Marketing the Met — a real strategy

Maybe my last post — about the new-audience strategy I don’t think the Met Opera has — looked a little theoretical. Or impractical. Or way out in left field. The Met’s strategy, I said, evidently is to create buzz, and then hope the audience shows up. Instead, I said, they should go out and actively find their new audience, and then work overtime to keep the people they reach excited about what the Met does.

Left field? Not at all. Just look at a New York Times story on the marketing campaign for the Hunger Games film! It’s jaw-dropping. Everyone interested in classical music’s future should read it.

What does the story say?

Selling a movie used to be a snap. You printed a poster, ran trailers in theaters and carpet-bombed NBC’s Thursday night lineup with ads.

Today, that kind of campaign would get a movie marketer fired. The dark art of movie promotion increasingly lives on the Web, where studios are playing a wilier game, using social media and a blizzard of other inexpensive yet effective online techniques to pull off what may be the marketer’s ultimate trick: persuading fans to persuade each other.

Or in other words you don’t just do the old kind of marketing and PR, and expect people to come to you. You go out in the world, find people, get them involved — and get them promoting what you do to each other.

And please note! The Hunger Games didn’t have to do this. Since the film is based on a trilogy of very popular books, its audience was pretty much guaranteed. But film promoters have new tools now, and don’t see why they shouldn’t use them to attract even more people.

If they do that — with a pretty much guaranteed hit on their hand —  the Met has to use these tools, since it wants to develop an audience that doesn’t yet exist. It has to do everything it possibly can. And since these tools work…

So what are these tools? The Times story gives many examples. Their application to opera may seem unlikely, because they’re all aimed at younger people who live half their lives online. But there’s no reason they can’t be adapted for any audience the Met wants to reach. Including the older audience it already has.

…the campaign’s centerpiece has been a phased, yearlong digital effort built around the content platforms cherished by young audiences: near-constant use of Facebook and Twitter, a YouTube channel, a Tumblr blog, iPhone games and live Yahoo streaming from the premiere.

By carefully lighting online kindling (releasing a fiery logo to movie blogs) and controlling the Internet burn over the course of months (a Facebook contest here, a Twitter scavenger hunt there), Lionsgate’s chief marketing officer, Tim Palen, appears to have created a box office inferno.


[Rubber hit the road] last March, when the Lionsgate team, including Julie Fontaine, executive vice president of publicity, started methodically pumping out casting news via Facebook.

The marketers made careful use of cheap social media to get young people to recommend the movie to each other. They assigned one team member to cultivate “Hunger Games” fan blogs. Danielle DePalma, senior vice president for digital marketing, drafted a chronology for the entire online effort, using spreadsheets (coded in 12 colors) that detailed what would be introduced on a day-by-day, and even minute-by-minute, basis over months. (“Nov. 17: Facebook posts — photos, Yahoo brand page goes live.”)

One important online component involved a sweepstakes to bring five fans to the movie’s North Carolina set. Notably, Lionsgate invited no reporters: The studio did not want consumers thinking this was another instance of Hollywood trying to force-feed them a movie through professional filters. “People used to be O.K. with studios telling them what to like,” Ms. DePalma said. “Not anymore. Now it’s, ‘You don’t tell us, we tell you.’ ”


In August came a one-minute sneak peek, introduced online at People liked it but complained — loudly — that it wasn’t enough. “We weren’t prepared for that level of we-demand-more pushback,” Mr. Palen said.

The footage did include a Twitter prompt through which fans could discover a Web site for the movie, (The Capitol is where the Hunger Games take place.) The site allowed visitors to make digital ID cards as if they lived in Panem, the movie’s futuristic society; more than 800,000 people have created them.


On Dec. 15, 100 days before the movie’s release, the studio created a new poster and cut it into 100 puzzle pieces. It then gave digital versions of those pieces to 100 Web sites and asked them to post their puzzle piece on Twitter in lockstep.

Fans had to search Twitter to put together the poster, either by printing out the pieces and cutting them out or using a program like Photoshop.“The Hunger Games” trended worldwide on Twitter within minutes.

You couldn’t do this for opera? You have a new production coming up. Here are ways to build interest in it, based on much that I’ve just quoted from the Hunger Games story.

  • Release the poster for the production online, long before it’s ever going to be used in any other way. And don’t just release it to opera blogs. Establish yourself in other places where your target audience goes. And release the poster for your new production there. Plus set and costume designs. Months before the production debuts.
  • Create fan blogs for the production.
  • Create a sweepstakes to bring people from your potential new audience to early rehearsals. Where they can meet the stars, the conductor, the director, the set and costume designers, anyone interesting. The people in charge of wigs and makeup. The only requirement: that the people you bring to NYC for rehearsals blog about it, and otherwise talk about their trip to their networks.
  • Closer to the production’s debut, release a one-minute video of a killer moment from the show. Doesn’t even have to show sets or costumes, if the singing and acting is strong enough. Find something that knocks people dead. Or release weekly one-minute videos, for two months before the production debuts.
  • For the Ring: create an online role-playing game, in which people can be Ring characters. Create an online forum, in which people debate the philosophy of the Ring. What does Brünnhilde mean, when she asks what she is, if she isn’t Wotan’s will? What happens after the end of the cycle? Does the world end, is it renewed? And if renewed, then how?
  • Ask people to sketch or otherwise create their own designs for things Wagner asks for. The rainbow bridge, at the end of Das Rheingold. What should that look like? And why should it look like that? Ask the director or set designer to pick three winners. And only then show what the bridge in the Ring production will look like. Repeat this several times, with different things in the production — the dragon, the rock surrounded by fire, Valhalla, the collapse of Valhalla at the very end, the flying Valkyries.
  • Challenge people to remix the Ring‘s music. Do what the Brooklyn Philharmonic did, with one movement from the Eroica Symphony. Make the music each instrument plays (from some segment of the Ring) available online. (You could use sampled instruments. No need to pay your orchestra musicians to record all their parts separately.) Then challenge people to mix and match these instrumental parts any way they liked.
  • Quote a remark I remember Pierre Boulez making, that segments from Götterdämmerung could be played in any order, not just the order Wagner wrote them in. Challenge people to act on that. Make a chunk of the opera available online, in the Met’s recording. Maybe choose the first scene of the first act, when Siegfried meets Gunther, Gutrune, and Hagen. Cut it into chunks of a minutes or two each, chunks that, by themselves, make musical sense. Give a prize to the person who rearranges them in the most striking way.
  • Interview ticket-buyers on video. Or interview people after a performance. Pick people who look like the audience you’re working to attract. Put the interviews on your website. Do it often, so that the website becomes a destination, first for friends and family of the people you interview, then for others who want to see what the fuss is about. (Something like this worked wonderfully for the BBC Proms.)

And so on. There’s no end of things you can do, to reach out toward your audience, and keep them involved with you. To quote one of the Hunger Games’ marketers:

You’ve got to constantly give people something new to get excited about.

ADDED LATER: And as if to show that what I’m saying is mainstream now — even in the realm of the more or less high
arts — today comes news that the
New Yorker is going to publish a new short story on Twitter. Yes, the New Yorker

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  1. says


    this is SUCH a helpful post! I’ve been thinking lately about how to promote local opera to my movie-going generation, and I think the key lies in what you quoted above: “persuading fans to persuade each other.”

    I’m excited to brainstorm more along these lines and see how I can create the kind of buzz for an opera production that a movie might generate.

    Thanks for all of your work!


    • says

      So glad you like this, Katherine. And good to see you here again.

      The key to getting people interested, in our era, is to get them involved. The old-style marketing and PR — putting things out there, and hoping people will be interested — doesn’t work anymore. I got an email from the Seattle Opera press department a while ago, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about some videos they’d put on their website, about their upcoming Butterfly production.

      I read the release, and sighed. What were they doing to get people to the site, so they’d watch the videos? Not much.

      If we all start doing the things I talked about — and I’m thrilled that you might try things like them — we’ll develop a new relation with our audience. Which, as I’m going to blog, might change the way we perform.

  2. says

    You’d think that Lionsgate would have marketed all their movies this way rather than letting two of their films from this year lose money and a one to barely break even (e.g. Safe, One for the Money, and Casa De Mi Padre). Still up in the air if those that are still playing will recoup their costs (e.g. What to Expect When You’re Expecting, Girl in Progress). Cabin in the Woods and Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds have made only moderate profits (though they were also moderately budgeted). And though Liongate only distributed Miley Cyrus’ LOL, given that distribution licenses usually contain marketing requirements the dismal showing of this film ($46,000 with a budget of $11 million) would make me wonder about the company’s ability in the industry. These are just this year’s Lionsgate films.

    Of course, they couldn’t market all of their movies like they did Hunger Games, and not every movie can piggy back on a popular franchise (as you note) any more than Disney needed to do much to sell the Avengers movie–the Brands facilitated the ease which which those two movies worked. I’m not sure how much these things could work for an Opera Company especially since they don’t work unilaterally for movie studios/distributors–it just happens to be the case that the occasional blockbuster will help the studio recoup their loss (in the same way that pop superstars will help record label recoup their losses for the myriads of artists they sign that don’t make them a profit).

    I wonder how a Hunger Games or Avengers Opera might do.

    • says

      My post wasn’t really about Lionsgate. It’s about ways of involving an audience, or a potential audience, which now are used throughout our culture. They’ll work in classical music just as well as they work anywhere else, as long as they’re properly adapted. The most important part of this post, if you ask me: My long list of things the Met should try.