How the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s date with a digital agency has led to a lasting relationship

How this arts organisation tapped digital and data smarts with the support of its digital agency to drive audience engagement

Like many Melbourne-based live performance organisations, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO) was hit hard by lengthy lockdowns. But also like its peers, the pandemic provided an opportunity to rethink the role digital plays in MSO’s audience engagement strategies.

According to MSO director of marketing and sales, Dylan Stewart, digital provided a key lifeline for retaining connections with its audiences during the pandemic, primarily through its EDM database. The orchestra even stood up its own digital on-demand platform, MSO Live.

Stewart could see the growing importance digital would play for the MSO, and in September 2020 he initiated a partnership with the full-service digital performance agency, The Pistol. Initially, the agency’s remit was to conduct an audit of the MSO’s website. But Stewart soon identified other benefits it could deliver.

“The work they did and the relationship we built over quite a short period of time was all very positive,” Stewart tells CMO.

So at the start of 2021, when the MSO was looking to add to its in-house marketing team with a group of professionals excelling in digital, The Pistol was chosen.

Data orchestration

While the MSO initially focused on re-engaging with audience members and subscribers who had dropped away during the pandemic, The Pistol’s role has been to help the orchestra find new audiences by better utilising its first-party data in support of its concert program. This has seen the MSO adopt new ways to segment its audiences, including through social channels, and by better tweaking and refining campaigns in market.

The Pistol has also incorporated video storytelling and motion design into ad campaigns, synchronised with MSO performance recordings of works from the likes of Brahms, Beethoven, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. These capture the spirit of the MSO’s work and foster a greater connection with the audience.

“Every week we are doing a different show, so they have been challenged to think on their feet and be nimble,” Stewart says. “We might only be in market for a particular concert for three weeks, but within that time the team is able to split the creatives and the messaging to see what’s working, and tailor the rest of the spend to the best performing options.”

One initiative that proved especially successful was the MSO’s ‘Date Night’ campaign, which offered people a chance to win a date-night package including tickets to an MSO concert with an overnight stay.

“That was something we worked on very closely with a number of our corporate partners, to bring together a package including a night at the Sofitel Melbourne and drinks and flowers, and then we put that out to a really wide audience,” Stewart says. “Our EDMs tend to give us the best return on investment when it comes to ticket sales, and so we set ourselves a goal to bring new audiences into that database.”

The campaign drove 2500 new email addresses to the MSO’s database, with the orchestra also able to sell an additional 100 concert tickets to unsuccessful entrants. The overall campaign exceeded the MSO’s goals four-fold.

“It was positioning the audience member centrally to that experience, rather than the 80 or 90 musicians on stage with a conductor,” Stewart says.

MSO also chalked up its highest ever earning month in March this year with a ROAS of 15 times on Meta and 103 times on Google.

One of the key goals now is to convert one-off concert goers into repeat visitors or season subscribers.

“We don’t have a problem reaching out and engaging with new audiences,” Stewart says. “Where we and many orchestras have a challenge is how we get those people back again, then how we make the MSO part of their lives.

“It’s about being able to tap into data and audience insight to help identify programs that will have broader appeal. The challenge is when you have subscribers who look for a certain type of experience, and then you also have a whole state of potential audience members who are just waiting for something that appeals to them. Striking that balance is one of the joys.”

Stewart says The Pistol has also been engaged to assist with redevelopment of MSO’s other digital assets, including its online platform for subscription and on-demand services.

“We are in the process now of taking their advice on how to improve that platform from a UX perspective,” Stewart says. “We did a great job of putting that together. But now it is about optimising the user experience and the content strategy on the platform, looking at which programs and which concerts are performing best, and how we can have the conversation with our artistic programming team to maximise eyeballs.”

This partnership has been a key contributor to the MSO achieving its highest monthly online revenue in March 2022, exceeding the previous record from February 2019. With the digital partnership delivering results, Stewart says the next challenge is to truly understand what the MSO means to the people of Victoria in this post-pandemic world.

“We are looking at what the MSO stands for, and what it means to our community,” Stewart says. “That is a bigger project than something that comes from the marketing department but is a project that all of us across the MSO are really excited to tackle over the next 6 to 12 months.”

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