This post was originally written for the Association of California Symphony Orchestras, who asked me to write “an open letter to the field with thoughts, ideas, and visions about how to improve the state of arts organizations in California.”
I recently had a realization. I was working on an upcoming talk I’m going to be giving, and in one of my dry runs I rattled off a line about how we need to really get our arts marketing into the 21st century. And then it occurred to me: the 21st century is about to be 20% over. One fifth of the century is behind us come next year. Is that crazy to you? It is to me. All of the sudden this realization felt so urgent. We can’t keep talking about how to update our marketing practices; rather, it’s imperative that we actually do it, because for a lot of our organizations, we’ve wasted nearly the last twenty years only tweaking how things used to be done, while consumer behavior and marketing trends are passing us by. Sadly for orchestras, most of us have the declining sales numbers to support this thesis.
In a time when there are so many different challenges facing arts organizations, if you only do one thing this upcoming season, no matter your budget size, let it be to double down on marketing. I don’t mean update the copy on the copy-filled season brochure (although as an aside, all of our materials would be stronger if we dropped about half the copy and about 99% of the exclamation points…for the love of orchestras, seriously, please stop the forced enthusiasm exclamation points). What I do mean is that now is the time to catch up on what other industries have been doing for the last decade or two. The good news is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel because we get to emulate what has already proven successful again and again in other sectors, which covers three areas.
1. Put the customer first.
A lot of us say we want to better serve our patrons. Few of us truly act on that. Here’s why this is a problem: in today’s world, 2/3 of marketing is out of our control (source: Mark Schaefer, The Marketing Rebellion), meaning things like word of mouth and what people post on social media now carry the majority of the marketing weight for any B2C business, and only the remaining 1/3 is due to our traditional marketing efforts. This is a gargantuan shift from 20 years ago. So when our orchestras do things like, for example, tell patrons to turn their phones off during the concert, it’s like amputating an arm or a leg; we are shutting down a massive and critical [marketing] function. When the general population today experiences virtually every other entertainment option in existence via their phones — taking photos, capturing videos, and sharing their experience online — to not acknowledge this consumer trend is to stick our collective heads in the sand. I know union rules make this challenging to address. I know that there is fear around what our core audiences will think if we start inviting different behaviors in the concert hall. I also know it’s no surprise that the orchestras who have the most stringent policies on this are simultaneously the ones wondering why they are seeing the highest audience attrition.
“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel because we get to emulate what has already proven successful again and again in other sectors.”
2. Content is king.
In the last 20 years, and particularly the last decade, concurrently with the explosive rise of mobile devices is the explosive growth in content. Many of us have heard this before: anyone can produce content now. Anyone can start a blog, anyone can film a video, and anyone can share this content online. A recent survey by Lego found that today’s children are three times more likely to want to be a YouTube star than an astronaut. At the turn of the 21st century, YouTube didn’t even exist yet; that’s indicative of the importance and meteoric rise of this trend. Our job as arts administrators is not to pass judgement on this (and in case you are, 86% of the kids surveyed — i.e. almost all of them — are still interested in space exploration, so this is not a time to shake our fist at “kids these days”); rather, our job is to recognize that trends emerge and evolve, and to respond so that our organizations remain relevant. All of this is to say that orchestras need to up our content game. Entrepreneur and author Gary Vaynerchuk first wrote and vlogged about this in 2009: brands that want to reach new customers and grow will come out on top when they produce insane amounts of content and distribute it online (source: Crush It! … P.S. he published a follow up to that book in 2018 saying the same thing). Blogs, videos, tweets, images, quotes, and memes all designed to share information and provide value to the customer/audience/follower are what he’s talking about, not — please hear this — overtly salesy messages telling people they really don’t want to miss this weekend’s concert. This is not new. He first said content is king ten years ago and he’s still saying it today with a decade of proof across every industry, true for the next YouTube stars and symphony orchestras alike.
“Our job as arts administrators is not to pass judgement on [trends]; rather, our job is to recognize that trends emerge and evolve, and to respond so that our organizations remain relevant.”
3. Restructure to do this work.
Some days I can’t believe that that the vast majority of arts organizations haven’t changed the org structure — like at all — for multiple decades. Given points one and two above, adding a Social Media Coordinator position doesn’t cut it when the trends are that creating “insane amounts of content” should be one of the top things we are doing at an organization and that helping our audiences share that content and produce and publish their own is two thirds of the totality of our marketing efforts. This is not entry level work; it’s senior leadership strategy. Anything less is not serving our patrons, which in turn is hurting our ability to generate the revenue needed from them. At minimum, orchestras should restructure our departments and people into teams that focus on patron loyalty and teams that focus on producing content. And for real change, we should also redefine how to measure success so that instead of prioritizing metrics like capacity sold and total revenue, we are asking what percentage of new attendees came back? If we get the later right, the former will be just fine, too. Similarly, instead of looking at how much we can raise ticket prices among the full season subscribers to eek another few dollars out of this group, what if we focus on redesigning the experience for the other 60–70% of our patron accounts, from the online presence to the box office to the program book, because doing so will create an environment that people can’t help but want to share with their social networks (plus, we know those full season fixed seat people have incredibly high renewal rates no matter what we do…they may verbally and briefly complain, but they will not become unloyal says #data).
“Anything less is not serving our patrons, which in turn is hurting our ability to generate the revenue needed from them.”
One Thing to Stop Doing
Lastly, in order to do this work, there is one big thing we have to stop doing: making excuses. At organizations I talk with of all sizes, from tiny community ensembles with volunteers doing the administrative work to big, top-tier institutions, I hear an astonishing amount excuses. “We don’t have time.” “We don’t know who will do this.” “We don’t have resources for this” (yes, the big ones say that too). And my all-time favorite, “We are doing some of these things.” I can’t begin to count how many people at nonprofits from coast to coast tell me that last one. If doing “some of these things” is producing the necessary results, then keep on doing that because it’s working. But if the current modus operandi is not producing the necessary results, then we’re at a crossroads: either continue doing things kind of the same way they’ve been done with suboptimal growth in audiences and revenue, or get with the 2019 program and do the work needed to succeed.
If we only do one thing this year as an industry, let it be to update our approach to marketing. Let it be the year we stop scratching our head wondering why the past tactics aren’t working on today’s consumers. Other industries have proven for us these strategies will deliver. For the sake of classical music, let’s join the party the 21st century has been inviting us to for the last twenty years.
About the Author
Aubrey Bergauer defies trends, and then makes her own. In a time when many 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. Hailed by San Francisco Chronicle as a “dynamic and innovative administrator,” her focus on not just engaging — but retaining — new audiences grew Seattle Opera’s BRAVO! Club to the largest group for young patrons in the nation, led the Bumbershoot Festival to achieve an unprecedented 43% increase in revenue, and propelled the California Symphony to double the size of its audience and nearly quadruple 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.
Bergauer has shared her ideas in speaking engagements across North America, including conferences for Adobe’s Magento, Capacity Interactive, Opera America, Orchestras Canada, and the League of American Orchestras. 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” (San Jose 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. aubreybergauer.com