Orchestra X: Chapter Two

In 2016, the California Symphony asked Millennials and Gen Xers about their concert experience. Two years later, the organization is still implementing changes based on the findings.

Two years ago in the summer of 2016, the California Symphony put out the call for people who “should” go to the symphony but don’t, meaning people who are smart, culturally aware, have expendable income, and who frequent other live entertainment options, but for whatever reason just don’t go to the symphony. We invited people who fit that description to come to a few orchestra concerts and then tell us about it — the good, the bad, and the ugly about all facets of their experience, from ordering tickets online to getting a drink at intermission to the music itself. We promised to listen only and not jump to defense (an exercise that proved tremendously difficult), and we promised to share our findings with the rest of the world, which we did. Then it went viral. The short version: what’s keeping audiences away from the concert hall has nothing to do with the music we play and everything to do with the elements tangential to the experience.

All of that was dubbed the Orchestra X project, named after Google X, the company’s experimental research arm. At the time the original findings were published, about half of the resulting action items were addressed — namely all the no cost recommendations, which included a host of changes to our website, program book, and the concert experience — and big growth in our audience followed. Then we began applying for grant funding to tackle the not-free action items, which required rebuilding the website entirely.

“What’s keeping audiences away from the concert hall has nothing to do with the music we play and everything to do with elements tangential to the experience.”

In two years, we’ve learned a lot. It’s amazing what UX research — going to our users (e.g. patrons and prospective patrons) and talking with them about their experience — reveals. And it may be more amazing that acting on this feedback has worked. Nothing we’ve done is rocket science, and yet by giving potential patrons what they are asking for, the California Symphony is selling 97% more tickets annually now than four years ago (46% more since this project began), and the first time attendee retention rate (i.e. people coming back within one year of their first performance) has gone from about 13% to now averaging 27%. The following covers the Orchestra X findings we addressed or up-leveled since the original post in 2016, the still-remaining want-to-address items, why all this matters, and a summary of lessons learned.

Newly Implemented

Changes made since the first round of Orchestra X implementations:

  • See the full season, not just upcoming performances. Previously on our season overview page, we’d remove a concert after it had occurred. We learned this created two problems for potential concertgoers: 1) As the season progressed, this list got awkwardly short, especially for an orchestra like the California Symphony that doesn’t perform as frequently as our bigger-budget peers. Participants told us they couldn’t believe we didn’t perform more often, and it looked even worse when only a few concerts were on that list. 2) As they were trying to “get a sense of what we’re about,” as they said, they couldn’t really tell based on only a handful of upcoming shows. The new solution keeps past concerts and moves them to the bottom of the season list, allowing the “up next” performance to stay prominently at the top.
  • Concert titles. We got to work on this right away after publishing the original findings. Three seasons in, we can see that titles that are both catchy and specific are the most helpful and lead to the most sales conversions. This is very different than how most of us administrators think about choosing a concert: we generally look at the repertoire to inform our attendance decisions; newcomers do not. “Is it a romantic comedy or a tragedy?” said one participant, “We can’t tell by the composer alone.” Also, making helpful concert titles is not always easy. We all have those programs on our seasons that have gone through so many changes during the planning process (swapped that artist, this piece of music fits the instrumentation for that set better than what was originally slotted, this one got bumped because it’s too long, or that piece has to go here because that’s what was contracted with the soloist. etc.)…those are hard programs for which to write a “catchy and specific” title. Pushing ourselves here has made a difference.
  • Event calendar. We had no idea how important this was until talking with these folks. The above-mentioned season overview list was not sufficient; many were looking for a calendar feature and wanted it to be user friendly and obvious, meaning easy to find in the site navigation. We weren’t sure how to address this with limited concerts (who wants their organizational activities represented by a half-empty 30-day graphic?!), and ultimately we worked with the new website developer to eliminate the monthly view by creating a list view that displays concerts plus all the community and educational events we produce. Now it looks like a better reflection of all we have going on.
  • English/Spanish toggle. Beginning in the 2017/18 season, we started running digital ads in English and in Spanish to test whether or not that would lead to more Hispanics and Latinos at concerts. That pilot test did lead to a measurable increase in Latinx households, and so we decided to put some money behind developing the new site in both languages. Now, when we run ads in Spanish, we can link to landing pages in the same language, another step in making this important segment in our community feel invited and welcome here, as well as give them the information they need to join us.
  • Program book. Guess what? New audiences still don’t know unwritten etiquette rules such as when to applaud. So last year we began printing in the program book a list of desired concert behavior and titled that page “Concerts Should Be Fun” because…wait for it…concerts should be fun. It says things like clap when you like what you hear, phones on and silent allowed, and that it’s ok to bring your drink to your seat. We then added similar content on every concert detail page online, and the new website has it featured even more prominently. Also on program book: we said in the original findings that program notes were most helpful when they were about the story behind the music, not the music theory behind it, so we asked our program annotator, Scott Foglesong of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music who also writes notes for San Francisco Symphony, if he could focus on the stories behind the music and the composers’ lives. No problem there; plenty of great stories in classical music to tell! Now, we also publish these notes/stories online in advance on the Symphony blog and the new production detail pages have sidebar links to those posts as they are published.
  • Running times. The majority of single ticket buyers (and the vast majority of brand new attendees) don’t know that a typical orchestra performance is a fairly predictable format of overture, concerto, intermission, and full symphonic work, which for us as administrators who have been to countless performances seems almost inconceivable. This phenomenon is called hindsight bias — when we forget what it’s like to not know something that’s now familiar to us. The reality is that a newcomer has no way of knowing these details unless we tell them, and the feedback we received is that it really helps to set their listening expectations. So we added running times to the program page of the program book (not buried in the program notes) and the full concert timing on the new website.
  • Patron facing navigation. We asked how many users go to the website and say, for example, “I really want to learn about their education programs!” Answer: not many. More often, people are saying things like, “What can I do with my kids this weekend?” So we swapped the big EDUCATION navigation header for OFF STAGE, with drop downs describing what’s available For Kids, For Families, For Adults, and For Artists. Similarly, SUPPORT US felt inward facing, and since all the donor research says that development communications should be about them (the donor), not us (the organization), we decided that YOUR SUPPORT might subtly feel a little more user-centric.

Leveled Up

First round iterations that just got an upgrade:

  • Sound clips. Just as new attendees don’t know the typical concert format and don’t know many composer names, they definitely don’t know what a piece sounds like by its title alone. And why should they when schools don’t teach this stuff anymore? The previous solution was to make Spotify playlists (with recordings selected by the music director) and to link to them, navigating listeners away from our site. Now those playlists are embedded right next to the repertoire listing so the user can listen without being directed elsewhere.
  • Wikipedia. Smart people want to learn, and our websites generally don’t make that very easy for people who don’t have a lot of prior knowledge about classical music. In the original Orchestra X findings, we shared the story of one person who looked up every piece of repertoire on our season before choosing which concert to attend. And just when we were thinking that was a little extreme, everyone else chimed in saying that’s a great idea and they wished we would provide that type of info. So we did — first by linking each piece to its respective Wiki entry, opening up in a new browser tab as an imperfect solution — and now the new site has that content pulled in right on the production detail pages. Also, we call it out that it’s Wikipedia, verifying that trusted source for the reader.
  • Blog. A big part of the California Symphony’s sales strategy is content marketing, and we had previously been publishing blog content right here on Medium, which meant we were missing out on a lot of the remarketing and SEO benefits that come with such a strategy. Plain and simple, the new site had to be able to host its own blog, a critical move for us. Now we’re going back through those old posts we migrated over, starting with the most evergreen content and cleaning up copy, images, headlines, title tags, etc. to maximize SEO.
  • Further the approachable brand personality. In round one of modifications, we significantly changed our copywriting voice, moving towards bullet points rather than paragraphs and more casual language rather than jargon (remember, most site visitors don’t know what a concerto is). That combined with research showing that people tend to skim, not thoroughly peruse, webpages cemented that we needed bite-sized content, which wasn’t just a play to better appeal to newcomers, but a strategy for overall readability. Writing less while writing smart and clever is a skill we are constantly working on, and as the Orchestra X findings state, “We can be informative to smart, curious people without dumbing it down. Casual and approachable does not equal dumb.”
  • Music behind a password wall. One of the things we do for first year subscribers as part of our audience development plan is give them a recording of the orchestra that isn’t commercially available. While this has helped our renewal rates for new subscribers, how backwards is it that we have been successfully bringing in younger audiences and then greeting those new season ticket holders with *a physical CD* on their seat at their first performance? Whaaa? First we went through the channels to get an online distribution method okayed per the orchestra union rules in the CBA and the IMA (the local and national agreements for professional orchestras), which in short is to put the streamable recording behind a password wall and make sure it is not downloadable, and then we implemented the website functionality to do that. Now, we can still give out physical recordings to meet the needs of those patrons who prefer that, and we can also offer the option to listen online in order to meet this critical audience segment where they are digitally.
  • Mobile. Lastly, going into this redesign RFP, about half of site visits were coming from mobile, and over the last year alone, that’s jumped to 63% (and another 6% on tablet). In other words, 7 out of 10 people are not viewing our content on desktop. While I get that as a consumer who lives by my phone, as an arts administrator who spends a lot of my working hours in front of a PC, we had to remind ourselves to do things like review each design round and extensively proof the new site on mobile and not just on the 9-to-5 default device. We have to meet current patrons where they are, and anyone who thinks that orchestra patrons aren’t really browsing on their phones is just plain wrong.

Still Working On

All of the remaining action items from the Orchestra X research fall under one area: the sales path. True during the original findings and still true today, this is a tough one for us as our venue manages ticketing, so we have a lot of work to do here. Items still to be addressed include making the sales domain experience match the main site domain (users told us they can tell when they’re changing domains and said it looks unprofessional when it’s not seamless), making it easier to buy online if two friends are trying to order separately (and it gets worse when the backend won’t sell two seats out of an available threesome…as if the house is so full that we couldn’t spare a single empty seat here and there), and making a fast checkout process that doesn’t ask for tons of information except for what’s absolutely necessary to complete the purchase (most arts orgs ask for way too many fields to be completed, every one of which is a point of friction and therefore a place for potential drop off; research proves this). And then there are the items on the list that no ticketing software I’ve ever worked with — including the biggest ones in the arts industry — even has the capability to integrate, such as a login-with-Facebook feature so people can see which of their friends have bought and where they are sitting (LiveNation offers this; we are behind), and Apple Pay (of those 69% of our users on mobile or tablet, 70% of them are on iPhone and another 8% on iPad; we need to be offering this). I can’t think of any multi-million-dollar consumer-facing business in any sector but ours that does not offer these types of options. Professional orchestras of all sizes need our CRM platforms to deliver such functionality, and we as administrators need to be asking for it.

We have to meet current patrons where they are, and anyone who thinks that orchestra patrons aren’t really browsing on their phones is just plain wrong.

Why All This Matters

For anyone asking themselves why these facets of the patron experience matter so much, there are two big reasons.

1. The website is the most public-facing ambassador for our organizations. There is not a single thing we as arts organizations do, present, or offer that interfaces with as many people (tens of thousands of people annually for a smaller organization, hundreds of thousands for a mid-size company, and millions for a large budget institution) — not our performances, not our education programs, not our free community events, not our email blasts. Nothing. And for most of us, the vast majority of those online interactions are with new people. Check your own site traffic on this one; at the California Symphony, the percentage of new visitors on the site last year was 64%. Think about that: nearly two thirds of all site traffic is from brand new people with no prior interaction with our organization. The website is our shot to bring them in to the fold.

2. Other data — big data — tells us this too. In Google’s Digital Path to Ticket Purchase Study, which tracks ticket buyers for all kinds of live entertainment, from sports to the performing arts, the patrons they called “casual fans” (as opposed to “frequent” and “moderate” buyers) amounted to 55% of all sales revenue. This large macro trend completely matches the micro trend for orchestras, in which single ticket revenue is now the majority earned revenue stream for most organizations nationwide (source: League of American Orchestras Orchestra Facts Report). That is to say, whether looking at orchestras specifically or the entire live entertainment sector, more than half of all ticket revenue is coming from casual fans (e.g. single ticket buyers) rather than moderate buyers (e.g. small package subscribers) or frequent buyers (e.g. larger package subs). The study goes on to report that these casual fans spend 3.7x more time on the respective show/performance/event websites each month than their frequent purchaser peers. They are seeking more information and are more carefully considering their purchase than the folks who have already drank the kool-aid. The website matters. A lot. And it matters most to the group of people with who we as arts administrators are generally the least familiar.

The concert experience matters too (see all those changes on program book, running times, etc.), as the well-known industry statistic is that 90% of first-time buyers never return. And the programming matters the least, which is completely opposite of how most organizations try to approach attracting new audiences. Not one Orchestra X participant said the music was the problem with their experience; in fact, nearly every single person expressed the feeling of “awe” in response to the art. It was the one area with overwhelmingly positive feedback. The music is not the problem; it is what we do best. This is not to say programming isn’t important or doesn’t have its own issues to be addressed; the point is that in terms of attracting and retaining the new audiences we all say we need, it usually receives a disproportionate share of attention compared to the other laundry list of issues the Orchestra X project revealed to us.

“The music is not the problem; it is what we do best.”

Lessons Learned

In closing, here is the roundup of lessons learned over the last two years of working on the multiple iterations of the Orchestra X project:

  1. Listening to newcomers is difficult. We all work long and hard to produce an art and experience that we personally love very much, so hearing that parts of it are really unattractive to people is tough. But there is big money to be gained when we do.
  2. We can do a lot for free or very little money.
  3. We don’t always have control. And there’s a lot that can still be done that is in our control.
  4. We must actively address the biases (like hindsight bias or the availability heuristic) that make this work even more challenging as administrators. Ray Dalio, former CEO and founder of Bridgewater, says it this way in his book Principles, “Almost all people initially find it difficult to get beyond seeing things through just their own eyes.”
  5. These changes are not alienating core concertgoers. Not only are the most loyal patrons the smallest percentage of users, in two years, only one longtime patron complained about any of the changes we made to the online or in person concert experience. Meanwhile the audience growth we’ve seen supports this work.
  6. This is not just for the marketing department. This work requires a customer-first company culture and organization-wide buy in.
  7. Projects and plans shouldn’t sit on a shelf. So often we hire the consultants, do the research, develop the planning documents, execute a body of work, and then six months later move on. What a waste to not iterate further improvements based on what we’ve learned. We have tried really hard not to get distracted by the latest shiny object and instead keep chipping away at what continues to bring results to our bottom line: what newcomers told us they want.

About the Author

Aubrey Bergauer, Executive Director, California Symphony
Aubrey Bergauer defies trends, and then makes her own. In a time when many arts organizations are finding it more and more difficult to meet rising ticket, subscription, and fundraising goals, Bergauer has dramatically increased earned and contributed revenue at organizations ranging from Seattle Opera to the Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival to the California Symphony. Her focus on not just engaging — but retaining — new audiences grew Seattle Opera’s BRAVO! Club (for audience members in their 20’s and 30’s) to the largest group of its kind nationwide, led the Bumbershoot Festival to achieve an unprecedented 43% increase in revenue, and propelled the California Symphony to nearly double the size of its audience and quadruple the donor base.

A graduate of Rice University with degrees in Music Performance and Business, for the last 15 years Bergauer has used music to make the world around her better, through programs that champion social justice and equality, through marketing and audience development tactics on the forefront of trends and technology, and through proving and sharing what works in the rapidly changing landscape of funding, philanthropy, and consumer behavior. If ideas are a dime a dozen, what separates Bergauer is her experience and record of execution and impact at institutions of all sizes. Praised for her leadership which “points the way to a new style of audience outreach,” (Wall Street Journal) and which drove the California Symphony to become “the most forward-looking music organization around” (Mercury News), Bergauer’s ability to strategically and holistically examine and advance every facet of the organization, instilling and achieving common goals and vision across what are usually siloed marketing, development, and artistic departments, is creating a transformational change in the audience, in the office, on the stage, in the community, and is changing the narrative for the classical music industry.



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