E-marketing E-ssentials: The Sum is Greater Than the Parts


Jim Hirsch
February 2008

This story begins in the fall of 2006. The MacArthur Foundation had called together a group of 40 arts leaders to discuss a variety of subjects. Towards the end of the meeting, Jonathon Fanton, President of the MacArthur Foundation, opened the floor for general comments. At the time, I had been thinking a lot about how the arts community had embraced e-mail as a marketing tool, but ignored the Internet’s amazing “community-building” properties. Remember, this was at a time when MySpace was generating a lot of buzz. I challenged everyone at the table to figure out how to use the Internet to better engage audiences.

After the meeting I was approached by Joan Gunzberg, Executive Director of the Arts & Business Council of Chicago, to meet and discuss this issue further. Joan offered to help find funding for the idea of engaging audiences through the Internet, and asked if the Chicago Sinfonietta would collaborate on pushing this initiative forward. I agreed to do so.

After thinking about how the Chicago Sinfonietta could engage audiences through its Web site, I quickly came to the conclusion that this pilot program would work much better if it was implemented by a consortium of classical music organizations. Chicago is blessed with a good number of wonderful classical music organizations, and I began calling each of the large ones to see if they would be interested in participating.


I was delighted when the original nine partners of chicagoclassicalmusic.org agreed to help. The original consortium members were the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Sinfonietta, Chicago Chamber Musicians, Music of the Baroque, WFMT 98.7 FM, Grant Park Music Festival, Ravinia, Elgin Symphony Orchestra, and Cedille Records.

The original concept behind the site was that each partnering organization would provide content as a means of engaging and educating classical music lovers in the Chicago area. Chicagoclassicalmusic.org was not meant to be just another marketing site, in the classic sense of the word. Our goal was – and is – to excite people about the field in general. Blogs illuminating topics in the classical music world, written by people from the partner organizations, are the focal point of the site, along with live chats with well-known artists, user forums, a calendar, and other elements.

The site launched in March of 2007. The following summarizes briefly the basic mechanics of the site’s management. The Arts & Business Council served as the fiscal agent for the site and provided start-up funding through grants from the Boeing Corporation and others. They also provided funds for the development of the site, and paid for a webmaster (part-time, 10-15 hours per month) and a consultant to help develop the site and advise on content.

The consortium members met and voted in a four-person Executive Committee to make day-to-day decisions and run the site. The Executive Committee created a partnership agreement that outlined member expectations, set ad rates, and arranged for live chats and other content.

From the beginning, we saw the audience stats grow on a monthly basis. Visits increased from 5,000 per month to over 30,000 per month (though some of those numbers are inflated by automated searches), and on the blog-ranking site Technorati, our rating jumped dramatically. Other highlights from the first year include a live chat with Yo-Yo Ma that attracted over 70 people, as well as chats with Thomas Hampson, Maestro Paul Freeman, and others.

Recently the site has changed quite a bit: a complete re-design in late 2007 added a number of new features, including a “Hot Deals” section that allows member organizations to offer special discounts, e-mail blasts using our PatronMail interface, free music downloads courtesy of a partnership with Music Giants, and the addition of five new consortium members.

So what have been the lessons learned? And what do we see as the future of chicagoclassicalmusic.org? Our biggest challenges have been in persuading busy people to write their blogs on a regular basis and raising the quality of the writing to a higher, more incisive level. Given our roles and relationships in the classical music community, most of us shy away from writing anything too controversial, and that is a drawback for the site. The one semi-controversial blog that was posted focused on diversity in classical music; it unleashed a 55-comment torrent of discussion on the site – much of it very emotional.

Other challenges include convincing all of the member organizations to fulfill their commitments to the site (primarily in terms of adhering to the blogging schedule), developing partnerships that will make the site more attractive to users, and the general lack of time most of us have to act on all of the good ideas we are incubating.

As for the future, we hope to add more members to our consortium – at the present time, five additional organizations have expressed interest in joining. We hope to add pages on the site dedicated to the many fine music schools in our area; and as always, we seek to enhance interactivity between the site and its users.

We hope you will check it out!

Jim Hirsch is the Executive Director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, a mid-sized orchestra that performs subscription concerts in River Forest, Illinois, and at Symphony Center in downtown Chicago. Jim founded chicagoclassicalmusic.org, an audience engagement Web site owned and operated by 15 Chicago-based classical music organizations.

Learn More about PatronManager, the powerful CRM platform that helps you sell more tickets, raise more money, and cultivate stronger bonds with your audience, all in one database.