Interview: Ford's Theatre Digital Expansion Strategies Reboots AMT Lab's Podcast Series

NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER:   AMT Lab contributors engage in interviews on an almost monthly basis.  Until this week these interviews have existed as individual posts within our platform.  To make things easier for AMT Lab followers, these interviews are now available on our revamped podcast (available through ITunes, Google Play and Stitcher).  

You can listen to  Stewart Urist and Tatum Walker discuss creating a digital mindset in a combined world of historical landmark and theatre producing space or read the full post plus interview sound file below.  Enjoy!

Brett Ashley Crawfordpublisher/executive director


In November of 2015, Ford’s Theatre unveiled its new Digital Strategy. Synthesizing input from consultants, staff, board members, and community stakeholders, the planning process took over a year of work. The final plan is ambitious, but also consists of clearly articulated goals and core values, all centered around the idea of improving and expanding the visitor experience.

I sat down with Tatum Walker, Ford’s Associate Director of Digital Strategy to discuss the genesis of this plan, how work is progressing now that Ford’s is several months into implementation, and some of the exciting ramifications of the organization’s new digital mindset.

The Plan

Ford’s Digital Strategy has four main focus areas:

1.     Online Learning: Creating original digital content allows Ford’s to be both a resource for classroom educators and provides an opportunity for students to engage with Ford’s on their own.

2.     Online Presence: Redesigning Ford’s aging website and ensuring that it was mobile-adaptive was one of the strategy’s first goals. Staff members are also reevaluating how the organization uses social media and which platforms might best engage both physical and digital visitors.

3.     On-site Experience: A mobile interpretive solution such as an app or microsite, digital signage, and campus-wide wifi are just a few examples of the ways the plan seeks to improve and modernize the visitor experience at Ford’s.

4.     Organizational Capabilities: By investing in additional staff members with digital-centric skills and training current staff members on new systems, the strategy seeks to create a more data-informed and experimental culture.

Additionally, six digital values were articulated:

1.     Sustainability. We bite off just as much as we can chew.

2.     Be Compelling. If it doesn’t inspire our staff and board, it won’t inspire our audiences or peers.

3.     Mission-critical. Every digital initiative is clearly tied to our organizational goals.

4.     Momentum Building. To effect change, we balance quick wins with long-term plans.

5.     Data helps guide our efforts, and holds us accountable.

6.     People-centric. We prioritize the needs of staff and audiences, over technology for its own sake.

 The exterior of Ford's Theatre. Photo courtesy of     © Maxwell MacKenzie

The exterior of Ford's Theatre. Photo courtesy of    © Maxwell MacKenzie

Taken together, they articulate both the major goals of the plan and offer a strategic screen to assess future opportunities that may come up in the plan’s execution. Following these guiding principles and objectives, several major milestones have already been reached.

First Steps

Once the Digital Strategy was approved, one of the most important steps was the addition of key new staff members. These digital leaders provided an initial injection of new skills and passion, and will serve as change agents moving forward:

Tatum Walker was hired in the new position of Associate Director of Digital Strategy. This position’s responsibilities are broad, and involve working cross-departmentally to oversee implementation of new digital elements and guiding efforts to translate Ford’s on-site experience to the digital realm.

Following his work on the AAM Muse Award winning Remembering Lincoln digital collection and building Ford's Theatre's presence on Google Arts & Culture for the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's assassination, David McKenzie assumed the new role of Associate Director of Eduction, Digital Resources. His job expanded to creating user-centered digital content, bringing Lincoln's legacy to life for learners of all ages across the globe. 

Tim Helmer was hired as Database Coordinator in advance of Ford’s transition to the Tessitura Ticketing and CRM system. His expertise ensured a smooth data migration and staff on-boarding process, and in the future will help Ford’s take its data analysis to the next level.

Another important step was the transition from Ticketmaster’s Archtics CRM and ticketing system to Tessitura. Tessitura’s smooth online integration and robust data analysis capabilities are a marked improvement for Ford’s. In addition to extensive onboarding training, several staff members were sent to the annual Tessitura conference, providing an opportunity to meet with peers already using the system and to better understand the potential of the CRM’s robust feature set.

Concurrent with the Tessitura go-live, a new ticket sales page was rolled out. Bringing web ticketing back in-house offers Ford’s with better data capture and easier patron communication, and provides guests with lower ticketing fees and a more curated experience. Seating availability and the historical site’s variable programming schedule are also more clearly communicated, pain points which have frustrated visitors to the site in the past.

The Road Forward

 The interior of Ford's Theatre. Photo courtesy of     © Maxwell MacKenzie

The interior of Ford's Theatre. Photo courtesy of    © Maxwell MacKenzie

Though significant in their own right, these initial steps are merely the groundwork for the larger cultural and visitor experience changes outlined in the plan. As the Tessitura onboarding process continues, staff are already coming up with new ways to think about patrons. Through pilot programs like the Ford’s Social Media Ambassadors and brown bag lunchtime talks, all staff members are encouraged to learn about and experiment with a range digital tools. Even these pilots, however, are assessed using measurable goals.

Ford’s new website is slated to launch within the next few months, providing a vast new space for student’s digital learning. Meanwhile, development of the new Mobile Interpretive Solution is underway, a project seeking to provide visitors with a new engaging way to interact with Ford’s exhibits. If all goes to plan, within the next few years the nearly one-million visitors who come to Ford’s each year will find not only a living, working monument to President Lincoln’s ideals and legacy, but a cutting-edge, engaging historical experience.

Stewart Urist is an alumni of CMU’s MAM program and currently serves as Accounting, Payroll, and Benefits Manager at Ford’s Theatre.