Audiences & Technology Series: Transparency at University Musical Society

Performance of Messiah at Hill Auditorium, UMS

University Musical Society realizes that people are hungry for insider information, but they want it now.

We spoke with Sara Billman, Director of Marketing and Communications at UMS, about their website the UMS Lobby Project and the creative ways they are using it to engage their community online and in the concert hall.

This is one of a series of conversations with leaders from eight organizations convening in December 2011 around the topic of Audience Engagement and Technology.

Piama Habibullah (ArtsFwd): What is University Musical Society?

Sara Billmann (Director of Marketing and Communications): We’re a university presenter housed on the University of Michigan campus. While classical music was historically the most important to us, UMS now presents jazz, world music, modern dance and international theater as the organization has grown. We present 60-65 performances and around 50 events per year- almost everything is a one-night stand.

PH: Where did the idea for the UMS Lobby Project come from?

We asked ourselves, how do we get new audiences? How do we engage our current audiences in such a way that they actually become our ambassadors and bring new people on board?  We realized that there is a need nowadays for people who want to dig deeper into the context of the performances they experience.

The initial approach to the project was to find a way to respond to change not just locally, but on a national level. Over the course of our work in the EmcArts Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts, we developed the idea for the UMS Lobby as an online space. So we created an active blog and employed local writers, graduate students, and even members of our own staff to follow artistic companies from private to public activities, posting photos, video and writing on what it is like to be an insider.

PH:  How much editorial control do you exercise over the online content?

Transparency is very important to us. Blog posts, comments and dialogue are completely honest. No one has to feel like they have to be positive about what they’re writing about if they’ve genuinely had a negative experience. This gets audience members excited about what others are saying about the performances and also generates rich online criticism.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan (photo by Liu Chen-Hsiang)

UMS has had controversial and provocative performances in the past few months, which has caused an explosion in online communication and self-reflection. We are not having to step in to explain things. The audience members are doing that for each other. In the comment stream of a particularly confounding dance performance, one patron wrote, “I did not get it when I was watching the performance Friday night.  After viewing all these comments, it helps me to think that this is all about simplicity, purity and realization of my own …I get it now.” The UMS Lobby website has become a legitimate vehicle for expressing both positive and negative aspects of performance.

PH: Are any other organizations in your community getting involved?

The digitization of the 132-year archive of program pages and historical photographs, undertaken by the Ann Arbor District Library, is now available through anyone on the library’s website. They have also developed a database tool, creating a robust system to enter multimedia content for every artist who performs at UMS. In addition, they are creating a living archive and interviewing audience members and artists on their experiences in performance in Ann Arbor. What we’re hoping to do is tell the story of our impact and the story of what this organization has meant to this community through the past, but also using the past to anchor the present and the future.

PH: How has the UMS staff been involved in the project?

SB: We realized we had many educational and engagement opportunities for the public and their partners, yet rarely did anything for our own staff. We took many measures to engage the artists with the staff. There’s still a lot of mystery and sometimes it’s great to preserve the mystery, but certainly the way the world has changed, I think that people are really curious about what that means. So we’ve had staff members interviewing artists about what it’s like to be on the road.

PH: What are some of the challenges you faced?

SB: One of the biggest challenges was an internal struggle about whether the UMS website should be fully integrated into the larger university informational website. The desire for transparency poses problems when comments become too honest. Artists aren’t vacuum cleaners.  They have feelings and they are deeply and emotionally invested in the work that they do. The challenge developed into how to encourage people to share their thoughts in a comfortable manner. Another challenge was to try to engage people in posts that aren’t specifically related to a show that is currently on stage, but to create more of a big umbrella dialogue.

Vladimir Jurowski conducting at UMS (photo by Richard Cannon)

We underestimated how critically important it is to create short videos and to recognize that people do sit down and take a few minutes to watch, whereas they may not want to read a lot of text. We saw a surge in video views and responses. Part of the project was a push to engage our staff in shooting and editing videos, creating a DIY feel to the site. The creation process took so long that we had to hire a student in film and video to help manage the process. People are hungry for insider information, but they want it now.

PH:  What’s next?

SB: The most important goals are the redesign of the website and platform, incorporating the database tool and continuing to experiment with more external content rather than relying on our internal staff to populate content. This partly gives more credibility and partly is a timing issue on how often content should be rolled out.

PH: What are some questions you have for the field?

SB: We’d love to discuss gaming and how successful it is.  Is it a way of engaging people that makes them think about the organization differently or is it just the type of thing that takes a lot of staff time to manage and develop, but doesn’t really lead to a lot of successful results?

Piama Habibullah is the former Online Producer + Communications Manager at EmcArts.