As the UK’s oldest continuous concert-giving organisation, the Liverpool Philharmonic society has a reputation to uphold, and the staff that run this historic and wide-ranging arts organisation are keen to be at the forefront of new developments.
The Philharmonic society comprises the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the prestigious and expansive Philharmonic Hall and more. Millicent Jones, the organisation’s Executive Director for Marketing, Communications and Fundraising, explains.
“The society as a whole is composed of both the orchestra and its activity and then the venue and everything that happens in the venue. So we’re both an orchestra and a concert presenting organisation, as well as spoken word and comedy and every musical genre. So we present over 250 events each year, and the orchestra tours. We serve in excess of 40,000 children a year through our learning and engagement activities”.
Millicent is proud of the organisation’s role in Liverpool, and in the UK.
“I guess its role in Liverpool has been as the city’s main provider of live music, and I think a lot of the non-classical part of its repertoire has been really developed over the last probably 5 to 6 years. I think traditionally it was regarded as the place where the Royal Philharmonic orchestra performed and then there were a few other things going on as well. But I think that we have a much bigger programme in recent years than we have had in the past. So in terms of its role within the community it really is the beacon of anything to do with music, in terms of attending concerts, learning about music; we’ve got a lot of programmes that go out into the community now and into local schools, to teach school children how to learn orchestral instruments. I think in terms of its placement in the UK it’s certainly one of the UK’s leading joint orchestras, and our aim is to really be amongst the top UK orchestras full stop.
One very important card in the organisation’s hand is their ground-breaking agreement with the orchestra that the organisation may record and re-perform music performed by their players. Without this, even making a YouTube video would become a tangled and intractable rights issue, as most other orchestras, including the Britten Sinfonia, have to endure.
“Prior to the re-negotiation of contracts we would have had to pay the orchestra members every time they were filmed, and the whole thing would not have been economically viable, so the change in that contract was key to us looking at how we exploit those rights”
Once we’d done that we knew we had all this big content and there was no way we could put it out there without the investment into the equipment required to do that, and also the website infrastructure and technology to support it. So I think those were the two big things that we needed to address with our digital development through the AmbITion project, and that’s what we’ve done.
“What the video does is gives us the option to get that product out there again. Video has another dimension to it and that’s really helping the promotion required to sell shows in advance but also to dig deeper into the interviews with the artists and backstage activity and use your feedback and all those other things we can do. We always approached this as a marketing thing and there was definitely a realisation that we could be better at our online marketing and our positioning online, and that was a big part of why we chose to do what we’re doing”.
In order to prepare for capitalising on new video content that they now have permission to produce, the organisation wanted to modernise their web presence. After that came equipment to capture the video and then came spin-offs from having a dedicated camera person.
“We really wanted to revitalise the website and increase the personalisation and give it a more contemporary look and feel, improve the information architecture and then include visual content in terms of video and high quality photography; and then the second part of the project was related to buying a multi-camera system and installing cameras on the walls and ceiling so that we could record events in the hall as well as all this rich material behind the scenes etc. The other dimension of that was to be able to hire out the equipment within the hall and hire out the person to operate that equipment to people who hire the hall, so in effect that turns into a revenue source for us; we can make money out of having that equipment and that person there. We talked quite a lot at the very start of the project about how we could deliver a more personalised marketing approach. We discussed lots of ways of doing that, whether we needed to fix what we did with email, but it kind of boiled down to the website needed to be relaunched.
All did not go smoothly however with the website project, for a variety of instructive reasons.
“We had a pretty enormous delay at the start of the project that was created by us trying to do very in-depth integration and personalisation associated with our ticketing product Audience View. So what we were trying to do is personalise the website experience based on a person’s ticketing history, so if you had purchased tickets to see a certain orchestra, you would see other events of that type on the homepage when you logged in. We started that process in June of last year and Audience View were just very inert responding to the request for us to do this, and it wasn’t unit January I think, that we gave up trying”.
Millicent also had issues with her web building company not asking the right questions as she sees it, and their distributed way of working.
“We’ve got one chap who is the project co ordinator who is in Wales, we’ve got this guy in Buenos Aires and this guy in the Lake District and I don’t even know where else. When they get stuff it’s fine, it’s sometimes not even when they get stuff done late that’s is annoying, it’s the not knowing”.
Millicent feels the move towards very distributed partnering has slightly hampered communication, and that while digital ways of working bring advantages such as email and shared resources, the perceived distance can slow work down.
“I think they’re trying this distributed way of working, and I don’t think you can blame them, but it hasn’t helped with issues that you can resolve over the phone like asking four questions and getting four answers should take a few minutes but takes a few days. But we all work like that now with email so I don’t think you can totally blame them”.
Millicent also has had mixed feelings about using BaseCamp as a project management tool.
“It’s good for some things. I think where it falls down is when you try and have these general discussions about how the project is going, and it’s not intended for that and therefore doesn’t really work in that regard. They relied on it exclusively in a way that it probably shouldn’t have been relied on”.
As much as Millicent and the team had some reservations about their web-builders taking on too much, being a bit too laid back in terms of the scale of the project and perhaps not having the resources, conversely the Phil’s ticketing system is completely off-the-shelf and there was never any real question of or possibility of dialogue, development or partnership: “There is no kind of ongoing development relationship at all with them. Audience View are not interested in working with you to develop their product. I know; I used to work for a ticketing company”.
A large part of the Liverpool Phil’s journey has been at a relatively advanced level of website construction – looking at personalisation to individual users, and attempting to integrate systems or at least put them in parallel. The finished website looks beautiful – due to their long standing relationship with Liverpool designers Smiling Wolf – but a lot of the thinking time went in to more advanced endeavours than just its aesthetic qualities.
“Although we were unable to integrate our box office system (Audience View) with the website, we’ve used some of the reporting mechanisms of Audience View and the way that you set up events in the box office system to then be reflected on the Content Management System (CMS) of the website, so if you tag a particular concert series up, we use the same label in both. However there is no relationship between the ticketing system and the website at all, and we are still using the module supplied by the ticketing system to sell the online tickets, and that’s not linked to the rest of the website.
This inability to integrate different proprietary products has been found time and again by organisations participating in AmbITion.
Marketing Officer James Hanks describes the current problem – that they have to input the details for every event in triplicate:
“Currently we’ve got Artifax which is the diary system, that’s supposed to be our main place where we keep information about shows, and all the scheduling is on there and all the marketing and images, the deals and any time we make a spend, whether it’s on the production side or marketing side, all gets logged into Artifax. So in there are fields for website copy, titles of the show and all those kind of things. That is entered once, and then that information is entered again in the box office system – Audience View – when the box office manager sets up the show to go on sale. So you have to set up the show for the box office, so it’s the same fields. It’s the name of the show, ticket prices, dates and stuff and then obviously to get it live on the website you’ve got to enter all that again onto a separate system, the website CMS. So, in an ideal world, you’d only want to enter that information once.”
Once again, the inflexibility of corporate ticketing products hampers progress.
“It would be possible to customise Audience View to interface with the website CMS, but only with vast amounts of money and time. We did look into that, but the problem with Audience View is that it should be able to integrate with anything because it’s just a MySQL database, but there isn’t the support there to allow you to investigate it. Even the relatively small job of skinning the Audience View pages so that they look integrated with your website shouldn’t be a difficult job because at the end of the day it’s only HTML and CSS, but even that and getting any kind of level of dialogue between ourselves and Audience View has been difficult.
Unfortunately Audience View, although programmed in a common programming language, is not Open Source, so it is not even possible for any organisation to hire a programmer to reprogramme the software that they have bought.
“Audience View does has functionality to be able to push all the reports and things out in XML and there are things that look like it should be more intergratable than it is. It’s the support that is the obstacle. It’s strange and a shame that they should build it like that and not exploit its full functionality, but that is also their business model – they charge for customisation, so they’re not going to want their customers to partner with a third party, but at the same time they’re basically not very good at talking to people anyway. I think if you had lots of money to spend with them, I they would talk to you. But we don’t”.
Millicent’s explanation is slightly different: “I think it’s also partly to do with the state of the company itself, they’ve gone through lots of changes and I’m not sure their business model even includes selling this kind of software anymore. I think they’re moving more towards a online ticket model like Ticketmaster, and the product that we have is just no longer a priority for them”.
One reason the staff had wanted to integrate systems in the first place was because of the desire to more deeply ‘personalise’ the user experience: “We have such a vast range of activity and very distinct and very different audiences that don’t cross over from each other, so we’re different organisations in effect for different people. We wanted our online presence to reflect how people see us. So the idea was if you generally come on and look at folk and blues music then the site would generally show you them, and that would be relevant to you”.
The route that the team have taken in the end is based on stored browser behaviour – matching up similar kinds of events, putting information about events in different places on the site, and bringing the content and number of different events up in front of people.
“Your browsing history produces the obvious straightforward module of ‘Your Recently Viewed’. There are thumbnails of shows on every page that you recently viewed. Then based on what you’ve recently viewed, there’s a section called ‘Recommended for You’. This then takes key words from shows you’ve recently viewed, so if you’re looking at three blues shows you’d be recommended three more from the blues series, if you’re looking at two blues shows and a folk show, it’ll show you two more blues shows and a folk show. It doesn’t constrain what you can see – the full What’s On is still right there, and you can filter that very loosely however you want, from classical music through to film, comedy and educational events, but it increasingly gives suggestions. All the personalisation is there to suggest rather than to hard sell. You won’t be forced down a particular path. Two modules that aren’t personalised to each user but do also rely on passive user feedback are Just Announced and Most Viewed. Just Announced is important because we never used to have a way to flag up recently announced shows on the old website – late announced shows got lost in a general list that many people had seen before, so we’re glad we’ve got that feature now. Most Viewed just uses statistics gathered from all users to display the shows most viewed overall by everyone. We then have four highly configurable spaces on the home page, where you can put anything in, things that we want to push, things that are appropriate and things that are time based. And then there’s the Flash feature, which again emphasises the shows that we want to put as the main message on the home page. There’s a module for the Phil channel, which is where we are going to put all the video content, which again will be based around events and is another way to get the event out to people”.
A website that learns what you like
Because the website leaves tiny “cookies” as markers on a browser’s computer, the website can tell what shows have been accessed by that user in previous sessions, whether weeks or months before. So over time the website will in theory tailor the shows it highlights more and more to the preferences of each individual user.
There was another level to which the team were previously intending to take the website’s intelligence, in addition to the stored browser behaviour through cookies, and that was through users logging-in to the site. Log-ins are made every time a user completes a purchase online through the Phil site. However because the actual purchase is made through Audience View and the team were unable to get sufficient integration, it would have meant logging-in twice: once into the Phil’s website and again into the sub-section of the Audience View website that deals with the Phil’s ticketing.
“There’d be no way we’d want to do that we decided, you would literally have to ask people to log in every time they came to the site which was another big reason not to do it that way because they are often logging in at the very last minute anyway, just before they purchase” says James Hanks.
Although logging-in would have been the icing on the cake, giving the difficulty of it – for both organisation and user – cookies seems like a good compromise.
“The main reason we wanted people to log-in was so that people could post feedback on past events onto the website. But again the two log-in issue we thought would have been a turn off especially because of the fact that we not going to be getting thousands of people’s feedback. We were trying to weigh up the pros for people and the users. If there was a load of functionality there, that they could see was worth their while logging in for, for example checking their online booking, changing their email address and so it would be worth their while. But because Audience View did not allow for this we didn’t feel there was enough pay off for the customers with asking them to log-in at the home page, and for that reason we dropped the idea”.
The decision to personalise the website in the way they have was partly inspired by a set of interviews that they and their web builders did. This established the principle that not everybody looks at a website the same way, and that some degree of personalisation is desirable.
“Our web builders came up with several personalities that they thought came out of the user interviews and the user testing before they started development. They came up with about 3 personalities of people who generally use the site. It wasn’t the most scientific thing. We did go back over site functionality and say ‘Ok, there’s enough for everyone. There’s the bit for the mad keen person who wants to find out before anyone else, there’s the bit to go into real detail and hear interviews, there’s the bit for the person who wants to dip in and out’.
I think the reason why the interviews weren’t more useful was because we kind of knew the answers that they would come back with and to be fair the current site had already tackled most major issues, so there wasn’t anything huge that needed fixing. But it was still helpful to go back to them to check that we had enough functionality to those coming to the site for a night out – yes there it is. It was just putting down on paper what we already knew. We combined that with Google Analytics as well to find out how people were using the site.
Another thing we did was to bring the seven buttons along the top down to five, which we decided was too much; this was also due to tester feedback”.
Although the process of buying the service of the website re-design and build has been easier than buying and using Audience View, James Hanks feels that there is an alternative way that the Phil could have approached their website:
“Perhaps there’s a way in which we should present these projects to companies. Perhaps if we presented it to them as if we were looking for a development partner, and say ‘we’re willing to pay you ‘X’ a month for the next ‘Y’ number of years’, rather than saying ‘we want a new website, start building it and then finish it and hand it over’, because what we are admitting now is that we are looking for someone we can work with for an ongoing basis. Because a website is not like a brochure, you don’t start it, finish it and then print in and then move onto the next thing. An online presence has got to constantly evolve and we wanted to work with someone who would first of all deliver to us what we needed in the short term, but then also be someone that we could work with and have a relationship with in the longer term, and perhaps you’re damaging the relationship if you try and deliver everything in one big whack. But that’s often the nature of funding scenarios, and that’s why organisations do it that way. In this case, because of the way AmbITion has funded the project we had to really force the timescales through and it had to be a blocked-off thing happening by a certain time. But alternatively, in the same way big blue chip companies outsource their advertising or their media buying on ongoing rolling contracts, we could partner with people like that”.
With their design work, the Phil do have a long-term partner, and that is the local designers Smiling Wolf. “They have done quite a lot of our offline stuff too which was quite good, because it was quite good to have some continuity”. And in general, James is pleased with the new website:
I think the look and feel of the site and indeed the way it works hits most of the brief. The idea was to evolve what was good about the site before and what worked, and keeping that element of it and adding this more sophisticated targeting and cross selling and up selling and I think that has been achieved”.
Open Source CMS
The web-builders used their own CMS (Content Management System) to power the website, and this is what the Phil staff log into to manage the site. Although developed by the company, it is now the property of the Philharmonic society, and unlike their previous CMS, it is adaptable and changeable in future because it is in a commonly-used programming language. This means they are not tied in to the original developer in the future.
“They developed it for previous clients and they’ve adapted it for us but there’s no kind of issue for us with having any ongoing relationship with them. We can kind of do what we want once it’s handed over to us”.
The power of video
Aside from the website, the second tranche of the Liverpool Phil’s digital development has been installing a multi-camera system in the Philharmonic Hall. Millicent Jones explains: “We got the money and then looked for a project manager – someone that could help us identify the type of cameras we needed and also supervise the installation of the equipment. We met with a man who was very big in filming, he had worked with the BBC and the Royal Opera and I think his charge for project management was twice the total budget of buying all the camera equipment. So, he was out and then I got a recommendation from someone who had been working with Phil Redmond. So I called him on who to get advice on who to go to, and he recommended the final person we used, who was very conscious of the budget, and diligent, but unfortunately the whole installation process never really completely worked for fairly complicated technical reasons. Suffice to say this is well beyond our own level of technical knowledge. So now we have a situation of
where the cameras have been installed since September but haven’t been completely functional since then. I think we’re up to three of the four cameras working simultaneously. But then we had the realisation that if we had no one to operate the equipment, then there was no point in having the equipment there in the first place. So we applied for a part time post along side all the camera equipment that had been installed and by the time that recruitment was over, we had someone in place by January and that appointment didn’t really work out and so ended in March. We re-appointed and the new person started on 26th May and is still working now. There were a few repairs that needed to be made to the system, but we’re still not at that point where all the repairs have been addressed. So she is doing some recording, but the whole multi camera isn’t fully functional yet. Even having the one person to do it, there’s so many things to film, it’s clearly more than a one person job. Even rigging up the equipment in preparation for a concert takes nearly 3 hours. What’s difficult is that I have no background in this area and have to take at face value what anyone says. Some people say it takes 3 hours, some say 8 hours and it’s really difficult for me to know what’s what. Luckily we have someone from a TV and production background, and they take on the role of managing that media person or the cameraperson. It has taken a lot longer to get it up and running than we had anticipated”.
One of the challenges that Millicent feels occurred was not being able to bid for more than a tokenistic £2000 for project management. “In terms of spec-ing the kit, we got the guys from Trafford – Let’s Go Global – and asked them how much it would be for a multi camera system, and they dropped us something and we put that figure in the bid, but there was no project management charge included. If you lived in that world all the time, you would immediately know who to go to, but we didn’t and we struggled. I also think the video world is actually quite different from the digital world; the two don’t overlap as much as you might think, and we had little advice to draw on”.
For Millicent, video is a high maintenance field, and it comes with demands and questions that need answering: ‘It’s a whole world in itself, it’s not like the website world and nothing to do with the Internet. It has massive ramifications for how you light your shows, for example. So we need to rethink our stage lighting because of video. You need to think about what the backdrop is going to look like; you need to storyboard. It’s not just a matter of turning on the camera and pressing record it’s really an art form to itself. How do we clear rights, when do we approach people, is it when artists are coming here to perform? Or should we sign the deal separately and then go back to them and ask them if they mind us using it for the website. It has a lot of real world consequences that the website or mailers or marketing doesn’t. It’s really about effective story telling and if you get someone who is a really good cameraperson it doesn’t mean they can tell a story and it doesn’t mean that they can necessarily edit or produce something. We were looking to jam all of these skills into one not super highly paid post and hope that it would somehow work. We had capacity issues as well, as we have technical staff and in an ideal world it would be great if the cameras just got set up at the same time as the rest of the technical production of a concert and our technical staff were responsible for that in the same way they are responsible for the sound, the lighting and the chairs. But we just don’t have the capacity and the knowledge. I know now that it’s so not about just turning the cameras on and getting them in the right position. It’s about what happens before and after that point, that’s the really difficult stuff”.
If it has brought difficulties and challenges, the system at least has potential:
“For us it’s always been about marketing and how do we use the video to increase sales and our online presence.
We also still hope to hire out the equipment to the many people that hire the hall. We had loads of interest when the system was first installed and I kept
turning people down saying we had no one to film, and now I have to keep saying that we have someone to film but the system doesn’t really work. And also, until we had that first sample it was difficult to go out and sell it. But there is definitely interest. And because everyone’s online presence now is very audiovisual, you know, bands don’t just have text on their site anymore, you need video content. People can accept that it’s not necessarily going to be TV or DVD, and the whole concert. A snippet is enough for their Electronic Press Kits. We had a young conductor who came in and wanted to know if we could film him, and we hired someone in to do that. I can see that for other soloists that perform, if we can say to them that we can give them that to take away, that’s worth something to them. On the commercial side, one of the hard things that we have to do is to impress artists and artists’ management when they come, because we don’t have the best backstage facilities, so one of the ways we do attract these artists are these kinds of extras that have a real value. We can’t even necessarily make money by charging them, because they don’t always have the money. Internally too, there’s a demand for the cameras, from our Learning & Engagement team, for things that go on just generally in the hall, the list goes on.
A conductor – Paco Peña – has already asked for it. And of course the system can handle pretty much all scales from singer songwriters with a guitar through to full orchestras. Also our own conductor – Vasily Petrenko, wants to record certain performances. We had a European opera singer, and we did a partnership with them, we know that there is going to be a CD recording that is going to be coming out with the same piece on it, so it’s useful to have video footage to promote the marketing of the CD”.
The definite good news is that the website – and a couple of videos that they have already done – have been user tested to a small group of audience members, and all of them said they preferred the new website to the old. So despite the challenges of operating at a high level of technological engagement, the Liverpool Phil still continues to lead.