The Best Orchestra Website For 2005 Is In Nashville

Not only did the Nashville Symphony Orchestra open up a $123.5 million concert hall to rave reviews at the beginning of this month, they also launched one of the most technologically advanced orchestra websites the business has ever seen. Without a doubt, several components of Nashville’s brand new website will serve as a benchmark for other institutions to follow. But how much did it cost and can other orchestras follow their lead or even expand on what they have created?…

To find out the answers to those questions and more, I sat down with Michael Buckland, Nashville Symphony V.P. of Marketing, Sales and Communications, and Andi Bordick, Nashville Symphony Advertising, E-Business, and Promotions Manager, during a recent trip to visit the new concert hall. Michael, pictured in his so-new-you-can-still-smell-the-fresh-paint office to your left (click to enlarge), and Andi were both very excited to talk about their new website.

Yes, It’s A Fantastic Website, But How Much Did It Cost?
If you pump enough money into a website, at the very least you will likely end up with something that looks good. However, according to Michael, they ended up getting much more for their money than they initially expected.

“The cumulative price for all of the start-up work, the special seating module, and content creation came to approximately $220,000,” said Michael. “Out of that figure, the seating module alone cost $70,000 and although it wasn’t a necessity, we decided it was worth pursuing. The good news is we expect annual maintenance from here on out to cost approximately $35,000.”

Much of the start-up work was to integrate the new website design with Tessitura, an enterprise-wide, integrated system for marketing, development, and box office management. According to Michael, if Nashville already had Tessitura integrated into their previous website, their start up costs would have been closer to $75,000.

Come Fly With Me
What exactly is a seating module and why did it cost $70,000? Simply put, the seating module is the most impressive adaptation of the traditional seating chart I’ve ever come across. It’s cool, entertaining to use, and oozes an unmistakable techno-panache. Better yet, it goes a long way toward alleviating the stereotype that everything connected with orchestras is old, unimaginative, and stuck in the 1960’s. All of this should conspire to have an especially powerful impact on new ticket buyers.

One of the challenges the Nashville marketing department faced with the opening of the new hall is how to let potential subscribers and ticket buyers know what the hall will look like and how they’ll be able to identify which seat they want if the actual building doesn’t even exist. Avoiding the traditional path of artist’s renderings, their solution was absolutely inspired. They contacted Paradigm Productions to create a 3D CAD virtual tour of the concert hall based on architectural specifications.

The original tour, affectionately referred to by staff as “the fly-through”, was a huge hit with subscribers and new patrons alike. The marketing campaign even caught the attention of professional advertising organizations (fun fact: the tour was narrated by Michael Buckland and you can still watch the tour here).

“We won a couple of National Advertising Federation awards know as The Addy,” said Andi. “In particular, the Virtual Tour on CD-ROM won the Gold District and Silver Regional award for interactive media sales campaign.”

That award winning fly-through evolved into what the organization now uses for the “Meet Your Seat” feature, thier version of a seating chart on steroids. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if this became the benchmark for how orchestras begin to design first class seating charts. According to Andi, they plan to raise the bar a notch higher once they are able to replace the CAD landscape with actual video footage of the hall in both seating configurations.

How Far Can You Stretch A Dollar?
According to Michael, although the cost of the seating module was approximately $70,000, the cost to create all of the 3D CAD material was much lower. Better yet, they were able to use much of the original 3D CAD material for a variety of marketing applications, all of which kept their cumulative marketing expenses for the new hall much lower than they expected.

“What ended up being a fantastic aspect of our approach was that we were able to get double and triple use out of the original [3D CAD material] created by Paradigm Productions,” said Michael. “We were able to use numerous stills from the virtual tour for the 250,000+ color brochures we sent to subscribers, donors and prospects. Furthermore, Lynch2, our website designer, was able to use that same material for the seating module. As a result, we ended up saving a great deal on everything. I would say all of this, excluding the seating module, only cost us $20,000 – $30,000, and that figure includes the 38,000 hard copies of the CD-ROM.”

In addition to being cost effective and cutting edge, Michael said the design process was very easy and ended up being much easier to work with as compared to traditional artist’s renditions.

“It was really a painless production,” said Michael. “Charles Gaushell from Paradigm Productions never even needed to come to Nashville from Memphis. I could simply get on the phone with them to say that I noticed an error in one of the 3D graphics and they would make adjustments in the same day.”

When Figuring Out Square One, Process Is Everything
The only solid element Nashville knew they needed in the new website was that it had to be integrated with Tessitura. Beyond that, they began the design process by formulating which components they wanted and initiated the search process for a designer to help successfully merge all of those elements together.

“We went through some of the top sites from the [Orchestra Website Review Report] to figure out what we liked and didn’t like,” said Andi. “Then Michael and Ted [DeDee, Schermerhorn Symphony Center executive director] went back and forth over a few design companies to use based on their experience and ability to integrate the Tessitura system. We also received extensive references from other orchestras, especially the Chicago Symphony.”

Once they decided which developer to use, the design process began in earnest.

“We did extensive telephone briefings and ended up selecting Lynch2 to be our developer,” said Michael. “They started the process by having us complete detailed questionnaires and once they had that information, we spent an entire day with them. After that point, they had a clear idea of our needs and equally responded to them.”

Of course, another aspect pushing Nashville’s process was a rapidly approaching deadline. In the end, the organization had to go through the entire process of selecting a developer to public release in a matter of months. Fortunately, Nashville was able to expedite much of the design process by having an employee that was capable of translating orchestra marketing-speak into website developer-speak.

“We were lucky enough to have Andi onboard throughout this process,” said Michael. “Without having someone in our own place that could communicate what we wanted to Lynch2, we would have never made our tight deadline.”

In addition to speeding up the design process, having someone to serve as a knowledgeable liaison also saved Nashville more money.

“The ability to communicate quickly with the developer as well as completing the majority of content and layout work in house was one of the biggest reasons behind the lower cost of developing this site,” said Andi.

As the design process evolved, Nashville became convinced that they made the correct decision when they selected Lynch2 as their developer. According to Michael, Stephen Lynch, V.P. Lynch2, would often get excited over something new for the site that evolved from an original idea.

“Stephen was always contacting us when he came up with something new or thought he had an exciting idea for us,” said Michael. “It made the entire process exhilarating and that sort of enthusiasm is infectious.”

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone that Lynch2 designed this year’s first and second place websites. In fact, Lynch2 is also responsible for designing the winning website for the 2004 and 2005 reviews (in the not-to-distant future, the team of designers at Lynch2 will be the subject of a special article).

One final aspect of the Nashville’s design component was the conscious decision to solicit input from as many internal and external constituent groups as possible.

“We sent an email to everyone on staff and players for feedback,” said Andi. “For example, the Nashville Chorus came back to us expressing an interest to include something about them so we designed a choral component based on their input and integrated it into the final product.”

Forward Momentum
Even though the Nashville Symphony website earned first place in this year’s review, they aren’t resting on their laurels. Michael and Andi both outlined a number of components they intend to implement over the course of the season as well as plans that are on the drawing table.

Another fascinating possibility they are investigating improves customer service by allowing them to get into the hall with fewer bottlenecks.

“We’re looking into a component that will allow patrons to print concert tickets from home, just like you can with airline tickets,” said Andi. “Hopefully, we’ll have something like that in place by the beginning of 2007. A system like that will be a wonderful addition to the interactive ticketing kiosks we already have around the building. I am also putting together a special subscriber benefit program that delivers a pre-concert email packet with concert info, traffic and road conditions, and even parking info.”

Andi also mentioned that the only outstanding elements not yet included on the website had to wait until the building was completed before they could design them. For example, since I interviewed Michael and Andi, they’ve already started to include much more information about the Schermerhorn Symphony Center with regard to facility rental information, tour schedules, enhanced press and rental kits, and details about their restaurant and café.

Of course, a good orchestra website is also responsible for generating revenue. I’m sure everyone in the business is anxious to see how successful Nashville’s new website is at that critical task.

In the end, Nashville’s new website was good enough to bump Chicago out of the top slot. But Chicago’s website finished in a very close second place and other organizations that scored high in this year’s review are planning significant updates to their sites, such as San Francisco. As such, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if several orchestras score high enough to receive an “A” in the 2007 review. Regardless, Nashville will have their work cut out for them to retain the number one spot.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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