Content Marketing: What It Is and Why Every Orchestra Should Be Doing It

And How You Can Do It Too

Classical music has so many interesting stories to tell that in turn can sell more tickets than traditional ads.

Marketing is changing. Even in just the last year or so, it’s been changing: people don’t want to be overtly sold to, one-size-fits-all copy doesn’t capture attention, and traditional call to actions are no longer effective. All three of those tactics are now definitively out of the old school playbook, are out of touch with current marketing trends, and most important, they’re not working anymore.

Marketing is changing, but this is not a post solely for marketers. This post is for anyone who writes copy or public-facing communications, whether that be annual fund materials, ads, social media, publications, or website content to name a few examples, and for senior leaders — executive directors and board members — who need to encourage exploration of current trends in our staffs. So if the has-been tactics above are out, then what exactly is in these days? The answer is content marketing, and this is a trend that gives every orchestra in the universe a leg up over everyone else (yes, it’s that good).

“For once in the changing landscape of consumer behavior, orchestras have what everyone else wishes they did.”

What is Content Marketing?

By definition, content marketing is a type of marketing that involves the creation and sharing of online material (such as blogs, videos, infographics, photos, gifs, etc.) that does not explicitly promote a brand but is intended to stimulate interest in its products or services. To break it down in three parts, the first part of that definition is no problem for most arts organizations: over the last 8–10 years, almost everyone has gotten into content generation via producing videos, writing blogs, and/or creating other original digital assets. Conversely, the second part is where almost all of us need to shift gears: material that does not explicitly promote a brand. That means no more bossy call-to-actions (CLICK HERE and GET TICKETS and DONATE NOW), cheesy exclamation points (Fun for all ages! Don’t forget to get tickets for this weekend!), and salesy messages (Last chance to make your gift. Do you have your tickets yet?) — all of that is lame now according to consumer trends, and customers see right through it. The final part of the definition is where we’ve all sort of dipped our collective toe in the water and have an amazing opportunity to do so much more. In other words, material that is intended to stimulate interest in its products or services is a fancy way of saying consumers are more than ever seeking material that is educational.

Educational information about our product is what classical music has in spades and simultaneously what we don’t publicly share very much, particularly in advance of the ticket sale. To be fair, we generally share a great deal of educational material after the ticket purchase in our pre-concert talks and program books, and we even share loads of educational content through all our school programs; we simply rarely produce and share educational content to adults as a means to drive a transaction (e.g. ticket sale or donation). And the trends tell us that needs to change. This also matches the results we found from the California Symphony’s Orchestra X research. People want to learn a little before making a purchase.

Of all the trends in marketing over the last decade, this is the one where orchestras naturally have an arsenal at our disposal. There are so many stimulating, scandalous, and dramatic stories about the composers we perform, so many historically documented doomed premieres for works that went on to be today’s warhorses, and so many fascinating connections among people and places, living and deceased, performers and creators. We are all sitting on a gold mine of intriguing educational content that can and should be shared to generate interest in our product. Most industries do not have centuries of content at their disposal. For once in the changing landscape of consumer behavior, orchestras have what everyone else wishes they did.

Why Do Content Marketing?

Ok, so people now crave information, not traditional marketing messages. But why change the entire way we think about our public facing communications and marketing materials? Two big reasons:

1. Consumers are 131% more likely to buy from a brand immediately after they consume early-stage, educational content (source: Conductor, a content marketing intelligence platform). In this study, consumers were divided into two groups: one group that was given educational articles about mock brands, such as ‘How to Make Almond Milk’ and ‘Backpacking 101,’ and the control group which did not receive this material. The two groups were surveyed about these fictional brands immediately after reading (or not reading) the content. The people that read the educational articles were more than twice as likely (131%) to buy from that brand compared to those who read nothing. That’s a lot.

2. Brand affinity is greater with educational content. In the same study above, when surveyed again a week later, consumers were still 48% more likely to buy from the brand they learned from. And — get this — a week later more participants rated the brand as trustworthy and had a greater affinity than when they had first read the content. In other words, reading light educational content made people like the brand more over time. It’s not about making a sale; it’s about building trust. Plus, brand affinity drives click-through rates 2–3x higher than acquisition ads alone (more on that below), so this is a pretty big deal. Guess what else people do when they have great trust in and affinity for an organization? They donate. Again, this is not a marketing-only play.

If you’ve read anything else I’ve written on putting the customer first, this all makes sense. Our job is to help customers learn about what we are offering and build those relationships over time—not go for a quick sale. And in doing that, the brilliant result is customers will seek us out and we will ultimately sell even more. “Our goal in our advertisements isn’t to sell the product,” says Graham Stanton, SVP at Peloton, the indoor cycling unicorn (i.e. privately held company valued at over $1 billion) who’s developed an insanely loyal and growing following. “Our goal is to get across enough of the energy and overall experience to encourage someone to learn more by seeking us out [emphasis added] on the web or in a showroom or by talking to a friend who has a bike.” That is precisely the strategy this post is outlining.

“Our job is to help customers learn about what we are offering and build those relationships over time—not go for a quick sale. And in doing that, the brilliant result is customers will seek us out and we will ultimately sell even more.”

This trend has played out for us at the California Symphony. Of the last two years (all of 2016 and 2017), the top three posts (not counting one-off announcements such as appointing a new player to the orchestra or revealing the new season, or live-streamed video, which the Facebook algorithm promotes more frequently in the newsfeed) are all written educational content. When content starts doing well organically, we then often put paid support behind it for wider reach.

Over the last two years, the top three posts for California Symphony were all content marketing, e.g. no call to action, just information in which people who are interested can read and share. And read and share they did.

How to Do This: Do’s and Don’ts of Content Marketing

I’ve already said that classical music organizations have a wealth of interesting content ideas available to us. Here’s how to incorporate this into your own communications:

  • Content needs quality and quantity. Larry Kim, founder of WordStream, a PPC Agency (read: they know how to optimize content for search and clicks), says that quantity gets you to quality. “Viral content is hard to put a formula to,” he said in a recent webinar, “but just like in poker, you don’t get a royal flush every time.” In other words, you need to play a lot of hands to get the one that’s going to win the pot. And similar to how a good poker player can bet at least something on just about any hand — if they play their cards right — the same is true for producing good content. By doing it regularly, you get good at it. And then sometimes you have a viral winner.
  • “Crappy content is invisible.” Kim goes on to say that “crappy content” gets no shares on Facebook or clicks on Google search — it’s invisible. This is both bad and good. It’s bad in that we can inadvertently make crappy content with misspelled words, poor grammar or punctuation, or logo-in-your-face graphics, and then something tanks (or at best underperforms) that otherwise might have gotten traction. It’s good in that if something doesn’t work (a bold idea, for example, or a certain way you wrote about a piece of music), nobody sees it because algorithms don’t promote it. When content is good — interesting and easy to consume — people share it. When it’s not, nothing is lost, really.
  • Audition content. How do you know if content is good or not? Audition it, meaning look at engagement rates: likes, shares, click through rates, and how long people engage (the last point being super important particularly with video, because if your video is getting all the impressions in the world but only for three seconds, that’s not an indication of interest in the content). Audition content, and stop doing stuff that doesn’t work.
  • Make unicorn babies. Say what?! Larry Kim states that when content does well, it’s a unicorn — that rare royal flush — so don’t stop there, make unicorn babies. The easiest way to do this is to post the link again with different copy (as an aside, this is an absolute must on Twitter for all content because the nature of the channel is so ephemeral…Wall Street Journal is the best at this on Twitter in my opinion; they repost the same stories so many different ways every day). Then repurpose the hit content into something else: “If a blog post did well, make a video or an infographic with the same information,” Kim says. “Run a webinar. Make a photo gallery.” When something is getting traction online, don’t stop there, make unicorn babies!
How we track auditioned content and make content unicorn babies at the California Symphony.
  • Modify content that works. Another way to make content work harder for you is to go from good to great. Peloton (the same cycling company mentioned above) is a great case study in this: through using data about what potential customers were engaging with most and then updating existing content on their website, Peloton saw an 810% increase in add-to-carts and an 844% increase in bike purchase (Source: Conductor). That’s insane. So we need to be asking and testing things like, “What works better, a video or a blog post?” Or, for the larger budget orchestras who use analytic tools such as ClickTale or SEO reports on your site (and the smaller budget orgs can get some of this through Google Analytics), look at the pages on your website that are popular, such as the Concert Calendar or the First Timer’s Guide or single ticket landing pages, and use those tools to see exactly which parts of the page people are engaging with most, with what FAQs on the guide they’re spending the most time, and then keep adjusting to make that content better. (Not sure how to know if you’ve made it better? Test it with a tool like Google Optimize, or simply see if you’re seeing increased add-to-carts after the change.) We often spend so much time thinking about how we can get new customers when there are people already on our websites that we can better serve and therefore better convert to sales. Below is an example from 2013 when I worked at the Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival: the festival lineup page on the website was by far the most visited page with 50,000+ views a month. It’s a page with tons of great content about each artist with interactive hover-over functionality to get more info. People spent a lot of time there, and because the lineup was huge (hundreds of artists spanning comedy, dance, film, literary arts, music, performing arts, theatre, and visual arts), people kept scrolling and scrolling and interacting with the content until they were, well, done scrolling, creating an exit rate (i.e. people who drop off and leave the site) near 80%. We loved the time people were spending on the page but hated the drop-off, and observed that when scrolling down, the top navigation — where all the other clickable next steps existed — was lost after a few scrolls. Today on websites you see a lot of “Back to Top” type links for content-heavy pages, but that was not standard practice at the time. We decided to run a modification experiment and add a floating “GET TIX HERE” icon/button, so at any point during scrolling one could jump onto the purchase path. That one change brought the exit rate down 15% and improved people going onto the purchase path by 18%, resulting in about $25,000 in additional sales over the next two months. From one tiny change. That’s how to modify content that works.
Through modifying a webpage rich in content that was successfully engaging 50,000+ visitors each month, the Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival saw an 18% increase in users entering the purchase path and gained an additional ~$25,000 in incremental revenue.
  • Remarket like mad. This is also in the category of stop-spinning-our-wheels-trying-to-find-new-people. The glorious thing about content marketing is that people come to you. It completely changes the game of outbound sales messages because the trend, again, is that consumers are seeking information and do engage with interesting content. Sometimes this is called “permission based marketing,” coined by Seth Godin. Then — and this is key — through this pool of people who have interacted with us (whether that be on Facebook, a blog, or the website), we have built our own remarketing list, which is the best targeted marketing we can execute. In a post on this specific topic, Larry Kim writes, “With a smart social ad strategy, you can promote your content to the perfect audience for just pennies….Sure, they won’t convert right away, but you can later remarket to them.” Pro tip: Host your blog on your website so you can get those critical remarketing leads. In fact it’s so critical that it’s one of the top reasons the California Symphony is currently in the RFP phase for a website redesign built on a new platform that can handle this. Building good content to feed the remarketing engine is that important.
  • Interesting and easy to consume is the name of the game. Remember, remember, remember, all of this is not for classical music lovers. Those people already have tickets. This is for people who are generally smart and want to learn, but do not have a lot, if any, prior experience with the art form. A musicologist should not produce this content. And even musically trained staff members might have to tone it down a bit, e.g. watch the terminology we toss around like everyone should know what it means (see Orchestra X findings…not everyone knows what a ‘concerto’ is, and it’s on us to help). Dig down deep and think about those things a lot of us administrators learned a long time ago that caught our attention way back when (Whoa, there is a curse of the 10th symphony?! Can you believe a French horn uncoiled is 20 feet long?!). Keep it interesting and keep it easy to consume, and relate it to the work your organization is doing. Recent California Symphony examples are here and here (the first isn’t even particularly musical — it’s more historical — written by our Director of Marketing & Patron Loyalty and was in the top three posts shared earlier; the second was written by our Concertmaster and was in the top 10).
  • Don’t do it all. So often we think we have to do ALL. THE. THINGS. And we feel pressure (or desperation in our attempt to “find new people”) to chase after all the latest online channels (raise your hand if your orchestra created a Snapchat account but doesn’t really use it). Or maybe all orchestras don’t need Instagram, for example. How many photos of the orchestra can look that different and engaging? Opera, by contrast, has a total advantage on Instagram with so many great visuals. The point is that very few arts organizations, including the biggest budget institutions, do all of it well. Instead of doing 10 things mediocrely, focus on doing 2 or 3 things exceptionally. Maybe that’s Facebook + blog + website. Or Facebook + video + being smarter with the digital budget. Organizations of all sizes would so much better engage our patrons this way.

“The glorious thing about content marketing is that people come to you. It completely changes the game of outbound sales messages.”

This Works in the Physical World Too

I had this epiphany the other day as I was on the phone with an executive director at another orchestra. “How are you doing community outreach?” he asked. And I started explaining how we attend various community events, always delivering some sort of educational morsel about the art form or the instruments or the music, and always connecting that to something that’s coming up on stage (such as Peter & the Wolf puppet making at a local street fair before the orchestra performed it, or a panel discussion with our Music Director and Composer-in-Residence at the library ahead of the world premiere performance). I explained how we always do some sort of name capture in order to remarket to those people, “and we’re currently applying for funding to launch an adult education program specifically designed to provide early stage educational content before the ticket purchase.” And as the words were coming out of my mouth I realized it’s the same online and offline: provide interesting educational content, tie it to the work we do on stage, and follow up with those who have shown interest by inviting them to attend. The only difference is that the virtual execution this post describes reaches thousands more people with a better remarketing capability. Both are needed I think, and now I feel empowered and gratified that our physical and digital efforts can be so strategically aligned.

Final Takeaways

With everything I talk about on customer loyalty and retention, content marketing is the precursor to all that. We are building affinity and familiarity before the ticket purchase ever begins. It almost sounds too good to be true. But it’s not — it works.

Once more, almost no other product on this planet has the great personalities, salacious stories, tales of triumph, and emotional and historical context over hundreds of years like us. Our art form is compelling and interesting; we just have to seize the opportunity to help more people learn that. And with the current trends in consumer behavior, people want to. Classical music should win content marketing.

About the Author

Aubrey Bergauer, Executive Director, California Symphony
Aubrey Bergauer defies trends, and then makes her own. In a time when most arts organizations are finding it more and more difficult to meet rising ticket, subscription, and fundraising goals, Bergauer has dramatically increased earned and contributed revenue at organizations ranging from Seattle Opera to the Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival to the California Symphony. Her focus on not just engaging — but retaining — new audiences grew Seattle Opera’s BRAVO! Club (for audience members in their 20’s and 30’s) to the largest group of its kind nationwide, led the Bumbershoot Festival to achieve an unprecedented 43% increase in revenue, and propelled the California Symphony to expand its audience by 70% and quadruple the size of the donor base.

A graduate of Rice University with degrees in Music Performance and Business, for the last 15 years Bergauer has used music to make the world around her better, through programs that champion social justice and equality, through marketing and audience development tactics on the forefront of trends and technology, and through proving and sharing what works in the rapidly changing landscape of funding, philanthropy, and consumer behavior. If ideas are a dime a dozen, what separates Bergauer is her experience and record of execution and impact at institutions of all sizes. Praised for her leadership which “points the way to a new style of audience outreach,” (Wall Street Journal) and which drove the California Symphony to become “the most forward-looking music organization around” (Mercury News), Bergauer’s ability to strategically and holistically examine and advance every facet of the organization, instilling and achieving common goals and vision across what are usually siloed marketing, development, and artistic departments, is creating a transformational change in the audience, in the office, on the stage, in the community, and is changing the narrative for the classical music industry.


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