Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Future of the Season Brochure

For decades now, the most revered communications tool of most performing arts organizations has been the season/subscription brochure. We spend weeks if not months toiling over copy, getting images, crafting pitches, working with designers, going to press checks and coordinating with mail houses. Once finished, it is the holy grail of marketing collateral for the rest of the year -- the piece that we take to conferences, show our donors, give away at outreach events and mail to everyone we think has even heard of our organization. And for years, this strategy has been virtually untouched, even while the world around us has changed rapidly. Isn't it time we question whether or not there is a better way?

My biggest problem with season brochures is that we try to pack into one piece messages for all of our separate target audiences: full season buyers, partial season buyers, single ticket buyers, annual fund donors, capital campaign donors, genre specific audiences, etc. For example, a partial season subscriber who prefers musicals and gives at a $50 level each year will receive the same brochure as a full season buyer who prefers serious dramas and gives at the $1,000 level each year. Each target audience looks for different things in our organizations, and we should customize our communications to each group.

Recent advances in printing technology and online communications have made customizable communications much more affordable, but most of us, fearing change to our detriment, still print tens of thousands of one brochure and mail them to all of our target audiences over and over again until those list segments stop producing.

The way we talk to renewing subscribers vs. new subscribers, multi-buyers vs. single buyers, musical lovers vs. drama lovers, and donors vs. non-donors should be different. So why are we addicted to the season brochure? is it our love for crafting one primary brand-driven piece that we can roll out like a turkey at Thanksgiving dinner?

This year Arena Stage has experimented with ordering significantly fewer primary subscription brochures, and then augmenting our direct mail campaigns with five targeted mini acquisition brochures for some of our larger audience segments: musical lovers, drama lovers, locality buyers (we have venues in Virginia and DC), event driven purchasers and our African-American patrons. Each group has a specific relationship with Arena Stage, and should be communicated to in a tailored fashion. I have even heard of colleagues at different organizations creating customizable online brochures for different target audiences.

Communicating to the masses with one overall brochure packed with several different messages is a way of the past. I still foresee the use of a season brochure as a branding piece, but as a sales piece, I believe there are better options out there. The proof will be in the pudding as they say, and as we get the results in for our targeted mailings, I will share them.


Neil Thackaberry said...

This is an excellent set of observations. I would only note that the author assumes that: 1. the data available to the theater is adequate to support the multiple market segments, and that 2. the market segments described are individually large enough to warrant the additional costs associated with smaller runs, additional design fees, and copy creation. The article will definitely have an impact on my thinking. Nice job.

Clay Lord said...

Chad, as I'm sure you know, there's a lot of new work being done by folks like Alan Brown and TRG to develop comprehensive audience segmentation models that go way beyond race, geography, or surface likes and dislikes (although that, in itself, is a big step). I'm looking forward to the moment when we start seeing some form of brochure that targets more deeply than basic demographics. Now, how to pay for it...

Chris said...

I think the bloggy sphere and journalism in general has a tendency to promote generalities that are not useful - especially about marketing demographics and techniques. The techniques will vary widely form place to place and theatre to theatre.

I also think that our sector is trading away salesmanship for consumer-pleasing. What creates a segment? It's a stretch to convince me that it's self-defining. Segmentation is a two-way street - I was no more born a specific segment than I was born knowing how to play the banjo.

We're complicit in segmentation. Maybe segmentation isn't the best thing. Maybe we should start nurturing and promoting the commonalities in our diverse audiences instead of exploiting the differences to move more tickets.

Chad M. Bauman said...

I bet that we are all Millennials or on the cusp of Gen X, because saying things like "don't peg me into a segment" is so us.

However, my overall general philosophy when it comes to direct marketing is that the data will tell us. If our targeted pieces out perform our general brochure, then we will know that in this case segmentation works (as I have found it has in many previous campaigns). I think we have to remember that a majority of our patrons are most likely baby boomers, and have a different set of values and beliefs than we do.

To Clay's point, being a good friend of Rick Lester and a TRG client myself, I am aware of the good work that is on-going in audience segmentation models.

Thanks for the excellent points guys. And Clay--looking forward to seeing you in August when I come out to San Francisco to teach the National Arts Marketing Project Boot Camp!

Jill Robinson said...

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves! We’re so pleased to see the field considering and using what we’re calling 21st Century segmentation models. And Chad is spot on—data tells the story. At TRG we work with more than 400 clients in any given year, and our deep-dive into many of these organizations indicates that targeted messaging and specific offers make a difference in response. Especially in this economy. But it’s easy to detach ourselves and think only about brochures, offers, and response rates. Aren’t we really talking about how we engage our patrons in a way that makes sense to them? Aren’t we talking about developing loyalty? We think so at TRG, and we’re pleased to be working with Chad and Arena Stage to do just that. Good conversation, all. Keep up the dialogue!

Meg said...

We are doing this at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. We began reducing the size and narrowing the focus of the season brochure last season, and save about $30K on printing. This year we will all but eliminate a season brochure and create a simpler piece focused on selling memberships (our new subscription). We will follow up wit targeted, specific direct mail and email campaigns. We don't have the luxury of segmentation data, etc, but we believe this is a more purposeful and responsible use of our marketing budget. Nice to hear that we are not alone.

Barbara L said...

We too have been reducing the amount of printed mail pieces, but in favor of more e-marketing. As a symphony orchestra our demographics are not as diverse as some other arts orgs, but we have seen such a growth in our website visits and usage, that we have increased our e-marketing usage and our tracking system has shown a marked increase in turn.
We still do one big season brochure, but have reduced the number that we print and mail. We have been able to get rid of many of our smaller printed pieces that weren't garnering the response necessary to justify the expense.

Anonymous said...

Great post Chad - I enjoyed hearing about this at your presentation this week. This is what I like to call "mental gum."

Joseph Burch said...

Chad, your thinking here is on track. I would like to reiterate a previous comment about how additional mini-brochures create additional expenses in design and small print runs. In addition, what I've found at the SFS is large and diverse amounts of product creates difficulties in pigeonholing a patron into just one segment. Often, a patron falls into multiple segments but putting them into more than one segment defeats the purpose of the exercise.

Probably the "perfect" brochure will be created dynamically online for each individual patron based on buying and donation history. Until that time, direct mail it is!