Extending Reach with Technology
Seattle Opera’s Multipronged Experiment to Deepen Relationships and Reach New Audiences
- Bob Harlow
- Bob Harlow Research and Consulting, LLC
How we did this
This case study examines the Seattle Opera’s four year-long effort to boost audience engagement by systematically experimenting with different technologies. It is the product of multiple interviews with key staff and analysis of program elements, budgets, and planning documents.
Which communications technologies work best for boosting audience engagement?
This case study shows how the Seattle Opera explored that question by systematically trying out different tech tools in a series of four year-long experiments. Some of those efforts included:
- Simulcasting Madama Butterfly at an 8,300-person capacity sports arena
- Posting online videos taking viewers behind the scenes of the opera’s signature production of Wagner’s Ring cycle
- Introducing interactive kiosks in the opera house lobby
- Creating “making of” videos depicting the staging of a new opera
The case study is part of a set of case studies and reports looking at the efforts of arts organizations that received Wallace Excellence Awards to reach new audiences and deepen relationships with current ones. The pieces examine projects at 10 of the 54 organizations that received WEA grants between 2006 and 2014.
A 2020 update shows how the opera continued to develop and share digital content to help audiences develop a deeper understanding of its work.
A Focus on Learning
One important lesson from Seattle Opera’s work is its focus on learning. The company approached every year with a willingness to try new projects and to make changes when necessary.
That approach included:
- An experimental mindset. The grant gave staff room to experiment. The one certainty was that they had to learn something they could build upon—or else reject it.
- Audience research. Seattle Opera conducted ongoing research into patron engagement. That allowed the company the ability to evaluate and improve tactics continually.
- Evaluation. Marketing staff monitored several different indicators of engagement for discussion at biweekly meetings. The material included not only the research, but also real-time data on downloads and video views. The approach enabled them to maximize effectiveness by reconsidering what wasn’t working and doubling down on what was.
Involving the Broader Organization Early On
Seattle Opera also involved all employees whose work would be touched by the technology initiative, believing that their buy-in and input would be critical to success . For example, early on, staff included the organization’s unions in discussions of how to best use digital technology in engaging audiences. Seattle Opera also gave union representatives seats on the Technology Committee.
Close collaboration between the marketing, creative, and technical teams was another important element. It helped staff move from reluctance to let the public see what goes on behind the curtain to seeking out opportunities to do so.
The majority of the experiments were most effective at enhancing the experience of patrons who already had a deep connection with the company. But the simulcast, in the project’s fourth year, also brought in opera newcomers. Twenty-seven percent of audience members who viewed the simulcast had never attended a Seattle Opera performance; 71 percent had not seen an opera anywhere in the past two years.
Even a small, low-cost research project can provide invaluable guidance if it is designed strategically.
- Ongoing research into audience engagement allowed the Seattle Opera to evaluate and improve tactics.
- Twenty-seven percent of audience members who viewed Seattle Opera’s simulcast of Madama Butterfly had never attended a Seattle Opera performance; 71 percent had not seen an opera anywhere in the past two years.
- To ensure their buy-in and input, Seattle Opera involved all employees whose work would be touched by the technology initiative.
Materials & Downloads
What We Don't Know
- What is the revenue pathway for Seattle Opera’s new efforts?
- Has Seattle Opera been able to measure how much these efforts aided retention or brought newcomers to the opera hall?
- How has Seattle Opera changed or updated its activities more recently?