Electronic Media Strategy

The concept that technology is changing our personal and professional lives more rapidly than ever is no longer new.  There are daily reports of new applications for new gadgets that will surely be more disruptive to the economics of our businesses and the tranquility of our homes.  For symphony orchestras, there are increasing internal and external pressures to use the latest technology to distribute or market their artistic content, as a way of expanding audiences and generating income.  There is also increasing pressure on orchestra executives to match the positive PR generated by their peers from digital initiatives. 

Although there are some “first-mover” advantages to symphony orchestras that announce the availability of their content on iTunes or in movie theaters, the positive perception does not automatically translate into the realization of measurable objectives for every orchestra.  To benefit a symphony orchestra after the newspaper report has become “fish-wrap,” the use of technology to exploit artistic content must be planned and implemented with the same standards that are used for the presentation of live concerts.

For symphony orchestras to take advantage of the unique changes taking place today, however, they must:

  • Recognize the institutional benefits of using technology to exploit content
  • Make doing so a core part of their institutional mission and
  • Take the initiative to make it happen (rather than being reactive to the initiatives of others)

They must also “do it the right way,” taking as much care in the use of technology to exploit content as they do in the presentation of their art.  The key steps include:

  • Setting clear institutional objectives that are ambitious, but realistically achievable for that symphony orchestra (i.e. being clear whether we want to sell more tickets, reach a larger audience, promote the institution, generate earned income, or stimulate contributions)
  • Determining which strategies and activities will accomplish those objectives (e.g. if the goal is selling more tickets in our local venue, distributing content internationally is of limited direct benefit; and if the goal is generating income, then offering free podcasting of saleable content is unwise)
  • Making a commitment to incorporate the key activities into the operating budget as “core” priorities, even if subsidy is required.  (Why do some arts executives, who do not think twice about the wisdom of subsidizing educational activities, commit to electronic media activities only when all the costs are covered?)
  • Implementing each priority activity to maximize the institutional objectives. (There is usually  correlation between the economic return to the institution and the amount of financial responsibility it assumes in making the activity happen, especially in the complex areas of distribution.  In general, arts groups should try to maximize the number of retail outlets from which consumers can obtain their content, but minimize the number of “middlemen” needed to distribute the content to the retailers.  Overall, an institution must decide which responsibilities to assume on its own and which to outsource, with outsourcing the best option for those functions that are of less strategic or economic value, or not an institutional core competency.)

It is unlikely that there will ever be significant net income from distributing content electronically.  And, while it may never obviate the need for fundraising, the net financial benefits could reduce pressure to raise ticket prices, increase contributions and reduce expenses.  The indirect branding and marketing benefits of the strategic use of technology can also be significant, in a world that increasingly defines fame and success in terms of media presence.  Most importantly, technology may now represent an efficient mechanism for bringing the performing arts to busy “cocooning” audiences, who are opting for cheaper, recorded options in the comfort of their own home, rather than venturing out for a live performance after a long day of work.  Symphony orchestras that are finding it more difficult to prove to consumers that it is worth planning ahead to see something at a particular place and time, when they can listen to music on an iPod or turn on a High Definition TV at their leisure, may fulfill their missions more effectively by including the technological version of their art form as a complementary option to the live performance.