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Interview with the Digital Assets Director

June 9, 2009

On April 24, 2009 I was able to conduct a short interview with Dave Urlakis who was a member of Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Marketing Department from 2004-2009. As the Digital Assets Director he was in charge of Steppenwolf’s e-marketing campaigns, sales tracking and data analysis. During his tenure at Steppenwolf, he launched the company’s interactive blog, podcast, select-your-own-seat functionality and has helped drive 55% of Steppenwolf’s single ticket sales online. Dave graduated from Knox College with a double major in Theatre and Economics and is also active in Chicago’s theater community as an actor and improviser.  He is currently the Director of Analytics at Jellyvision, an interactive rich media company in Chicago.

In general Dave relayed to me what Steppenwolf is using Social Media for right now, and why they have chosen to use certain modes of communication over others. The company has made a significant investment in using social media and has in many ways been ahead of other theaters in the country. Currently Steppenwolf uses MySpace, Facebook  and a Blog hosted on their website to reach out to constituents online. Dave explained that these venues have allowed for a “Deepening sense of engagement [that] can be shared with friends.” It also allows Steppenwolf to be a public square [where] issues come from the plays [and] conversations then can go to the internet.”

I asked Dave specifically about the blog and if there were any concerns from the theater.

 “Bloggers can say anything, [but we] have been finding, people are trying to engage in real dialogue. This drives awareness and tickets sales. There will always be people who don’t like the show, [if] they can express it to you at least you get a chance to respond and they feel more of a sense of ownership. [There is] no censoring of posts at all, only is it’s off topic and promoting something. If someone says something bad [it seems] fans come to defense quicker than people at the organization.”

The open dialogue is very important for the success of these endeavors. From our conversation I was able to learn about the work that goes into Steppenwolf’s bolg. They spend months in planning to help create interesting dialogue with their constituents. They carefully choose the artists that will write each week and they work very hard to find relevant topics around the art they will be creating.

We then spoke about how the internet was changing how the brand of a theater is viewed;

 “Most theaters protect their brand, as they should – but this is changing. [Social Media] makes you to take the reigns off the brand [because the] real challenge is, you can’t control a brand as you could before when anyone can say anything online.”

We also talked about the concept of Social Networking being part of a larger toolbox in the theater’s communications, and that he did not foresee it replacing sales driven direct email or direct mail. He felt that even though newspapers are in decline right now that there will still be a need for print advertising in the future.

Steppenwolf is currently conducting research to see the effects of its online presence which is not completed, but Dave could say that they are seeing more young people, and that current patrons feel a real ownership over their personal experience. While their isn’t evidence yet that social networking is attracting new people –this deepening relationship will be important as the subscription sales model changes.

We then turned our attention to new software such as twitter Dave responded;

“No [we aren’t using] twitter yet, we want to do it right, and don’t feel like many institutions are using it well yet because they don’t quite understand it. We must really use these tools (twitter,bolg,podcast) for the right jobs. Not every method will work as well for every job or for every theater.”

Knowing the care and consideration they are putting into their other endeavors, this doesn’t surprise me a bit. The theater is very serious about using the right technology for the right job, and wants to make sure they can utilize these new technologies well.

When asked about the future of communications in relation to theater Dave had this to say;

“The power of print media is diminishing, [but I think in the future] there will be non-profit newspapers and we will still advertise in them. [We] will also be investing more in online advertising.”

Other thoughts about the future were that Social Media will continue to grow as the two way communication model becomes more important to audiences. People are starting to expect this deeper conversation and he feels strongly that transparency will be key in creating this ongoing dialogue that patrons desire.


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