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Web-Site Overhaul Is Music To Patrons' Ears

Boston Symphony updates static 1,500-page site with Art Technology Group's system
A year ago, patrons of the Boston Symphony Orchestra didn't have many options when it came to buying tickets to upcoming concerts.

The 101-year-old, not-for-profit organization had a Web site where people could log on and buy tickets. But that wasn't an appealing option for many people--the site didn't let customers see where their seats were or learn about any changes in performances. For more detailed and dynamic information, customers had to phone for assistance, hoping they could reach one of only 20 call-center representatives, or go to the ticket office.

"The site was static in appearance," says Rich Bradway, manager of Internet marketing at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. "To buy a ticket, people would give us a name and price range, but they wouldn't know what they were getting until they received the ticket." Bradway knew his organization could do better.

Many other services that the orchestra provided also needed improvement. Bradway was looking for ways to simplify the site-updating process, to make it easier to accept online donations, and to provide easier access to archives. He also wanted to improve the organization's youth outreach programs as part of his efforts to build a younger audience.

That translated to a complete overhaul of the orchestra's static 1,500-page Web site. Last fall, after considering options such as technology from Macromedia Inc. and basic content-management tools, Bradway opted to buy the Dynamo E-commerce system from Art Technology Group Inc. The vendor provided both content-and data-management systems with an easy-to-use E-commerce platform. Within six months of launching the redesign project, the orchestra had a new and dynamic Web presence, and it continues to build new features into the site.

The Boston Symphony also hired consulting firm Sapient Corp. to manage the changeover. The first task was to input all the content from the existing site, which ran on two Windows NT servers using the Black Rocket E-business network services from Genuity Inc., into the Dynamo server.

Art Technology Group provided educational services that taught Bradway Java programming so he could manage the flow of content on his own, keeping the site fresh but not having to go back to the vendor or a consultant for help. That gave Bradway the opportunity to improve the organization's branding efforts, so there would be a consistent image but separate feel to each of the orchestra's three divisions: the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Pops, and Tanglewood.

"With more than 200 performances a year, it's [common] to have a program change or a performer bow out," Bradway says. "But just to change information on one performance was a lot of work." To make it easier to manage the content across the three divisions, Sapient reconfigured the Dynamo interface on the Dynamo control center so it could be used as a content-management tool. When a change is made on one page of the Web site, it's automatically changed on all associated pages, a task that previously had been done manually.

Loyalty programs, such as annual subscriptions to patrons looking for advance notice on performances and early access to tickets, have long been a part of the orchestra's selling program. A key goal of the new site is to encourage patrons to use the Internet to buy subscriptions online, reducing call-center costs, while creating a database of subscribers that can be used for E-mail marketing. "The Internet needs to be a tool we use to get more people informed about us and, since it targets a younger crowd, we thought we could use it to target this new market segment," Bradway says.

So far, the Web-site overhaul is helping to bring in new customers. Since June, the number of new subscribers coming in over the Internet has doubled, providing 60% of all new accounts. The existing Boston Symphony Orchestra audience is typically in their 50s or 60s, so it's been tough getting patrons to buy online. Most of them have been accustomed to renewing subscriptions via phone agents, and Bradway finds it hard to change those habits.

One strategy to get more online traffic is to connect with local information sites such as Boston.com, the Web site for the Boston Globe, and local entertainment information providers such as Citysearch, a Ticketmaster service; these types of portals attract an audience likely to be interested in the orchestra's happenings. Better visibility of seating and real-time ticket availability are helping customers' buying experience. They can actually see what seats they're getting--something they can't do on the phone.

Personalization will be important and is the next step to pushing existing patrons still attached to doing business by phone to the Web site. "We want to customize so that people can log on and use their patron number to create and manage their own accounts to get inroads to better seats and lost-ticket insurance," Bradway says. That capability will be available in early 2002, he says, and will be useful to the orchestra's efforts to build a portfolio on each customer's preferences and interests for its database.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is more than just a performance-oriented organization, however, and taking advantage of Internet technology will help it expand its community outreach efforts, particularly youth programs.

The revamped Web site has helped the orchestra further reach out to Boston's public schools to educate the next generation of customers on music history and appreciation. The site offers lesson plans in Acrobat format for teachers in the schools to help develop music programs for students. It also provides resource kits to help teach kids about music.

In the future, the Boston Symphony wants to be even more involved in youth education programs. It's studying whether to create distance-learning programs for classrooms and online music lessons.

Educating the general public takes a different form. The orchestra houses more than 100 years of archives that in some cases are deteriorating, and that information needs to be more readily available to the media and schools. So the next step is to digitize most of the materials and get them online. When the organization selected Art Technology Group, Bradway knew that it would be possible to make such materials available online. But now, he's looking for vendors to help restore and digitize materials. "When PBS says they want to do a series on Symphony Hall, we'll have a means for them to look through our archives online and then either give or sell them what they want," Bradway says.

There's still more to be done. Another goal is to start Webcasting performances for the general public. The obstacle, though, isn't technical but logistical: Copyright concerns and royalty payments are limiting the performances to the paying public for now. Once those issues are resolved, Bradway says, the IT side of the equation will be a snap.

For a nonprofit organization, the Boston Symphony has leveraged technology to improve relationships with the community. It's a goal that many businesses try to achieve with their customers, particularly in a down economy. Moving forward, the orchestra hopes to show for-profit businesses a thing or two about fostering ties with their patrons.

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