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From the ether to the theatre...

This is an edited version of an address I gave earlier this summer to a conference on digital marketing in the arts. It took place at Hatfield Business School


For a couple of years, and despite my moderately active life on social media, I have had something of a bee in my bonnet about the use of the digital world to promote and represent our art form.  I work in a live art form, one that is absolutely at its best - unequalled, in fact - when confronting the audience head on, in the flesh. So my perspective on the use of digital and social media to engage with our audiences is very much dictated by this concept. 

I know that in the world of the arts, social media is sometimes, and in the right hands, an immensely powerful tool, but it is particularly so when you can consume and/or acquire that art form at the click of a button, or when it is enhanced by the digital world, delivered by it, or indeed, conceived in it or by it. I know, for example that a huge twitter following is enormously powerful if you want to sell a record or a film, for example. So I am no luddite.

Essentially, the largest exponents of the use of social media are big companies with very big budgets. They have the resources to produce high quality content and spend, in some cases, millions on their marketing, of which social media is a significant part. They will no doubt tell you that this is producing dividends, but a word of warning; since this great revolution, many opera companies around the world have been, or are on, the brink - even the monster that is the Met in New York has run into major difficulties. So that revolution for our audience engagement that the digital world and social media is supposed to represent has flaws, clearly.  

So what does the other revolution, that of cinema broadcasts, mean for us? Well, going back to the Met, they started cinema broadcasts as a way to spread their work across the continent of the US and beyond. It became a huge earner for them. But the architect of cinema broadcasts, General Director Peter Gelb, has been talking a great deal about how it has affected his audience in the house. That is, it has affected it adversely. Despite this fact, and despite research that tells us that audiences for opera in cinema in no way correlates to the take up of tickets for it at the theatre by NEW audiences, attracted by having seen Boheme at the local Coronet, there is a growing push for opera, theatre and ballet companies to do more cinema broadcasts. The government have told the Arts Council to make it a priority for their funded clients. But research suggests that the audiences for cinema are really just those who USED to buy tickets for theatres but now reduce their purchasing by spreading their spend between cinema and the opera house. In other words, same money, distributed differently. Yet what started as a nice adjunct for the hard to reach audience has suddenly become, literally, the answer to our problems. Basically, we are suggesting that the way to increase theatre audiences is to encourage people not to go to the theatre. In truth, if that is really what the world wants, we need only perform and record opera in film studios and then broadcast them. It would save a fortune. 

Now I am being flippant, but when you actually stop to think about it, this is the natural conclusion to what we are doing at the moment.  We are teaching our young people and our audiences to consume the live theatrical art forms in 2D, via their screens. Our children are growing up glued to the 2D surface. In fact, in many schools we hardly teach them about art at all. 

Which brings me onto another issue we face; the poor standards of cultural education. When I say cultural education I mean the exposure of children from a young age to the live voice, the live musician, the classical theatre or music. There is more to culture than just these art forms of course, but theatres, in the main, produce this kind of work. We seem intent on telling people that the theatre or the art gallery are unnecessary, that great music or theatre can be consumed at a distance, in HD and hold the front page - 3D!  There is an argument that giving easy - and now with the European Opera Platform, free - access to broadcasts of opera productions from all over the world, more people will explore it, find it, seek it out and become fans of the art form. I wonder; I have introduced tens of thousands of people to opera over the years and I know for a fact that seeing something on a screen in no way compares to the effect it has in real life, no matter how good the performance or broadcast. So if we assume new audiences will seek it out, I am sceptical that they will understand the powerful experience they are missing by not being sat in row F of the auditorium in which it is being performed.

My point is that really, if we have a great message, good branding and product - I am not addressing, here, the issue of production style and its alienation of opera goers - social media is certainly an excellent way of engaging with an audience and letting them know about it. However,  I think we assume - or are in danger of assuming - that because we are telling people about something, they are actually listening. Just being in the ether has transformed into "engagement with our audience", and to some degree it is, but what is the precise nature of that engagement?

Opera Holland Park uses twitter but mainly to let our audience know what is happening and to communicate information, provide some content, let committed audience members (but who are wavering on a show) know how good the reviews are etc. Surveys tell us that only between five and ten percent of our regular audience use social media, and so we email them too, but we have to find other ways to communicate effectively and in a way that will make them increase or sustain their visits to the theatre.

Research also suggests that the majority of our customers still like print, but conversely, 80% of our business, both Friends and non Friends, is conducted online, so we have taught them something about the modern world. Yet what still works, and will, I think, continue to do so,  is the opportunity to spend as much time as possible talking to our patrons in the theatre or at special events. From what patrons tell me, no amount of cajolery via twitter or emails or online or even brochures that give more space for selling will persuade them to try something they have doubts about or believe they would dislike simply because they don't know it. Ten minutes with me, where they can see and hear the passion and commitment to the work and they are usually sold. And that, I suppose is my ultimate point. Direct, very personalised pitches, if you like, are still the most effective way of getting the message through to the uncommitted. That is real engagement and I have to bear in mind that many of our audience report a fatigue when it comes to their digital lives. Yes, we use social media and other means to let those who are likely to buy, know that they can now do so, but our margins and success are usually defined by that extra two, three, five hundred or thousand seats  sold. And I say this in reference to a company who have been very successful in promoting rare repertoire.

So for us, we are unlikely to seek to invest heavily in order to grow our social media presence exponentially,  unless it happens consequentially. In the modern, remote digital world, theatregoers appear to need a bit more love and close attention. We can provide ease of purchase through the technology and this is a good thing but our relationship with them is key and we will be looking for ways to spend real, personal time with as many as possible because that not only offers a more complete selling opportunity but is likely to engender greater commitment and personal association with our festival and company. We of course can perhaps afford that luxury more than some theatres but I would venture that most middle scale theatres and arts institutions could find the means and the time to do it too.  Of course, I won't literally spend time with every customer but I will definitely attempt to take a one-by-one approach and inculcate our staff with the idea.

Whatever we do in future to exploit the digital world and social media, we must ensure that the basic truth of the immensely satisfying and visceral collective group hug of a shared theatrical experience is at the heart of our message. And we should deliver that message in ways that audiences want, as opposed to telling them that this is the only way forward from now on. You see, the human touch, the real personalisation of conversation and the art of selling will, I think, be the sort of audience engagement that matters because despite the fact we can communicate with more of our audience more quickly, I believe we are further away from them than we have ever been. And we have convinced ourselves that we "engage" with them more when all we are often doing is shouting in their ears with data.  


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