by Rebecca Winzenried 

Season of Change: Orchestras test-drive new ideas in e-marketing.

While others orchestras were making a big splash with their 2002-03 season announcements the old-fashioned way--hosting press conferences and mailing out glossy brochures to entice subscribers--the Toronto Symphony Orchestra rather quietly toasted its upcoming season with a virtual launch. At precisely 9 a.m. on March 1, visitors could log onto the orchestra's web site and learn all about the upcoming season. Those who liked what they saw could buy (or renew) their subscriptions online, with the click of a button.

This was the second year the Toronto Symphony hosted a virtual season announcement, and according to Mike Forrester, director of marketing, the process was not really any different from how things have operated in the past. Members of the press and special guests were "invited" via e-mail to attend the season announcement and at the appointed time were given access to program information and schedules. Visitors who wanted an actual hard copy could print out a PDF file of the brochure design. All that was missing was the buffet lunch.

Of course, a virtual launch does not come with the face time and schmoozing inherent to typical season announcement events attended by orchestra members, press, and perhaps some key board members or civic leaders. But the process worked fine for the TSO, which was in the middle of a music director search and was working with an interim CEO. "A virtual launch made sense, since we had no key spokesperson," says Forrester. He points out that the understated approach generated the same amount of press coverage and attention from patrons, but with less effort and less expense.

The orchestra noted a welcome side benefit: a spike in web-site traffic. Invitations to the virtual announcement were sent to the orchestra's e-mail newsletter subscribers, and visits to the TSO site tripled on the season launch day. Online subscription renewals in the first week were 10 percent ahead of the same period the previous year. The TSO still mailed brochures to subscribers who weren't signed up on e-mail or who are still a bit computer-shy. But the number of mailings is expected to decrease as more and more people become accustomed to renewing subscriptions online, as is now possible not only in Toronto but at the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City symphonies, among others.

Mailing costs for all the brochures, direct-mail pieces, press releases, and announcements associated with any given season are no small consideration for orchestras, and first-class postage is expected to increase again from 34 to 37 cents effective June 30. One way orchestras have been paring their mailing lists is by using e-mail news announcements and encouraging media outlets to visit special areas on their web sites, such as the San Francisco Symphony's "press room" and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's "media room." Visitors can go directly to the areas for news releases, downloadable photographs, biographies, facts, and statistics. The information is intended for press use, but the media rooms are accessible to anyone interested in catching up on the latest news, reviews, and features from local newspapers or national magazines.

"We send out volumes of paper over the course of the year," says Jody Doherty, the Pittsburgh Symphony's vice president of public affairs. "We want to eliminate that." Her orchestra's original solution for the 2002-03 season was to create an eye-catching brochure contained entirely in a business card holder. Flip open the holder to reveal a CD (trimmed at the top and bottom to approximate business-card size) that plays on any PC and is packed with 50 megabytes of audio/visual information. There are video clips of Music Director Mariss Jansons conducting the orchestra and Managing Director Gideon Toeplitz discussing the season programs--plus music bits, schedules, bios, and other tidbits about the orchestra. Choose your language: English, Spanish, French, German, or Japanese. 

It calls to mind all the options available on the DVD release of a Hollywood film, and it is definitely an attention-grabber, says Doherty. She worked with Pittsburgh-based Multilingual Communications Corporation to develop what is essentially an orchestra media kit kicked up to another level, something users can refer to throughout the year. The orchestra was familiar with MCC, having used the firm for translations of tour materials, but this was the first time the company's multimedia CD had been used for an artistic venture. The product, known as a PowerKard, originated with more traditional business applications, such as sales presentation, catalogs, and virtual tours of stores.

The Pittsburgh Symphony's PowerKard turned out to be the most technically sophisticated MCC has produced thus far, involving about six months and 150 man-hours to produce and ultimately including 200 links to music, video, and text materials. "It definitely gave us the chance to flex our creative muscles,' says Charles Kostecki, MCC president. The CD offers all the sights and sounds of an orchestra in the concert hall, "everything but the smell--maybe someday we can add that, too," he jokes.

About 1,000 CDs were produced, and the orchestra has sent them to media outlets and handed them out during its travels. The multilingual CD was a big hit on the orchestra's spring tour of Japan, where residents are eager to try out every new electronic gadget. Back at home, Doherty is making sure civic and business leaders, and potential funders, receive copies to demonstrate the scope of the orchestra's efforts. The reaction thus far? "Some people are surprised that an orchestra is doing something that's so high-tech," she says. "I guess they tend to think that we do this music that's old, so that must be the way we do business."

Whether anyone will actually keep the CD on hand and use it during the season has yet to be seen. But as Doherty notes, today's audiences are increasingly attracted to visual elements. This makes it likely that the Pittsburgh Symphony's PowerKard will pique a recipient's interest enough to at least try it out, and it will probably end up somewhere near the computer--where it's more likely to be found than a paper brochure if needed.

Enhanced Understanding

A similar enhanced CD, which can be used either in an audio CD player or PC, was produced by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to accompany its E-Concert Initiative. The "E" in this case stands for "enhanced understanding" through adult education opportunities that use e-technology. The pilot program was designed to be both informative for classical music newcomers and of interest to long-term subscribers. Live E-Concert programs have included special events before and after concerts, such as a film screening of Elvira Madigan and a private "informance" with bassist Edgar Meyer. The accompanying CD includes program notes and musical highlights from the 2001-02 season arranged along a timeline outlining 300 years of classical music.

The CD was sent to all new E-Concert subscribers, as well as to the regular DSO subscriber list. But it was also made available free of charge to anyone requesting a copy. And plenty of people heard about it through local news reports, advertisements, and various concerts and events around town where copies were distributed. The idea was to get the CD and its season highlights into as many hands as possible in as many places as possible. "Anything to get the music into people's heads, so that it will have that Ôaha!' effect when they hear it at a concert," says John MacElwee, vice president of marketing and communications. He adds that the CD has even helped new staff members brush up on their orchestral and musical knowledge.

With the enhanced CD, the DSO is testing not only how to reach new audiences, but also how potential patrons are using new technology. It can simply be listened to on an audio CD player or popped into a CD-ROM for the full audio/visual effect. Orchestra research found that four out of five recipients opted to listen to the product on a CD player. However, the DSO is encouraging users to try it on their PCs, since the CD was designed to link to the orchestra's web site when opened on a computer. Clicking through to the ticket information area, for instance, links users directly to the DSO web site, where they can purchase tickets online.

The orchestra has been compiling additional information on use of the 2001-02 CD, but by all accounts, the product was more successful than projected. The DSO produced an initial run of 8,000 CDs, but ended up doing additional pressings before the end of the season to meet demand.

Plans for the enhanced CD were built into the orchestra's E-Concert Initiative, which is funded by a Magic of Music grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The three-year grant will allow the orchestra to continue its exploration of e-initiatives with a new enhanced CD for the 2002-03 season, one that will be even more interactive. DSO bassoonist Paul Ganson narrated the first CD, and musicians are expected to play an even larger role in the second, with anecdotal information about their lives and the music they love. It's all in keeping with the DSO's 2002-03 theme of "Live Music, Live Life."

Meanwhile, visitors to the web site can also sign up to receive DSO Express. The e-mail club sends periodic messages to subscribers that include links to brochure-like color ads and event notices. The DSO, Baltimore, and Dallas symphonies are among the first arts organizations to try such a service using a system called ENewsNotifiers, which is administered by Relevant Marketing Technologies. While e-mail newsletters have become a common way to communicate with subscribers and even occasional ticket buyers, ENewsNotifiers allow the orchestras to go beyond simple text-based messages. Subscribers to the orchestra's e-news services, known variously as DSO Express, Baltimore SymphonyENews, and Dallas SymphonyEMail, receive news and information on last-minute ticket deals for specific types of concerts. They can indicate when signing up whether they prefer to hear about American premieres or Baroque programs from the classical series, Broadway tunes or performers from the '60 or '70s from the pops schedule.

Personalized e-mails are becoming increasingly important to Internet users whose inboxes are jammed with offers, according to MacElwee. He notes that research shows consumers are more responsive to such permission-based e-mails. And since an outside company hosts the system--clicking on the "subscribe" button transfers a visitor to an ENewsNotifiers page--it can take some of the burden off an orchestra's often over-taxed technology and administrative staff.

All of this allows orchestras to utilize their web sites and databases to more effectively reach subscribers, and also the increasing market of single-ticket buyers or those interested in special educational events. As MCC's Kostecki says, the technology is available, whether through targeted e-mails or, in his case, a power-packed CD. The question is, "How do you want to use this tool?"

Rebecca Winzenried is managing editor of SYMPHONY.