At the Chorus America Conference in June 2023, many of my between-session conversations with colleagues focused on how audience attendance and member participation had shifted post-pandemic. While a few organizations had experienced an increase in attendance and participation since 2019, I was surprised by the number of organizations that were discussing reductions in audience and singer numbers over the past four years, numbers that aren’t rebounding even as the risks of Covid fade.
When probed about why they thought this was, these same colleagues listed a variety of understandable factors. Singers are still worried about contracting Covid in a choral environment. Audience members have become accustomed to getting their entertainment online. The economic impact of Covid is still strong in many communities, affecting both the ability to pay membership dues and buy tickets to performances. And generally, many people have restructured their lives in ways that no longer include choruses the way they did in the past. Many of these issues weren’t unique to the pandemic but have been accelerated by the pandemic’s intensive disruption to our modus operandi and choral singing’s forced hiatus from our lives.
During further discussion, I also heard a great deal of interest in exploring marketing as a potential solution to these woes. Marketing is an extremely powerful tool in the face of declining attendance and participation, but marketing can also be extremely overwhelming: an entire field of jargon and rapidly changing models that can consume broad swathes of time and energy when we’re all a little short on both of those resources. So how can we harness the power of marketing in our favor without burning ourselves out or needing to hire a whole new department?
The Marketing Funnel for Choirs
If you were to take any Marketing 101 class, you would quickly be introduced to the marketing funnel. The marketing funnel is an illustration of the consumer’s journey with your organization, starting with a general awareness of your organization all the way through becoming your closest and most loyal supporter. Marketing can then be summarized with a simple goal: get people into your marketing funnel and move them to the next level of support as quickly and efficiently as possible. Most organizations segment the marketing funnel into four levels.
Step 1: Awareness
Building awareness is the first step to successful audience and membership development. The most obvious question to ask here is: “How do people hear about us?”
Think about where people who might be interested in your chorus get their information. Depending on your community, this might mean social media, posters, newspaper ads, or word of mouth. In some cases, this means thinking outside the box: Would it be effective to do a flash mob in a community adjacent to your choir, or put branded stickers on the takeout boxes of your favorite neighborhood restaurant? Get your chorus members involved in this right up front by asking them to use their social media accounts and personal and professional connections to get the word out.
But what exactly is the word you’re getting out? This is the more complex part of awareness because it involves defining your product. For most businesses, their products are a very clearly defined set of goods or services that the company sells to turn a profit. For a chorus, products can be more difficult to define.
We can start with the obvious product. The music we make in the form of concerts or recordings is a quantifiable commodity that we can put a price on, similar to many products in the for-profit marketing world. But music isn’t our only product, and most of us aren’t solely in the business of creating the objectively best commercial performances or recordings. To find our true product, we have to drill down into the “why” of what we’re doing. If you haven’t watched Simon Sinek’s TED talk “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” this would be a great point to pause and watch that.
If we explore why choruses exist as ongoing organizations instead of one-time recordings, it becomes clear that we are in the business of creating experiences. Looking at Meow Wolf, immersive art displays, and music festivals, it’s also clear that art experiences are a hot commodity right now. Interestingly, it’s often our singers for whom we’re creating the most carefully crafted experiences; as we have all become acutely aware during the pandemic, you can't get the experience of singing in a chorus on your own. But the experience of an audience member enjoying a performance with a friend, a donor supporting an organization that is close to their heart, or even a local business purchasing an ad in a concert program that generates an additional sale or two are products we can create and market.
Even deeper than creating experiences, however, lies our role as incubators of human connection. This is by far our best and strongest product, because connection is a commodity which the entire world has developed a whetted appetite for coming out of the last several years. In this market, we can outcompete almost any other product in existence today. Authentic human connection is our core principle, the one that keeps our singers and audience members coming back.
Your chorus might focus on a specific kind of connection or on fostering connections within a specific group. Whether that’s children connecting across class and racial divides in your community, or homeless adults finding self-worth in their mutual creation, or your 100% White choir seeking to understand
Step 2: Consideration
After you’ve reached potential buyers with a message that defines your product’s value, they enter a period of consideration before committing to invest in that product. This period can be anything from a few seconds to years. In the end, they are considering both the cost of your product and how your product compares to similar products available to them.
The first of these considerations is a bit easier to manage. You likely already know where the cost breaking points are in your community and at what dollar amount your product moves from being underpriced to overpriced. If you don’t know this yet, ask a variety of friends and community members how they would price your product. You’ll quickly see a range emerge where people feel confident that they’re getting enough value for their money. You can also compare your prices to similar products being offered in your area, such as other choruses, social groups, concerts, art experiences, etc.
As you embark on this analysis, we arrive at the second basic marketing tool everyone should know about, the SWOT analysis. SWOT stands for:
- Strength: the things your organization does well compared to similar organizations
- Weaknesses: the things your organization doesn’t do as well as similar organizations
- Opportunities: elements in your situation or environment that create spaces for you to be successful, including spaces where other organizations aren’t actively using resources
- Threats: elements of your situation or environment which threaten your success, including any direct competition for resources
Obviously, other choruses and performing arts organizations in your community are a good place to start for this analysis. But you might want to consider organizations and activities a bit further afield; community events, movies, online entertainment, and sports are other good places to look for information for your SWOT analysis. Assessing other local organizations with similar products can also lead to insights about how you fit into the fabric of your community and where your opportunities for improvement and growth lie.
When potential buyers are considering investing in your chorus, it’s important to recognize that the sheer number of touchpoints comes into play to a certain extent. On average, potential consumers need eight unique interactions with a product or brand before they make a purchase. For a chorus, these touchpoints can be anything recognizably tied to your organization, including reading a poster, hearing a radio ad, seeing a Facebook ad, etc.
Note that eight interactions is the average—some people will take more convincing, which means you need to be putting out many more than eight potential touchpoints in order for the average person to see at least eight. This is where having a set of brand guidelines can help immensely. If each of your posters for any entire season of concerts has the same logo, general layout, colors, and style, each poster will count as another touchpoint for your brand, even though the posters are advertising different concerts.
Brand guidelines are very easy to develop and can be collected in a one- or two-page document. Your brand standards should include your logo, preferred fonts, brand colors, any usage specifics (“Always spell out the chorus’s name. Never abbreviate.”), details about language to be used (“We use language that is inclusive and positive” or “We avoid the use of the word ‘festival’ when describing our chorus”), and any preferences for the kinds of images used (“Photos used in marketing always include pictures of people with their faces visible having fun.”).
Step 3: Conversion
Once your buyers have committed to investing in one of your products, your primary task must be to make it as easy as possible for them to purchase that product. Whether online, over the phone, or in person, making your purchasing process simple and straightforward is crucial to converting their interest and commitment into a transaction.
For this step, think again of who you’re trying to connect with and how they make purchases. Online ticketing is great for the technologically savvy among us, but online ticketing processes with more than ten clicks are likely to frustrate older and younger patrons alike. Some demographics like to text, while others prefer email or phone calls. Venmo is ideal for some, but suspiciously unregulated for others. Paying dues through an app only works if everyone in the chorus has a phone to download the app and knows how to run the app themselves. Thinking through how your buyers shop can help map out the best way to facilitate their investment in your organization.
If you use your website as a primary channel for ticket sales or donations, Google Analytics is a powerful tool for understanding how and why people are or aren’t buying your products, and where in your purchasing flow they’re getting stuck. A little training here goes a long way, and setting up your online systems to track how customers journey through your sales process can give you great insight into what is preventing or encouraging conversion. The Google Analytics Academy is a great place to start.
There can also be other barriers to conversion in your marketing funnel. Transportation, childcare, personal safety, and hundreds of other factors can prevent an interested person from becoming an invested patron. While you will never be able to resolve every potential issue for every individual, it’s worth looking at ways to solve problems that come up frequently. If many of your community members are not comfortable inside a certain church, can you change your venue? Is there a bus stop or other public transportation near your performance location? Can you provide childcare (or better yet a children’s chorus) during adult choir rehearsals?
Step 4: Loyalty
Once your patrons have been to one or more of your concerts or your members have sung for a season, the final stage of the marketing funnel is to keep them coming back for more. For your most loyal supporters, you may even want to turn them into brand ambassadors to get other potential patrons and members involved. This can be difficult because everyone wants attendees who have concerts marked on their calendars months in advance, singers who reliably participate year after year, and volunteers who are willing to help whenever asked.
The trick to this kind of brand loyalty is consistent investment in individual relationships, which takes vast amounts of time and energy to do well. As nonprofits, we’re often overextended and unable to devote the resources needed to this important final step. So here are a few quick ideas to help build loyalty without burning out your staff or board:
- Thank you notes: At each board meeting, have your board members sign thank you notes for any major donors or patrons who have made contributions since the previous board meeting. This assembly line of signatures takes only a few minutes but stands out to the people you’re thanking. If you have a major sponsor, consider having the entire chorus sign something at a rehearsal to be presented to the sponsor.
- Program thank you messages: Make sure your donors and patrons are being thanked in your programs (and on other marketing materials as well if applicable).
- Post-concert surveys: Post-concert surveys make everyone feel like their voice is valid and welcome at the table. Plus, post concert surveys can give you a much better understanding of what is and isn’t working for each concert. Just be careful to keep the number of questions low (around five is a good goal) and include plenty of space for written-in comments, which are often more useful than the answers to your carefully constructed survey questions.
- Maintain connections between concerts: Whether it’s sending an email newsletter or inviting your audience to an open rehearsal or community cook-out, do something in between concerts to reconnect with your attendees, donors, and members, particularly if you have large gaps in your season. These activities keep your chorus front-of-mind for potential consumers and add to the number of touchpoints you have with your community.
- Curate a culture: Extend the character and culture of your chorus into your marketing and community interactions. Social media platforms work well here; developing a chorus hashtag for your members to use when they post to Facebook or Instagram about rehearsals or performances is a great place to start.
- Pull out the chair: Create direct pathways for your attendees, members, and donors to become more involved, then invite individual people to step into a new role. A new member can easily become a snack captain for one rehearsal, or a multi-year volunteer might be interested in a board or committee position. Pull out the chair for the person and explain why you believe their help in the new role will be great for the organization.
There isn’t one right way to build loyalty since it’s highly dependent on the individual relationships being formed. It’s ok—and even healthy—to spread out the maintenance of these relationships among several people, including board and committee members, volunteers, and choir members themselves.
Obviously, you won’t be able to implement an entirely new marketing strategy overnight. So start small: Plan a conversation about your organization’s “Why?” for your next board meeting, send one thank-you note, add one touchpoint for your next concert, or watch a YouTube tutorial on Google Analytics. Start small and grow your efforts over time as these new ideas become integrated into your organization’s structure. Marketing relies on consistency. If you pace yourself by taking small, sustainable steps, you will be able to harness the power of marketing to address audience and membership building without becoming overwhelmed.
With 14 years of experience in arts administration, choral conducting, and music education, Stephanie Helleckson approaches creating community music-making opportunities from many angles. She is currently Program Manager for the Crested Butte Center for the Arts, Director of the North Fork Community Choir, and Vice President of the Valley Symphony Association, all located in western Colorado. Visit shelleckson.com to download her "Applying Big Marketing Ideas to Your Chorus" packet.