The Best Orchestra Website For 2007 Is In Nashville (& Chicago)

For the second year in a row, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra (NSO) and Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) websites have secured the #1 and #2 spots, respectively, in the Annual Orchestra Website Review. However, the difference between their scores in 2007 was even less than the marginal difference in 2006.

How marginal? For example, one subcategory where both groups failed to secure 100% of available points was posting “Institutional Transparency” documents. Although both groups posted copies of their Annual Reports, neither posted copies of the IRS Form 990 but if the CSO had posted the IRS Form 990, they would have moved ahead of the NSO by more than a full point. Add to that, both organizations managed to increase their score from 2006 and it seems fitting to feature both groups…

Nashville Symphony
Although Nashville’s website hasn’t changed a great deal from last year, how it operates within the NSO administration has changed. According to Christy Crytzer, NSO Senior Director of Communications, the NSO website now falls under her department which is part of the External Affairs Department, run by Susan Plageman, V.P. of External Affairs.

“The website is probably the most important communications tool we have,” said Christy. “Coordinating it with all of our other communication materials is critical.”

Since the Tessitura enabled version of the NSO website was launched in conjunction with the organization’s inaugural season in the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, they have been able to expand their communication efforts by including augmented information on the center’s facilities such as details about pre-concert dinner service and catering information as well as enhanced press material.

Looking back over the past year Andi Bordick, NSO Website and Multimedia Manager, said the organization is beginning to have a clearer picture of the costs related to maintaining a top-tier website.

“Our annual website maintenance is higher than originally expected but only because we didn’t originally include some components such as Tessitura upgrades, but it’s entirely manageable,” said Andi.

At the same time, the organization anticipates as much as a 20 percent, jump in revenue originating from the website due in part to a sizeable revenue enhancing component for the 2007-2008 season: the ability for users to purchase subscriptions.

“As the website has a few more years to grow and we keep adding components like the subscription sales, I think we’ll be able to demonstrate how much of an impact it has on generating revenue,” said Christy.

Another aspect of the NSO website that is growing into its own is the ability to create, add, remove, and edit the site’s content and pages. According to Andi, this was due in large part to the content management tool provided by their website designer, Lynch2.

“We had quite a bit of extra material up over the summer for summer specific events,” said Andi. “The eRube content management tool from Lynch2 makes creating, editing, and removing all of this material very easy and not nearly as time consuming as with other systems we’ve used.”

The ability to edit content in existing pages as well as create entirely new pages within their website is a feature too many orchestras do not enjoy. To a large degree, organizations still have to contact their developer and/or webmaster with written requests to make changes in content or add/subtract pages but with Lynch2’s eRube, organizations have direct control over content at all times.

“Lynch2 is fantastic at creating a product that allows users to do as much as possible on their own so they can implement more activities as they develop rather than waiting for someone else to do the work,” said Andi. “We consolidated much of our original content related to the hall’s inaugural opening and even though cleaning it up was a little time consuming, it was still relatively easy using eRube.

Christy added to that by pointing out how valuable it was to have someone on staff to manage their website.

“When you have someone on staff like Andi to manipulate tools like eRube it brings our website costs down considerably because there’s so much we can do right here on our own,” said Chrsity.

Another example of this page and content flexibility is the new online educational material the organization is developing, which includes downloadable lesson plans and guidebooks.

“Our existing education material is very informative but we have big plans for a completely redesigned NSOKids website which is scheduled to launch in October,” said Christy. “We’re also introducing more web material from our joint efforts, such as our Is It a Fiddle or Violin program with the Country Music Hall of Fame”

After last year’s review, the NSO team has attempted to guide many of their new projects by the concept of making things as easy for website visitors to use as possible. To that end, the NSO website has made contacting the Communications Department a straightforward endeavor.

“Even though addressing unforeseen issues brought to our attention by users means more for us to do, we make changes much sooner which results in getting people to use the website more,” said Andi. “Ultimately, that helps us keep the cost of selling tickets down.”

As the NSO is in a unique position of having launched the Tessitura enabled component of their new website in the same year they moved into their new hall, they will be able to accurately track changes in revenue and expenses related to online activity from a fresh starting point. According to Christy, once the NSO website has a few more years to grow, they will be in an even better position to demonstrate how much of an impact it has on generating revenue.

To that end, the NSO plans to release a number of additional online features throughout the course of the season, including audio podcasts of their American Encores performances along with video that will include interviews with orchestra musicians. They also plan to continue developing successful marketing initiatives designed to drive increased traffic to their website, such as web banners through popular local print media websites and music oriented business websites (after all, it is Music City, USA).

On the NSO’s website wish-list: print-from-home ticketing.

Chicago Symphony
As the most solid performer of any orchestra website since the reviews began in 2004, the CSO continues to not only refine what their website has to offer but its financial returns as well. To that end, Kevin Giglinto, CSO Vice President for Sales and Marketing, has implemented a number of tools designed to maximize the website’s revenue generating capacity.

One tool they’ve continually developed since 2001 is their daily sales reports. Not only are the reports used to track overall sales, but Kevin uses their flexibility to extract all online sales activity via a variety of parameters (per concert event, series, day, week, month, etc.) and compare that with offline sales activity.

“Since 2001, we’ve compiled enough data to begin developing patterns,” said Kevin. “What that helps me do is identify up and down periods and make adjustments as needed. Not only is this a great way to track progress but it gives us the ability to recognize problems which are influenced by internal or external events.”

Since the beginning of the Orchestra Website Review in 2004, the CSO has seen growth in online ticket sales at an average of 18 percent per year. For the 2006-2007 season, the CSO generated just over $3.5million in cumulative revenue directly from their website and when you compare that against an annual operating cost of no more than $50,000, that’s a worthwhile return. The CSO plans to increase that cumulative revenue figure to over $4.3 million for the current season.

According to Kevin, the organization continues to develop non-online based marketing activity to help drive online sales toward those goals.

“One change to help facilitate [the increase in online revenue] has been an awareness campaign that only includes the contact info as opposed to the URL and phone numbers,” said Kevin.

This is part of an overall marketing strategy that originated in 1998, during what Kevin termed as “the early days,” with the goal of treating websites and online activity with the same attention and care that is directed toward the physical marketing product. Without that level of attention, Kevin said “you detract from your brand.”

Kevin supported this position with figures from the CSO’s 2006-2007 season. According to that data, 90% of CSO ticket buyers used in some fashion during that season.

“Regardless if patrons used the website to buy their tickets, it is clear that our online activities have a significant impact on our marketing presence,” said Kevin. “The better website you create the easier it is for [ticket buyers] to pull the trigger while they’re there. That’s the real benefit of designing a website with dynamic, functional content over ‘brochureware’.”

Since the CSO and NSO use the same website designer, Lynch2, they benefit from having the same ability to make changes to their website at any time using the eRube site building and content management tool. To that end, Sean Hopp, CSO Director of Web and Multimedia, is responsible for maintaining the CSO website.

“[Lynch2’s] eRube is flexible enough that you can work with it at almost any degree of coding skill in-house,” said Sean. “It’s flexible enough that it provides users with a WYSIWYG plug-in or those with more experience can work with source code directly. Even with flash integration we were able to develop our own customized right click menu on flash graphics in order to retain continuity throughout the site.”

Even though the CSO benefits from the built-in flexibility of these site building and content management tools, having an in-house web designer like Sean has its advantages. For example, the CSO is in the process of developing a mini-site for their Beyond The Score series, a successful concert format which incorporates a great deal of multimedia material. According to Kevin, the CSO is looking to create an entirely new and separate website for the project, using all in-house resources, and Sean will be spearheading the websites design.

“Our long term goal is to turn this into a franchise and giving it its own identify on the web is an ideal way to have it function,” said Sean. “We want to turn it into a resource destination for the academic/education world.”

Kevin provided additional details saying that since Beyond The Score has a number of unique components, the companion website will need to be entirely new; something with a fresh visual appeal that the organization can develop each season as needed.

Even though the CSO has big plans for expanded dynamic content, they are confident that these efforts will draw even more people to the organization’s main purpose: live concerts.

“I can’t even imagine anything we would do online would ever keep people away from the live performances,” said Kevin. “So unless there’s something to demonstrate that offering more and more online is keeping people from coming in, I don’t think it’s anything to worry about.

Kevin went on to say that the CSO is more concerned with having their online efforts help people to know what to expect and make decisions as to what they would be most likely to enjoy. To that end, the CSO plans to roll out a few new and expanded features in the near future, including an expanded mini-site for their upcoming European tour as well as podcasts for program notes.

On the CSO’s wish-list: adequate resources to fund all of the components in their anticipated FY09 redesign.

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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