Cultural organisations: how much should you spend on your website? It depends, but probably more than you are.

“How much does a website cost?” is a question I get asked fairly regularly. It’s a bit of a how-long-is-a-piece-of-string question and the correct answer, normally, is “it depends”.

I’d also say now that for a website to be properly effective I believe you need to view it as an ongoing project that requires constant refinement, development, optimisation and, therefore, investment.

But rather than me trying to pull a price out of the air, I asked around. A Twitter poll is generally a good way to test the water. I asked a simple question “What do you think is a realistic/sensible amount to invest, per year, in developing your website as a % of the revenue taken through it?” (options: <1% / 1–4% / 5–9% / more than 10%).

I was hoping the responses would begin to paint a picture of what people thought was ‘sensible’, although whether or not this reflected the reality of what was actually spent was another matter (I suspected it wouldn’t).

Responses

The poll received 52 responses. I think the majority of them probably came from people who work in the UK cultural sector (given the audience was people who follow/interact with me directly or tangentially on Twitter). In case the tweet above doesn’t load the results were:

  • Less than 1%: 6% of responses
  • 1–4%: 25% of responses
  • 5–9%: 40% of responses
  • 10% or more: 29% of responses

Percentages are an easy way to be a bit detached from reality, so what would these numbers look like if translated into actual cash?

If your website was responsible for £1 million in revenue each year then:
1–4% = £10,000 — £40,000
5–9% = £50,000 — £90,000
10% = £100,000

And remember, this would be per year. Not spent-once-and-then-not-again-for-as-long-as-possible.

How do those amounts seem to you? High? Low? I would be interested in hearing what people think, and the reasons therein.

Wider issues?

The poll generated a bit of interesting chatter, with much of it being focused around the fact that organisations should be a) investing more in their online activity and b) that that investment should be far more targeted and results-driven:

But overall the consensus seemed to be that organisations probably aren’t investing to the level that they ‘should’.

Why should you spend more?

In amongst the conversations I lamented that I see, upsettingly often, briefs that don’t specify a budget, instead saying they are looking to spend ‘as little as possible’. Which of course could be a totally valid approach (some thought so):

However it is, I believe, precisely this sort of approach that has brought the UK cultural sector to the point it’s currently at with digital. I.e. one of widespread underinvestment, with organisations suffering a staggering lack of expertise at all levels (from board level down…it’d appear this is especially the case at board level), scared of experimentation, with poor user experiences all round and digital generally not working as well or as hard as it could or should for many organisations.

This was underlined by the release of the latest NESTA/Arts Council England Digital Culture Survey:

“The shift to a digital society shows no signs of slowing — a significant proportion of ordinary people’s lives are now spent online, mediated by technology giants like Google, Facebook and Snapchat. In order to remain relevant to society at large, arts and cultural organisations will have to keep pace with the ongoing cycle of change and disruption.
However, our research since 2013 has told us that the adoption of technology by arts and cultural organisations has been patchy and unevenly distributed, and that high levels of positive impact are not universally being felt throughout the sector.”

The arts and cultural sector is going to dig itself out of this hole by investing, in people and skills. But all of that requires money and a change in approach (amongst other things), and it’d be helpful if we started being a bit more honest about that.

I also think this links with a broader issue I’ve written about before, i.e. that of website spend being seen as ‘a marketing capital expenditure thing’ (i.e. a one off cost tied to a single department) or considered on a project-by-project basis rather than as a strategic, organisation-wide, operational consideration.

Seeing a website build (or ‘digital’ in general) as a one-off cost that you only need to revisit as infrequently as you can get away with is, in my view, problematic and going to cost you more (in stress, frustration and wasted time as well as cold, hard cash) in the long-run. You’re further exacerbating that if you’re looking to spend as little as you possibly can.

Failing to invest in your digital platforms and activity is going to scupper relationships with suppliers and partners (meaning every new project will probably also come with a new agency and all the attendant knowledge transfer and relationship-building that incurs) and mean you’re running to catch up in terms of organisational understanding and expertise each time you embark on a total rebuild.

It is also inevitably more expensive to totally rip everything up and start again (from effectively a standing start) every few years rather than try to develop your web platforms as your organisation’s and users’ needs develop.

To return to the findings of the Digital Culture 2017 report:

Experimentation among arts and cultural organisations seems to be slipping back. This is despite evidence that organisations that self-identify as experimenters tend to gain more impact from digital. For example, 77 per cent of experimenters report positive impact from technology on their creative output, compared to 46 per cent across the sector as a whole. Similarly 69 per cent of experimenters report positive impact on their distribution and exhibition activities, versus 39 per cent overall.

I would wager there’s likely to be a fairly direct correlation between ongoing investment (to whatever level) and experimentation, and thus (the survey would suggest) digital success.

Making the case for investment

That’s all well and good, but the fact that most of the responses to my survey recommended a level of ongoing investment that, in the cultural sector at least, seems optimistic is a problem.

It indicates that those doing the work recognise the need for increased investment but are struggling to secure the additional resources required from those in charge of setting budgets.

Why is this the case and how can we change it? I think one of the primary problems with the leadership in the UK cultural sector, and indeed the UK as a whole, is that we are suffering from ‘snowy peaks’ (i.e. that no matter how diverse the organisation or sector workforce, the leadership is usually comprised of much older people).

What this means in reality is that the sector is being lead by individuals who, by virtue of their professional experience, aren’t familiar with digital and all that it entails (and to be fair, nor have they really had to be to date). This leads to is a culture at the very best of ambivalence and at the very worst active suspicion towards the behaviours and competencies that digital success relies on, namely experimentation and incremental, ongoing investment.

To the uninformed these behaviours could simply seem like a way of encouraging never-ending, ever-increasing expenditure with no guarantee of success, although all the research points to the opposite being the case.

The reasons for this leadership situation are numerous, and are worth a post of their own. However it’s not a situation that is going to change overnight, so we need to work out strategies for working within these constraints and winning the arguments we need to win.

I have found that an effective way to encourage understanding of the fact that digital needs investment is usually be identifying an issue that is impacting a core business objective and gathering evidence around that specific problem and possible solutions (and their associated costs, benefits and risks), rather than trying to win the broader argument that ‘digital is important’.

Videos of real users struggling to book a ticket or clueless about what an organisation’s purpose is (I saw the V&A showing a video of a user who thought they were a shoe shop…!) usually helps focus minds faster than any number of more abstract arguments about shifting audience expectations and demographics.

Paul Boag wrote a post about “Justifying ongoing website maintenance”, although this post is a few years old now I think there he outlines a number of useful observations and techniques

Being able to say something along the lines of “we improved conversion by 10% for 2 hours work” is exactly the kind of thing that will get management’s attention. If you want to really get them to sit up and take notice, calculate how much that 10% increase in conversion is worth compared to the cost of 2 hours work.

By identifying discrete, specific problems, proposing solutions, and then being able to measure and quantify your success you will hopefully begin to build a culture that understands the value of incremental investment.

You will then be in a better position to make the case for more significant investment in your organisation’s digital activity.

I’d also be interested to hear people’s thoughts on how can we help to encourage investment and experimentation and, therefore, more organisations seeing a positive impact from digital activity. Rather than it hanging over us like an existential threat.

I’d be really interested in hearing about people’s experience of investment, experimentation, success, and failure (of course this is what we usually talk about at Digital Works too).

Caveats

I am primarily talking about organisations for whom the website is the primary revenue generation channel and/or main comms platform.

Obviously ‘your website’ is an unhelpful label as it won’t be a single amount of money being spent, your website is likely comprised of a number of parts, each with their own supplier and budget line. It’s unlikely that your hosting supplier also designed and built your site and your ticketing software and manages your payment processing — yet all of these costs probably fall under a broad heading of ‘the website’.

The poll is, admittedly, a very blunt question and doesn’t take into account websites whose primary aim isn’t to earn revenue, organisations who only see a small % of this revenue due to their commercial agreements, etc etc.

Like what you read? Give Ash Mann a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.