Saturday, January 22, 2011

Perception is Reality: Managing Underperforming Productions

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post about managing success. Since that time, I have received several e-mails asking me how to manage in times that are not so successful. Non-profit arts organizations should be taking risks, and sometimes those risks pay off, and sometimes they don't. In times they don't, a marketer's job becomes focused on managing perception. The truth may be that there is very little demand for your current product, however there are several techniques that can be used to create the perception that a struggling product is actually quite successful.

1. Avoid mass public discounting if at all possible. Nothing sends a message that you have an unpopular product more than a mass public discount. Not to mention, it also upsets customers who have purchased earlier often at a higher price. GroupOn, Goldstar, Living Social, TicketPlace and TKTS are all examples of mass public discounting outlets. There are ways in which these outlets can be used successfully, but you have to have a very well thought out strategy. At some point in time, every organization will need to discount for one reason or another. However, discounts are best applied in one to one communications with limited abilities to forward on. In this case, viral marketing campaigns are not your friend. Here are some one to one discounting methods that I have used successfully:
  • Cross-selling at the Box Office. Particularly in cases in which you have multiple venues, if one venue has a hit and the other doesn't, why not offer a very attractive discount to the less popular venue to all those who are purchasing tickets to the more popular venue? In this case, the discount offer is offered over the phone or in person and it cannot be forwarded. It also creates more multi-buyers which should increase the likelihood that they will respond to a subscription offer in the future.
  • Robocalls. Before I say anything else, make sure you have the permission of those you call before you attempt to use a robocall. However, a short (30 second or less) robocall from an opinion leader (artistic director, celebrity, etc) with an attractive offer can be very successful.
  • Direct Mail and E-mail. An organization can create a specific offer for a very segmented list, which will allow you to get an offer in front of people who are not subscribers, haven't purchased and are likely discount buyers with no history of purchasing full price tickets. If you are sending out an e-mail campaign, make sure to disable the "forward to a friend" option.
  • Reward Sponsors. Offer a special discount to the employees of an important sponsor. The discount has to be significant enough to feel like a "reward." Often times, your primary contact will post the discount on a company message board or forward to department heads for distribution. This technique will help you fill the house, and will engage corporate sponsors.

2. Make sure you properly dress the house. When you place single tickets on sale, make sure you hold back certain inventory so that the house dresses itself from front to back, and from bottom to top. That way, when patrons take their seats even in a house that isn't full, the only thing they see in front of them are full seats, with the empty seats behind them. As patrons will be looking forward a great majority of the time, it creates the perception that the house is full. Some theaters are easier to dress than others. The easiest theaters to dress are proscenium houses with balconies. If the demand doesn't warrant it, then don't open the balcony and push all buyers to the orchestra. The orchestra will fill up, and you can close off the balcony. Seriously, how many people will stand up and turn around just to see if an upper balcony is full?

3. If you need to comp tickets, then make the comp tickets work for you. Ok, things are really desperate and you have found yourself in a situation where even discounts are barely working. You need to get some butts in seats, and your boss is telling you to just fill the house. In this situation, it is very important not to look desperate. Like everything else in life, you need a plan for dispersing complimentary tickets. Whatever you do, don't just throw out a comp ticket offer to a large group of people (i.e. listservs, message boards, etc). Like discounts, comping tickets is best done as a one to one activity. Use your comp tickets to:

  • Reward your best customers first. Comp tickets can be used to thank new subscribers, reward donors for increasing gifts, to remedy customer service issues, etc. Even though you can't sell these tickets at full price, they still have value--make them work for you.
  • Incentivize additional purchasing activity. Offer comp tickets to a poorly performing show as an incentive for additional purchases or upgrades.
  • Reward your staff. Offer additional comp tickets above and beyond your normal policy to staff members as a way of thanking them for their hard work.
  • Promote the production. Comp tickets can be given to media outlets, cab drivers, concierges, librarians, teachers, interest groups, convention and visitors bureaus, etc. in order to raise the visibility of the production and your organization.

The worst thing you can do when you have a poorly performing production is to take actions that make you look desperate. Like sharks, your patrons will smell blood in the water, and it will quickly kill an already under performing show.

Interestingly, a local theater company advertised that a recent production was one of the most successful shows in their company's history. However, for the entire run of the show, I kept seeing discount offers for tickets to that production all over the place, which led me to believe that the show was struggling. In this case, if it indeed was one of their highest grossing shows, in my estimation, they snatched defeat from the mouth of victory by creating the perception that the show needed to be discounted.

To wrap up, marketers are the masters of perception. It is our job to create and impact public perception for products that are popular and not so popular. But if we have done our jobs well, at the end of the day, our patrons won't be able to tell the difference between the two.

1 comment:

Sherman Unkefer said...

Thanks for this post. This will serve as a guideline for companies with low performance in its production. To be able to correct their mistakes and keep its production going.