A couple of weeks ago while sitting on a funding panel, I said to a representative of a very large funder that I didn't understand why people were so afraid to fail, and then discuss their failures openly so that everyone could learn from them. Especially in the fields of technology and audience development, more advances come out of failure than anything else. The funding representative said that she felt the same way, but heard from companies that they were afraid to admit their failures because they feared it would affect future funding opportunities.
Well, I thought I might get the ball rolling by discussing some of my biggest failures and what they taught me:
Always give the exclusive to your best customers. I have made this mistake a couple of times, but trust me, I have learned the lesson. Every now and again, you might have a big news story that a major news outlet will want an exclusive on. They might even promise you front page or prime time coverage, in exchange for the opportunity to be the exclusive outlet to break the story. In the past to protect an exclusive, I have made the decision not to release any information until after the story broke. However, imagine how your subscribers might feel if they first learn of this news by reading the front page of the newspaper? Do you think they would feel like part of the family? or a VIP? NO! I still work with our media relations staff regularly to negotiate exclusives with major news outlets, but we always inform our subscribers first. It might only be an hour or two before the mainstream news breaks it, but they are first to know.
When hiring, a fire in the belly trumps experience. The old saying that "90% of directing is casting" is applicable to all walks of life. By far the most important responsibility I have is hiring. In the last several years, I have been faced with a similar dilemma--a choice between someone with a ton of drive and less experience vs. someone with a ton of experience and less drive. The first time I made this decision, I went with more experience and less drive. Big mistake. You can teach skills, but you cannot teach strong work ethic.
If you don't have the support of artistic staff, don't consider launching a blog. I have launched blogs at Virginia Stage Company (VSC) and Americans for the Arts, and relaunched a blog at Arena Stage. My first attempt at VSC failed miserably. As a communications outlet, I made the decision that I would serve as the principal writer, mostly because it was my job and secondarily because I couldn't get artistic staff to buy into the idea. So I started writing, and I couldn't get a single reader. Why? People don't care what a marketing director thinks. They want to hear from the cool people --artists, designers, actors, etc.
All that glitters isn't gold -- especially with technology. I have always been an early adopter of technology to help market cultural experiences. I used to jump on every new idea that came out spending hours and hours developing ways to use new technological advances to communicate with stakeholders. After building podcasts, Second Life sites, NING communities and discussion boards that have all failed, I take more time now to think about the overall strategy before jumping in. A year and a half ago, Next to Normal was coming to Arena Stage, and we knew there was a good chance it would be going directly to Broadway. The show already had a large number of dedicated fans, so I wanted to build a community where they could all interact with each other in anticipation of a commercial run. We set up a NING site (http://www.n2nfans.com/) and started to promote it like crazy. After two months of promotion, we had 45 fans. The show had a huge following, but the idea failed. Why? When I asked fans later why they didn't join, they said they didn't want to create yet another log-in and profile. To participate, NING makes you do both, and people were tired of having multiple log-ins and profiles (Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Yahoo! Groups, etc). The idea was good, but the technology was flawed.
Small cuts can negate million dollar advertising plans. Early in my career, when I had to look at budget cuts, I made a decision to protect advertising expenses at all costs, opting instead to try to find operational expenses to cut. Together with my team, we looked at every little expense we thought we could shave. Despite not cutting any advertising expenses, I noticed a drop in ticket sales the following year. This concerned me, so we sent out an email survey to lapsed subscribers to figure out what happened. Two stories came back that will always stick with me: 1) a subscriber said that she stopped coming because she couldn't get a house manager to help her get a taxi home (we had released a part-time house manager to save money), and 2) one woman stopped subscribing because she had a hard time walking to the theater because of ice on the sidewalk (the city was notoriously bad about clearing sidewalks, so we used to set aside money to salt the major sidewalks that led to the theater, but we cut that). I did what I set out to accomplish which was to protect our advertising expenditures, but in doing so I compromised the experience. Word of mouth is the most powerful form of advertising, so the experience has to come first.