A friend of mine in the marketing game — in the performing arts, but not in classical music — got called into a meeting. “What’s your media strategy?” his bosses asked. And he tells me he answered: “What media?”
What he meant ought to be clear enough. Traditional media are fading. Newspapers are slipping away, and also covering the performing arts less, a decline that includes notable cuts in classical music coverage. Network TV has a shrinking audience. And, maybe most important, old media might not do very much for performing arts attendance. Asked how they decide what events they might want to go to, people now largely answer, “Word of mouth.” That’s especially true of younger people, but from one study I’ve seen, it’s true of older people, too, though not as strongly
That same study (a private one I don’t think I’m free to name) also shows people relying on user comments on websites. Newspapers rank very low. Just over 10% of people say that newspapers help them decide what to do at night, compared to more than 60% who cite word of mouth.
So what should marketers do? I know I’m not the first to address this question, but I’ll try to give some answers specific to classical music.
Obviously, marketers now have to address their audience — and their potential audience — directly. I asked my friend how he planned to do it, and he said, “Direct mail,” which I know has worked very well for him before, at other jobs. But then direct mail is also, in its own way, old media, and can seem very impersonal, compared to what’s possible online. Besides, we all know what we think of junk mail in our mailboxes, not to mention e-mail spam.
(What especially worked for my friend, on one occasion in the past, was direct mail to people who’d never been approached by the organization my friend worked for, one they would have heard of, but maybe thought they’d never have contact with. The response was surprisingly warm, but you can’t repeat the same surprise year after year.)
One classical music publicity firm has an answer, or so I’ve heard. They realize their traditional outlets are drying up So many newspapers now don’t cover classical music that, if you’re trying to publicize an American tour by one of your artists, placing stories in local papers — which is traditionally what classical music publicity firms have done — just isn’t much of a strategy.
So what has this company decided to do? Social networking. And that might really be the start of an answer. Social networking lets you contact people directly. You can develop a list of names of people who really do care about you (your Twitter followers, your Facebook friends). Because these people might talk about you to their online friends and followers, you start to go viral. You’re gettring word of mouth.
Or at least that possibility exists. But how do you cultivate it? How do you keep people interested, keep them talking about you? Here, I think, is where many classical music organizations — maybe most of them — don’t quite get it. They use social networking to send more or less the same messages they send to newspapers. They send, in effect, tiny press releases (on Twitter, really tiny ones). They’re giving a concert. They’re playing Rachmaninoff. Their soloist this weekend is really good. They’re selling cheap tickets. They’re having a contest.
All of which is fine — for people who already care what the institution does, know Rachmaninoff, and — in the case of the soloist — are credulous enough (sorry) to believe anything the institution tells them.
But social media don’t really work like that. What makes my Facebook and Twitter time worthwhile is that I make personal connections. People who might have been just names to me now get faces, profiles, tastes. I learn what books they read, how much they love birds, what they noticed on the street today, how frustrated they are (this is an oboist, of course) making reeds. And I find out what they care most deeply about in their work.
All of this can make me more interested in any performance they might give. It’s a familiar phenomenon — we all know, in classical music, how effective it is to have a composer get up before a performance to tell the audience about his or her work. It puts the audience on the composer’s side (assuming that the composer seems at all sympathetic). Now they want to like the piece. Social networking works like that, except that it’s online — and, best of all, you can keep doing it seven days a week, and even reach people who haven’t heard of you yet.
But you have to be personal. How do you do that? Probably in as many ways as there are people. On Twitter, for instance, the BBC Music Magazine (@BBCMusicMag) makes jokes about how messy some of the desks in its office are. Hilary Hahn (@violincase) sends out messages from her violin case (though she doesn’t do it often enough to make much effect). The Museum of Modern Art (@MusuemModernArt) talks about art, not just about its own shows, sometimes mentioning things happening in other places.
So that’s the challenge classical music now faces. The publicity firm that wants to embrace social networking — how many people do they have working on that? How many people are maintaining the Facebook and MySpace pages, and (I hope) the Twitter streams of all the firm’s clients? I’m guessing the staff is too small. To do the work well, they need, ideally, one person working full time on social networking for each client.
Does that sound extreme? I don’t think it is. Because, ideally, you need to do more than just be personal. You need to be responsive. You need to talk to your fans. You need to know who they are, where they live, what they like. So when your artist goes to Kansas City, you know who the fans in that area are, who came to performances before, who lives nearby, and who needs to travel a bit, so maybe needs more encouragement to come to the concert.
And maybe you can set up events beyond the performance. Visits to schools, visits with community people, private sessions (within reason) with music students. One publicist and I once thought a noted soloist might like to give short masterclasses to students on her instrument, when she went somewhere to play. These could be put on video, and circulated, thus making friends for the artist, and — very important in the dawning age of word of mouth marketing — creating buzz.
And yes, this is much more work for everyone, the artist included. But how else does anyone think they’re going to get people interested, in the emerging new era? Besides, the possibilities are tremendous, far beyond anything the old kind of media strategy ever offered. Which sounds better, getting an article about your artist in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (while it’s still in business), and hope people read it, or build up a lively list of people in the St. Louis area whom you know follow your artist?
And of course these people have something to talk about, when they talk about your artist, because they don’t just know that she’s coming into town to sing Schubert. They know what she feels about Schubert, which songs she loves most, which are the hardest to sing, and which passage, in particular, is the most difficult, the one that poses the strongest challenge when she’s out on stage singing? Not to mention which Schubert song strikes a particular chord with her personal life. And all the trouble she’s had this month, training her new puppy.
So the work pays off. And, increasingly, you’ll simply have to do it. One issue here is whether artists themselves do the work, writing their tweets, and answering messages from their fans on Facebook. Some artists like to do that. Others don’t. Really famous artists will find it impossible. They can’t possibly answer everyone. So then maybe an assistant does the work. But is that impersonal? Or else fake, if the assistant pretends online to be the artist?
These are serious questions, which we’ll all have to work out. For now, maybe what works is for the assistant (or maybe assistants, plural) to do much of the online communication, but in their own voices, showing their own personalities, speaking about and for the artist, but also for themselves. And then the artist shows up periodically, to say something direct from the source.
Enough for now. This is a challenge for the future. Are we up to it? Should music schools be teaching about it? Already they’re concerned that old-style career opportunities are shrinking, so musicians will now have to make their own careers. This — everything I’ve talked about here — is one way you do it.
And those who don’t catch on may end up like Kodak, which underestimated (to put it mildly) the impact of digital photography, and found itself elbowed aside by companies that understood.