Aspiration over Desperation

By Rebecca Danis, The Atlanta Opera

How is a brand significant in the lives of its users? Cynthia Round (former senior vice president of marketing for The Metropolitan Museum of Art) posited this question during her session – “Can We Make Our Cultural Institutions Irresistible?” – at the American Marketing Association Nonprofit Marketing Conference in Washington D.C. in July 2017. Thanks to a scholarship from the Audience Building Roundtable of The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, I attended on behalf of The Atlanta Opera.

Round started the session with an example from Interbrand’s annual “100 Most Valuable Brands” list, which looks at a brand’s ability to attract revenue. What brand has topped the charts for the last 30 years? You guessed it: Coca-Cola. It was ousted by Apple only three years ago. These brands are at the top of the leader board because they look at their customers as more than just consumers. They’ve figured out how to make their brand essential in a user’s life with an emotional connection, rather than merely transactional. More than that, they go beyond the demographic and do their research into the psychographic makeup of their fans. As Round points out, it should be “Vision and aspiration over need and desperation.”

To highlight the latest research on emotional motivators, Round pointed to a recent article (link: from the Harvard Business Review, which debunks the myth that companies should concentrate their efforts on customer satisfaction. Nowadays, users are overstimulated with information overload and an ever-diminishing attention span (A new study [link: ] by Microsoft says that the average attention span is eight seconds – that’s less than a goldfish at nine seconds). Therefore, an emotional connection is essential. By building trust, authenticity, consistency, and a two-way conversation, your brand’s status is earned. Users then become actual co-owners of your brand, because only they can give it VALUE. They give it value when they feel an emotional connection to it. According to the article, “emotionally connected customers are more than twice as valuable as highly satisfied customers. These emotionally connected customers buy more of your products and services, visit you more often, exhibit less price sensitivity, pay more attention to your communications, follow your advice, and recommend you more.”

Ask yourself: why do you choose Starbucks over Dunkin Donuts, or Target over Walmart? Personally, I lean towards Target’s joyful and minimalist aesthetic because I ASPIRE to that lifestyle, and I identify with the branding (From the HBR article: “Be the person I want to be”). I’d rather go out of my way and pay a little bit more, because their brand has tapped into something deep within my emotional needs. It’s no longer just about my demographic makeup, but more importantly, my psychographic tendencies: why I make choices. And you can learn all of that from a user when you build a relationship.

Round points out that if we can build friendships with each other, the same can be done between a cultural institution and its audiences and visitors. Surely, this should come easy to us – we’re in the ARTS! I get it. We’re overwhelmed and we have goals to make. But if we can prioritize the personal relationships we have with our users, then we can turn strangers into friends, friends into customers, and customers into evangelists (A concept from marketing guru Seth Godin). In turn, evangelists do the work for you, because they give your brand value. According to IMPACTS Research [link: ], what others say about you is has a value 12.85 times greater than what you say about yourself, and word of mouth is the most trusted source of information for high-propensity visitors before social media, mobile, and web. The interpersonal goes even further when the data shows that when asked what makes a visit or experience special, “Time with family and friends” was over 50% more important than the next most popular answers, “Seeing/interacting with exhibits/performance,” and “Interacting with staff/volunteers/performers,” proving once again that an emotional connection greatly outweighs customer satisfaction.

To build better relationships, we are in the works of creating a long term digital strategy and philosophy that dictates the “Give, Give, Give, Ask” rule. Meaning, we are creating more robust - usually video - content for the sake of content. By doing so, we are creating connections with our audiences while inviting them to join us in our mission: …be a vital leader in the renaissance of opera in America by engaging a 21st century audience.” The Flying Dutchman, the first mainstage opera of the 2017-18 season, was a brand-new production (not rented, but built from scratch). The set and costume designer, Jacob Climer, is a rising star in his field. He is witty, intelligent, and had some hardcore intellectual concepts for the piece. He was perfect for a sit-down interview, which highlighted the fact that it wasn’t going to be a dusty version of Wagnerian opera, but Victorian goth fused with heavy metal. The video delved into his philosophy for a one-on-one experience and panned over his renderings and drawings to show our fans and the opera curious how it all comes together. This idea was also implemented in our most successful video [ ] ever last spring. It was a simple concept: we set up an iPhone next to our stage manager for Turandot. For 2.5 minutes, people could see the demanding, multitasking job of an opera stage manager. For someone who has never been to The Atlanta Opera before, it made our shows look like heart-pounding, emotionally-charged, and high-quality fun. Overall, it had a total reach of 113,283; 3,790 engagements; and 39,453 views.

During the run of The Flying Dutchman, we also experimented with on-site satisfaction via Snapchat. The goal was to create a better customer experience that audience members could enjoy with their friends and family. For one performance only (Remember, this was an experiment. Also, geofilters are expensive if you have a large venue like we do.), we created a geofilter with the name of the show and a frame of waves and a ship, the same as the creative for the show. We then set up a geofence just for the inside of Cobb Energy Centre. Next to the step-and-repeat we set up cute signs that prompted people to use the filter and to tag us. Overall, it had 151 uses, 5,091 impressions, 428 swipes (number of times a snapchatter watched a snap w/ your filter). I’ll admit that the data a little useless, since we have nothing to compare it to. I think that we will also plan to include a question about onsite satisfaction (Similar to IMPACTS: what makes your experience memorable, ask about special perks like the Snapchat filter) in future surveys to collect that data.

We have also pledged to keep the sales language and ticketing pushes to a minimum in our monthly E-News. Content is now always at the top, and any promotion about shows, events, or donations is pushed to the bottom. We want our audiences to know that their curiosity comes before their dollars. We want to ask for their friendship before we ask to go on a date. Since the conference, I implemented this idea starting in August. Since then, emails with more content had a higher CTR (avg of 2.21% vs. 1.77%) and a lower unsubscribe rate.

Our efforts as content creators has no doubt been trial and error. Though we are larger than some organizations on the Audience Building Roundtable, we sometimes still struggle to keep the momentum going. No one on our staff is a videographer, and when we can hire a professional, it is for large scale projects, not necessarily social media. But, we are working to change that. Our goals for 2018 include purchasing better video equipment so that we may continue to create better video more often. Thanks to a grant from the Woodruff Foundation, we are purchasing an iMac with video editing capabilities so that anyone in our department can feel empowered to jump on and create compelling content. Because, we now know that by giving generously, breaking down walls, opening our hearts and letting them in, audiences will see themselves in the art. Opera lives in every one of us — passion, love, romance, desperation, tragedy, and hope — and opera is for everyone.

Bonus Information Attached: Data-Informed Digital Engagement for Arts Organizations
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