • Access to audience research data, especially what works in the post-lockdown hybrid world.

Although the group expressed a strong preference for live events, they recognise that this quite often doesn’t fit in with people’s lives anymore. Indeed, one of the digital communication challenges that the group identified is navigating consumer behaviour, particularly reconciling what people say they want (e.g. in-person events or training) with limited take-up and the reality that online sessions quite often suit people better, even if they rely on being able to access recordings after the session rather than real-time engagement.

Peer-to-peer learning is popular as a method. There is a strong desire to learn from people and their real-life experiences, challenges and aspirations. Group members felt this is linked to a need to reintegrate networking into learning opportunities.

Appetite for Digital Innovation

Members of the focus group were asked about their own appetite for digital innovation, and what they felt the appetite of the wider heritage sector is.

Whilst the individuals in the group expressed a good appetite for digital innovation, they feel the wider sector is suffering from fatigue. There seems to be more of an appetite to grow and innovate gradually rather than embrace transformational change. For example, there is still a strong desire to develop audiences and engage with new parts of the community be that at local or national scale, or in terms of ethnicity or age. People also want to experiment with new digital communications channels and whilst these might be new to the organisations concerned, they are mainstream technology, e.g. Instagram or TikTok.

What is apparent is that there is a high level of interest in trends, creativity and what might be the ‘next thing’ that heritage organisations can use to bring their content and stories to more people. Alongside this there appears to be a greater emphasis on ethics; what a platform stands for and what this means for an organisation when thinking about its use as part of their digital communication strategy.

We hope you will gain inspiration and ideas from this snapshot of the current digital communication challenges and opportunities currently facing heritage sector organisations, and we thank the facilitators and focus group participants for sharing their views and experience.

Rebuilding Heritage was a UK-wide support programme designed to help heritage organisations navigate the challenges presented by COVID 19 (July 2020-September 2022) and challenges arising from increases in cost-of-living (November 2022-April 2023).

The project was coordinated by the Heritage Alliance, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and delivered in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Fundraising, Clore Leadership, Creative United and Media Trust, with support from additional providers.

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