Art on the Mart (2)

[December 18, 2009]

[This post reflects the state of the sites discussed at the time. Since then, each site has improved in design and messaging in differing degress. The issues raised are still relevant to the discussion of digital marketing for the arts in the US.]

As I continue to explore Web sites for major American orchestras, one thing is clear. These organizations see their digital presence as a collection of design protocols rather than as a communications medium. This by-the-numbers approach is on display at the Boston Symphony.

On the home page, a slideshow marquee features a random mix of photography and illustration—each in a conflicting graphic style. Supporting the marquee are lengthy, unarticulated columns of hyperlinked text and updated data. It’s hardly an engaging way to present one of America’s top cultural treasures.

Delving into the interior pages, I’m reminded of a text-heavy home design catalogue. And what text it is. Written in the pseudo-journalistic style of mass-produced public relations, it constructs a dense wall of formulaic nonsense between audience and orchestra. As such, it embodies precisely the raised-pinky mentality so alienating to the “uninitiated.”

You’d think the example set by Leonard Bernstein’s 1958–1971 Young People’s Concerts were all for nothing. Even at his most professorial, here’s a guy who knew how to reach across the footlights and connect. By contrast, the voice of the Boston Symphony, as with that of many an American arts organization, sounds as if it’s echoing in a closed, empty room.

Even given the difference in medium—though Lord knows there’s plenty of lifeless broadcast footage—Web developers have a lot to learn from Bernstein’s powers of engagement and communication.

To its credit, the Boston Symphony site connects to farther reaches of digital space with links to podcasts, iTunes, RSS feeds, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Here, the very nature of social networking and sharing forces the orchestra’s marketers to speak up and be heard. As I see it, the Symphony would benefit from integrating the immediacy and intimacy of these curated links into the site proper.

At an even farther remove from effective arts marketing are the sites built for the Cleveland, Minnesota andPhiladelphia Orchestras. While I’m perfectly aware of the constraints a limited budget can put on technical finesse, the real issue is the lack of a clear messaging strategy.

In its place is a collection of information packets, whose cumulative effect conveys nothing that would compel audience members to take notice. As a result, these sites are all but indistinguishable from sites built for gift shops or movie theatres. In the absence of a distinct, unifying message, all these three sites can tell us is:

Famous soloists appear with us. Our conductor is prestigious and we have a distinguished past. We reach out to ‘the community’ and have education programs to prove it. You can buy tickets here.

Even on the thinnest of shoestring budgets, any organization can still be a motivating presence in digital space. All you need is the courage to walk away from textbook “Communication-speak” and actually say something to your audience.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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