We’ve all heard the cry of arts organizations in search of seemingly elusive new audiences. But at every organization for which I’ve worked—organizations of all sizes and various disciplines—getting new audiences was never really the problem.
Despite what we tell ourselves about the need for new people, it’s getting those new buyers to come back that’s the challenge. In fact, the reigning statistic for orchestras in the U.S. is that 90% of first time attendees never return. That’s a lot of people not coming back, a lot of money on the table, and for other arts disciplines, the no-return rate is similar. The Orchestra X project (named after Google[X], the company’s experimental research arm) was launched to figure out why this is happening.
What We Know vs. What a Newcomer Knows
One reason, we learned, is because there is a big difference between what we as arts administrators know about our art form and what a newcomer knows. The Orchestra X research showed this difference is not just a knowledge gap, it’s more like a giant Grand-Canyon-sized chasm. This means that all of us making decisions that affect a new attendee’s experience—from programming to operations to marketing to front of house staff—have an incredible challenge to empathize with an audience segment that is so far from where we are in terms of what we know about our product.
Psychologists have a few terms for this: one is called the hindsight bias, meaning once we learn something, we forget what it’s like to not know it; and the second is the availability heuristic, which is how we as humans make thousands of decisions every day using information we already know to be true. And when what we know is vastly different than what a new visitor knows, we are making decisions and assumptions that are unintentionally very unhelpful to that group.
The second reason this audience retention problem exists is because we had wrongly identified the solution to growing our audience as a programming solution, meaning the California Symphony incorrectly thought that the programming or the repertoire was what was driving audiences away. Before Orchestra X, we—along with almost every other orchestra across the country—had been asking ourselves if we should produce shorter concerts, or rush hour concerts, or if we should program more movie concerts, or pops concerts, or if we should play more Beethoven, or less Beethoven, or do more commissions and world premieres, or perform in alternate venues.
To be clear, none of those questions are bad questions. Those questions speak to the incredible breadth of programming a symphony orchestra has to offer. The problem is that all that tinkering with programmatic elements did virtually nothing to successfully address the 90% no-return rate. Did it bring in new attendees? Yes, sometimes. Did it keep them coming back again? No.
So what is the answer to our audience retention issue then? The Orchestra X project taught us the solution is in three parts:
1. UX Research. That’s what the Orchestra X project is, user experience research, and in its simplest form, it was a discussion group. We put out the call for new attendees—people who should go to the symphony but don’t—people who are smart, educated, and culturally aware, who have expendable income and frequent other live entertainment options, but for whatever reason don’t come to the symphony. They came to a few concerts and a subsequent facilitated discussion, which resulted in 11 typed pages of notes and 4 pages of direct action items for the California Symphony—not one of which was about the programming or music.
2. Challenge assumptions. Our promise to Orchestra X participants was that we would “listen only and not jump to defense,” an exercise that proved tremendously difficult. What we learned was that a “basic” level of understanding about the symphony or classical music does not exist among newcomers. Some people didn’t even know the names of the instruments in the orchestra, which to me, the person who had played an instrument all growing up and who wanted to manage a symphony since age 16, was pretty much unfathomable (remember hindsight bias?). The good news, we discovered, was that this group of smart people desperately wanted to learn about everything related to classical music though. And through the discussion we learned that the way we layout and present information on our website made it very difficult for them to do that. “It felt like inside baseball,” one person said. In response, we made a lot of changes to our single ticket overview/landing pages, all of which came from this discussion group, and all of which cost us nothing to implement.
3. Examine the in-person experience. If this solution begins with user experience research, looking at the concert experience itself is part of applying the findings. And similar to the website, several elements of the in-person experience were really off putting, confusing, or intimidating to newcomers. From the way we write program notes to the lack of diversity in our hall, this group had a lot of strongly worded feedback. One thing that was universally positive however, was the emotion they felt when experiencing the art, the music. Virtually every person in the room expressed the sentiment of “awe” when describing the art they saw and heard. No one said, “I need a shorter concert,” or “I need to hear more movie music.” They very much wanted to learn about all facets of the repertoire and were emphatic that the art is incomparable.
As professional, top-quality arts organizations, the art is what we do best, and it’s everything else tangential to the art that is deterring the vast majority of visitors from coming back again and again. At the California Symphony, we no longer stress about programming; we now diligently focus on these other areas touched on here, and we have doubled down on patron retention over acquisition. If 90% is the number who don’t come back, that means 10% is the number who do, and over the last few years, we’ve gotten that first timer retention rate up to nearly 30% during the season that just ended. And maybe the best part is that we did all this research and implementation at just about a zero-dollar price tag—we’re now making a lot more money and spent almost nothing to do so.
At this year’s Digital Marketing Boot Camp for the Arts, I’ll dive into the specifics of the Orchestra X research, the findings, and the changes we made, and how you can easily make them too. If you happen to read my other articles, you know I talk a lot about changing the narrative for arts organizations. That’s what’s happened at the California Symphony, and I sincerely hope you and your organization will join in to do the same.
Aubrey Bergauer is the Executive Director of the California Symphony. She will be speaking at this year’s Digital Marketing Boot Camp for the Arts on Marketing and the Content Experience: 21st Century Lessons Not Just for Millenials.