Digital Strategy Done Right

Today’s post is an unmitigated must-read for anyone involved with arts marketing. Recently, Austin Lyric Opera (ALO) Marketing Director, Marc van Bree, published an extraordinarily detailed series of articles that covers everything related to the ALO’s 2011-2012 season website redesign and associated digital strategy update. The series not only serves as a superb guide for designing a similar project at your organization, but it quantifies the value in going about the process the right way.

onlineVan Bree modestly introduces the series saying “I wanted to put all that I have written about and all that I have learned over the past years to action. What follows is a brief overview of what I did and how I did it.” In reality, each article is meticulous and focuses on just about every aspect an arts marketer should consider when designing a digital strategy. If you’ve ver wondered about how to go through the process, this is where you want to begin learning.

He sets up the series by describing the marketing department’s operating environment at onset of the process in terms that most folks are probably all too familiar with.

  • The existing website was outdated, inflexible, incapable of allowing ALO staff to make direct changes to most content, and didn’t work with mobile browsers.
  • The marketing department was working with a 35 percent overall budget cut.
  • Much of the recent online advertising efforts were outsourced to various providers.
  • Existing metrics were slim to none.

Aided by a new ticketing solution launched [with the new website], and a new digital strategy, we increased online single ticket sales from 28% to 55% of total single ticket sales while delivering a greater ability to analyze patron behaviors, track conversions and account for advertising spending.
~ Marc van Bree

So in short, there were real challenges in place for improving marketing performance but there were less resources available and a very small window of opportunity to put everything in motion. Not exactly an ideal operating environment yet we have to play the hand we’re dealt. But allow me to jump to the end and confirm why you need to read his articles: even with these mammoth challenges, van Bree managed to increase online single ticket sales from 28% to 55% of total single ticket sales while delivering a greater ability to analyze patron behaviors, track conversions and account for advertising spending (source).

Van Bree rose to the challenge by working smart. He starts off by identifying the primary components of the ALO’s digital strategy that need to improve in order to bring about desired results and uses it as a firm guide for all subsequent efforts (source):

  • Driving conversions: All roads should lead to a conversion. The ticket buying process needs to be straightforward, simple and seamless; from campaign source to order confirmation.
  • Data collection: How do patrons get to our website? What do they do when they arrive? We need to track the entirety of the sales funnel.
  • Highly customizable: A responsive website that can handle breaking news, custom landing pages and continuously revolving sales and institutional messages.
  • Easily manageable: Staff with little technology skills should be able to make basic website updates and embed multimedia elements.

Getting Started: Building A New Website

Van Bree’s first article focuses on his effort to research, design, and launch a brand new institutional website.

Coming in, the opera was stuck with an all Flash-based website: it was complicated and time consuming to make even the smallest of updates; mobile devices could not load the site; and no data could be collected. The first priority was to change this. You simply cannot build a working digital strategy without the foundation of a solid institutional website that can drive ticket sales. (source)

ALO HomepageNow, I need to go into full disclosure mode and point out that van Bree ultimately decided to redesign the ALO website using The Venture Platform, which is the technology solution I designed and sell as a division of my consulting business. I can’t begin to articulate how thrilled the entire Venture team is with the fact that we provided the cornerstone for the ALO’s remarkable success.

When launching Venture, the sincere hope was that arts groups would be able to accomplish much, much more while spending much, much less thanks to leveraging open-source solutions alongside performing arts org focused proprietary functionality and a non-predatory business model. What van Bree accomplished is an archetypical example that this approach is not only sound, but is extraordinarily effective. In the ALO’s case, they were able to implement the entire redesign project ahead of schedule and under budget.

Doing due diligence, I talked to and received several proposals from other web development agencies. One proposed Drupal despite my insistence on WordPress, and all proposed a budget in the $15,000-20,000 range. I knew I could do better. I went with Venture and I set a $10,000 budget.

Drew McManus’ Venture brought together the opera’s in-house strengths and Drew’s strengths in the performing arts and online user experiences…Work was completed in a 3 month time frame. That’s fast. The actual money spent came in far under budget, totaling $6,500, and broke down in two components: $1,500 for the custom work; $4,000 for the annual Venture license. (source)

Van Bree continues the series by detailing the remaining steps in his strategic approach: tracking conversions using Google Analytics, designing and tracking online advertising, designing and leveraging social media cross-functionality, as well as mobile site design and strategy (another Venture heavy section).

Outsourcing can typically get you all the fish you want, at a cost. It’s much better, however, to teach yourself, or even have someone teach you, how to fish. ~ Marc van Bree

Each installment has an accompanying SlideShare presentation which does a wonderful job at providing related overviews with necessary visual examples; all of which serves as an excellent resource if you need to make a presentation inside your organization.

Everything van Bree was able to accomplish for the ALO is a superb example behind how a modern marketing director can accomplish marketing performance marvels in very tough environments. Likewise, van Bree doesn’t hold back when it comes to being candid about what it takes to follow this path.

I strongly suggest reaching out to him with your questions or to even see if he has time to do any side work helping your team get up to speed on any of the tools and techniques he covers. I know he responds in short order to comments at his blog (where the series is published) plus he’s been doing select marketing and social media consulting for years (contact info is at his corresponding website). And with an attitude like this, it’s tough not to want to tap into that knowledge: “It’s much better, however, to teach yourself, or even have someone teach you, how to fish.” (source)


In the end, van Bree’s articles will leave you energized and excited to tackle the sorts of daunting challenges that are getting so many groups down. And in today’s environment, a little superhero charged enthusiasm is exactly what professional arts marketers need!

[ilink url=””]Part 1: A new website and digital strategy for the opera[/ilink]
[ilink url=””]Part 2: Tracking conversions[/ilink]
[ilink url=””]Part 3: Online advertising[/ilink]
[ilink url=””]Part 4: Social media[/ilink]
[ilink url=””]Part 5: Mobile site[/ilink]
[ilink url=””]Part 6: final round up[/ilink]
[ilink url=””]Series Index[/ilink]
[ilink url=””]Complete SlideShare Presentation[/ilink]

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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0 thoughts on “Digital Strategy Done Right”

  1. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Drew.

    There are a lot of great examples out there for individual case studies. I wanted to pull it all together into an integrated campaign. But this should be just a first step and I feel I’ve only covered the tip of the iceberg. Social media can and should be even more integrated into the email marketing efforts, for example, but also in the offline marketing efforts, such as print advertising (include easy-to-remember links to Facebook and Twitter?).

    So this is a strong foundation and full integration should be the end result. For the best research on this you should check out Jeremiah Owyang’s blog. Here’s a key entry:

    Lastly, I quick word on why I picked Venture: 1) it was the right product for the right organization 2) I knew your work through conversations over the past few years.

    I’ve since also built a website for Chorus Austin. Also WordPress, but not Venture as there was no budget. Were I to have charged for building the website (and I didn’t because that was my gift as a Board member), the amount of hours spent on that site and the accompanying hourly rate would have come close to equal the cost of the ALO site.

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