Proactive orchestras

Proactive, that is, with anyone who buys a concert ticket.

Momentary digression. Note that the solutions page has been updated, as will happen every Monday. This is where you find a growing catalog of ideas and projects that help to define classical music’s future.

What follows came by email from David Ezer, who formerly worked for Chamber Music America, and now is Conference Director of the Jewish Funders Network. I’m putting this in the blog with David’s permission:

Each group/orchestra/opera house/whatever needs to be asking themselves: what’s the #1 reason people come to our performances? I’m not convinced they can answer that question with any definitiveness. Mostly it’s probably anecdotal responses, which they overstate how meaningful it is. But if there’s real survey data, it’d be interesting to see how people who never or rarely come to a performance answered.

I’d be willing to bet the main answer for that group is simple: because someone asked me.

Not that the group/orchestra/opera house asked, that some friend of theirs asked.

So I say, incentivize! Build a loyalty program just like the airlines. Do some sort of Bring-a-Friend program. After you enroll in the program, every time you bring a new friend to a performance, visit a hospitality desk in the lobby to ‘register’ them and their connection to you. You get points towards rewards, your friend gets on the mailing list and perhaps a nice welcome gift. And a 30-second conversation between a savvy person at the hospitality desk and the new friend could help identify which 3 upcoming performances should be pitched to that new friend. To the new friend: do a customized thanks-for-coming, thought you might like these things coming up. And rewards for you could be free/discounted tickets for future performances, or as you build up “points,” access to the sponsor/contributor room, the sorts of lower-end benefits that normally come from making a contribution, but here you only had to pay for a ticket for your friend. Maybe not even that, if your friend paid you back. 

Good for people who like to take dates to performances. 

And very low cost…

I hope David won’t mind if I say there are two ways to look at what he’s saying here. First, we can look at his specific ideas. But second — and, maybe in the larger scheme of things, more importantly — we can look at the response orchestras and other classical music institutions give, or don’t give, to people who come to their concerts.

By normal marketing standards — I mean normal in the rest of the world — I suspect they don’t do much at all. Suppose you buy a ticket online for an orchestra concert. Suppose it’s the first time you’ve gone. Now the orchestra has you in its database. How often will you hear from them? Will they immediately, after the performance, email to thank you, to ask you what you thought of the concert, to note upcoming concerts you might want to go to, to ask if there was anything about the experience that could have been better for you?

And, I’d think, also to offer you discounted tickets to upcoming performances. That’s important, because orchestras notice a phenomenon called “churn,” in which most people who come for the first time — an amazingly high percentage, approaching 70% in some places — never come again. There could be many reasons for this, but do orchestras do enough to try, at least, to get people to return?

The larger question, of course, would be whether the concerts are interesting enough. Whether they feel like true events, rather than feeling merely like yet another classical music performance. Do people going for the first time tell their friends, “Yes, it was nice,” or do they say, “I’ve never seen or heard anything like this! You’ve got to go”?

I have two HP printers, and HP deluges me with email, promoting new products, and just generally keeping in touch. This might or might not be too much. Maybe I don’t need to hear from the makers of my SonicCare toothbrush as often as I do, but maybe a software company whose products I use is welcome to email me.

Where would an orchestra stand? What kind of regular email — once a week, even? — could they send, that would entice the people who get it?

Thanks, David, for getting me to think about all this! And of course what David and I are saying applies to any classical music institution, not just orchestras.

(Another solutions post.)

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  1. says

    Where would an orchestra stand? What kind of regular email — once a week, even? — could they send, that would entice the people who get it?

    One of the obstacles here is surely the widely-held belief (even by me, sometimes) that the symphony and the opera are capital “e” Events—the kind for which you get dressed up, make reservations at a nice restaurant, and brush up on applause protocol beforehand—rather than part of a larger, self-expressive community. And the problem there, of course, is that there are only so many of those Events that people plan for each year, and they therefore end up in rotation, rather than a regular part of the entertainment program for most.

    I think any emailing/audience-cultivation strategy has to first be geared toward overcoming that stigma. And it probably should be personalized on a city-wide level, and also, ideally and eventually, on an individual level. And with regard to the kinds and frequency of email sent, I think you have to look at the same parameters as you do for social media strategy. If you insist on using your email list only to distribute concert announcements and fundraising pleas, then you can’t increase frequency, I don’t think, without adverse effect. Once per month is fine with me.

    However, if you’re providing valuable information or access, personalized on at least some nominal level, then once and even twice per week isn’t too much to shoot for. Most people like to learn new things, and they like to be informed of opportunities to make those new things more three-dimensional. (“Never heard of leitmotif? Here’s a definition and a few 8-second audio clips by way of example! Call our box office this week and say ‘show me the leitmotif!’ to receive 15% off tickets to Parsifal. See how many you can find!” Or an interactive game that encourages patrons to click and trigger applause whenever they like something, and receive positive reinforcement that “Yeah, that’s absolutely when you should clap, then! Forget what you’ve learned!”)

    Cheesy examples aside, I think a big part of the way to really engage an audience around music that’s not part of their everyday lives is to make it interactive, rather than unapproachable. Yes, we’re making high art here, but it’s not inaccessible. Let’s not congratulate ourselves too much, and let’s use our massive amounts of knowledge to equip, not exclude, new audients.

    Very, very good thoughts!

    I think we might give up the concept of high art. Instead we might group things by the kind of response they seem to inspire. Mahler’s Ninth Symphony would by its nature encourage people to listen quietly. So would an intense performance by a singer-songwriter. A lot of Mozart’s music was designed for interactivity, as we know from one of his letters.

    But above all, I think you’ve hit on exactly the issues that arise if orchestras really did become proactive. I like the thought of local interactivity. If orchestras were doing events all over the metropolitan areas they’re in, their email could invite people to events right in their neighborhoods. A really good idea, I think.

  2. Ian says

    Your HP example really resonated with me. I am so anti-endless mail! I have travelled to NY to the Met once in the past three years, yet I get almost monthly mailouts from them. Surely, by now, they have already exceeded the value of my ticket purchase in promotional materials and postage?

    Charities are worse- I once made a small donation to MSF and was receiving almost weekly mail- which must have, by about the second year, cost more than the $50 I’d donated. It strikes me as incredibly inefficient, but does this actually work? Is that why organisations keep doing it? Or is it some kind of received wisdom?

    I find I barely read the vast majority of promotional material I receive either by mail or email. There are exceptions of course- ticket discounts always get my eye, and the Met’s lavishly produced season brochure is always fun eye candy- but these are rarities. Too much information!

    One thing I do like are the inhouse magazines produced by both DC’s opera and Shakespeare theatres. These can’t be cheap undertakings, but in terms of my awareness I find them far more influential than a monthly postcard from the opera. And they’re only quarterly-ish!

  3. says

    Excellent post Greg. And I can barely contain my excitement, because I’ve written about just this very topic for the Take A Friend To the Orchestra project over at Drew McManus’ Adaptistration.

    I suppose I won’t give it away, as it will be posted soon, in April. But it touches on a broad definition of the “customer experience,” meaning all points of contact of the patron with the organization, not just the event experience.

    Sorry for the tease, but as I said, I can barely contain my excitement. I’ll let you know when it’s posted.

    I’ll look forward to seeing what you write, Marc.

    I’m not surprised that you and I and others would have some of the same ideas. That seems to be happening a lot, as classical music begins to wake up from its long sleep. Some of the things that should happen are really quite obvious, especially when you put classical music in the context of everything else going on in our world.

  4. says

    Greg, quickly wanted to let you know about the post I was talking about. It’s up now.

    Very good stuff, Marc. Important for people to read. Thanks for the link.

    You talk, in the comment you linked, about the notorious churn, and how people who come to orchestras for the first time don’t see the concert simply as music, but as a total experience.

    This reminds me of a comment Peter Gregson made to me over the past few days (when I was with him during his visit to the U of Maryland). He says, and rightly, that people don’t build their lives around music. They build their lives around life. So their musical experiences — or the ones we’d like them to have — need to feel like parts of their lives. Or, that is, a seamless part of everything else they do.

    It’s hardly necessary to stress that an orchestra concert won’t feel like that. And I think the really painful part of this realization is that the music at the concert has to be included. Marc, you talk a lot — and rightly — about so many things orchestras could do to give their first-time concertgoers a memorable experience, but what about the music? Is the music itself really all that worthwhile? We take it for granted that it is, but I’m not so sure. The music itself, the pieces, the masterworks, might not be problematic, but the performances? There, I think, we have a problem. They really don’t jump off the stage, and most people, having gone for the first time, will leave feeling it was all very nice, but without (most of the time) any vivid, sharp, and unforgettable memories of anything specific that they loved.