The Art of the Business

A blog dedicated to artists who are serious about their business.

Website Makeover: Babz Chula Lifeline for Artists Society January 15, 2010

In May of last year, I was doing a job for my dear friend Carrie Ruschinski, Dying City. It was being directed by Ben Ratner. One day I got a phone call from Ben, asking if I’d be interested in taking on administrative duties for a society he was president of: The Babz Chula Lifeline for Artists. Things were winding down for the summer, so I agreed to meet with Babz.

For any of you who know Babz, this will come as no surprise, but I fell in love with her the moment I met her. Babz has three different types of Cancer, and a few years back, when she had her first bout with Breast Cancer, this group of friends rallied together to form a society to help pay for her medial bills–specifically, treatments not covered by MSP.

So, I took the job on, but in short order, I stopped asking to be paid. My mother died of Cancer, so helping someone else’s mother beat it seems like reward enough to me.

It became apparent to me pretty quickly that the society needed a new website. Donations had basically stopped trickling in, and the site was very old, static, and simple. There was basically one page, not unattractively designed, but I knew it could be so much more.

In the fall, my sweetie, Dave, who works as an instructor at Capilano University’s Interactive Design program, was teaching a course in Project Management, and asked if I had an non-profit clients that needed a website built. It would be a kind of practicum or internship for his students. Needless to say, the Society jumped at the chance, and we were assigned a team of students: Laura Mason as project manager, Sabrina Franco, and Thomas Matthews.

The goal was to create a site that was more interesting, interactive, and easily updateable. Babz had been blogging about her experience of cancer treatment, but the blog lived in two different places, and we needed an admin person to upload her posts. We also wanted to incorporate video, seeing as Babz is a film actor. Finally, we wanted to be able to let folks know what was going on inside the society: celebrity dinners, fund raising efforts, etc.

Here is the old website:

The new website was created using WordPress, and the team created a custom Theme for us. We now have the blog built right in, as well as information about the Board of Directors, Babz, and I’m able to upload photos and stories. I filmed a video Babz doing a video introduction, and we hope that she will eventually be able to do Vlog posts (when she returns from India). It’s a great site, and I’m very proud.

Go to the website and browse around for yourself.

A very special thanks to Dave Rankin, Laura Mason, Sabrina Franco, and Thomas Matthews, and the Interactive Design Department at Capilano University.

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Mind-mapping September 7, 2009

I’ve had the opportunity to work on a few website re-designs over the past year. Several of my clients have allowed me to be a part of the process. I’ve been really happy with the results, especially http://www.itsazoo.org.

Designing or re-designing websites is tougher than you might think. One tool that is often used for designing websites is mind-mapping. Basically, it’s a brainstorming exercise that starts with one, central idea, then branches out into sub-categories, then sub-sub-categories. What’s great about this tool is that it allows you to see the big picture (literally!). And it’s good for more than just building websites.

Darren Rowse, who writes ProBlogger, uses this technique extensively to help come up with new topics for blogging.

Read about his technique of using Google’s new Wonderwheel feature for mind-mapping blog topics.

Using WonderWheel to explore the topic of "Theatre"

Using WonderWheel to explore the topic of "Theatre"

Check out FreeMind, a free mind-mapping software program.

For the Mac: Omnigraffle

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Old school versus new media July 8, 2009

It keeps coming up. At the Arts Summit a couple of weeks ago. At a workshop I was giving on the weekend. In a committee of the GVPTA that I am involved with.

The world is changing. Are we going to choose to react and adapt, or should we try to take the bull by the horns and make it adapt to us?

I’m referring to the old guard. I was giving a workshop on publicity on the weekend, and one of the participants, who was there to learn about how to promote his theatre company using new media, said that one of his greatest challenges was convincing the board of directors and people who ran the company that new media was the way to go. They have been doing things for so long (“just spend $600 and buy newspaper ads”) a certain way, that they don’t even realize it’s not working any more.

Guess what? It’s not working any more.

The return on your investment of buying an ad in a newspaper is exceedingly low. Even publicity is getting harder and harder to book. In the past year, we have gone, in Vancouver, from having 6 theatre reviewers at newspapers, to, at one point this year, 3. Paul Grant, a 30-year vetran of CBC radio, and a tireless arts reporter, is taking a retirement package at the end of this summer, and his position will not be replaced. Space for the arts is shrinking in the traditional media at an alarming rate.

And, while I think that adapting to this new situation is certainly required, I don’t think that it is the full answer. Yes, we need to educate ourselves and our boards of directors about new media, and yes, we need to pitch our shows to bloggers (or start our own!), and participate in social networking. But, as Simon says, you can’t just graft old media techniques onto the new media.

What we really need to do is to take matters into our own hands and create our own media outlet for the Vancouver arts scene. Yes, I realize that this is a huge task. But I feel like there is a big hole out there, and it needs to be filled. We need a website that is the default go-to site for the Vancouver arts community. And it has to be good–with high quality editorial standards.

I’m not exactly sure how to make this happen, as I’m only one person, and to create something like this is going to take time and resources that are beyond me. But I’m talking to some people right now, and there is power in creating a community of like-minded individuals.

I will certainly keep you in the loop.

Read more about this topic over at the Alliance for Arts and Culture’s blog.

Read Are We Losing the Mainstream Media?

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I feel like a gospel preacher… November 15, 2008

I’m still buzzing.

Yesterday afternoon, I got to be part of a panel on Marketing Using Web 2.0 at the GVPTA’s annual Making a Scene Theatre Conference (see previous post and its shameless fawning over Daniel MacIvor). I am always a bit nervous at these things, just because I fear I won’t know the answers to questions, but the great thing about being on a panel, is that there are other people who probably will.

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Me, Simon Ogden and Rebecca Bolwitt in the Upstairs lounge at the Arts Club. Photo courtesy of Miss 604.

Enter my fellow panelists: Rebecca Bolwitt (the lovely Miss 604 herself) and Simon Ogden (who is on a crusade to create a new Vancouver theatre audience). Rebecca’s input was invaluable–she gave, I think, credibility to what we had to say, because she is a professional blogger, and comes off as such. Simon and I were able to chime in with our experiences of marketing shows using Web 2.0 technology.

I’ll be really up front about my reasons for agreeing to be on this panel. As theatre artists, we need to get serious about marketing. But we live in lean times, and only the largest companies among us can afford to buy advertising on the side of a bus (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). For the rest; small to medium-sized independent theatre companies, we have to find new and inexpensive ways to market our shows, and Web 2.0 technology is custom-made.

We talked for an hour and a half to the standing-room-only crowd about blogging–both starting your own blog to give your client base a ‘peek behind the scenes’, and how to pitch your show to bloggers to get them to write about it, and the marketing applications of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, My Space, E-mail, E-mail newsletter software, and online event listings.

And people were getting it–they were engaged, asking questions, taking notes, and I could see light bulbs going on. It was really, really exciting. I think we may have converted a few souls.

Can I get an Amen?

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Daniel MacIvor and I are in some good company. November 13, 2008

It’s no secret that Daniel MacIvor is my favorite Canadian male playwright. If I had a buck for every time I’ve performed This Is A Play, I’d… well, I could buy a pizza, for sure.

Yep, he's the man...

Yep, he's the man.

The esteemed Mr. MacIvor is in town this weekend, he’s speaking a the annual GVPTA Making A Scene Conference. It happens this Friday, Saturday and Sunday down on Granville Island. In addition to MacIvor (you can see him twice on Saturday), other notables who will be speaking on panels or giving workshops include Jackson Davies (on a panel called The Business of Acting in Theatre and Film, how much do I love that??), Martin Kinch from The Playwright’s Theatre Centre (a short commute for him), Norman Armour, whose PuSH Festival is doing some amazing stuff in Vancouver’s theatre scene, and the always hysterical (in a very lovely way) Jackie Blackmore.

Oh, yeah, and me. Rebecca Bolwitt, Simon Ogden and I are going to be part of a panel discussion called The New Face of Marketing: Facebook, Text and the Blogger’s World. This is happening Friday, Nov 14, 1:30-3pm in the Arts Club Theatre’s upper lobby.

So, maybe I’ll see you there. I wonder if MacIvor will come to my panel?

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Staking out your spot on the web September 28, 2008

Originally published June 1, 2008 on The Next Stage)

Over the last few months, I’ve been exploring, through the column, ways to market yourself in more detail. This month’s column focuses on what is probably the most essential, the most indispensable marketing tool: the website.

I’m pretty sure I don’t need to tell you: if you are trying to sell a product or a service, you need a website. It’s that simple. This month, I go in a slightly different direction and enlist the help of an expert, but I’ll get to that in a moment. I will also provide a list of resource URLs at the end of the article.

First of all, getting a URL (Uniform Resource Locater), which is your address on the web (ie: www.titaniaproductions.com) is easy enough to do. There are tons of companies on the web who can sell you one. Probably your best bet for a URL is to use your name, if you can, or your companies’ name, or some abbreviation of either of those. Keep it simple. URLs have to be entered exactly right, there’s no margin for error, so the simpler it is to spell, the better results you will have with people finding your site. Also, if possible, ALWAYS go for the .com extension. Get a .ca as a second choice, but try to avoid, at all costs, .biz, .net, etc if you can. Most people are so used to typing .com, it is almost a default.

Quite honestly, I get over my head pretty quickly with this technical stuff, so I enlisted the help of an expert.

David Rankin is a Usability Consultant and an instructor in the Interactive Design Program at Capilano College, and also an (amazing) Jazz singer and guitarist, so I asked him a bunch of questions about building an artist’s website.

David Rankin as his alter-ego, jazz singer Artie Devlin

TAotB: What is the most important thing to keep in mind when designing a website?

DR: Design to meet the needs of your audience. In order to be successful, your site needs to be driven by your audience’s needs and not by your own preconceptions of their needs. This approach, called User-Centred Design, will help users find the information they are looking for on your site more easily, enjoy the experience of browsing your site and (if you keep your content current) will keep them coming back for more.

You can start by observing individuals who represent your target audience, using your site. Take notes. Ask questions. Encourage them to give you feedback as to what works or doesn’t work for them. Let them know the intention of this exercise is to make the site better and your feelings won’t be hurt if there are aspects of your site they don’t like or think could be improved.

Videotape the session if need be. Ideally, this process would begin even before building your website, using early hand-drawn prototypes and/or testing your competitors sites. Focus groups work really well too. Bring in a few representative users and have a discussion as to what they require from your website. Often people are more than willing to do this for a small stipend or for that magical combination – free beer and pizza. I assure you, you will learn a ton by going through this process and will come to understand the needs of your audience more completely. Once you have gathered their feedback, you can then go about the process of redesigning your site to better suit the needs of the people who really matter – your target audience.

TAotB: What kind of information would you include on a website intended to market an artist or arts organization?

Many artist websites would include some or all of the following:

• a short Biography of the artist
Photos of the artist’s work or performances, with thumbnails
• A Media page if there is audio/video content
• Reviews or Testimonials from clients
• A News section that highlights the most current information about the artist or organization that may be of interest to their audience (performances, openings, awards etc). Maximize the impact of a News section by having it on the homepage
• A Contact page so interested parties can get in touch via email, and optionally snail mail or phone. Organizations may also want to include a map of how to get to their actual physical location. Google Maps is great for that
• A Webmaster link to help users report any problems they may be experiencing with the site
• And a Homepage of course!

Some artists also include a Press Kit section containing downloadable high resolution photos, press releases, concert riders etc. You may also want to include a forum or blog on your site. These are good for keeping in touch with your fans and colleagues, but can be quite time-consuming to moderate and maintain.

If you are an organization, your site should always contain a Mission Statement that briefly describes to your visitors the purpose of your organization. Your mission statement should be short–a paragraph or two maximum. They provide context for the rest of the site, so I would recommend putting them on your homepage . By not having a Mission Statement or having it buried somewhere deep in your site you run the risk of confusing and alienating your audience.

TAotB: Do you know of any really successful artists’ website that you can recommend we look at?

Yes. I think Madeleine Peyroux’s website is rather well designed and elegant. Lot’s of negative space in terms of the visual design – yet tons of content that is very well organized.

TAotB: Should you get someone to build your site for you, or is it worth it to try doing it yourself?

DR: I would recommend hiring an experienced Web Designer to create your site. For most of you out there, your website will be your primary tool for marketing your services and as such, you should budget for it accordingly. If this isn’t an option for you, you could approach some of the local colleges and universities web design programs to see if their students may be interested in taking you on as a project. If you have the time and inclination to design your own website, I would suggest you do some research first. There are many excellent websites, free online tutorials and books on all aspects of web design. Whether you choose to hire an Web Designer or choose to build it yourself, always design to meet the needs of your audience and you will do just fine.

Thanks, Dave!

Click to find out more about the Interactive Design Program at Cap College.

So, until next time, here’s to bums in seats everywhere…

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Here are some URLs you might find useful to look at when thinking about designing your site:

ETSY: if you are selling a something you made yourself, ETSY is an online marketplace for buying & selling all things handmade.

Doteasy: Sells URLs (just one of probably a million, but they are who I use, and I’ve been happy, so I thought I’d give them a plug).

Madeleine Wood: is a friend of mine, and an amazing painter. She is doing really well, and her excellent website has something to do with that.

Provost Pictures: is a company I have been working with for several years now, and we have just completed a complete overhaul of the site that I am quite proud of. This site also contains an example of a downloadable press kit. A big shout-out to Janet Baxter, who is our excellent webmaster, and also a photographer.