By Cammie Stephens, Michael O’Neal Singers
I was pleased and thankful to attend the National Arts Marketing Project Conference in Memphis, Tennessee in November 2017 through a generous grant from Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation’s Audience Building Roundtable (ABR). As Executive Director for The Michael O’Neal Singers(MOS), a 29-year-old choral music performance organization in north Atlanta, I am always seeking new strategies for attracting audiences to our programs. Throughout the three-day conference I attended valuable sessions which provided some great ideas and specific helpful tactics for marketing our events. However, one of the most memorable presentations to me happened before the sessions on marketing tactics even began. The opening Keynote “You, Your World, Your Future” was for me both a revelation and a frame for my audience-building thinking for the rest of the conference and beyond. It supported our ABR work by providing an overarching look at nationwide behavioral trends among those who currently attend our performances, and those who will be our audience members of the future.
In that first morning of the conference, Luba Tolkachyov (co-founder and COO) and Rodrigo Alanis (Global Strategist) of Gravity Media spoke about how marketers can better understand and connect with consumers of differing personalities and cultures. They believe that “culture is everything” and focus on the evolving behavioral trends stemming from the beliefs, customs, and of course, art, of our nation’s population. In the 60-minute presentation, they provided data plus tangible examples of how U.S. culture is changing, blending, and trending, and will, in turn, likely shape audience behavior and expectations in the coming months and years. A few general points especially captured my attention:
- Currently, 38% of us self-identify as multicultural, meaning we embody more than one ancestry, language, society, religion, or nationality.
- More than 50% of U.S. children under 9 years old--our future audiences--are multicultural. In addition, these children have always had internet and social media, so they don’t know a world where information comes from the “top down.” Rather, they’ve always been participating “creators” with the power to control and contribute to their experiences and acquisition of information.
I also found the following points about marketing of arts events important:
- “Experiencestrump things.” Using the 400% increase in big-name concert ticket prices over the last couple of decades as one example, Rodrigo reinforced what we hear in ABR peer sharing and workshops with experts in the field of audience-building: despite the prevalence of mobile technology, people aren’t stepping away from live experiences. Audiences continue to attend arts events, but now they seek out more immersive, interactive, and relational experiences, and desire to connect with others over those experiences both in person and via social media.
- Luba and Rodrigo used the example of increasing prevalence of multicultural main characters, plotlines, and screenwriting and production talent in popular movies and television shows in the last six years as an example of how we’ve quickly moved from "top down persuasion" to "bottom up influence" in terms of experiencing the arts. To me, this was an excellent reminder of another trend we have learned in our work in the ABR: that our audiences—including those who are old enough to remember traditional, “top down” arts experiences—want to and WILL influence what they receive from us. They want to interact with us to shape their experience with us and our music.
- Rodrigo noted that 23% Americans report they first enjoyed a given art form on their devices (mobile or computer) while, in contrast, 20% say they discover new art by going to a physical space (i.e. a museum or performance), and he expects the number who discover art via technology to continue to increase. This means there’s a solid chance that our future new audience members will discover our organization via our online audio, video, social, or website presence, rather than by first attending one of our performances.
The data on multiculturalism served to drive home to me that we are going to have to reassess our marketing often--perhaps several times per season!—to ensure we reach a rapidly changing cultural community. This is especially crucial for MOS, an organization which provides a traditional art form that brings a lot of stereotypes and assumptions with it. It is easy for us to settle for promoting our music performances in a typical way, expecting “typical” choral music lovers to respond and attend, but as our potential audience rapidly shifts to be “nontypical,” our marketing must shift just as rapidly. To be clear, we must reassess not only to WHOM we are marketing but also in WHAT WAY we are attempting to connect with them.
Since the Conference, we’ve been able to execute a few audience-building tactics inspired by this Keynote. In December 2017, at our annual Messiah sing-along, we strove for a more immersive experience by providing preparatory material ahead of time, including downloadable music scores and audio rehearsal materials, a list of FAQs, and video of how the sing-along looks and sounds. The day of the concert, we tried a few things to emphasize the social aspect of the event. We erected a step-and-repeat with photo-booth-like props such as signs saying “I Handeled Messiah.” A pre-concert casual curtain speech, delivered not from the stage but out in the audience seating area, served to set the audience at ease, have them interact with each other, and create a feeling of comradery. We also live-streamed our sing-along event for the first time in its 13-year-history, to appeal to a virtual audience. These were small steps that had to be implemented quickly (without a lot of planning time) but they proved fruitful, as we had 54 brand-new audience members and 42 virtual audience members. In addition, more than 20 of those new to our organization at the Sing-Along have already returned to a second concert.
The data about the changing culture of our potential audience members have caused us to put even more thought into our website and social media presence. As recommended by the design thinking experts we've met through the ABR, we've been conducting "empathy interviews" with our existing audience members who identify as multicultural, to better understand why they engaged -and what keeps them engaged—with us. Our web site will be reworked this summer to deliver fast, accurate, and appealing imagery and information about WHO we are and WHY we do what we do.
Over the past year, MOS has live-streamed concerts to test whether this helps or hurts the size of our ticket-buying audience. Though we still don’t have enough information to determine the results of this testing, hearing that people increasingly are discovering art online has led us to commit to continue live-streaming our programs. Since the NAMP conference, we’ve live-streamed five concert events, and have had over 50 “watchers” (those who view the full program) plus “views” (those who watch less than 3 minutes) numbering in the hundreds for each broadcast. It’s exciting to think that a few of those virtual audience members might be experiencing choral song for the first time! We are exploring ways to provide social interaction with and among our virtual audience to make their live-streaming experience more engaging and fulfilling. We are populating our YouTube Channel with fresh and innovative content more frequently and ensuring that all 19 of our published recordings are accessible - not just for sale as CDs or downloads but via audio streaming resources as well. We are exploring podcasting to determine if and how our audiences might like to hear from us in this manner.
To cultivate interaction with our audiences, our artistic director has programmed a 2018-2019 season full of audience favorites, spanning the many genres of choral music for which our organization is known. Polls of both audience members and chorus participants have been created and at least some of the music for each concert will be chosen based on results from these surveys.
For almost 30 years, MOS has maintained that music is essential to the human spirit. That vision hasn’t changed, but the way in which we market and deliver choral song to audiences must change with our dynamic community IF we are to continue effectively reaching people with music. Thank you, Audience Building Roundtable, for providing resources for me to attend this eye-opening conference. I look forward to sharing how The Michael O’Neal Singers reframes its marketing in “Year 30” so that we stay agile in our changing cultural environment.