New Media to Engage the Opera Audience
This past spring, the Wallace Foundation published its report on the four-year technological initiative Seattle Opera implemented from 2009 – 2013. Of course, trends in technology change so rapidly it may be tempting to dismiss any findings from 2009, however Seattle Opera’s enterprise relied on the most popular social media used today. Additionally, the company’s approach to engaging an audience with online media is as much a lesson to other arts organizations and artists as the actual results, much of which still need to be tracked in coming years to convey clear correlations to audience growth.

Seattle Opera’s idea was to strategically track the effectiveness of various tools of engagement for the company’s existing audience and its potential market. Technological tools were divided into four groups: storytelling through technology, community connections through technology, experiencing through technology, and a simulcast. These strategies were employed successively each year while the audience was surveyed as three distinct groups: subscribers, single-ticket buyers, and prospects (then further broken down by age).

The first phase of technological initiatives included providing the audience with context to Seattle Opera’s performances by providing interviews with cast and crew as well as behind-the-scenes videos made available on YouTube. Here’s an interview with Maestro Robert Spano on Wagner’s Ring cycle, which was one of the earliest experiments.

More than half of subscribers utilized this new resource and three-quarters found it enhanced their opera experience, however this new channel of engagement did not do much to expand the audience. Twitter and Facebook were employed as further outlets, but worked more effectively solely for marketing and less for enhancing the audience experience.The Seattle Opera’s blog was the only non-video format to receive greater than fifty percent positive responses for enhancing enjoyment. (28)

Phase Two expanded the variety of videos available to include making-of clips. Videos were shortened to three to five minutes after finding that earlier videos, which were longer, were rarely viewed in their entirety. Phase Three included backstage video feeds and touchscreen tables at each production that could be moved in and out of the opera halls. The final manifestation of the initiative was a simulcast of Madama Butterly at KeyArena, which saw the largest impact on newcomers. “Taking opera out of its usual context may have helped counter the perception that is commonly held by the uninitiated that opera is boring and stuffy. In fact, a large number (78 percent) were motivated to attend because it was “unique and interesting.” (67)

Organizing a $500,000 simulcast may be out of the budget for smaller organizations or independent musicians, but there was a clear strategy to be heeded working from small to large scale. “Unlike the first two years, where a suite of activities was built around particular productions, in years three and four, the company developed several technology-based tools and used them across multiple productions.” (45)

Seattle Opera conducted in-house surveys that could later be compared to the audience survey experience. This helped guide them to YouTube as their primary outlet in 2009. Finding correlations between their expectations and audience surveys was an encouraging sign and a valuable step to ensure Seattle Opera established expectations that it could strategically target – for example, a 7% benchmark for post-show discussions. (42) Thus, as Seattle Opera discovered which tools enhanced the audience experience, they could focus on expanding those initiatives. While subscribers have been satisfied with many of the company’s new undertakings, the process of effectively tracking new audience growth is ongoing. The full report is available online here.

By Colin Baylor