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A post by
Tim Bleasdale
Q+A SERIES
April 10, 2024

What does digital transformation mean for the arts?

Q+A with Terry McGrath - Director of Audiences & Media at The Royal Opera House

What does digital transformation mean for the arts?

A post by
Tim Bleasdale
April 10, 2024
XX
min read

We go behind the scenes at the Royal Opera House and discover what it takes to deliver an exceptional digital experience for a world renowned Arts Organisation

Interview date:
27th March 2024

Participants: 
Terry McGrath - Director of Media & Audiences, The Royal Opera House
Tim Bleasdale - Executive Creative Director, Ostmodern

Ostmodern: So welcome to the Ostmodern Q&A. I’m here talking to Terry McGrath from The Royal Opera House about digital transformation in the arts.

Hello, how are you doing?

Terry: Hi Tim, really good to see you

What are your favourite aspects of the projects we worked on together?

Ostmodern: It’s good to see you too!
So can you tell us about The Royal Opera House and your role, and what your favourite aspects of the projects that we worked on together were?

Terry: Yeah, fantastic!

So my role is what’s called Director of Media & Audiences, which within the wider market is called Chief Marketing Officer for The Royal Opera House. And within that my main responsibilities are brand, driving reach and driving revenue with the overall objective of transforming The Royal Opera House from a live entertainment space to a global multimedia brand. So within that, launching RoH Stream, as it’s called now, our digital streaming service, has been absolutely key to that transformation. 

And that’s where we started working together, Tim, because Ostmodern brought some fantastic skills and knowledge and insight to us, to help us to build that service and help us with the overall digital transformation.

'Ostmodern brought some fantastic skills and knowledge and insight to us.'

Firstly in launching Stream we did that shortly after COVID had sent all of the UK market and indeed the global market into lockdown. Using digital to ensure audiences were able to reach and consume our wonderful opera and ballet was really our only option, our only medium to do that. So, we needed to explore that as an option and we needed to do it quickly, because we didn’t have that service available at the time.

So in terms of working with Ostmodern, I think some of the favourite aspects of that was just working on that whole project from you know, concept and coming up with the vision, through to the implementation - working with you very closely with the team to be able to deliver that. And then we worked together to really see how we can monetise and use digital to improve the rest of our services across the organisation.

What has the streaming journey been like since lockdown?

Ostmodern: So the Royal Opera House started a streaming service in lockdown. Can you tell me what that journey has been like since then and what that kind of landscape looks like today?

Terry: So it was really imperative that we started the streaming service during lockdown because The Royal Opera House at that time, with theatres closed, it was losing £3 in every £5 of its income. So digital was a key element that we were exploring to see if that could give us economic sustainability for the future.

Initially we started off using free platforms and generating money through donation. We wanted to move very quick to market to make sure that we were fulfilling our public purpose of ensuring that our opera and ballet were accessible to everybody in the UK and worldwide.

Following that we went to a white label product, because securing revenue for us was really important. So to ensure we were a financially viable organisation going forward we needed to make sure that digital and digital streaming service was economically viable for us.

So we then were wanting to move to build our own platform and that’s where we were working with you. Taking the learnings from what we had, and then we moved to iterate and build the product.

When you go into starting a project like this you work on your known knowns and then what you, what Ostmodern brought to the table was let’s de-risk what we could see that we didn’t have much data around. So we worked with you on de-risking our user journeys and de-risking our design and de-risking some of the wonderful art that we bring to market to make sure it worked into that format.
And you know, you were a fantastic partner there at giving us advice.

How will data play a role in the future of the industry?

Ostmodern: So you moved from a white label to building a streaming service because you weren’t able to get data from that white label. So how do you think data will play a role in the future of the industry? 

Terry: At the Royal Opera House we have always used data to inform our thinking around what our audiences want and need. From their experience whenever they visit the live theatre, in terms of who’s coming to the theatre, who’s consuming it, pricing levels. And we gather feedback on people’s experience to make sure that we are delivering an absolutely amazing, excellent live theatre experience. Knowing who we are serving is key to enable us to make sure that we are finding the right media and the right product to talk to as broad an audience as possible. It helps us understand what people want from a service or from the art forms if they can’t come to theatres. So for example, today, we know that about half of our stream audience have not, are people that have not come to the theatre at all. Which means that we know we’re reaching new audiences, and we know that there’s demand out there for the wonderful art forms that we create. And that is really valuable for us, it helps us to invest and grow.

Ostmodern: yeah, it’s fantastic to know that.

How have these projects evolved the arts in digital services?

Ostmodern: How do you think that these projects at The Royal Opera House contributed to the evolution of the arts in digital services?

Terry: What the digital streaming work, through COVID and beyond, and working with you, has enabled The Royal Opera House to do is to explore different business models to ensure that we are financially viable for the future. From a streaming perspective, not only are we able to capture some of the wonderful opera and ballet traditional canon in its full form, but we’re also able to explore different shorter form content, both in terms of the canon, but in terms of the artist and make sure that’s available to audiences beyond the stage. 

'Working with you, has enabled The Royal Opera House to explore different business models to ensure that we are financially viable for the future.'

The other aspect of it, of course, is something that The Royal Opera House is able to bring some of that wonderful art knowledge to schools in a very efficient and effective way, which is through digital. It’s certainly makes us feel very optimistic for the future. And I don’t think the journey is over in any way, by far, either for us or any other organisation.

What are the challenges of bringing digital to a traditional arts space?

Ostmodern: What were the challenges of delivering a new digital service within an organisation like The Royal Opera House, which is obviously based around the arts, and maybe not so knowledgeable about the digital sector?

Terry: One of the greatest strengths, and I think why we ended up building such an amazing product is because of the performing arts. We have a product that on stage, or in film is exceptional - so we’re three-quarters of the way there.

So in terms of the platform itself and how it was going to work, as a very creative organisation, of course, the whole organisation (not just the performing arts companies, not just the creative directors) but the whole organisation stands for excellence. And anything that is audience facing, the whole organisation feels part of that and feels it represents them and their footprint. So it had to be truly incredible, and what you helped us deliver, you know Tim - with Ostmodern, was truly incredible.

You know you guided us on audience centric thinking, to make sure that we came up with designs and products that would delight our audiences (which was key), and our donors. And then we took that thinking and took that and spoke to all aspects of the organisation to get their feedback and then iterated that until we got to a place that we felt very good about, and that was going to work and give our audiences an amazing design.
I think those were the key elements: understanding the values of the brand, the values of the organisation, understanding what audiences wanted and working together to make sure that that’s what we were going to deliver.

Ostmodern: I think it was a meeting when we were presenting to about 200 Royal Opera House staff, or something and we had some videos of the user testing. Do you remember that, with the like, [laughs] and what I think the first slide was a slide of a maquette of a stage so that we could communicate to people what a prototype was. Cos like, we’ve done this prototype so that users can kind of use it and see how it feels and gives them feedback. And so we had this picture of a maquette for how you would actually build the stage set, and everybody was like “oh ok, I understand this now.” That was really nice.

Terry: Exactly! And I think that’s what was so wonderful, which was, because it’s about what’s in people’s heads and then communicating that vision, and I feel that the whole project became a whole team effort across the whole Royal Opera House to make that as wonderful as it was.

'Anything that is audience facing, the whole organisation feels part of that and feels it represents them and their footprint. So it had to be truly incredible, and what you helped us deliver - with Ostmodern, was truly incredible.'

But given that we were having to move at speed what was fantastic was that you were able to join that team and we were able to work really efficiently.

You knew when to lean in, and you knew when to butt out - we were very honest with each other and I think that worked brilliantly.

Ostmodern: Well, thank you very much Terry for coming and talking to us. It’s been really good to see you again, and if anybody wants to know what we’ve been talking about they can go visit roh.org.uk to find out what it’s all about.

Terry: Yeah and they can watch our wonderful ROH Stream which is our digital streaming service where you have incredible opera and ballet past and present, you can see fantastic interviews with some of our talent. You can watch the service 24/7 from anywhere around the world. Enjoy!

Ostmodern: Thank you very much

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