How Did We Make Audience Engagement Our Key Strategy?

By Cammie Stephens, The Michael O’Neal Singers

Thanks to The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, audience engagement has become the key strategy around which our organization focuses its programming. As Sara Leonard wrote after the Foundation’s initial Art of Change Audience Building Workshop in November 2015: “How do we invite audiences in and develop relationships with them that entice them to stay with us and become our partners? The answer lies in a process of relationship building in which engaging and serving the audience is at the organization’s core.”

The Michael O’Neal Singers (MOS) organization is 28 years old, and since its beginning has operated around our recognition that music is essential to the human spirit. We have served this need in our community by offering a wide variety of quality vocal music, singing everything from Mozart and Beethoven to Broadway and the Beatles. Something for everyone, we say. 

But “Everyone” Doesn’t Come to the Show.

We acknowledge that not everyone cares for choral music. We’re not offended by that though we do hope they’re getting their arts “fix” somewhere! We acknowledge that not everyone in our community knows about us, so we consistently work to publicize our programs. Most recently, we have heard about the great number of interested non-attenders in our community (13% of adult population, according to a 2015 NEA study) and have come to realize the importance of empathizing with them to learn what they want and need from us so that they first engage with us and then eventually support our mission and our music. 

When the opportunity for a grant from The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation’s Audience Building Roundtable came along, offering funds for specific audience-building efforts, we invested in connecting with audiences in ways new to our organization. Our audience currently numbers 6,000 each year and most are adults age 55+. We’d love to see younger adults in our audience more frequently while keeping our loyal patrons.

Who IS Coming to Our Shows?

Through our participation in the Audience Building Roundtable, we realized that we needed to be capturing more complete information about our current audience members. We switched from using ticket-sales volunteers seated behind a table using personal iPhones to using a tablet computer in a rotatable stand, and trained volunteers to invite customers to provide data as they were purchasing tickets or picking up Will-Call envelopes. Volunteers turn the terminal to the audience member, engaging with them and requesting information.

Attendees are more likely to share their data with us if they are in control of the process.

Enhancement of our front-of-house experience has met with positive feedback from all ages of audience members: older attendees are more likely to share their contact information if they are in control of the input, and younger patrons enjoy the opportunity to interact with technology. We are experimenting with including a single survey question as part of this self-input process. These items enhance our front-of-house experience for our concertgoers and empower our volunteers to better capture data on who is purchasing at-the-door concert tickets. Since implementing this system, we have been able to capture personal data on virtually 100% of those who purchase tickets from our organization in person, and we have used that data with those patrons, specifically first-time buyers, to offer incentives to return to our organization.

“Welcome to Moe’s!”

Using this newly captured data, we sent a “Welcome” email after each of our three autumn 2017 concert events, channeling the enthusiastic style of a local fast food chain but with a comfortably private, “We noticed you were here!” and “Thank you! Here’s a gift (an MOS CD); we’d love to see you again soon so here’s a special ticket price just for you.” Each email resulted in high open rates - a promising sign of engagement and moving single ticket buyers to return for a second concert in our current season.

Why Buy the Cow?

Historically (well, for as long as live-streaming has been in existence) we’ve held the assumption that we will lose audiences if we “give away the milk for free” by offering online performances. In a summer 2016 MOS leadership focus group, a non-singing spouse (read: a quintessential audience member) asserted we wouldn’t lose audience by streaming concerts, as viewing a live-stream is a very different experience than a performance in person. Indeed, our research showed that choral music and arts lovers search YouTube and audio streaming sites not to REPLACE the live experience but rather to enhance it (to learn about the music ahead of time and know what to expect from it, for instance).

Facebook Live was gaining traction around the time we committed to using live-streaming to extend our artistic reach. We’ve had success with using Facebook Live to offer an insider experience to our virtual audience in short video clips. For instance, when we went live during our community Messiah Sing-Along, our quick-and-dirty clips of the famous choruses eventually garnered over 24,000 views. To offer our artistic products via streaming, we’ve had to research and purchase a suitable laptop computer, a reliable Wi-Fi solution, quality cameras and audio input devices, audio mixing capability (critical to delivering a good-sounding live stream of a choral production), and seek licensing for copyrighted choral arrangements.

Are we holding our art hostage?

We have long expected our audiences to come to us and experience our performances on our terms, and quite possibly that expectation has kept our music from interested non-attenders. By offering our performances online, we expect to reach an extended online audience, and will be able to note (pun very much intended!) if and how this translates into earned revenue for our organization. We will formally live-stream our May 2017 production, an appealing program of music from the Great American Songbook, and document who watches, from where, for how long and for what price, to hone our live-streaming programming. We’re exploring both free platforms (Facebook or YouTube Live) and a pay-to-view system (Concert Window), to see whether streaming could realistically be a source of earned income. 

Learning the new language

We’ve long understood the benefits social media provide our organization, but we needed help utilizing social media to its fullest with such limited staffing; we have two staff members: one part-time and one full-time. We hired a Communications Consultant to analyze our current media presence and communications practices, recommend changes, devise strategies for our online presence, and develop a work plan for utilizing staff and volunteers to align media and communications with audience development goals. He guided us to develop a content calendar; establish a social media team to coordinate and deploy our online presence; and identify and use specific types of content and posting styles to engage younger social media users.


The effects have been far-reaching: we’ve improved our Facebook presence, engaging up to 8,500 users at a time with single posts; we have revitalized our Twitter account and are increasing reach through followers and retweets; and we have learned to effectively use video and Facebook Live posts. Our consultant is training our staff, board, and chorus members so that we all learn our key messages and understand practical techniques to effectively deliver those messages.

See—we really ARE your people.

We are now providing imagery for our concert audiences via social media because we learned that anxiety about “what is it like?” and “will I fit in?” are real barriers to those interested non-attenders attending our shows in person. We recently created a 2-minute video with clips of our concert audiences and will measure its online traction to gauge its success.

We have learned SO much and it is making a difference in how we do our work, how we engage with our existing audience, and how we understand what potential new audience members want from us. We’re committed to the Essential Journey of Audience Building and to using all of the tools we’re learning as an active member of the Audience Building Roundtable.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog post, coming next week. We’ll explore “Does Your Organization Need an App?”


Keywords: "Interested non-attendees", complete patron information, emails, gift, streaming, social media strategy,  content calendar

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