The Michael O’Neal Singers: Engaging our Audience – Part 2

By Cammie Stephens


 In Part 1 of our blog post, we gave you the beginning story on the Michael O’Neal Singers’ investment in ways to engage new and current audience members.

In October 2016, we received a grant from The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation’s Audience Building Roundtable project for audience building. We used this funding to create an app to help us attract new audiences. According to Pew Research, 77% of U.S. adults now own a smartphone. The widespread adoption of mobile technology has led to elevated consumer expectations about communication with all types of organizations, including nonprofits. Forrester Research termed this the Mobile Mind Shift.

Through our participation in the Audience Building Roundtable, we have learned that audiences crave steady engagement with the arts organizations they support, especially through interactions which allow an “insider’s view.” Since most audience members carry a mobile device and have an expectation that they can access relevant content with that device, we saw an opportunity to engage new and current audiences through use of a mobile app.

The MOS web site is a resource for static information about our organization, but is no longer enough for audiences expecting real-time interaction with relevant content. A mobile app allows us to respond WHERE an audience member currently is and focus on WHAT the audience member wants from us at that moment.

Our live choral music performances take place at a fixed time and place. “Mobile moments,” as Forrester labels them, take place before, during, and after a performance - wherever the audience member is. A mobile app gives us the freedom to interact with our audience all the time – on their terms.

We have dreamed of an app for our organization for years, but the estimated cost ranged from $10,000 - $25,000 — too significant a cost for us to bear in our annual operating budget of less than $300,000. We chose an app management service, Instant Encore, because of its cost-effectiveness, and because of the availability of an app management service. An app management service includes a consultant who works with our staff to populate the app, strategize about its best use, and coordinate timing of content, push notifications, and video/audio releases. Our app content focuses on overcoming perceived barriers to attending our live performances and on providing an insider’s experience with our organization.

Our free MOS app went live in October 2016, thanks to the funding we received from The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation’s Audience Building Roundtable.

In the days and weeks leading up to a performance, we populate our app with a list and description of our concerts; concert- and behind-the-scene photos; samples from our CD recordings; a tab for our MOS Remembers outreach project; preview videos; driving directions; and ticketing information for the performance. We set up geofences around our performance venues, and deliver timed push notifications to app users when they approach our location. Push notifications offer a call to action each time, a la “tap here to…“ At the venue on the day of the concert, we provide parking instructions, program notes and a way to check in on social media through the app. When the concert concludes, we use push notifications to thank patrons, ask how they liked the performance, make special offers for future performances, and encourage them to follow MOS on social media. 

Data from the app feeds directly into our Google Analytics account. While we can’t see who downloads our app, we can see how many users we have, and their level of interactivity over time. 

It’s been challenging to convince our existing audience to download “one more app” they fear they might not use. To overcome these barriers, we have linked the app to the MOS Facebook page; we remind our virtual and in-person audiences that the app is free and available for both Android and I-devices; and we provide a smart URL in email blasts, on our web site, and in our social media posts. The ease of acquisition for our app has not translated into action on the part of our current audience members, though. 

From the start, we knew we needed to be deliberate with our app’s content and interactivity to keep users coming back...and back...and back. We have learned that smartphone users are on their phones over twenty times a day but the only apps they visit consistently involve their social media. In reality, our app is being used in the few days before and after a performance event, and is most heavily used for on-site interactions on concert day. When we use push notifications and change content, we see the most interactions outside the direct experience of our concerts. It’s not practical to provide a constant feed of material, but what does work for us is to engage audience-goers by sharing meaningful information with them before, during, and after a performance in order to enhance their experience with us.

We have learned that we have much to do to improve our mobile relevance. We need a more rigorous, documented promotion strategy and an app-specific communication plan—and we must provide even more compelling reasons to download our app. Once users have chosen to engage with us through the app, we then need to provide more creative opportunities to interact, to compel our users to return again and again to our app. Push notifications present a unique opportunity to drive audience behavior, so we need to acquire a deeper understanding of the implications of this mode of communication to use it most effectively.

One of our challenges is understanding where the boundary is for mobile device interaction during a performance. We are grappling with our own bias that we want people to put down their devices once the music starts - and working to reconcile this with our desire to deeply engage with our audience.

MOS desires to enhance our relevance to our community while still creating the art we love. The MOS app is a significant tool in seeking and understanding how our audience wants to engage with us beyond the performances we create for them. We look forward to exploring the realm of mobile and musical moments with our audience in the months and years

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