The 2006 Orchestra Website Review: Best & Worst

The final installment in the 2006 Orchestra Website Review is this year’s Best & Worst. Unfortunately, there’s just as much “worst” to hash over as in 2005 but on the other side of the coin, much of the “best” is just fantastic…

One change in this year’s Best & Worst installment is there will be no indication for any orchestras that have updated their website since the evaluation period. Instead, each orchestra was provided an opportunity to communicate any information about their respective website via the detailed ratings, which allowed them to communicate with readers in their own voice.

For example, the Atlanta Symphony used that opportunity to indicate they launched a significantly redesigned website, unfortunately it went live after the review’s evaluation period. Additionally, each orchestra is free to post a comment to any of the review articles in order to provide additional details about their websites; which is something several organizations have taken advantage of to date.

Worst Online Tickets Sales
Audience development is on the mind of every marketing professional in this business and with most organizations fighting sluggish ticket sales they need to take advantage of every opportunity to get as many butts in the seats as possible.

Regardless of whether or not an organization is required to work with a third party ticketing system they can all take advantage of selling tickets online. Unfortunately, 25% of orchestras had no ability purchase single tickets for the 2006-2007 season at the time of the review (remember, some orchestras have already provided explanations, you can look for those particulars among the detailed ratings).

Along the same lines, some organizations simply made the ticket buying experience frustrating, here are some of the “highlights”:
Richmond Symphony
At the time of their review, the RSO’s first concert was only 11 days away. Sadly, all of the concert information listed on their website was for the previous season’s concerts. In fact, the only way you could even find out about the 2006-2007 season was to download a subscription brochure in .pdf format. Furthermore, the RSO offered no ability to purchase single or subscription tickets online.

Hartford Symphony
If you like to sit on the end of a row or find a seat with an empty single on either side, then look somewhere else as there’s nothing for you at the Hartford Symphony. While attempting to purchase a single ticket I received the following message when clicking a seat that was listed as being available: “your selection should not leave isolated seats in a row”. The result is if you’re anyone that might need to leave a concert in the middle of a selection (think OB/GYN) or an elderly patron that has an easier time getting in and out of an end seat, you are out of luck.

New Jersey Symphony & Spokane Symphony
Both of these ensembles suffered from critical internal website problems. Whenever I attempted to click on a link to purchase tickets to an individual concert, I arrived at an error page. In the NJSO’s case, I was treated to a message that read “DTWP001E: Net.Data is unable to locate the macro file err_bad_user_init.d2w” and in Spokane’s case I received a simple “server timed out” message. In order to make sure this wasn’t a problem with my web browser, I attempted to purchase single tickets using the latest versions of IE and FireFox.

Milwaukee Symphony & New York Philharmonic
Both of these orchestras had extraordinarily long wait times when moving from one ticket purchase page to the next. At Milwaukee’s website, they added insult to injury when after taking more then 11 minutes to get to a screen which allowed me to select a seat I kept receiving the following notice: “We are unable to completely fulfill your ticket request. Please review your order below and either select an alternate event, section, or adjust your ticket quantity.” Unfortunately, they never tell you which of those issues the problem is. After adjusting every suggested problem component of my purchase I kept receiving the same message. In the end, their system never allowed me to purchase a single ticket.

At the New York website, they were determined to prove that a “New York minute” is only a saying and has no basis in reality whatsoever. After providing the required information on the first screen of creating a new user account (which was mandatory in order to view seat selection), I was treated to a screen that politely told me “this process may take up to 3 1/2 minutes”. Although I wasn’t pleased I would have to wait so long, it was nice they let me know in advance.

Apparently, this was a generous estimate as the actual wait time between each of the registration screens was in excess of five minutes. In the end, it took nearly 20 minutes to register a new account. Just to make sure it wasn’t an issue on my end, I went back the next day with a different browser and was treated to the same mind numbingly long registration process.

Worst Ability To Donate Online
There is simply no good reason why any orchestra wouldn’t bother to allow patrons to make donations directly through their website. Over the past two years, the number of low to no cost online donation tools allow even the smallest budget organizations to increase their contributed revenue through e-commerce solutions.

It you simply don’t know where to get started, try reading this report from IdealWare, where they compare the most common online donation tools available and tell you everything you need to know to get started (thanks to my ArtsJournal.com weblog neighbor Andrew Taylor for pointing out that report back in December, 2005).

On a positive note, the number of orchestras that do not accept donations through their website dropped 43% since 2005. If this is any indication of things to come, then it’s entirely possible that every orchestra will accept online donations by the time the 2007 review comes around.

Nevertheless, the following orchestras did not accept online donations at the time of the review (listed alphabetically):

  1. Akron Symphony
  2. Austin Symphony
  3. Buffalo Philharmonic
  4. Canton Symphony
  5. Chattanooga Symphony
  6. Colorado Symphony
  7. Dayton Philharmonic
  8. Fort Wayne Philharmonic
  9. Grand Rapids Symphony
  10. Jacksonville Symphony
  11. Kalamazoo Symphony
  12. Knoxville Symphony
  13. L.A. Chamber Orchestra
  14. Long Beach Symphony
  15. Los Angeles Philharmonic
  16. Memphis Symphony
  17. Mississippi Symphony
  18. Naples Philharmonic
  19. Omaha Symphony
  20. San Diego Symphony
  21. Shreveport Symphony
  22. South Bend Symphony
  23. Wichita Symphony

I was taken aback by the fact that the Los Angeles Philharmonic is on this list. In fact, I even contacted the annual fund coordinator listed on their “support” page for confirmation. Unfortunately, she confirmed that, indeed, the L.A. Phil does not accept donations online. However, according to their own survey response, the L.A. Phil sold 72% of all single tickets online during the 2005-2006 season; as such, they might want to reconsider their strategy.

Narcissistic Executive Directors
In November of 2003, I published an article entitled I Go To The Symphony For Their Executive Director? which chronicles the bizarre habit of some orchestra executive directors who feel compelled to post their pictures, biographies, or personal messages to patrons on the orchestra website when there’s nothing beyond scant information about the musicians.

Granted, there’s nothing inherently wrong with posting biographical data and messages from executive directors, but when those endeavors eclipse learning about the actual musicians then it’s time to reevaluate the priorities in the office. Sadly, this list is the longest it has ever been in the three years of the review. I sincerely hope this isn’t a growing trend.

Here are the worst offenders for 2006 (listed by ensemble, alphabetically):
California Symphony
Executive Director Stacey Street maintains a 145 word biography in addition to a full color photograph on their website but there’s only a simple text list of the musicians. This is the second year in a row California Symphony has appeared on this list.

Chattanooga Symphony
Executive Director John Wehrle has a 377 word personal message to patrons and a full color photograph on their website but there’s only a simple text list of the musicians. Furthermore, there’s a featured callout banner (complete with his face shot) linking directly to his message on the right side of nearly all the website’s pages. This is the second year in a row Chattanooga Symphony has appeared on this list.

Colorado Symphony
Executive Director Douglas Adams has a 262 word biography on their website but there’s only a simply text list of the musicians. This is the first year Colorado has made it onto this list.

Hartford Symphony
Executive Director Charles H. Owens has a 359 word biography and a black and white photograph on their website but there’s only a simple text list of the musicians. This is the second year in a row Hartford has appeared on this list.

Richmond Symphony
Executive Director David Fisk has a 512 word personal message to patrons along with a black and white photograph while there are no messages, biographical information, and only a text list of musicians. Less than half of the musicians have any black and white pictures available. In fact, all of this content is identical to what appeared in the 2005-2006 concert season. David’s message even started of with “Welcome to the 2005-2006 season…”. This is the third year in a row Richmond has appeared on this list.

South Bend Symphony
Executive Director Jane Hunter has a 330 word biography along with a black and white photograph on their website but there’s only a simple text list of the musicians. According the bio, Ms. Hunter joined the orchestra in 2006. Perhaps coincidentally, this is South Bend’s first year on this list.

Best Individual Features & Components
Several orchestras deserve special recognition this year for a wide variety of unique features and components; here are some of the orchestras, listed alphabetically (features and components that received a Special Recognition award are not included in this list):

Seattle Symphony
Although utilitarian in design, the Seattle Symphony offers ticket buyers a great deal of flexibility in a very easy to use package. Not only can you search for concerts by calendar dates but you can also locate concerts by composer, conductor, genre, and featured instrument.

Once you select a concert, they even provide a list of other concerts you might find interesting. Granted, unless these include new music, veteran patrons may not find much use in this feature but new patrons will likely appreciate the guidance. The feature would be even more intriguing if they included a small head shot and call out speech bubble from a musician with their recommendations.

Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra
Although several orchestras have implemented online blogs, the SLSO is not only the first to jump into that pond, but they offer a format that is intuitive to both regular and novice blog readers. The blog is easy to navigate, they don’t overload the page with gratuitous SLSO advertising, and they keep up with posting something nearly every day.

Since last year, they’ve refined the page by adding some useful plug-ins that allow readers to add the blog to some of the most common feedreaders. It’s good to see other orchestras follow suit by including blogs as part of their content but they could benefit by taking a closer look at how they do it in Saint Louis.

Las Vegas Philharmonic
Although the LVPhil is a smaller budget organization, they have no trouble taking full advantage of how online components can enhance their educational presence. In particular, they offer streaming video archives from a number of educational master classes they have presented as far back as the 2000-2001 season.

Largest Changes In Score & Rank
This year’s largest increases and decreases in score and rank were nearly even, with decreases slightly outnumbering increases. On the positive side, the single largest change in score and rank were due to increases: the Colorado Springs Philharmonic skyrocketed up from 2005’s “bottom five” and into the middle of this year’s list by nearly doubling their score.

Here’s a list of every orchestra that moved at least 20 positions in rank:

Largest Gains
1. Colorado Springs Philharmonic – up 32.13 points and 48 positions
2. Fort Worth Symphony – up 16.94 points and 25 positions
3. Las Vegas Philharmonic – up 14.86 points and 25 positions
4. San Antonio Symphony – up 13.27 points and 22 positions

Largest Declines
1. Buffalo Philharmonic – down 17.15 points and 33 positions
2. Pittsburgh Symphony – down 13.54 points and 25 positions
3. Tucson Symphony – down 12.70 points and 22 positions
4. Memphis Symphony – down 12.84 points and 22 positions
5. Naples Philharmonic – down 16.31 points and 21 positions

At Risk Online Transactions
One of the most disturbing developments from the 2005 review was the proliferation of orchestras which offered no clearly identified notice that their online transactions were secure. In 2005 there were 23 orchestras with no secure transaction notice and in 2006 that number increased 113% to 49. Here’s a list of orchestras which had no secure transactions notice on pages which asked for credit card numbers (listed alphabetically):

1. Alabama Symphony
2. Atlanta Symphony
3. Austin Symphony
4. Boston Symphony
5. Buffalo Philharmonic
6. Charleston Symphony
7. Chattanooga Symphony
8. Cincinnati Symphony
9. Columbus Symphony
10. Dallas Symphony
11. Dayton Philharmonic
12. Delaware Symphony
13. Detroit Symphony
14. Elgin Symphony
15. Erie Philharmonic
16. Florida Orchestra
17. Fort Worth Symphony
18. Grand Rapids Symphony
19. Hartford Symphony
20. Honolulu Symphony
21. Houston Symphony
22. Indianapolis Symphony
23. Jacksonville Symphony
24. Kansas City Symphony
25. Knoxville Symphony
26. L.A. Chamber Orchestra
27. Long Beach Symphony
28. Los Angeles Philharmonic
29. Louisville Orchestra
30. Milwaukee Symphony
31. Minnesota Orchestra
32. New Jersey Symphony
33. New Mexico Symphony
34. New York Philharmonic
35. Omaha Symphony
36. Pacific Symphony
37. Philadelphia Orchestra
38. Phoenix Symphony
39. Rochester Philharmonic
40. Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
41. San Antonio Symphony
42. San Diego Symphony
43. San Francisco Symphony
44. Santa Rosa Symphony
45. Seattle Symphony
46. Spokane Symphony
47. Syracuse Symphony
48. Toledo Symphony
49. Utah Symphony

In May, 2006 I published an article about the severity of this problem and why nonprofit organizations, orchestras in particular, need to wake up and take this issue seriously. Apparently, orchestras aren’t heeding that warning and it’s only a matter of time before one of them falls victim to a vicious online attack.

Lack Of Cultural Dialog
Although a number of orchestras provided some sort of links page with pointers to local newspapers, the ASOL, Musical America, and Andante.com (the on-again, off-again culture website). Furthermore, not a single orchestra had a link to any of the music and culture oriented weblogs at Inside The Arts (including Adaptistration).

Granted, whether or not orchestras included a link to Inside The Arts or any of its resident blogs had absolutely no impact on their final score. It was simply depressing to not find a single orchestra that found those websites important enough to point visitors in that direction.

Additionally, the music blogs authored by Joe Patti, Brian Dickie, and myself all deal with issues directly related to the orchestra field on a daily basis. Supplementary culture oriented blogs authored by Jason Heath and the enormously popular Bill Eddins and Ron Spigelman touch on subjects related to the orchestra field on a regular basis.

As such, plugging into this existing discourse would function as a positive component for orchestras to use in improving their local level of cultural discourse. Even more, subscribing to an RSS feed from anyone of these blogs is a simple task. I know most of the blog authors are happy to offer free advice for setting up the feed.

Conclusions
So there you have it, the best and the worst from the 2006 Orchestra Website Review. What sort of issues, good and bad, have you observed in orchestra websites this year? Is there anything missing from the 2006 “Best & Worst” list? Post a comment below or send in your thoughts via email.

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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2 thoughts on “The 2006 Orchestra Website Review: Best & Worst

  1. Orchestras should be rated more on the musical performance, not a website. I believe that music truly inspires people that provides different feelings, or emotions. Music can not only bring back memories, but create new ones. Classical music is one of the most beautiful genres of music today because of the brilliant composers that were able to express many emotions throughout their pieces. People may interpret music differently, so one person’s opinion about music doesn’t make it necessarily true. Music has inspired people to be leaders, and great people today. It is a part of our culture because in some shape or form, music is all around us.

    • Hi Emily, thanks for taking the time to weigh-in on one of the original website review posts. I agree that an orchestra’s artistic accomplishments should be rated on musical performance and in this application, the institutional website review is a mutually exclusive segment from those items and shouldn’t be interpreted as a reflection of artistic or musical accomplishment.

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