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Bucking Trends with Disciplined Communication
Episode 24

Bucking Trends with Disciplined Communication

CI to Eye with Aubrey Bergauer

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Erik and Aubrey talked about the California Symphony's "Orchestra X" project to better understand user experience purchasing and attending a concert, and the website changes they made based on their findings. They also discussed the California Symphony's disciplined approach to patron communication, as well as their recent Public Organizational Commitment to Diversity across programming, staffing, and the board.

Erik Gensler: Thank you so much for being here. I’m really excited to chat with you.

Aubrey Bergauer: Yeah, like wise.

Erik Gensler: So you first came on my radar when I read your blog post, “Orchestra X: The Results.” Can you tell me about that project and some of the things that you learned?

Aubrey Bergauer: We decided at the California Symphony, we were going to just talk to people about why they’re not coming to the orchestra. And what we did was we put out, the call for people to participate and we said, “If you are the kind of person who is smart, generally culturally aware, has expandable income, goes to other entertainment options, live entertainment options, but for whatever reason, don’t go to the Symphony. You are who we wanna talk to.” And we put out that call and that and itself got shared pretty widely. And then people worked to us. We said, “If that’s you, we wanna hear from you. Tell us why you wanna participate. And the deal is, you will come to a few California Symphony concerts.” Everybody had one required concert, so there would be one, uniform shared experience among the participants. And we said, “We’ll charge you only $5, not free. It has to be at the basement low price, but only, $5 because free has no value.” We want them, wanted them to go through the purchase path that was part of the experience.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm.

Aubrey Bergauer: So, low price for them and a guest. And we said, “You’ll come to as many concerts as you want. This one particular concert is required for the shared experience. And then, we are going to have a discussion about it.” And that’s exactly what we did. So everybody who participated, we had about 40 or so reach out to us about, 30 made the cut and I would say, made the cut meanings, the only reason you wouldn’t make the cut there were a couple people who said, “I love the arts. I wanna help.” And we said, “No. That’s not, that’s not who we’re trying to talk to here.”

Erik Gensler: (Laughs)

Aubrey Bergauer: So, in the discussion group, it is important to say that we held it at a local brewery. We served pizza and beer and not one in orders, you know. We asked them about every facet of the experience from what was it like finding which concerts you wanted to attend online and what was that experience like. And then when you actually made a selection and went through the purchase path, what was that experience like? And our commitment in return to them and besides the low ticket price was that we would listen only and not jump to defense. And that was an exercise that proved tremendously difficult, because there were some things that were really hard to hear. (Laughter) But so informative and everybody there really, really wanted to, to help. And what I mean by that is, everybody really fit the call that we put out there, smart people, educated, had some expandable income. Age range, we, we never explicitly really said millennials and Gen Xers, I don’t think so at least not super overtly, but that was the age range. It was some people in their 20s, late 20s, early 30s and even a couple people in their early 40s. And so it, it really strongned …

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm.

Aubrey Bergauer: … that range of sort of this ethereal younger audiences that everybody wants to attract. So it was helpful in that way.

Erik Gensler: Right. And what were the top headlines of the things that you learned?

Aubrey Bergauer: The biggest takeaway is that the music is not the problem. And so many orchestras approach our challenges with growing audiences as a programming challenge. And it’s not to say that we should not look at programming. That’s not at all what I’m trying to say, but as more and more people ask me about this I say over and over again, it’s everything else that we need to be examining and addressing. Programming probably could come last, if not, near last. So, things that do need to be examined, things like the website experience we learned smart people want information (chuckles) I was so impressed with how much they scoured our website trying to figure out what is the right concert for them to attend. The price was $5 yet they were still so thoughtful, about where they should, when they should come and what concert they wanted to see. So we learned things such as the language we use when we talk about our, our product is assuming a level of understanding that doesn’t exist, z, among this group. And maybe this is finding number two. If number one is that the music is not the problem, number two finding is that we as arts organizations preach that the decline in music education in this country is a big reason why we are seeing declines in audiences, yet very few of us have done anything to change how we talk about the art we produce. So, what became very clear to me was that there is a big gap between people who are a product of our lack of education, these millennials, Gen Xers, they’re now grown adults and they don’t have this fundamental, “fundamental understanding” that we so, we as administrators so often assume that our audience has. So big disconnect there. So, we had them tell us things like, “Your website read like it was inside baseball.” Okay, so that was a big one word. I was like, “Okay, don’t jump to the fence. You know, try to (laughter) process this out with any mean.” And there were things like, not everybody knew the names of the instruments in the orchestra. One person asked, “Can I plug an oboe?” And you know, I said, “Oh, you don’t plug an oboe,” but, instead of again feeling defensive, I had to think, “No, this person, again, smart, educated, expandable and wants to learn.” So, it was just really eye-opening to see that not everybody knows what a concerto is. There were some things changes we made, just even in our program book. This all falls probably under the same category that people want to learn, but we realized that not everybody knows that a typical orchestra concert format is a 10 to 12 minute overture followed by a 20 to 24 minute concerto with a guest artist soloist, followed by intermission, finally followed by a 45 to 50 minute four movement symphonic work. Like no, nobody knows that. And so, or not everybody knows that I should say. And even, even just doing something as simple as putting running times on our program book, this first piece in the program is 10 minutes. This next piece is 20 minutes. We’ve had so much positive feedback on that, because it sets their listening expectations.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Aubrey Bergauer: So, so much to wrap all this up. So much of what we learned was just that we cannot assume that people have again, what was “a basic understanding of classical music.” And it is our jobs as arts administrators to talk about barriers to entry, that’s a huge one. It’s our job to reduce that. And it doesn’t mean that making the way we talk about our product accessible and approachable, that doesn’t mean dumbing it down. It just means it’s a shift.

Erik Gensler: I know you’ve taken those learnings and applied them in a lot of great ways. You mentioned the program book, but, also in preparation for this, I looked at your production detail pages. And they look very different than most …

Aubrey Bergauer: Hmm.

Erik Gensler: … production detail pages. And I’m curious if you can tell us what did you do to your production detail pages based on what you learned from this?

Aubrey Bergauer: Yes, great question. Our pages used to look like a title of a concert that wasn’t very informative, season open, our season finale, a paragraph description about the programming, the names of the pieces, but get tickets link and specific changes from this group where the title of the concert matters. And that was very eye-opening to me. When I wanna go to an orchestra concert, I look at the programming. I wanna know what the repertoire is and that’s how I make my decision. But again, I’m not this group. and so one person said and this is really stuck with me, “I wanna know, is this a romantic comedy or a tragedy?”

Erik Gensler: (Laughs)

Aubrey Bergauer: I said, “Okay, I get it.” So we’ve really been more thoughtful about what do we title our concerts. So that’s one changed and then moving away from paragraph format to bullet points we say, “What’s interesting about this concert.” That’s what they wanna know. What is interesting about this concert. Usually, three bullet points and we’re done. And we try to keep it short. We try very hard to lose the vernacular or the jargon. And when we do use those words try to define them. When we do get to the programming listing, every piece on the program is linked to its Wikipedia page. And that came directly from this group. One person said, “I looked up every piece on Wikipedia before I decided which concert I wanted to go to.” Like almost every piece in the season he looked up on Wikipedia. And other people didn’t quite have that much legwork that they had done in advance, but everybody who said, “Oh yeah, if you could just you know help us figure out where to go to learn about these pieces, we want to.” And again, not to feel the response instead of being defensive and saying, “Well, look it up if you wanna know or it’s all in the program book when you get there.” It was a real opportunity for me to say, “No, I’m not, they need education before the ticket purchase,” and that is something that is so lacking for most orchestras across the country of all budget sizes. We do a really wonderful job of educating people after the ticket purchase. Free concert talks, program book, community lectures, whatever that is before the ticket purchase. There’s a real opportunity for us to educate.

Erik Gensler: All right, and I love what you wrote about these changes you said the subscribers are not the ones necessarily looking at single ticket pages. The production detail pages should be specifically designed for single ticket buyers who generally know less about the art form, which is why they’re less connected to the organization in the first place.

Aubrey Bergauer: Yes. So many times. This isn’t true of just website, this is true of so much, content, collateral, things that organizations produce. We try to make it one size fits all. And I think, a drive for that is usually lack of resources, lack of staff, or lack of clarity or knowledge around what each of these pieces or mediums is for. And in this case, yes, we’ve gotta remember our, our production detail pages, those single ticket landing pages are for single ticket buyers. So, a question I get so much at the time is, “Did anybody get mad at you that you, that you made your language more casual?” And the answer is, “No way.” On one hand, most people don’t know if we are doing our jobs well as arts marketers, we are segmenting appropriately knowing which pieces of the website people are visiting and tracking that and making that content appropriate for the desired audience. So there’s that. The other thing I would say is even on things like program book that do strong multiple segments in the audience in terms of who reads it, it’s been just the opposite. I have had so many subscribers and longtime patrons and donors come up to me and say, “I see what you’re doing. I see the change in our audience. I see that the house is full. I see younger faces.” Bravo. So everybody who asks me, “You know, should I be afraid of our core patrons?” No, not at all.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Aubrey Bergauer: They want to see the, these results as well.

Erik Gensler: And you also say you realized that people want to hear the story behind each piece, not the music theory behind it.

Aubrey Bergauer: Yes. So this is another area that came straight from this discussion group and we were talking at the time specifically about the program notes. And the, the piece, or the concert, the shared experience that everybody had to have, that concert had Rachmaninoff second symphony on it. And in this discussion group, multiple people at the table starts staying, “Rachmaninoff second symphony should have never happened. His first symphony was disaster and oh my gosh, it took so much gumption for him to write his second. And when he did, boy was it marvelous.” And at this point in the discussion I’m feeling very proud of my young proteges who have come to the concert and learned so much. And then someone says, “Whoever wrote those program notes should have written all the others.”

Erik Gensler: (Laughs)

Aubrey Bergauer: And my response was, “The same person did write all the others.” So I dig into this and I probed with some more follow-up questions and it turns out the way the program notes were written even though it was the same person who was a highly regarded musicologist, he also writes program notes for San Francisco Symphony. He’s a professor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. the same person wrote, happened to write the Rachmaninoff second symphony program notes talking about the story and his life and what was going on with the composer whereas the other two pieces on the program, it happened to be more technical, more musical theory. Listen for the way of the melody gets pass from the flutes to the, you know, whatever.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm.

Aubrey Bergauer: And it just became very clear that what really was exciting to this group was the story and we’ve since shifted the way we focused our program notes and we have the same person writing them still and we’ve say, “Hey, this really resonated with a lot of people. Can you, can you focus on the story more?” And he has, and we’ve gotten really good feedback on that.

Erik Gensler: That’s awesome. So when you took over at the California Symphony, it was in really rough operational financial shape and over the past three or four years, you’ve implemented a lot of changes in, in strategy, and as a result you’ve seen a massive increase in subscription revenue by over 70%, increases in audience size by over 70%, increase in contributed revenue by over 40%. Let’s talk about how you did that.

Aubrey Bergauer: We did a lot of work. A lot of things differently than what most arts organizations are doing. I was brought in for a financial turnaround. Most of my experience had been at large arts organizations primarily Seattle Opera, Seattle Symphony, the Bumbershoot Music and Arts Festival, and California Symphony brought me in and said, “We need someone with sophisticated experience to come here and, and, and bring that here. Bring that to us and show us how, how it’s done.” So I came and there are a few different things that we did. I mean, a lot I guess is really the answer, but, when people ask me this question, “How did you do it?” A few things in particular we focused on. At the very beginning, the first thing we did was a website redesign. You know, the most public facing ambassador for our organization is the website. So that was the first thing we did. In conjunction with a massive matching challenge fund raising campaign. (Chuckles) So, those were the two things right out of the gate. But then, once we sort of got these foundational pieces in place, okay cash is flowing again, the donor base is activated. the website is now more properly public-facing and representing us the way we want. Then, and this has been the thing that has been the true line now. Here we are nearly four years later. We focused on patron retention. And in the arts, we talk and specifically classical music, we talk so much about that first timer at, attendee return rate. And the national stat is that 90% of first time buyers for orchestras do not ever return and yet we all say we need new audiences, we need younger audiences. And if we actually looked at our databases, we would find that is not true. We are excellent at securing new audiences. So many new people come in every year and where we really fail is to retain them. It’s a retention problem, not a new audience’s problem. So, we took a deep dive into each of the different segments of our audience. First time attendees of course is a really critical segment. I’ll share how in a moment, but we have brought that retention rate from 10% now to 21%.

Erik Gensler: Wow.

Aubrey Bergauer: Thank you.

Erik Gensler: So 21% of first time buyers come again with-

Aubrey Bergauer: Come, come again within a 12-month period.

Erik Gensler: Wow.

Aubrey Bergauer: Mm-hmm. And, and we’ve done a similar exercises with every segment of the database. Okay, when somebody comes the second time in 12 months and they’re multi-buyer, then what do we do for them? When they become a first time subscriber, how is that different than a renewed subscriber, because that’s another big sort of red flag nationally like generally less than half of first time subscribers renew, so for us, that was an area of focus. And we treat those people differently. And the same thing with renewing subscribers. And I mean, I can talk about how for all of these different segments, but the thing that I would say we don’t do that has really separated us is we do not solicit for a donation until somebody is a renewing second year or higher subscriber.

Erik Gensler: Hello. (Laughs)

Aubrey Bergauer: And through that and I say this all in the context of every stat that you shared Erik, we have grown our audience by 70%. We have nearly quadrupled our donor base. So by having discipline, we have excelled and the money has followed.

Erik Gensler: You’ve wrote online that you call it the audience development, free for all model. That is the current approach for most arts organizations. Buy one ticket and you just start getting the deluge from marketing and development.

Aubrey Bergauer: Yes. I’ve seen this play out at multiple organizations. Not just the ones where I’ve worked. This is sort of typical everywhere and hopefully you know, listeners understand and were following along. Generally when a first time attendee comes, the next things that happen are, okay, that person receiving subscription brochures and appeals. They go to the phone room, whether that’s telemarketing or telefunding. They then get the annual fund appeal next time that goes out. Then they are seeing digital ads for single ticket marketing and it’s just, it really is a deluge of all these messages, of all these ways, this new person can be engaged with the organization. And I think this is probably well-intentioned. It’s well-intentioned and that we want people to be more (laughs) engaged with us.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Aubrey Bergauer: But also, it’s not disciplined and it’s not focused and it’s not clear to the patron really what we want from them. Do we just want their money? Do we want another ticket purchase? Do we want a season ticket? And so, I think it really causes distraction and, and I’m sure that leads to this retention issue that we’re all having.

Erik Gensler: And so you have a specific plan for each segment in terms of what their next step is and what you need to do to get them to that next step.

Aubrey Bergauer: Mm-hmm. So for example, with first time attendees, when somebody comes to the California Symphony for the first time, we also define that as first time in four years. So if somebody had come more than four years ago and then they come back, we treat that as a new attendee. One, because a lot has changed to the organization in four years, but two, for somebody’s buyer behavior, four years they’re not a regular attendee that’s for sure. So, if somebody’s a new attendee, the first thing they see when they arrive is a note on their seat from us saying, ” Hey, we noticed this is your first time here or first in a while. We’re so glad you came. Here is a great discount offer. We would love to have you back.” So first time attendees are one of the few segments where we offer a discount and that’s really important too just how, limited and strategic we are with our discounting. so they get that message when they arrive. After the concert, they get an email saying basically the same thing, “Hey, we saw this is your first time here or first time in a while. We’re so glad you came. We’d love to have you back. Here’s an offer. Here’s a deadline.” That’s the other important piece of creating a sense of urgency.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm. This hearkens back to the Churn Study …

Aubrey Bergauer: Yes, that’s-

Erik Gensler: … with our good friend, Jack. Yes.

Aubrey Bergauer: Yeah, so Jack and I have talked about this.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Aubrey Bergauer: Actually, it was so funny, he called me and said, “Okay, you’re doing all these things. Is it working?” And I said, “Yes, it actually works.” (Laughter) So create, create some urgency, give a deadline. And, and we make sure that that discount is on the next couple of concerts. You know, again, you need somebody to return within a 12-month period and we try to even shorten that window to a 6-month period if we can. and then they get a postcard in the mail. Same message. So this is the same message, a third time, “Hey, we noticed you’re new or new, hasn’t come in a while. We’d love to have you back. Here’s the offer, here is the deadline.” And then before the deadline, they get a second email reminding them. So a new attendee for the California Symphony gets four different communications from us, which sometimes the response from people when I say this is, “Wow, that’s a lot of work, but it is a different work.” Most first time buyers get four different communications from an organization. All the things we said before. They get a phone call from the phone room. They get a season brochure. They get digital ads, you know? So whatever-

Erik Gensler: It’s not focused.

Aubrey Bergauer: That’s right. It’s just not focused.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Aubrey Bergauer: And so what we’ve said is we are shifting that and we, we have one next step for you. And if you’re a first time attendee, that is an invitation to come back. And we will welcome you back with open arms again, and again, and again, and again.

Erik Gensler: Right. You get these emails from so many organizations, “Thank you for coming in the show. Here’s content. Click here to donate. Click here to subscribe. Here’s our next show.” I think when you’re presented with that many options, I think there’s studies that show you, you, you choose less. (Laughs)

Aubrey Bergauer: Yeah, the paradox of choice.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, right.

Aubrey Bergauer: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

Erik Gensler: That’s fantastic. So the way you’re thinking about it, how have you structurally set up, the marketing and development apartments to, because in so many organizations and this is almost a stale topic, but I think it’s relevant here. I don’t bring this up that much, but you know, the typical development marketing silo where one person gets the universe and everyone’s free for all going after them.

Aubrey Bergauer: Mm-hmm.

Erik Gensler: How have you structured your internal staff to support this model?

Aubrey Bergauer: When I worked at Seattle Symphony, I worked in development. When I worked at Seattle Opera I worked in marketing. So I’ve seen firsthand the way these silos play out and seen firsthand the challenges that come, especially in bigger institutions where it is very difficult to, to work together across departments. And the way we’ve set it up at California Symphony is I have a director of patron loyalty and that person, oversees all of the marketing and low level annual fund. So, that person is responsible for coordinating these messages and knowing that okay, if the subscription offer is going out here and an annual fund offer needs or appeal needs to go out there and the single ticket marketing is here, how are we coordinating all of that? And who are we talking to? And who are we not talking to? Because as I said, we’re very disciplined and restrained in who we’re not soliciting from. So, I have one person who oversees all of that. And, because I worked at institutions of all sizes, I really believe this model can scale up. It’s just a matter of the amount of people executing that work …

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm.

Aubrey Bergauer: … but the strategy and the thought process is the same.

Erik Gensler: Great. You talked about, the idea of no culture for failure at organizations and because all arts organizations have lean budgets with little in that room for experimentation to try new things were locked in this sort of this old way of doing business. And every penny needs to go two things that we know works. And so, making change is hard.

Aubrey Bergauer: Mm-hmm. I think that’s true across all budget sizes. And I, I love that I have that view working for different sized, organizations, because it is true. And even now being at a smaller budget, I think the tendency can be to think,” oh, the big guys have this extra money that they can use.” Well, that’s not true even though that was at a bigger organization it was still lean. It just you know, it scales and it’s always lean relative to, to your staff and relative to the work you’re doing. And so what I’ve seen everywhere not, and not including places I’ve not worked is that what you said is so true. It, it is very difficult to try something new. And we have tremendous pressure to make every dollar in our budget work for us and be a maximum impact in the short-term.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm.

Aubrey Bergauer: And the idea of trying something new with making every dollar matter in the short-term does not coexist very well. And so what we’ve done at the California Symphony to combat that is one have a mentality of pilot projects, try something new, test it. I’m a big fan of testing-

Erik Gensler: And, and label it as a pilot.

Aubrey Bergauer: Yes.

Erik Gensler: So the pressure is a little lower.

Aubrey Bergauer: That’s right. Yeah, exactly. And for Jim Collins fans, one of you know, “Good to Great,” one of the things he says is, “First fire bullets before you fire canon balls.” And I love that analogy …

Erik Gensler: Right.

Aubrey Bergauer: … of, “Yeah, we can try something on a small scale in a way that does not cost a ton of money, but you know, we’re gonna put a little bit of skin in the game and just see how it goes.” And for us, that’s how we’re doing all of these different things. We’ve now completely shifted the way we approach audience development and now we are firing cannon balls and the whole organization is aligned that way. And its made a difference. And the last thing I’ll say on that is, it is so important that we bring our senior leadership along with us and the board along with us, because it is true that those short-term pressure in our industry is so real and-

Erik Gensler: Because we’re hanging on by a thread.

Aubrey Bergauer: That’s right.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Aubrey Bergauer: And, and yet how are we ever gonna break out of that if we don’t try new things?

Erik Gensler: Right.

Aubrey Bergauer: So, it is so important to bring along senior leadership in the board with you. Call it a pilot project. Call it a test, whatever it is. You know, we’re testing these things. We’re gonna see how it works and measure that. And I, what asserts me well through my whole career is being so data-driven, because its allowed me again and again and again across these different organizations to say, “The data shows this is making a difference.” And then it’s a lot easier to get that buy in to spend more money to do it on a bigger scale.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. In late 2017, you published a public commitment to diversity, which I think is so bold and so wonderful. And that encompassed what you’re doing with your programming, what you’re doing with your hiring, how you were thinking about your relationship with the board. Can you talk more about that?

Aubrey Bergauer: Hearing office speak at last year’s League of AmErikan Orchestra’s conference was very impactful for me.

Erik Gensler: Afa Dworkin, yeah.

Aubrey Bergauer: Yes, Afa Dworkin. And-

Erik Gensler: Good work. (Laughs) Well, I’ve been saying that wrong all that time.

Aubrey Bergauer: Am I saying it wrong? I don’t know. (Laughs)

Erik Gensler: Oh God. I sure I am. (Laughter)

Aubrey Bergauer: Hearing her speak was so impactful to me. She started talking about quotas in our programming and her words were too defective. In this industry, we do not like to attach a quota to anything, but until we do, we cannot measure it.

Erik Gensler: She said it on the podcast.

Aubrey Bergauer: Okay, yeah.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, yeah.

Aubrey Bergauer: So, until we do, we are not gonna see if we’re moving the needle and, or, or we held accountable to moving the needle.

Erik Gensler: That’s right.

Aubrey Bergauer: And I mean, we can see that we’re not, I guess. And so, that was really liberating for me as somebody who cares about this issue but wasn’t quite sure how to approach it, I thought, “Okay, this is somebody saying, yes you can, you can give yourself goals and stick to them and that’s okay and in fact a positive thing.” So, our music director, Donato Cabrera and I started talking about, how do we have this play out across our entire organization? And, and in terms of programming we did just that. We decided that 20% of our programming the pieces our, that we perform would be either a person of color, living composer, or female composer. And in fact, we would have at least one female composer and at least one person of color composer on the program each season.

Erik Gensler: Now, for the people who are not following the story closely, I think we should point out the analysis that was done by the San Francisco chronicle that showed, and by the radio station, in LA.

Aubrey Bergauer: KUSC, yeah.

Erik Gensler: Compare that to how, what the findings of, of, of those folks?

Aubrey Bergauer: Across the country, less than 2% I believe is the statistic of composers programmed and orchestras of all budget sizes.

Erik Gensler: Of non-white dudes?

Aubrey Bergauer: Exactly. Yeah, so it’s an alarming statistic and, and one hand is I tell the story and we made this commitment 20% feels low. It feels like it’s not enough yet it’s 10 times what’s happening nationally right now.

Erik Gensler: Right. Right. And you have to make incremental change. I think that’s so important in everything. how can you do 5% better than last year? And so, committing the 20% and then hitting it, hey you can make it 25 in the future, but, it’s great to draw a mark in the sand and, and, and you know.

Aubrey Bergauer: Yeah, thank you.

Erik Gensler: And it’s wonderful. So, you have, 20% focused on underrepresented talented constituencies. I think you have one, at least one female composer.

Aubrey Bergauer: Mm-hmm.

Erik Gensler: At least one composer of color.

Aubrey Bergauer: Mm-hmm.

Erik Gensler: At least one living composer.

Aubrey Bergauer: Mm-hmm.

Erik Gensler: And then it also applies to how you hire your staff.

Aubrey Bergauer: Yes. I also care very much about diversity in our staffs both gender and ethnicity. And this is something else that it is a problem in our field. And I see the field at large talking a lot about the diversity issue in terms of race and ethnicity. And that is a, that is a huge effort for us. I don’t see us talking a lot about gender equality in this field. And so this is an area where of course it affects me personally, but it’s something I follow, not just in classical music, but this is, a topic that is prevalent across all industries right now.

Erik Gensler: I am a public feminist. This company here is majority of women. Our boot camp last year, we had more than 50% of our presenters were women. This is something we are actively working to promote.

Aubrey Bergauer: Mm-hmm.

Erik Gensler: In addition to thinking about how we can make our, our staff and our boot camp speakers and, just be more representative in, in general. So you’re, you’re speaking my language. But I do notice that in many arts organizations, there are lots of female administrators, but not a ton in the most senior leadership positions.

Aubrey Bergauer: That’s exactly right. The industry, if you look at the industry wide stats, I mean, this is a speculation, but probably industry wide, sure. Maybe there’s half female and executive directors half males, half female senior staff, half males or somewhere close to that. However, if you start breaking it down by budget size, the large institutions by far skew male at the top, at all levels.

Erik Gensler: And straight and white.

Aubrey Bergauer: And straight and white, yes.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Aubrey Bergauer: So the way to combat, this is important for us to talk about. at everything we’ve done at the California Symphony, I have tried so hard not just to, just to throw shade on the promise of the industry. I’ve tried so hard to say, “Well, what do we do about it?” And for hiring practices, the most important thing is make a list of criteria or qualifications that you’re looking for and stick to it at every round. And that has been, even something I’ve had to address to. And so often, we tend to interview for fit, or culture fit, or shared values, and all of that is code for somebody like me.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm.

Aubrey Bergauer: And I am guilty of that too in my own hiring practices. So it’s not just the, the guys do it. It’s unintentional bias. And instead, moving to making a list of criteria that I need and whatever the job is, and being able to stick to that and that’s, that’s also challenging after every round, after the phone screen, after the first interview, after the second interview, when I’m doing my finals, going back to that criteria list, because as the interview progresses and candidates are moving farther and farther along, I feel like that’s where it’s easier to think, “Oh, we went to the same school. They’re probably great or you know, whatever it is that is that shared thing that actually has nothing to do with their ability to do the job.” So that’s important and then I want to just share a study that many probably have heard of, but I don’t know if everybody has and that’s the Heidi vs. Howard study. Have you heard of this, Erik?

Erik Gensler: I haven’t, no.

Aubrey Bergauer: Okay. So, Heidi vs. Howard, this came out of I believe it was Stanford. And a bunch of hiring managers were given identical resumes except for the name. One was Howard, one was Heidi. And in this study, it turned out that the women, Heidi, was evaluated on experience and Howard was evaluated on potential.

Erik Gensler: Oh, I’ve heard this.

Aubrey Bergauer: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. Yeah.

Aubrey Bergauer: So, yeah. So this is so important for us to consider that we have to, we have to try to make our, give ourselves, a lens of equality if you know I, I’ve tried really hard to have great experience, but I also think I have a lot of potential. So how do I breakthrough that with people I interview with?

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm.

Aubrey Bergauer: You know, and how do I entertain that with the people who are interviewing with me for a job they want? So try to be cognizant of that is really important, men are evaluated on potential more often and women are evaluated on experience. Yeah, can I say one more thing on this?

Erik Gensler: Oh, of course.

Aubrey Bergauer: Okay.

Erik Gensler: It’s…

Aubrey Bergauer: Now, I’m my soapbox here.

Erik Gensler: No, please.

Aubrey Bergauer: And I just also wanna say, most people don’t want bias. I think that’s so important to say and we talk about it so much like we should all be ashamed. And may, maybe that’s true, I don’t know, but, but most people don’t want to be biased. And, a story you shared on a previous podcast really stuck with me Erik. You had shared that, and this is such an example of people who, who don’t want bias. You had shared, that was one of the previous boot camps, somebody had pointed out to you that the speakers were all male. And I remember you saying, “You had no idea until somebody brought that to your attention.”

Erik Gensler: (Laughs)

Aubrey Bergauer: And I know enough about you to know that you were not programming those speakers saying, “It must be male-

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Aubrey Bergauer: “It must be male.”

Erik Gensler: Right.

Aubrey Bergauer: (Laughs) You know, that’s just not how most people think and operate, so it’s not intentional. Most people don’t want bias and you didn’t try to do that. And then you became aware. And once you became aware, it just, it changed your lens and it changed your viewpoint.

Erik Gensler: Oh.

Aubrey Bergauer: So, I say that just for anybody listening to say that just be aware, because that alone changes so much and again most of us are good intentioned and want to make movement on these issues.

Erik Gensler: Right. It’s the, it’s that first step of just being open to it and you know, back to boot camp now, we did have plenty of women last year, but it was all, everyone was white, which is a problem and that’s not going to happen again. But, again, its incremental change.

Aubrey Bergauer: I’ll share one more story on this. And that is you mentioned last year when everybody was announcing all of their seasons in their programming, Brian Lauritzen of KUSC compiled who, who is programming women and people of color …

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm.

Aubrey Bergauer: … and releasing all that data. And this now reveals what a nerd I am, but I took that data and I took a look at the senior staffs of the major orchestras and the orchestras that had more women in their senior leadership programmed more women composers …

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm.

Aubrey Bergauer: … and booked more women guest conductors. So, that’s so telling and that it just, it just supports the story you’re sharing that it does matter. We do need to be cognizant of it. And inclusion of in our staffs and particularly our senior staffs leads to inclusion on stage.

Erik Gensler: Definitely.

Erik Gensler: And one last thing about that, you also made some changes, around the board …

Aubrey Bergauer: Mm-hmm.

Erik Gensler: … in that statement. So, tell us about that.

Aubrey Bergauer: Yeah, so-

Erik Gensler: or commitment.

Aubrey Bergauer: … all of this starts at the board level, I think, or it starts or ends there. It, it matters is the point I’m trying to make. And you know, we looked at our board and when I first came to the California Symphony, we had one woman on the board and I don’t know if anybody was aware of that. It just was the way it was and-

Erik Gensler: Out of how many?

Aubrey Bergauer: 14.

Aubrey Bergauer: Yeah. And so looking at that, I mean, you can’t have a diversity policy and not include the board. I mean, that’s just, it has to be.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm.

Aubrey Bergauer: And so, I think this has been interesting. This was an area where, talking about awareness, the board wasn’t aware. We have a lot of great people on our board. We had a lot of great men on our board. (Chuckles)

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm.

Aubrey Bergauer: And a lot of great white people on our board. And, I’ve had to push for a conversation around there are other great people out there in the Bay Area who like classical music, who could be such an asset to us, who aren’t white or male. we have done good things on age diversity on our board. I will say we have some 30 year olds on our board, 30 some things and 40 some things and that I’m really proud of because that is another element of diversity, and particularly relate in orchestra representing the demographics we’re trying to attract. So, already we’ve made good progress on that. And now, we have committed to make, again identified become aware of the issue, committed to as we’re looking at board candidates for every white male we’re looking at, can we push ourselves to say, “is there somebody else who has this same criteria that we could also talk to?”

Erik Gensler: Great. You recently wrote about a topic near and dear to my heart and that is content marketing.

Aubrey Bergauer: Hmm.

Erik Gensler: The thing I love most about that is when you talked about what you call, bossy calls to action. Let’s talk about that.

Aubrey Bergauer: This has changed, I think you would be a better expert on this than I am, but I think even in the last year, two years, just the way people, people being consumers respond to marketing is really shifted. and you might say it goes back even longer than that. But the idea of these, what I always call my staff’s probably rolling their eyes right now as they listen to this, overtly salesy messages. And I use that language all the time. People don’t respond to that. Consumers don’t respond to that anymore and I hate (laughs) just these blinking lights or should be blinking lights or you know this “Buy now. Do you have your ticket yet for this Sunday?” You know, I just hate that stuff. And just like nails on a chalkboard to me. And most industries do not market their product that way. And yet in the arts we’re this bubble where so many of us do and that’s just what we’ve been taught and that, at one point in time that worked a very direct call to action did work and we have got to evolve from that, because it’s cheesy and, and more important than my own personal feelings about it, it’s not effective. So go back to the data again and we can see that content marketing is all about education. And so now, this ties directly into all of our findings from the Orchestra X project and even the long hall audience development model I spoke about. People want to learn. People are smart and that is something that orchestras and all performing arts or organizations, I think performing arts, arts organizations can totally capitalize on. I feel like this is one of the shifts in consumer behavior that is the greatest asset and benefit to us as arts organizations. We have tons of interesting educational content, stories, information to share that we can share and we can do it in a way that just gives, gives people the information and those who are interested self-select to learn more. They click through to your website. They click through to buy tickets and that’s how that marketing machine starts working, content marketing.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm. I’ve pulled a stat from, from your post and it says, “Consumers are a 131% more likely to buy from a brand immediately after they consumer early stage educational content.

Aubrey Bergauer: That stat came from a firm here in New York City conductor. They are have nothing to do with arts who despite the name of conductor, but they are a content marketing firm. And so they ran the study and published those results and that struck me as so compelling, a 131% more likely to buy.The study was just reading an article. It was I think almond milk, you know?

Erik Gensler: (Laugh)

Aubrey Bergauer: If somebody read about how almond milk was made, they were more likely to buy almond milk from that brand. And that really opened my eyes to we have so much great information, interesting information, interesting content, the story about Rachmaninoff, whatever it is. We have that that we can share and people want that and want to learn. And I would way rather produce that kind of content and “marketing material” than, “Do you have your tickets yet?” I mean, you know. The latter talks about a transaction. The former talks about developing people who can be longtime patrons and supporters of what we do.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. I’ve been asked a lot in the last couple of weeks about the change in the Facebook algorithm and the change in the Facebook algorithm is essentially that, for organic content they’re gonna prioritize things that are personal, that are shared by people that are friend to friend, that are less I think, post-election there was a lot of the Facebook newsfeed. It was turning people off, because it moved away from the personal and went more towards the commercial and more towards, publications and, and brands. And, when I asked about what I think about these changes, I can’t predict the future and I don’t know exactly what the algorithm change is, but I think as arts organizations, as long as we continue to put out content that is educational, that is inspirational, that is thumb stopping, that is engaging, that is not the buy now click here kind of commercial content and language, I think we will whether the storm of this change.

Aubrey Bergauer: Mm-hmm. I totally agree with that and I think also, Facebook had already become very much a pay to play model.

Erik Gensler: Right. (Laughs)

Aubrey Bergauer: And I think this is just one more step in that direction. So I think I personally don’t feel super nervous about the change. I think it just sort of cements more of the direction that was already going.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely.

Aubrey Bergauer: But to this point, if you’re gonna pay to play, you still have to have interesting content. And then even when you do pay to promote that post or have, an, a sponsored ad or story, that also does get organic shares. You know? And if it’s good and sharable. (Chuckles)

Erik Gensler: Hugely. And then when, when, when you look at Facebook insights there’s three categories. There’s shared, organic …

Aubrey Bergauer: Mm-hmm.

Erik Gensler: …and viral reach. And when you invest even a little bit of money, it boost that viral reach, because you’re sort of putting power behind that, that paid content that gets to more people and more people share it absolutely. So the trio works beautifully together. I also wanna put in a plug for our call to action generator. I don’t know if you’ve seen that.

Aubrey Bergauer: Yes, I have seen the call to action generator. I have sent it to my staff.

Erik Gensler: Okay.

Aubrey Bergauer: so total plug for that because it’s great. It he, it helps really spur some good ideas. So if you’re hearing us say, “Don’t say buy now click here,” well, what do you say instead? the classic interactive call to action generator is a wealth of ideas.

Erik Gensler: I think, yes.

Aubrey Bergauer: And it’s kinda fun to click, click, click.

Erik Gensler: (Laughs) It is. So, you always wanted to run an orchestra.

Aubrey Bergauer: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: That’s, an interesting career choice for a young person.

Aubrey Bergauer: My story is when I was 16, (laughs) I decided I wanted to run an orchestra. So the story actually begins a little before that. When I was in 8th grade, I, auditioned for and when the audition for the Houston Youth Symphony, Houston is my hometown. And, well, okay so one that I auditioned in 8th grade. By the time I was 16, a sophomore in high school, the orchestra had an executive director changed. And I remember sitting in the orchestra and they announced this new person and said a sentence or two about what that job is. And for me, that was the light bulb moment of, there is a job managing this entire operation and that’s the job I want. And ever since that point, I have been laser focused on pursuing arts management and orchestra management as my desired career. I went to school at Rice University with a degree in performance as well as a degree in business. And it was important to me to go to a great music school and get the performance degree to know what it’s like to be a professional musician and have that training. It helped to pay for college and also to have that business degree and go to a school that would allow me to do the double major. Since then, the, the rest is history. I, you know, I worked at, as I said these different institutions. Some were orchestra, some were not and I always, always come back to the orchestra. It’s just is I guess one of my first loves. Being connected to the art is still something that keeps me going. And here I am.

Erik Gensler: It’s awesome.

Aubrey Bergauer: Hmm.

Erik Gensler: So I wanna ask you a couple more just questions about you personally and, you can get as woo-woo as you want here, but where do you like to look for inspiration? What inspires you?

Aubrey Bergauer: Mm-hmm.

Erik Gensler: You mentioned business books or like the Jim Collins fan.

Aubrey Bergauer: Yeah. Yeah.

Erik Gensler: Studies, just?

Aubrey Bergauer: I am, I am such a nerd. (Laughs) Can I, can I just say that?

Erik Gensler: It’s the theme of everyone on the podcast. (Laughter) You’re not in this room if you’re not some version of a nerd. (Laughs)

Aubrey Bergauer: I, I love business books. I read veraciously. Maybe the, the, if I zoom out the point I should make as what inspires me is I look outside of the classical music field.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm.

Aubrey Bergauer: The art inspires, the art inspires me and that it reminds me why I do this job. But the art itself does not inspire me to think differently, I would say …

Erik Gensler: Hmm.

Aubrey Bergauer: … necessarily. So I look outside of classical music. And I read a lot of business books. So much of that is about consumer behavior, behavioral psychology, organizational psychology, all of these things that are issues that we have already talked about today. So I love all of that and just really feed off of that. I’m big on Twitter. So I’ve got all kinds of Twitter handles I follow that are not necessarily classical music. I’ve got those as well, but, but I really like, I like following what are, what are the thought leaders outside of classical music doing. And I think that that’s a lesson for the entire industry. We tend to be so insular and that’s a disservice to ourselves. And so many times we say things like, “I wish we had more research on this or more data on this.” And then we just pontificate on things where the reality is there’s so much research out there and so much of it is very applicable, applicable to what we do, so.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely, yeah.

Aubrey Bergauer: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: It’s funny when, when we get our boot camp service, I think that’s, that’s in the podcast before, but every year I’ll program a couple of things that are outside the industry. And every single year I will get on the survey. Well, I didn’t think that person on this topic was very relevant. You know, what they don’t know about the arts and it’s like, you’re missing the point.

Aubrey Bergauer: Mm-hmm.

Erik Gensler: Like yes, this is not gonna be apple’s apple. It is your job to take what they said and apply it to the arts.

Aubrey Bergauer: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Erik Gensler: (Laughs)

Aubrey Bergauer: And I’ll add to that my husband works in Silicon Valley and that is a huge influence on me and the way I approach the way I do business. And I’m sort of fascinated by this dichotomy of the way they do business there and we talked about testing things. And the way we do it in the arts is the opposite of Silicon Valley where everything is iterative and everything is being tested. And so that just by nature of that being sort of the other half of my life is hugely influential and, to a degree inspiring. I know Silicon Valley and the tech industry can get a bad rap, but there is a lot for us to learn from that.

Erik Gensler: Definitely.

Aubrey Bergauer: So, I, I can’t ignore that that really is a big influence on me.

Erik Gensler: Definitely. In terms of people that you follow on Twitter or business authors that you like, do you have any of that come immediately to mind?

Aubrey Bergauer: Hmm, I love Adam Grant, Wharton School business professor. I love Angela Duckworth. She wrote her book “Grit.” She had a very viral TEDTalk and this idea that effort versus some sort of innate ability really does make a difference and we can train ourselves to be grit air people. I think that’s a good lesson in the arts. All of us in this nonprofit jobs really, pushing ourselves to the grind. I think they are very gritty people.

Erik Gensler: Definitely we’re gritty. Yeah.

Aubrey Bergauer: Yeah, so that was a great one. Oh, let’s see here. Oh, I just read, a couple months ago a fabulous book on negotiation. Okay, every executive director who are asked to run a CBA negotiation should absolutely read “Negotiating The Impossible.” This is a Harvard Business School professor, Deepak Malhotra I believe is his name. And of all the books on negotiating I’ve read, this one was the most positive approach. And he says again and again where there’s neither muscle nor money, which is like the theme song for arts negotiations, right? (Laughter) And he just is so positive, so collaborative. And, I am actually excited for my next CBA negotiation (laughter) which I just like, here I am again, big nerd over here. But, I mean, I’m just gonna approach it in a different way than I have before. So, those are some ones top of mind right now.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. What’s something in, you’ve learned in the last year or so that’s been profound on how you work or think, some sort of like “Ah-hah” moment and that can be about people, or culture, or, or about how, how we do business or how we could do business?

Aubrey Bergauer: In the last year ah-hah moment. Well, you know, I didn’t mention Radical Candor, which (laughter) I know you guys are fans of here. I think in some ways as I, as I try to be a better manager, I think there was a lot in that book that really opened my eyes.

Erik Gensler: Radical Candor?

Aubrey Bergauer: Yes, Radical Candor.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm.

Aubrey Bergauer: And this idea that giving direct feedback good and bad, but carrying for somebody personally, those things can live together and should live together. And how do I do that and still be the boss? And how do I do that in a way that I don’t have to be light, but, I respect it and you know, all of that. I just feel like some of that, it feels very buzzwordy as I say it out loud, but, that book does a nice job of making it just very actionable and real.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, it’s huge.

Aubrey Bergauer: Mm-hmm.

Erik Gensler: I’d say that’s definitely on my list too.

Aubrey Bergauer: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: What are you best at and what is one thing you’re working to improve?

Aubrey Bergauer: I am good at identifying opportunities. And I see problems as opportunities. And as I said, everything I write about in my blog is about how if we taken this problem that exist in our industry and what have we done to solve it? And what are those things that our opportunities already lying there that we have done a pilot project to attempt to solve and how are we taking that in using that going forward? I think that that mentality combined with this Silicon Valley, I don’t know like, let’s test it. Let’s be on the forefront of technology. We can do these things and budget doesn’t have to be a limitation. It can be an asset and being small and agile is a huge asset. And having that approach and not feeling restrained I think, I think I’m very good at that. On the flip side, what am I working on? You know we talked about diversity and bias. And I’m trying to get better at how I talk about that.

Erik Gensler: Hmm.

Aubrey Bergauer: I mean at first I was really afraid of what even language do I use and how do I talk about this without sounding ignorant? And how do I talk about inclusivity without just sounding patronizing? And I’m still learning and I am trying to get better at that, but I think if this is such an important issue in the way I care about it, I need to get better at it.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. That’s, that’s an amazing answer. So we’ve come to your final question, your CI to Eye moment. And the question is, if you can broadcast the executive director’s leadership team staff and boards of a thousand arts organizations, what advice would you provide to them to help them improve their businesses?

Aubrey Bergauer: Do something, not nothing. I think so much of what we talked about today and this, and all the, all the things in general, we always think about as arts leaders, we talk a lot about things and we’d have so many discussions and conferences and all of this and that. And just do something. Run that pilot test. Run that AB test. Take the smallest babiest step possible, because again so many of us desire to, to make change and make progress. And I see this in my staff sometimes where they say to me, ” Where do we start? How do we even begin to fill in the blank?” And the answer is do something not nothing. Even if it’s the littlest tiniest thing of anything you’ve heard us talk about or anything else, whatever the thing is on your mind as an arts leader, just do something not nothing, because nothing means no progress, no forward movement, whatsoever.

Erik Gensler: I love that. thank you so much. It’s been such a pleasure.

Aubrey Bergauer: Likewise, thank you.

About Our Guests
Aubrey Bergauer
Aubrey Bergauer
Executive Director, California Symphony

Aubrey Bergauer is the Executive Director of the California Symphony. When Aubrey took over at the California Symphony, it was in rough operational and financial shape. Under her leadership, the company has implemented changes that led to an increase in subscription revenue by over 70%, an increase in audience size by over 70%, and an increase in contributed revenue by over 40%. Using data coupled with a clear strategy and support from the board of directors, she was able to swiftly implement discipline and rigor to how the organization markets, fundraises and communicates with patrons.

Read more

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