Special Reports

Mobile Solutions: Steppenwolf

May 30, 2013 | By Nancy Malitz

Steppenwolf Theater Company
$400,000, web redesign, link to Tessitura via CloudTix

Issue: Facing a web site upgrade in 2012, Steppenwolf wanted www.steppenwolf.org to become less of a functional tool and more an expressive medium in itself. “Creating an emotional experience is really what we arts organizations trade in,” said Thomas Weitz, the company’s digital assets manager, who oversaw the project. “It’s just as important an aspect of the web site as how it serves up pages and allows transactions. We wanted the elements of surprise
and delight.”

Mobile factor: A separate mobile site was part of the upgrade plan, and its priorities were somewhat different. “We hadn’t offered a mobile solution for buying tickets before,” Weitz said. “It was the priority.” The site launched before the web site did, in winter 2011. In the first year, mobile traffic increased to 15% of all page views from 10%, and mobile ticket sales reached 6%. “And 34% of our email is now read on mobile devices,” Weitz said. “Mobile is too big to ignore.”

Challenge: Weitz dreams about more flexibility to experiment with new mobile transaction ideas,
such as offering pre-intermission drink orders for certain shows, thereby getting closer to that Steppenwolf spirit of surprise. Right now that means resorting to time-consuming changes to the Tessitura brain center, often involving a vendor: “Tessitura started out as ticketing software, but it
has grown. It’s a way of keeping track of donors and of everybody who has ever bought a ticket. So it’s a ticketing system with robust tools. But the thing is that Tessitura was never intended to work with web sites.”

Solution: The mobile site connects to Steppenwolf’s Tessitura brain center using the CloudTix service to sell tickets over phone-size screens. CloudTix is an example of a leased API application programming interface), that provides a way for software programs to talk to each other. Custom work was also involved.

Cost: $400,000, part of a five-year transformational grant from the Doris Duke Foundation. The web site infrastructure and development took place in 2011-12. CloudTix charges an ongoing $500-$900 monthly, depending on an organization’s budget, plus $100/mo for select-a-seat services.

Ahead: “If we were to do it again, I would more seriously consider a responsive web site. I like the idea of everything going through the same system,” said Weitz. “Still, doing a separate site forces you to prioritize, and that is a really good process to go through. Even in thinking about how to design the whole web site, it is best to ask, ‘What is the smallest version of our content that would work?’”

Weitz’s ultimate goal is to be able to try new things on both sites more quickly without it costing a lot of money or requiring an outside vendor: “It would be better to build an infrastructure in which we can experiment more easily.”

eighth blackbird: $40, two sites, sweat equity, and WordPress 

Brooklyn Academy of Music: Pro bono web site overhaul plus mobile ticketing

Houston Symphony: 100th anniversary web redesign uses consultant plus InstantEncore app for ticketing


Nancy Malitz is the publisher of ChicagoOntheAisle.com. She has been writing about the intersection of the arts and technology most of her career. She developed some of Gannett Media’s first newspaper web sites and worked on strategic projects for media change.




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