A girl explores a virtual tour of Ford’s Theatre on a tablet computer.
Photo by Trisha Goins.

Engaging the 21st-Century Visitor: Digital Strategy at Ford’s Theatre

4 min read

I read this great quote from Ed Rodley over at the Peabody Essex Museum: “A postdigital museum isn’t one where ‘digital’ has triumphed over ‘physical.’”

Having just finished a digital strategic planning process at Ford’s, this quote reinforced our own newly established digital values. We recognize the ongoing importance of our physical spaces, artifacts and objects, while also recognizing that digital is a new(ish) tool to help us achieve our mission.

Engaging the 21st-century visitor at Ford’s Theatre. Art by Gary Erskine.

One of the goals of our digital strategic plan is to blog about our efforts to scale digital initiatives. Our hope is that others might benefit from learning about our experience. To start with, we thought we’d share our digital strategic planning process.

Digital has become a part of daily life for our audiences. We have enormous opportunities to use digital to make the historical relevant and to engage audiences on a national scale. But the field has evolved so rapidly that we have struggled to keep up. Why now?

Recognizing this, in summer 2014, our board signed off on a long-range plan that placed significant emphasis on expanding our digital resources and online presence over the course of the next five years.

To facilitate this expansion, we knew we needed a road map: a series of guidelines to help us become an institution where digital is a mindset, integral and inseparable from every facet of the organization. And also where digital efforts are intentional and strategic.

How did we do it?

Like most organizations, we can get siloed in our various departments. In fall of 2014, Sarah Jencks (our director of education), Alysse Bortolotto (our website manager) and I pulled together a cross-organizational team of staff to assess, discuss and dream.

We also hired a consultant. While we had a lot of internal excitement and enthusiasm, we felt we needed an external guide with deep knowledge of the digital landscape. We also wanted someone who could facilitate constructive conversations, offer us honest feedback on our current place in the digital landscape, and facilitate truly cross-disciplinary work.

We chose Threespot because of the breadth of their experience, their work style and values, and their promise to push us toward our aspirations. Threespot looked at our prior digital and institutional research, did an analytics audit of our digital offerings, surveyed our peers for best practices, interviewed and conducted research with our key audiences and stakeholders, and held workshops with our internal team.

We continued the board’s involvement by engaging our education committee, including them in stakeholder interviews and asking for their input on drafts of the digital strategic plan. They also shepherded the final plan through the approval process with our executive committee and full board. And in June of this year, we had approval!

So what did we end up with?

We now have a 3-year digital strategic plan featuring nine initiatives, each of which aligns with an institutional priority from our long-range plan. This plan also includes a timeline for projects and a set of long-term digital values:

  • Sustainability. We bite off just as much as we can chew.
  • Be Compelling. If it doesn’t inspire our staff and board, it won’t inspire our audiences or peers.
  • Mission-critical. Every digital initiative is clearly tied to our organizational goals.
  • Momentum Building. To effect change, we balance quick wins with long-term plans. Data helps guide our efforts, and holds us accountable.
  • People-centric. We prioritize the needs of staff and audiences, over technology for its own sake.

You can find an overview of our digital strategy here. In short, we will:

  • Invest in smart people and compelling content
  • Earn a reputation for digitization
  • Leverage existing technology platforms
  • Focus on defined pilots, expand on success
  • Bring up our website, social media and multimedia to match peers
  • Use data to guide our efforts
  • Give staff training, time, inspiration and latitude to experiment

What’s next?

Work has already begun on several key initiatives:

We released a website RFP in July and will kick off our redesign process this month. We’ve hired a new Associate Director of Digital Strategy: Tatum Walker, formerly with the Detroit Institute of Arts. Tatum will oversee the development and implementation of Ford’s portfolio of digital offerings. She’ll also bring departments across the organization together to translate our live programming and onsite experience to an online environment. Additionally, we’ve realigned our Education Department to include an Associate Director of Education, Digital Resources. By doing this, we continue to send the message that digital is both instrumental and content-driven. This new position, held by David McKenzie, expresses our digital commitment to offering meaningful content in a user-centered way. We’ve launched a Social Media Ambassadors Pilot, training staff throughout the organization how to use Twitter to promote their personal professional brand. Our goal is to disseminate digital mindfulness in our staff. Our education department also has embraced Twitter and soon will launch its own handle to serve its audience.

If you’ve been through a digital strategy planning process or are about to go through one, we’d love to connect with you! Share a note in the comments or send an email

A big thank you to our wonderful Art Director Gary Erskine for designing the breakdown of our digital strategy.

 Liza Lorenz is Director of Communications and Digital Strategy for Ford’s Theatre. Follow her on Twitter @Liza_Lorenz.

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Liza Lorenz was Director of Communications and Digital Strategy for Ford’s Theatre.


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