This case study by Bob Harlow, published by The Wallace Foundation, explores Seattle Opera’s multipronged experiment to deepen relationships and reach new audiences.
In 2008, Seattle Opera found itself in the same position as many arts organisations — feeling a sense of urgency and uncertainty about how best to make use of digital technologies to both deepen relationships with existing patrons and attract newcomers.
While nothing suggested they were losing touch with audiences, staff members suspected that being absent from online space could erode the company's visibility. Moreover, digital technologies could provide ways to enhance and extend the experience of attending a live performance. But, while senior staff saw multiple opportunities for the organisation, one of the leading opera companies in the United States, they resisted the pressure to try everything at once. Instead, they tested out technologies systematically in a series of four year-long experiments.
They began by tapping audience research and local expertise to identify the greatest opportunities, and then deployed audience surveys and analysed web-based metrics to evaluate their individual efforts, regarding each one as an educational experiment with useful lessons for the organisation.
They had an early hit with a series of videos taking audiences behind the scenes of their signature production of Wagner's Ring cycle, and recreated that success with an even broader public the following year to build interest in a newly commissioned work, Amelia.
As they got a better understanding of what moved audiences, staff members refined their approach, focusing on using technology to expose audiences to new and different dimensions of the company's activities. Every season had at least some winning engagement tools, driven in large part by their strategy of gathering intelligence before determining what applications to deploy. While the majority of the tools were most effective at enhancing the experiences of patrons who already had a deep connection with the company, an opera simulcast in the fourth year also brought in an audience of newcomers.
These were more than just a series of experiments; Seattle Opera transformed how it related to audience members, letting them in on the creative process and inviting their comments. Over the course of the four years, the company also found ways to satisfy internal concerns about exposing too much to the public and built broad support for the initiative inside the organisation, as well as strong cross-departmental collaboration.
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Extending reach with technology (PDF)