This post is an update on a 2015 case study of Seattle Opera's Wallace-funded efforts to determine whether technology can help enhance the opera experience. It is one of a series of blog posts exploring how organizations' audience-development efforts fare once Wallace funds run out. It does not include a thorough analysis to determine whether the financial benefits of the efforts described are commensurate to their costs.
Seattle Opera, which produces five operas each year for an audience of more than 100,000, was early among arts organizations to use digital and social media to engage audiences. Its use of those tactics was given an early boost by a $750,000 Wallace Foundation Excellence Award, which provided funds for four years of experimentation between 2009 and 2012, as described in this 2015 case study. Those efforts were largely focused on deepening participation among those already attending, using technology to create opportunities to interact with the company and its productions.
The opera used audience research to guide development of a variety of tools and activities and evaluate each tactic post-launch, with annual surveys examining what was accessed, by whom and with what impact. This research led it to develop easily accessible audiovisual content that could help audiences better understand what goes into producing opera. The tools became more effective each year as the staff learned what did and did not work and adjusted its approach accordingly. Since then, the company has continued to develop and share digital content with the aim of helping audiences develop a deeper understanding of its work, and more recently, encouraging ticket sales.
2009-2012: Honing a Digital Approach with Wallace Funds
In the summer of 2009, focus-group research suggested that operagoers were interested in seeing and hearing how works are prepared for the stage. The finding led the company to create and share “behind-the-scenes” videos highlighting aspects of production such as set design and hair and makeup. Surveys and web analytics indicated that those videos were widely accessed and highly effective in enhancing operagoers’ experience, and they became a critical part of the engagement strategy each year. The segments had greater appeal than other tactics such as audio-only podcasts and a video series that lacked a behind-the-scenes focus. Photo-rich blogs revealing different aspects of the opera production process were also accessed by and enhanced the experience for many viewers.
Certain tactics were deemed too expensive to continue when evaluation research revealed only modest impact. They included:
- Interactive community-building forums such as contests and sharing tools that did not provide the additional understanding operagoers got from audiovisual content;
- Livestreams of panel discussions and other engagement events, which were well received, but only by the small number of people that accessed them; and
- An outdoor simulcast, the one technology-based tactic designed to bring in new audiences. Large numbers attended the simulcast, but it was prohibitively expensive and too challenging to convert the novices it drew into regular mainstage attendees.
Seattle Opera’s marketing department spearheaded its digital transformation, but, from the outset, it brought in staffers from the production and artistic departments as full partners in planning and strategy discussions. It turned out to be a wise move; those staffers provided much of the content that gave audiences a peek behind the curtain, even appearing in videos that offered virtual backstage tours. Their active participation at all phases of content development eased initial concerns about the information marketers might share digitally and about revealing secrets that help create the onstage magic.
2012-Present: Funding Ends but Content Use Expands and Adapts
Since that experimentation period, the company has focused its technology-based audience-engagement efforts on digital content, as opposed to less fruitful efforts such as livestreams, simulcasts and similar offerings. The company is now creating more of that content and using it to accomplish a broader range of objectives that also includes sales and community building. It also maintains its use of web analytics to monitor the popularity of its digital content.
The staff continues to develop material designed to deepen understanding of how opera is produced and, increasingly, to explore its relevance in the world today. Popular features have included videos of directors' and artists' perspectives on the reasons a particular opera remains important, which is not always apparent in a genre where most repertoire is well over 100 years old. Such features may include discussions of universal themes and elements of the human experience that transcend place and time, such as love, humanity and good and evil, and how these themes play out in characters' struggles on stage. Other popular material has included discussions of the work necessary to update old librettos for modern audiences, especially if they include stereotyped portrayals of non-white and non-Western people.
In addition, blog posts describe different aspects of opera to help explain it to people with varying levels of familiarity with the art form. The company has also continued to produce podcasts, which had limited success when Seattle Opera first experimented with them but have garnered greater listenership thanks to partnerships with a local classical-music radio station and podcast distributor SoundCloud. All this digital content is also shared on social media and on the Seattle Opera website, where it can be easily found by those already engaged with the company.
Seattle Opera has also elevated digital content’s role in driving sales, capitalizing on the ability of online platforms to reach a wider audience. At the 2009 start of the initiative, Seattle Opera's digital content was largely confined to its website. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter were fairly new, used by 27 percent and 6 percent of the adult U.S. population respectively. But proliferation of social media since then has allowed the organization to more aggressively promote its content among new audiences. “Our website only reaches people who are already looking for information about us," says Director of Marketing and Communications Kristina Murti. "But with social, we’re able to deliver the content to everyone who follows us, as well as to people we can target through advertising, … and then hopefully get them over to the website for more information.”
In order for such efforts to work, however, content first needs to break through the clutter of social media feeds. To stand out, Seattle Opera has started to use more professionally shot, color-rich videos, many featuring scenes in dress rehearsal, striking images of the set, or eye-catching features such as the costume shop. The amount of video produced varies across productions, with the company publishing approximately two to four videos in advance of opening night, followed by another four to six short performance clips featuring singers or segments that potential audiences may recognize.
But Facebook is more than the primary digital sales channel. Seattle Opera also uses the platform to foster community, with news about the company and opera in general, and posts referencing operas and musicians that transcend any one production or season. The approach has helped the organization increase its Facebook audience from approximately 40,000 likes in 2015 to 81,000 likes in early 2019, outpacing the 50 to 60 percent growth experienced by other nonprofits during that time. Seattle Opera is also investing in Instagram, largely because the platform is widely adopted by younger generations and its visual nature allows for inventive storytelling. The company is not putting as much effort into Twitter; digital consultants and other arts organizations suggested that its return on investment in driving sales is lower than Facebook and Instagram. Seattle Opera’s social media growth has tracked with that investment: the number of its Twitter followers has plateaued, while Instagram and even Facebook—a mature and more saturated platform—continues to add followers.
Seattle Opera’s Social Media Following
Still Learning and Partnering
The opera remains focused on continuous learning, in large part to keep up with changes in how platforms such as Instagram and Facebook deliver content. “You never know how your content is going to land. Something that works today may not work six months from now,” Murti says. What’s more, people respond to different aspects of each opera, so every production has an unknown element. There’s no set formula.
Online analytics and guidance from social-media consultants have helped navigate these uncertain waters. From its web analytics, Seattle Opera can see that Facebook brought in approximately $700,000 of the company’s annual ticket revenue of $7.5 million in the 2019 fiscal year and another $300,000 in donations and other earnings. According to systems developed by its consultants, $80,000 of this revenue came from people who had watched a video at some point in the sales process. Such data obviate the need for some surveys, though the company did have to pay to develop the systems needed to collect them. Murti says the expense has been well worth it; the analytics allow the marketing team to look on a bi-weekly, post-by-post basis at the content that is and is not moving sales, and then reinvest in what appears to be working.
Having that data also allows Murti to inform artists, production and technical staff about how their collaboration on digital content drives ticket sales. Such feedback encourages their ongoing participation, a continuation of the cross-departmental partnership that Seattle Opera established early in the process and has made it easy to produce large volumes of material. With so many metrics and platforms to track and understand, the importance of this partnership might have been easy to overlook. But perhaps more than any tactic or technological advance, the collaboration has been essential to the company’s progress and could help it continue creating relevant content that moves and engages audiences.