An interview with Miss Mussel of #operaplot fame

Classical music can go viral too. And you can thank Miss Mussel for that. Who, you ask? Just follow her @missmussel on Twitter and read her blog The Omniscient Mussel. Alternatively, she is known as Marcia Adair, a Canadian freelance classical music journalist.

Marcia started the #operaplot craze, where tweeting opera fans summarize an entire opera in just 140 characters or less, using the hashtag #operaplot. (Search the tag in Twitter)

In its first incarnation, Marcia purchased a $30 gift certificate to give out as a prize. She barely had 50 followers on Twitter, but the word spread around the tweeting classical music world and soon there were about 80 entries.

The buzz continued after the contest and before long a second contest was set up. This time, it went truly viral and even mainstream. Opera star Danielle De Niese signed up as a guest judge, famous opera houses offered tickets for prizes and mainstream media including The Guardian and The Washington Post covered the initiative. After a week of tweeting opera plots, De Niese had more than 500 entries to judge!

I was curious about this phenomenon and Marcia graciously answered a couple of questions:

The big question is, how did you come up with the idea?

#Operaplot started on a whim.  I was writing program notes and tweeted that I was having trouble with word creep….one of those mundane details Twitter disparagers claim not to be interested in.  @pattyoboe, an oboist blogger from California suggested I should tweet the notes.  That seemed impractical but then I thought, what about opera? The irony of compressing the most extravagant of art forms into the smallest possible unit was appealing plus I’m relatively new to opera, so I thought the results might be an easy way to get a handle on what the operas are actually about.

Did most of the “promotion” of the contest come from Twitter? If so, do you have any idea how fast it spread and in what proportion?

It’s difficult to separate out because all the press outlets played off each other.  The original announcement was on Twitter and my website. The story was picked up by the Washington Post and The Guardian, which helped a lot. When the partners were finalized, I sent releases to papers in cities that had participating houses, which caused more people to check it out on Twitter.  Then people started blogging about it, which led to more traditional press and more Twitter and even Facebook.

Did you do any other promotions for the contest? How did the media learn about it?

If I remember correctly, Anne Midgette of the Washington Post was the first on the story, which was then picked up by Charlotte Higgins at The Guardian. Where other people found the story after that, I can’t really say. Everything is so connected, it’s likely they saw it on several sources before writing about it. Once Danielle De Niese got involved, her publicist sent out info to her list as well.

[If you’re interested, a full list of press clipping is here]

Did you have any idea it would take off like this?

I hoped it would but I didn’t really think I had the influence to organize the press or the houses.  After talking to arts admin people at various houses, I think the reason for the contest’s success is that it was the right idea at the right time with someone who was willing to put the time in to organize everything.  I think the press was all over it because the story involved Twitter, which is a hot topic, there were a lot of houses involved and the contest is just plain fun.

For the second round, what was the reaction from opera houses when you approached them for the prizes?

The first house I contacted was a disaster.  I called for an email address and ended up having to give my spiel to three different people only I was completely unprepared for it so I didn’t inspire much confidence. Needless to say, I didn’t get the desired result there. I regrouped, wrote a good email and things improved markedly.  Houses were very receptive and took far less convincing than I expected considering no one had heard of me before.  I think the chance to explore the possibilities of Twitter in a no-risk way was appealing. The Washington National Opera was first on board with their monster prize pack, so that helped with my credibility and by the end, when I was calling to follow up, most people had already heard about the competition and were excited to join in.

What kind of audience do you think you reached with this contest?

The contest naturally excludes people who don’t know much about opera because you need at least some knowledge to summarize and a lot more to make jokes. I didn’t look at everyone’s profile but I’m guessing the age range is 25-50.  If I had to make further generalizations, I’d say they are the type of people that are looking for a new kind of relationship with performing arts institutions….one that is more transparent and honest rather than the traditional cursive script, lush images and WE ARE AWESOME AT EVERYTHING attitude.

Are there any lessons for classical music organizations to be drawn from this contest?

The big one is right idea, right time, right audience.  Difficult to predict but if you take the time to know your audience, or at least the one you’d like to attract, you’ll have a better chance.  Lesson two is that people will get excited about something they’re passionate about — harness that and have fun along with them.

Also, when using social media, particularly Twitter, be real.  Take the time to build relationships and put selling to the back of your mind.  Social media is all about saying, “Thought you might like to know that….” relationships rather than “SUPER WORLDCLASS CONCERT TONIGHT WITH FAMOUS PEOPLE – V PRESTIGIOUS (and also we are awesome by association for booking these people)”

I follow a couple of hundred arts organizations and get messages all the time about sales, promotions, the next superfantastic show etc.  The organizations that stand out are those that don’t try so hard and actually post things that might be off message but still interesting. They comment on what other people are doing, encourage their colleagues and contribute to the community.

I could go on at length here but the overall point is relax and enjoy connecting with people.  Your ROI, as it were (ugh), will come in a thousand small and unexpected ways.

Have you seen traffic to your own Web site increase?

Of course, although it remains to be seen how many will stick around after #operaplot fever dies down.

You’re a freelance music writer. What does this contest mean for your own personal “branding”?

In many ways, the contest is an extension of the brand I’ve created with my website, so it hasn’t changed anything as such.  As a PR exercise however, it means a lot for me because I don’t have the advantage of co-opting the brand of the newspaper or magazine at which I might have a staff job. There are loads of excellent freelancers out there but hopefully next time I pitch a publication, my name will resonate a little bit more than it otherwise would have. I live in a small market inside a small market (Canada) and being “that girl that did that competition” can’t hurt.

And lastly, of course, will it continue? Or do you have any other things in mind?

I always have something in mind!  Whether the ideas are viable or not is another story. I hope #operaplot will continue. At the moment, it’s just a matter of sitting down, looking at everything and finding a way to make it work even better.  People are welcome to leave comments about what they would like to see in future contests at http://theomniscientmussel.com/2009/05/operaplot-feedback-form/

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