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Article Published: 04 Oct 2017

Marketing Minds Meet

Marketers from seven American companies exchange ideas on attracting new operagoers

Studies of web-browsing habits. Surveys that not only measure satisfaction, but predict future behavior. Analyses of credit card transactions for demographics and spending habits. These market research techniques, traditionally employed by consumer goods companies, are increasingly making their way into the marketing arsenals of opera companies. This past March, when marketing executives from seven major American opera companies gathered to share findings at a meeting at OPERA America’s National Opera Center, they brought with them statistics generated through the same techniques that for-profit corporations use to gauge their markets. Four of these companies are part of the Wallace Foundation’s national initiative Building Audiences for Sustainability, while the other three have elected to build their research capacity independently.

This kind of data mining is becoming increasingly essential as the very structure of opera marketing changes. At one time, full-season subscriptions were the foundation of companies’ earned revenue. Audience growth and retention were perennial challenges, but advertising and direct-mail marketing reliably recruited new season-ticket buyers. Demographic and social changes — along with increased competition for time, attention and money — have led marketers to put increasing focus on single-ticket sales. Using sophisticated yield-management software, they have maximized revenue for each seat through targeted marketing and select discounts. It remains imperative, though, to recruit new audiences — not just in the short term, but over the next generation. It’s a task that requires new tools and techniques.

While the companies at the marketing summit — convened by OPERA America with support from the Wallace Foundation — are all nationally and internationally prominent, the fundamentals of their histories, demographics, venue capacities, season structures, pricing, number of productions and performances, and budgets vary widely. So, too, do their methodologies for collecting and analyzing marketing data. Some use in-house resources; others partner with outside market research firms. But their confidential sharing of information revealed a multitude of commonalities.

A chief concern shared by all is what one company called the “audience spiral.” As subscription sales decline and companies reallocate marketing dollars and special promotions toward single-ticket sales, the value proposition of subscriptions can erode. (Why commit in advance if I may get better seats, potentially at a lower price, if I wait?) But even when you factor in mini-subscriptions and single-ticket sales, the simple fact remains that people aren’t attending as often.

At the same time, there are encouraging signs. Some participants reported record numbers of first- time attendees in recent seasons. Others are serving more households than ever before. These figures indicate that focused investments in new-audience development can pay off in the long run. Nonetheless, prospective audiences require a committed and constant process of identification, communication, cultivation and, most of all, patience. Data presented at the marketing gathering consistently showed that the faster a company can get first-time buyers back for a second performance, the more likely it is to achieve long-term retention. Although only about 20 percent of these attendees return in the following year, the decrease slows in successive years, resulting in a cumulative long-term retention rate approaching 15 percent. Some of this contingent remain single ticket-buyers; others convert to subscriptions.

Marketers regularly analyze the mix of repertoire in each season in an attempt to decipher what attracts first-timers and what promotes retention. Core repertoire pieces like Tosca, La bohème and Carmen remain the strongest draw for newcomers, followed by Broadway classics like Oklahoma! and Carousel. An overreliance on the standard repertoire, however, can alienate subscribers, who may migrate to single-ticket purchases in order to select less familiar titles or productions of new and contemporary works. Meanwhile, one company, polling audience members about their intention to return, found a lower rate (52 percent) at musical-theater offerings than at operas (82 percent).

Companies collect data on age, sex and geography through both voluntary surveys and aggregated figures from credit card purchase histories and outside consulting firms. Their findings inform not just marketing strategies, but repertoire and customer-experience decisions. Each of the companies represented at the meeting employs a segmentation strategy to better understand how to reach and serve their audiences, creating matrices that analyze purchase behavior alongside demographic factors. The companies differ somewhat in the ways they subdivide the market: One company, rather than categorizing audiences by age group, instead measures the degree of allegiance to the medium itself, distinguishing between full-fledged opera aficionados and more casual attendees. The most common mode of categorization, though, looks at generational groupings: Pre-Boomers (1930–1945), Baby Boomers (1946– 1964), Generation X (1965–1979), Millennials (1980–1995) and post-Millennials (1995+), also known as iGen.

For most companies, the primary focus is retaining Boomers and courting Millennials. One company reported that a decline in Boomer audiences has made Millennials and Gen Xers represent the fastest growing segments of ticket buyers. Millennials also make their second purchase faster, and demonstrate a higher retention rate (23 percent) than Boomers (18 percent) do. Many companies have invested heavily to create “young professional” organizations that cater to the under-40 crowd, with pre- and post-performance social events and discounted subscription programs. These are successful up to a point: A fall-off begins as Millennials mature. As couples begin to have children, and professionals become more focused on work, discretionary time and dollars shrink.

An array of qualitative measures of audience attitudes supplements quantitative measures of ticket sales and revenues. Customer satisfaction is typically measured using in-house resources: surveys handed out after performances and follow-up e-mails. These techniques continue to yield pertinent data: Subscribers focus on the “quality of singers,” while newcomers are more interested in the “opera-house experience.” The factors contributing to the highest levels of dissatisfaction are constant: lack of convenient parking and the ubiquitous bathroom shortage. In between are issues such as ease of ticket purchasing and availability of intermission concessions.

Those opera companies that employ outside marketing firms with more sophisticated research techniques are better able to measure more elusive aspects of audience response, such as a sense of “belonging” in the opera house and the likelihood of return. They have also adopted analytics that take surveys beyond “Did you like it?” to “What if the opera were shorter? What if it were performed in English? Would you prefer a special night to dress up or dress down?” or, for contemporary and experimental works, “Would this piece be more appealing in a different venue?”

Opera, like all entertainment choices, is ultimately a “value proposition” according to one marketing executive. The prospective consumer asks: “What are the rewards to me? Will I enjoy the experience? Will I be able to get others to go with me? What else could I be doing?” That inner voice of the consumer evaluates the appeal of familiarity against adventure, and calculates not just the direct cost of tickets, but the fully loaded cost of the experience: babysitter, transportation, parking, dinner.

Several of the meeting’s participants presented data concerning branding and image. Some companies have invested heavily in repositioning themselves — through repertoire and productions, as well as marketing — as purveyors of a contemporary experience, specifically working to erase the perception of opera as an elitist art form and portray it as an engaging, accessible form of entertainment. While companies continue to invest in traditional “old media” vehicles (printed brochures, posters, billboards), they are directing an increasing amount of their marketing dollars toward digital channels like e-mail, websites and social media. Contrary to the stereotype that
digital media is the exclusive territory of the young, it has in
fact proven effective across all age levels and demographics.

Rebranding requires not just cosmetic alteration, but an across-the-board company effort. The company must develop repertoire and productions that, as one marketer put it, “communicate in a voice that is authentic to the target audience.” It must also adapt to the behavioral instincts of a new generation, such as a desire for flexibility.

One company reported that a decade ago, more than two-thirds of tickets were purchased more than a month in advance; now the metric has flipped, with a majority of buyers purchasing less than a month in advance. The aversion to commitment correlates with age: One company reported that Gen Xers and Millennials purchased 30 percent of their single tickets during the week of the performance, compared to 21 percent of buyers in other demographic categories.

One company that has invested in building diversity in its audience demographic reported that the effort has had a positive marketing impact. Customers who encounter audience diversity see it as an indicator the company is “inclusive.” It’s a factor that makes them more likely to encourage others to attend.

Experiential satisfaction of yet another audience — the marketing leaders themselves — was also evident at the convening of marketing leaders. They expressed a sense of isolation when they present reports to their management and boards, as if the problems they face were unique to their own companies. But in sharing information with their peers and seeing each other’s data presentations, they found comfort in realizing the similarities of their challenges. Scale and scope may set companies apart, but a shared commitment to learning brings them together.

Participating Companies:

  • LA Opera
  • Lyric Opera of Chicago
  • The Metropolitan Opera
  • Opera Philadelphia
  • Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
  • San Francisco Opera
  • Seattle Opera

This article was published in the Fall 2017 issue of Opera America Magazine.