INTERVIEW | Sandro Debono: The digital transformation of cultural activities

There is a new sense of time for cultural activity paradoxically originating from restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. The lynchpin of this new understanding of time is digital content. As restrictions are slowly but carefully eased, a new normal starts to take shape albeit a short term one, knowing too well that the impact of COVID-19 on the collective mindset is there. BusinessToday spoke to Dr Sandro Debono, former curator of MUZA, and Prof Alexiei Dingli, professor of AI at the University of Malta, on the rise of digital and social media


The latest indications, based on emerging trends, suggest that closed and confined spaces might be the last to attract audiences with parks and open spaces being much more in sync with the health-conscious mindset that we have grown into over the past weeks and months. With this situation, digital and social media has become an important tool … practically overnight.

Moving on is akin to stating that the show must go on. As we seek to engage with our new normal, these are some thoughts and ideas to help you adjust your sails. In this contribution, we focus on digital tools within reach that can be used to mitigate some of the challenges we’re currently facing.

1. None of us was prepared for this!

During the past decades, the media exposed us to global disasters, but most of which happened on the other end of our television screen. The current pandemic is different. It hit us like a bolt from the blue, and is happening right in our backyards. No culture institution or creative was prepared for this - you are not the only one to feel lost at this point in time. Staying relevant and using the channels available to do so is crucial.

It is important to take stock of digital and non-digital content in hand. The one that you feel reflects your work, who you are and what you are up to as an organisation or as a creative. Social media will probably become your new best friend since it is one of the most effective distribution channels. But irrespective of which channel you opt for, the most important is to be yourself.

One of the highly commended marketing and outreach initiatives happening online is coming from a small museum - the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oakland, USA. The Museum asked its head of security (with little knowledge of social media) to communicate and share experiences. He kept asking his audience to help him out and engaged in conversations and presentations that audiences could relate to. So don’t be afraid to ask for help. Reach out to your supporters and get them to engage with your content.

2. Engaging and communicating via social media

This is where creativity comes into the picture. Creativity knows no limits and boundaries, although much depends on the audience and medium. As a start, consider your expertise and knowledge as the point of departure. There is knowledge that only you hold and which can make your content stand out - your unique selling points.

Let’s start with modern phones. These allow users to take panoramic photos which are wider than usual. You can actually fit the four walls of an entire room in one picture. These photos can feature a lot of details dispersed around the room and are perfect to showcase surroundings and invite people to look for details akin to one of those “spot the hidden item” games. Videos too can be shared online and their reach is much wider than a photo. Choosing the right platform for your digital content needs some thought and much depends on the audiences you are after.

Social platforms cater for different audiences. These audiences have their own expectations which in turn affect the success (or lack of it) of your campaign. So let us guide you through the different platforms, starting with the one you might be most conversant with.

Facebook is the largest social media platform in the world with more than 1 billion user accounts. It allows you to create your own page from where you can promote your offerings. The most successful posts seem to be videos and live performance which can include how-to guides, summaries and talks. The second most successful are curated posts. This might include content which you create or which you re-share from other websites whose audience share a similar taste. A successful Facebook post must stand out visually with simple clear text. It must also include a call-to-action such as asking people to click on a link (maybe to visit your website) or to subscribe to a mailing list. Finally, people like freebies so think of giving them something back. It could be a download link to a free document, maybe a discount to purchase one of your products or just a teaser of your next big project. Posts should be shorter than 160 characters and would also include some hashtags. A hashtag is just a word preceded with the symbol # which makes it easier to find posts online. If in doubt, sites like help you identify the most popular hashtags for your post.

Youtube is the largest video repository on the Internet and also the second-largest search engine. This means that when people need to look for something, they tend to refer to YouTube. Apart from storing videos, platforms like YouTube allow for some exciting twists. A video can also link to other videos so a walkthrough in a location might give you the option to proceed to different rooms. Interactive videos can act as a “treasure hunt” across various locations. For the more adventurous, video can work as a choose-your-own-adventure story where actors perform a scene, and at the end, the user has to make a decision. In reality, the entry barrier is shallow since all one needs is a mobile phone, many of which can take video at a very high resolution.

Instagram is another popular social network which focuses a lot on the aesthetics. This is the ideal platform where to post high-resolution images of your artefacts or products, behind-the-scene information and also user-generated content ( subject to clearance from pertinent owners). Popular content on Instagram includes motivational quotes. Ideally, seek the best quotes which support your mission and use appropriate images to feature with your posts. Good quality images are available on platforms such as Unsplash, Pexels and Pixabay, many of which are free to use. Online applications like also allow you to edit them professionally for free. Another interesting feature in Instagram is Stories. These are posts with a 24 hours lifetime. They can be used effectively for storytelling, to promote blog posts, announce limited time offers, offer giveaways, share data, send updates … practically the list of possibilities is endless!

Twitter posts are worth pursuing too although this is more niche. It is nevertheless a very good tool from where to get your latest news. In fact, almost 80% of Twitter users claim to get their latest updates from the platform. Much like Facebook, Twitter allows users to share their posts but has a strict limit of 280 characters per tweet. Because of this, it is more suited to share bits and pieces of blog posts per day than any other platform. It also supports links to other sites and media including images,  photos, videos or gifs. Videos too have a limit of 140 seconds. Incidentally, Gifs stands for Graphic Interchange Format but they are just images which can be animated using programs such as Canva, Ezgif or Giphy to name a few.

LinkedIn is more of a professional networking platform and more suitable to showcase organisational culture, experiences and achievements. Posts with images generally receive 98% more engagement than textual posts. The LinkedIn audience seems to appreciate webinars, consultation papers and studies too.

Pinterest is another visual social platform that is very similar to Instagram. It is ideal for vertical images and infographics (which are a visual representation of information presented quickly and clearly). They can be easily created with free programs such as Picktochart or Venngage. Pinterest is also more adapted for the Do-It-Yourself kind of posts, food and design.

TikTok is a relative newcomer but nonetheless a very popular social network (bigger than Instagram) and more importantly with a much younger audience. In fact, more than 40% of users are younger than 25 years of age. This is the platform for short looped videos (between 15 and 60 seconds) and allows users to edit videos, add music, insert filters and all sorts of visual content. Posts have a typical lighthearted feel making it ideal for witty jokes, fun facts and other light conversations. TikTok is also ideal to engage young adults through competitions by asking them to create fun content.

Zoom, Skype, Messenger and Microsoft Teams are not social networking platforms. These are mostly used as video conferencing platforms and ideal for expert talks or discussions so, in theory, they can still be tools to consider. Most of these save a  video of the event almost automatically which can also be played by users over and over again. These systems are also ideal for a more intimate setting with fewer participants thus allowing for better interaction with the main speaker. However, they can also scale up and some of these programs provide free video conferencing with up to a maximum of 100 participants.

As one can well gather, the possibilities are there for the taking. There is more than one platform to choose from. Some might work better than others for your needs and purpose. Others less although much depends on your message and circumstances. Needless to say, the more you experiment the better an understanding you will acquire as to what works best for you.

3. Taking advantage of the Digital First approach

Digital-first is a communication theory which states that publishers should release content into new media channels first, rather than go to print straight away. This perception originates from increased connectivity, given that we have become much more accustomed to accessing information via mobiles, tablets and other gadgets. By consequence, there is an increase in content consumption online. Because of this, the first step in the museum or cultural experience is most likely and will be definitely much more so in the future, digital-first. The first touchpoint, the first connection with the experience, shall be increasingly online. Besides traditional marketing requirements and interface of physical exhibitions or cultural performances, this could also mean a number of additional things. There are good examples to follow too. Museums and theatres oftentimes explore co-creative projects featuring learning experiences too.

The digital-first approach can help you stay relevant but it can also help you promote your work in advance for when things return back to the new normal. Indeed, this could be the right time to promote your work online or anticipate the product or service you might be offering in the not too distant future. Don’t feel let down by the fact that there might be no clear end in sight for the current situation.

4. Monetising on the experience

This has been, perhaps, the biggest challenge to date particularly in view of so much content, perhaps too much, available online. There are various ways to do so. First of all, some online events can be donation-based whereby people attend for free but politely asked to donate even if it would just be a token donation of their choice. If you do manage to negotiate a fee for your work or service, then you can easily work with online money transfer facilities in return for which you can then send the link to the event. Applications like Paypal or Revolut make it very easy to send and receive money online. One can also earn money through the distribution of content (like videos on YouTube), but for these to be successful, your popularity rating would need to be relatively high.

Some platforms have approached the payment for services issue by empathising. Some have asked for a donation, whilst also leaving it up to the user to pay according to his current financial status. Empathy is the best tool to handle the situation, and this is a golden opportunity to build trust with your future publics and audiences.

The time is now

The rapid expansion of social media has been with us for years, and its impact on our lives significantly decisive. We might have rarely noticed perhaps because we were more taken up by the day-to-day chores that kept us from venturing much more into this uncharted territory. But the time is now! It is not as complex as you might think on first impression.

The platforms discussed are relatively easy to use and, as the saying goes, practice makes perfect! By the time we’re out of the woods, and this pandemic shall hopefully be a thing of the past, you would have given a new lease of life to your cultural activities.

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