Vancouver arts groups harness the power of social media

From Ballet B.C. to Vancouver Opera to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, arts groups are using social media like never before

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      Like many of today’s 20-somethings, the first thing Alice Ko does every morning is turn on her iPhone to update her various social-media accounts: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. It’s a routine she enacts repeatedly—a casual observer might even say compulsively—throughout the day, her thumbs a blur as she taps out status updates, uploads images to her followers, and carries on multiple online conversations at a speed that would make most Gen-Xers dizzy.

      But this constant online presence is no flighty distraction for Ko. It’s her job. As digital-media strategist for Ballet B.C., the 29-year-old former fashion-industry accountant is part of a serious marketing effort to engage and retain new audiences in the classical performing arts. And it’s a strategy that arts organizations across the board have realized is crucial to their survival, as long-time patrons enter their twilight years. In the age of the hashtag, it seems, it’s tweet or perish.

      “Giving people more insight into what’s going on behind the scenes actually makes people more excited [to come to shows],” the elegant Ko explains in conversation with the Straight at a downtown café, her iPod and laptop computer always a finger’s reach away. “When I joined [in July 2013], the first thing I knew I needed to do was get on Instagram. Ballet is visual, dance is visual—this is where people are going to see what Ballet B.C.’s all about. Especially because Facebook is on the decline, and not everyone’s on Twitter.…I’ve actually recruited quite a few people from Instagram to come to our shows.”

      Just seven months into her position, Ko has single-handedly boosted the company’s combined followers across all social-media platforms from 4,000 to 10,000 (sample tweets: “Chiffon tops & more. First look at the #costumes for #GraceSymmetry #dancefashion”; “So we’re kinda excited for OPENING NIGHT this Thursday… Who’s coming?…#vancouver #yvrarts”). That’s a 150-percent boost in potential audience members actively seeking to engage with the company—one that, only four years ago, was on the brink of bankruptcy, before it re-emerged with a new artistic director and a fresh mandate to commission and present contemporary ballet alongside visiting productions of classics.

      Branislav Henselmann, the company’s executive director since July 2012, says he realized the impact the social-media strategy was having when the company performed at the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts last July.

      “I remember one of the people who works with the admin said, ‘Oh, my God! Your social media is amazing!’ ” he recalls in a phone call with the Straight. “It made me smile because she was exactly of the age that we would expect social media to hit. She was so excited that we were at the festival, having seen already 20 companies by then, because she was able to get all the information about the company [from our social media].” He credits the increased online visibility with helping to boost audience numbers as well. Subscriptions increased by 13 percent from 2011-12 to 2012-13, he reports, and this year they’ve already seen an additional 24-percent increase for 2013-14. Single-ticket sales also went up 18 percent from 2011-12 to 2012-13.

      Ballet B.C.’s transformation is remarkable not only for its success, but also for its boldness. And while other major arts organizations in the city haven’t necessarily gone through such extreme reinventions, they are no less committed to addressing the changing demographics and tastes of today’s audiences.

      Consider Vancouver Opera, which, over the past six weeks, has unveiled a new logo and a new Instagram account—both of which play into a new long-term strategy laid out in December. In addition to expanding VO’s social-media presence, that strategy will see the company bring smaller-scale, new productions to venues such as the Vancouver Playhouse, as well as bring performances to communities south of the Fraser, in a bid to lure ticket-buyers from across the generational and geographical divides.

      “It goes without saying that as our audiences are getting older, and as they disappear at the upper end of that age range, we’re having to work to replace them among the younger people,” explains VO’s director of marketing, Doug Tuck, on the line from his office. “Finding a new generation of operagoers is very important for us, and broadening our visibility and our reach beyond the core geographical areas is also very important.”

      Vancouver Opera was one of the first of the major performance organizations in the province to jump aboard the social-media train, when it hired social-media manager Ling Chan in 2008. Chan immediately launched a blog and opened the @VancouverOpera Twitter account in 2009. While Chan became a casualty of layoffs in 2011, when the organization tackled an $831,000 deficit, VO’s social-media presence remains strong. (The company’s financial woes are now in the past, with 2012-13 ending with an accumulated surplus of $169,000.) There is a steady stream of behind-the-scenes videos on VO’s YouTube account, cross-linked to Facebook, Twitter, and its still-popular blog. A new Vancouver Opera Vine account popped up on February 8, and VO is into month two of posting images to Instagram. Its Twitter account currently boasts more than 10,100 followers, who are the first to know when the $35 Get OUT tickets for under-35s are released.

      This month, the company will also host its first “tweet seats”; the Don Giovanni dress rehearsal will include a section for those who want to live-tweet the event. (Consider this an update to Blogger Night, where popular local bloggers were invited to live-blog performances.) To entice audiences from outside the Lower Mainland, the $20 tickets to the February 8 Greatest Opera Hits—and More! Surrey Arts Centre concert came with $20 in VO “Opera Bucks”, which can be used toward seats for Don Giovanni (March 1 to 9 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre) or Don Carlo (May 3 to 11).

      Dress rehearsals for Vancouver Opera’s Don Giovanni will have “tweet seats”.

      Similarly, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s All Access Pass program, launched last season, allows full-time students and those under 30 to purchase $15 tickets two weeks in advance of shows. “At the end of the day, no matter how good your content is, there has to be a price component to get people in for the very first time,” notes the orchestra’s VP of marketing and sales, Alan Gove, in conversation at the organization’s downtown offices.

      “A lot of our initiatives are not initially aimed at gaining subscribers,” he adds. “They’re initially aimed at bringing people to hear the orchestra, often for the first time. Then there’s another set of strategies that tries to bring them back, and then another set of strategies that tries to get them engaged for precommitting to, maybe, three concerts. From the first time they step into the hall until, maybe, they make the decision to become a subscriber, that’s probably five to seven seasons' worth of work.”

      And social media has an important role to play in that, says Gove, who confesses that a slight decrease in audiences two seasons ago forced the organization to get serious about Facebook and Twitter. “In 2011-12 we saw a bit of a dip [in audience numbers] for the first time in a decade,” he recalls. “It was a bit of a bucket of cold water in the face, and that’s when we really decided that we needed to not just flirt with this whole social-media thing—back then we were all still calling it ‘this social-media thing’—and it was time to actually figure it out and jump in and learn it a little bit better.”

      A concerted effort to sign up followers of the VSO Facebook page, where videos and other behind-the-scenes updates are posted, has resulted in “Likes” more than doubling in the past year, to 10,986. The @VSOrchestra Twitter feed has 3,738 followers. Even artistic director Bramwell Tovey has gotten into the spirit, going so far as to post photographs of soloists on-stage, during concerts, to his @BramwellTovey Twitter stream. (Despite being well out of the millennial demographic, the quick-witted Tovey has taken to Twitter with élan. Sample from February 15: “Possible that mystery soprano went to Miley Cyrus show tonight, hence no practicing…#PlotThickens”.)

      VSO’s Bramwell Tovey is a tweeting maestro.

      Of course, the long-term survival of organizations depends on more than increased ticket sales, notes Ballet B.C.’s Henselmann: “We don’t only want to look at future audiences, but future donors and future board members.” To that end, the company has created Up, an exclusive $50 membership ($100 without a season subscription) for patrons aged 21 to 45 that includes preshow receptions, rehearsal sneak peeks, ballet classes, networking events, and other perks. Similarly, VO has a Young Patrons Circle for 19- to 45-year-olds that includes tickets to performances, networking events, and exclusive receptions ($300 for individual membership). It’s a program the VSO has yet to emulate.

      All three organizations agree that getting this right involves significant time and effort, especially on the social-media front. “It’s much different from what it was 20 years ago.…No longer can you just put a few ads in the paper, and maybe a few radio ads, and mail a few flyers to people, and expect to fill your houses,” observes Tuck. “It is extra, but it’s also better, because you are communicating directly and specifically with each group that you want to talk to.…It’s actually more exciting, more interesting, more direct—more complex, for sure, but also, in the end, more satisfying.”

      It’s also a rapidly evolving landscape, where the next Twitter and Instagram are just around the corner, adds Ko, with a surreptitious glance at her phone. “I’m constantly looking for the next big thing. I absolutely have to read tech news and social-media news,” she stresses. “Right now at this point, people are talking about Snapchat. I have signed Ballet B.C. up for Snapchat, but I haven’t used it yet…”

      Not sure what she’s talking about? Ask a millennial. And then invite him or her to a show.



      Ballet BC

      Feb 26, 2014 at 2:12pm

      We're so honoured to grace your cover this week! Also honoured to be mentioned alongside Vancouver Opera and Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in this great article about arts organizations x digital. Thank you Jessica Werb, Emily Cooper and Janet Smith!


      Feb 26, 2014 at 2:27pm

      I agree! As a twenty-something, I think Instagram is such a great tool that arts organizations can use to target my specific age group. I’ve subscribed to the Arts Club’s Instagram account since last year, and their photos increase my interest in theatre and the arts.


      Feb 26, 2014 at 5:41pm

      Interesting article. As a lover of the arts, I am always happy hearing about an increased presence in this city, especially news about some of my favourite organizations like the VO, Ballet BC, and the VSO. Just wondering, however, why there was no mention of the Arts Club - isn't the theatre company one of the biggest arts company in Canada?!

      Leila Getz

      Feb 27, 2014 at 10:48am

      The Vancouver Recital Society has seen a growing uptake in tickets in its RU35 program where 35 and unders can purchase any seats for $18 per concert. It's not only the "big three" organizations who are involved in activities to attract younger audiences. Certainly the Vancouver Recital Society is and is now seeing the payoff. I'm sure there are other organizations in the city who are doing so as well.
      If you had come to one of our concerts during the past 6 months Jessica, you would have noticed many more young people in our audiences.
      Leila Getz, Founder & Artistic Director, Vancouver Recital Society

      Janet Smith

      Feb 28, 2014 at 1:50pm

      Editors note:
      Glad to hear about the VRS’s success in marketing to new audiences, and would invite other groups to post what they’re doing, too, to keep the discussion going. We couldn’t cover what all the hundreds of arts groups in the city are doing, and wouldn’t want the impression to be that these are the only companies doing this. They’re just meant as bigger examples with new initiatives.
      P.S. We’re lucky to have Jessica Werb gradually rejoining our music coverage team after an extended mat leave.