17 Tips On Marketing Orchestras to Millennials

Yesterday I read a slim but interesting book called Marketing for Millennials, by Jeff Fromm and Christie Garton. It verbalized a lot of my gut instincts, and especially the gut instinct that most orchestras suck at marketing to millennials.

Roughly speaking, millennials are carbon-based human life forms aged 18-35. (For a point of reference, I’m 24.) It’s tough to generalize about an entire generation, but I’m about to do so.


  • use the Internet a lot
  • tend to be more politically progressive
  • are extremely well-educated
  • value companies with consciences
  • frequently live with our parents thanks to the recession
  • possess larger social networks than any other generation

And here’s an interesting factoid: there are more of us than there are baby boomersYup, you read that right: we’re the largest generation in American history.

You would not know any of these things based on most orchestras’ marketing efforts.

So here, without further ado, are seventeen suggestions for orchestras to keep in mind as they think about how to attract young people.

1) Don’t set up a Facebook account and a Twitter feed and then congratulate yourself on being a social media master. What matters is how you use the Facebook account and Twitter feed. In my opinion, if you use them badly, it’s worse than not having a social media presence at all.

From the book:

It should come as no surprise that Zappos scores high marks among Millennials like Caroline who say they prefer brands that value their input and strive to keep their customers happy. It’s not simply about providing good deals, although that can help. As a LuxuryInstitute.com article states, “It is crucial for social media to be treated as a service channel in addition to a promotional channel. The installation of an uninformed employee, armed with no more than a hyperlink to a customer service page is only slightly better than ignoring comments made within social networks.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

2) You’ve got to create interesting content. Not just in the concert hall (although that is of paramount importance, too), but online. Blog entries. Interesting Tweets. Videos with the ability to go viral. Create creative stuff that shares information about your product and, just as importantly, your people. You don’t need a lot of money to do this. Just time. And creativity.

Speaking of which…

3) Groom, respect, and value creative people. They will be the centerpiece of your marketing and business strategy. You can throw all the money you want at a marketing campaign, but if the people who actually create your content aren’t groomed, respected, and valued, your outreach is going to fall flat.

On a related note…

4) Tap into the knowledge of young staff, volunteers, and musicians. They are a priceless resource, especially if you are over the age of 40 (as many orchestra CEOs are). If you’re over 40, no matter how expensive your phone is, no matter how often you check Facebook, no matter how cool your kids tell you you are, you are not a digital native. Sorry! A 52-year-old man who claims to fully understand how young people interact with social media is only slightly less painful than a root canal without Novocain. That being said, not being a digital native isn’t a good thing or a bad thing; it just is. It’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of. (I firmly believe millennials are going to be technologically crushed by our kids, who, after all, learned how to work iPads as toddlers…) But the sooner you acknowledge the reality of the generation gap, the better.

5) Encourage whatever form of human connection you can. Interestingly, millennials value relationships even more profoundly than preceding generations! Personal relationships are hugely important to us as we decide what organizations to spend time or money supporting. You don’t buy that kind of loyalty; you have to earn it. Often you can do that just by reaching out, whether online or in person. One of the major reasons I started blogging in earnest was because in the summer of 2010 one of my reviews was mentioned in the Minnesota Orchestra’s blog Inside the Classics. I’d link to that entry, but the blog was nuked by management without explanation, apparently because it was written by a musician. I firmly believe this was just as big a mistake as Domaingate, and maybe even bigger. I remember writing a thank-you note afterward and saying, the Minnesota Orchestra has a fan for life! Funny story, though: my loyalty didn’t extend to the institution; it extended to the people within the institution. An important distinction. This brings us back to the precept: value your people.

6) Millennials have close ties with our parents and immediate family, and we affect their purchasing decisions. For any number of reasons, millennials tend to be closer to their parents than previous generations, and we often do things together. This happened in my own family: I went to orchestra concerts as a teenager and my mom came along. We both loved the experience. Now she’d go to concerts even if I didn’t.

7) Millennials want to co-create with you and have their voices heard. You’re begging for irrelevancy amongst millennials if you don’t allow for copious amounts of conversation and feedback. Leadership needs to be open, accountable, and accessible. I think this is one reason why anti-management fervor has burned so brightly among Minnesota’s young. We take it personally when we don’t feel valued and respected by the organizations we invest our time and energy in. There are plenty of other arts organizations that understand this and who do value our input (for instance, the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, who are always just an email or Facebook post away).

8) You need to keep an eye on what is said about your brand online. In this day and age, you can’t see a major online event like the Minnesota Orchestra’s Domaingate and cover your ears and yell La La La and think you’ll emerge unscathed. Sorry. The people who support you online, you need to work to court. The people who don’t support you online…you need to work to court. In the reality-based business world, it’s a problem when a large number of people don’t like you. Just because bad publicity is happening online doesn’t make it any less real or any less of a problem.

9) Millennials have high expectations for customer service. We don’t have the time to be treated like crap by an organization. There are too many alternatives too easily accessible elsewhere. So step up your game.

10) We respond to organizations that have social consciences. It was a huge mistake for the Minnesota Orchestra management to turn down the chance to work with El Sistema Minneapolis, because this is exactly the kind of partnership that would make the Minnesota Orchestra appealing to socially conscious millennials. If orchestras present themselves as organizations that exist primarily for the entertainment of the pampered elite, or as “venues” with $50 million lobbies that corporations and private individuals pay to rent out, that is a massive turn-off for millennials. Even if the well-marketed “venue” makes some money and encourages corporate donations, that will come at a big expense to the organization’s image among young people. Not sure that anyone at the Minnesota Orchestra has connected those dots yet.

11) Millennials tend to be politically progressive. The Bush presidency and the astonishing election of Barack Obama shaped our worldview. Fortunately symphony orchestras don’t tend to get too political with their work, but it’s certainly worth keeping millennials’ political identities in mind as you try to figure out what appeals to them and makes them click. Especially since many major orchestra boards are made up of older white conservative businessmen, who often find it hard to get into the brains of younger multicultural liberal bohemians.

12) Millennials love adventures and trying new things. “New things” even include orchestral concerts!

13) Don’t assume that young people won’t support you financially. Yeah, a lot of us are broke, but remember: we’re the biggest generation in American history. Even if percentage-wise a lot of us are poor, that still means huge numbers of us aren’t! Many millennials were able to buck national trends and find high-paying jobs, or they grew up in families who have money and share it. And even the poor ones frequently buy tickets for or contribute to things that are deeply important to them; they just skimp on other things that don’t mean as much to them.

14) That being said, many of us don’t like marketing or messaging that is exclusionary. There is a trend for orchestras to try to capitalize on the ascent of millennials by forming social groups with hip names. These groups are usually for “young professionals.” I hate the phrase “young professionals.” What about young freelancers? What about young musicians? What about college students? What about young people who can’t find jobs? Are they not welcome? If the description of your only group for young people includes the phrase “young professional”, you’re sending a message, intentionally or not, that the only young patrons worthy of institutional investment are those who make a lot of money.

15) Don’t assume that just because millennials can’t give a lot of money (yet!) that we don’t have other valuable things to give. For example, because of the technology we grew up with, we are more interconnected than any other generation before us. Therefore, we can spread the word about things that provoke good (or bad) reactions in us. (I think this blog is a prime example of that…) If we really love you, we will be brand ambassadors…at no cost to you! You just need to give us something to share and a reason to share it.

16) Millennials are very price-conscious. We’re very savvy shoppers, in large part because of how easy the Internet makes comparison shopping. We respond well to great deals, especially when they’re offered by an organization that has made it a stated priority to value the business of young people. From what I’m hearing, the Cleveland Orchestra is doing an amazing job with this right now. Kudos, Cleveland! The Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra also took a step in the right direction when they sold $15 student tickets for one of Osmo’s farewell concerts.

Here’s the most important point of all, copied verbatim from the book. Point 17:

Brands with an older target demographic cannot neglect the Millennial generation, given their size and influence. The sooner that established brands can begin creating a relationship with Millennial consumers – even if by merely starting a dialogue – the better.

So how to summarize?

Millennials are driven by creativity, technology, amazing experiences, good deals, and, above all, meaningful relationships. Symphony orchestras can provide all of those things. So if millennials aren’t making up a decent-sized chunk of your audience, that might not be a failure of the art or the product as much as a failure of the organization. Initiate dialogue in whatever way possible. Work with people who are fluent in millennial culture and technology. Don’t be afraid to let creative people do their own thing. Constantly prove the relevance of your institution to a broad audience. Count your lucky stars if you’re in a city with a large millennial population, and even more so if those millennials are well-educated. In short, don’t underestimate millennials when planning for the future.

One final question to ponder:

How can an orchestra afford not to prioritize outreach to the largest generation of all, which has the theoretical capability to support you for half a century or more?


Filed under The Orchestra Business

18 responses to “17 Tips On Marketing Orchestras to Millennials

  1. Stuard Young

    Emily, you shine more brilliantly each week, with wisdom beyond your years. May I share this with the other members of the Board of Directors of my community orchestra? Also, a financial note: both the Philadelphia Orchestra and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra initiated student season passes for just $25. Yes, that is $25 for any and all concerts not already sold out during the entire season! Thank you so much for sharing your very important information. Your very last paragraph is so true. I attended my first Philadelphia Orchestra concert, a regular, evening adult subscription concert, when I was just eight, so I have been supporting my orchestra for over 50 years! (With a little luck, I still have a couple of decades left in me.)

  2. barbara

    You are very young and old all at once!!! I learn so much from you…and am more than twice your age….my children are millennials, btw – you all are my favorite generation!

  3. Erika Sacks-White

    Great summarization of a wealth of information. Your blog has certainly proved that social media is not senseless, and your voice cannot be ignored. You provide such clear, reasoned statements, and you are a true representative of the Millenials. Keep bringin’ it girl!

  4. Rachael

    I would add that millennials spend their money on experiences as much as things. My boomer mom brings my millennial children to plays, dance performances, and was a season ticket holder to the Orchestra bringing my kids along in turns. No one in my family has given any of my children stuff in years, they don’t want or need stuff. What they want, and what we all agree they need, are experiences. I can’t tell you how many young people I know who buy their clothes at the thrift store, ride an old bike everywhere, and regularly spend $200.00 for a great dinner.

  5. Doug Ramsdell

    HI Emily–
    I’ve been a member of a clarinet-nerd discussion board for years (being one myself) and every time a “symphonies in trouble” thread shows up, as they do all too often these days, you end up reading one sorrowful, downbeat comment after another about the certain extinction of the orchestra (“What’s the use, the symphony audience is 85 years old, they play the same stuff over and over that I already have on cd, parking’s a hassle, these kids today don’t care anyhow, the symphony is a goner”….etc.) Your blog has been a welcome breath of fresh air and (to me) surprising information about orchestras, and I’m afraid I cribbed from you like crazy during a recent thread on the MO lockout–because of some fairly surprising stuff I learned from your blog, and your links, and your other contributors that goes against what everybody (including me) thinks they “know” about the dinosaur known as the symphony orchestra. This post of yours is another incredibly valuable contribution to that end, and I feel like a fortunate beneficiary of your hard work and sharp thinking. Thanks, Emily!

    • violinista

      ^This. I’ve said for a long time, nobody wants to book a cruise if they think the ship is sinking. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  6. Chris Garten

    Stuard Young mentioned the Baltimore Symphony. Marin Alsop has done an incredible job of turning that orchestra around- it has been growing for years! The orchestra has their OrchKids program, in which the orchestra musicians go to Baltimore City schools and work with students. (There was some griping from the musicians about this not being their job- but this is precisely what orchestras should be doing to engage the younger generation!!)
    There has been a LOT of outreach to families with children. I attended a concert which had been heavily marketed to families- it was space themed. It opened with a premiere- “Ceres,” followed by “Star Wars Suite” (There had been Star Wars characters roaming the lobby before the concert, Marin was escorted out on stage by two storm troopers, and the characters were in the lobby for intermission and after the concert as well). Then after the intermission was the North American premiere of “Icarus at the Edge of Time,” by Philip Glass. This piece has a narrator and a video. It was FANTASTIC! And the audience was full of families with kids.
    In addition, Marin Alsop has truly tied the orchestra into the fabric of Baltimore. During the playoffs and the Super Bowl last year (when the Ravens won!!!!) she wore purple shirts, and Ravens cuff links, etc. That was also paired with a savvy social media campaign which linked the football team and the orchestra through their city. (I remember one, it was a picture of Marin Alsop and an orchestra seating chart drawn like a football play. Genius!)
    Long story short- look to Marin Alsop and the BSO for the future of orchestral music in the U.S. *side note- I’m a millennial as well (I think- I’m 26, does that count?), and a full-time professional bassoonist.*

  7. Michael Suttle

    Very insightful. Especially #10. The L.A. Phil is very tied in with El Sistema. Anyone running the Minn Orchestra should do everything including buying the same music stands to emulate the L.A. Phil – they are being wildly successful.

  8. Many good points here. You should become a consultant.

    Let me add some nuance to some of these points:
    I’m a generation joneser (formerly the latter half of the boomers but significantly different in many ways). I worked for the Minnesota Orchestra for 4 years, then moved on to open the Ordway Theatre for another 4 years where I worked with and around the SPCO, MN Opera, Schubert Club and a host of others. I left arts administration to get technical skills in video production. Why? By the mid 1980s, there were already significant problems on the horizon for live performing arts being brought on by changes in technology and cultural shifts. It started with cable television and VCRs on the technology front which gave people expanded access to programming (once upon a time A&E and Bravo genuinely offered cultural content) and the beginning of time-shifting. Compact discs provided improvements over scratchy vinyl LPs. There were also cracks showing on the ticketing front as people’s schedules began to become stretched, necessitating more liberal exchange policies and smaller season ticket packages. I believed arts organizations needed to start considering how to address the impact of these emerging trends.
    I moved on early in the computer-based post production field and became even more involved with emerging media technologies, getting out front on web-based media (truly ugly to begin with) and digital consumer platforms.
    But I never lost my connection with the arts, working for a time with a local dance company (even though my roots are as a classically trained tuba player – a career seriously impeded when digital sampling rolled in).
    I am still stunned at how backward-thinking arts managers have been. The handwriting has been on the wall for years. I’ve been appalled to attend concerts surrounded by a sea of gray heads, even when performers have been a cross-section of generations. Narrow generation marketing cannot survive. What has to happen is that all parties – and that includes intransigent union administrators as well as management – need to leverage new communications modes and find where the complementary points are. A few years ago, the SPCO posted little vignettes from their European tour, but no shots of performers actually playing their instruments could be found. I’m sure this is an antiquated contract issue rooted in the idea that recordings and radio would kill live music. The arts have to go beyond that and figure out how online video can be used to tease potential patrons into the concert hall. I’ve discussed this with smaller organizations who genuinely get it but have the usual funding limitations to get going. The problem is, when an organization like the MOA cuts marketing budgets by 25%, they’re doomed. They need to tweak their process.
    Today (is this long enough?) I work in a job where I watch the newspaper industry founder and drag down much of the journalism world. There’s a combination of awe over what young people use (it’s just information) and a reluctance to teach a sophisticated set of technical skills to support and enhance their communications, usually out of fear and ignorance. Experience still counts on a lot of fronts. As a violinist, I’m sure you understand how certain fundamentals of art never change but are mastered only with experience and good mentoring.
    I could say more, but lunch time is running out.
    Look forward to more of your posts.

  9. Nancy Murphy

    Terrific article, Emily. I hope the powers-that-be read & heed!

  10. It is great to discover your writing Emily (thru FB). I have felt so strongly and spoke by my actions that musicians must lead the way out of the status quo. Having enjoyed many years, I quit my major orchestra position because in the course of sharing symphonic music OFF the pedestal of the concert hall (churches-clubs), I discovered the pleasure of facing new listeners and have them glimpse the value. I know we can do so much more when we choose to. It doesn’t need to be “world-class” to be deeply meaningful… it just needs to be genuine.

  11. Thank you-this is great stuff!

  12. Sally

    Great post, Emily!
    How about taking a page from Britain’s National Theatre and broadcasting live concerts to movie theaters in the region? http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/about-us

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