Sunday, September 23, 2012

Good Intentions Can Interfere with Success

To say that these are challenging times for non-profit arts organizations is probably an understatement. We're still struggling with the after effects of the global economic crisis. Previously viable business models are imploding. The elimination or severe reduction in government funding has resulted in a very quick need to replace public support with private funds. And who knows what is around the corner.

But, artists and arts administrators are a resilient bunch. One of our strengths is our never say die attitude. We confront each challenge head on in a "show must go on" fashion. We are inherently hard working. To make it in this field requires years of rebounding from rejection. When the going gets tough, we redouble our efforts.

After years of struggle, the fight in us undoubtedly begins to wane, as we contemplate the permanency of the current climate. And this isn't necessarily a bad thing. In moments of crisis, we ring the alarm and all hands arrive on deck to face the upcoming challenge, but this response is unsustainable for years on end. After downsizing, one human being can only do the work of three for so long before collapse. Our initial reaction of working stronger, harder and faster must give way to working smarter.

In the past few months, I've seen a couple of instances where hard working marketing departments, desperate to keep their heads above water, were working well beyond capacity, but were resistant to taking measures to improve efficiency for fear that if they took any time away from their current tasks, they would risk imminent financial peril. All while knowing that the current situation was unsustainable, they continued each day just like the prior, hoping that the financial climate would improve before they hit the point of exhaustion.

But for those already at the point of exhaustion, I'd like to offer up a few quick suggestions to improve efficiency in hopes of lightening the load:

Maximize Success to Minimize Risk. Often times marketing departments get into trouble when they have one business line or product performing very well, and a couple of others underperforming. Our natural instinct is to abandon the overperforming product in order to focus our attention on improving the underperforming others. Please don't do this. If you are understaffed and under-resourced (and who isn't), where and how you use your limited resources is incredibly important. If you reappropriate resources to aid underperforming products, at best you will most likely see minimal results, whereas if you applied your resources to the overperforming products, your returns could be exponentially better. High tech firms have built incredibly successful business models off of failure. They expect a very high percent of their products in development to fail, banking on the revenues from the one or two that will take off. And when a product does hit, the entire efforts of the company are focused on maximizing results. A good rule of thumb - spend 75% of your efforts on improving the results on overperforming products, and 25% on improving underperformance. All too often, we do the opposite, thinking that helping struggling products is what is best for the organization.

Analysis & Measurement, Before Action. Just a few weeks ago, I was in a meeting with a senior marketing executive in charge of a sizable national advertising campaign. He had a hunch that he was under-promoting a certain section of his business in the New York market, and had set aside a significant amount of money to test a new print campaign in New York dailies. When I understood what he was trying to accomplish, I asked him how he would measure success. He responded by saying that it was very hard to measure the exact outcomes of his new campaign, and besides, with his reduced staff and resources, he was doing his best just to get the campaign done and out the door. This is a common occurrence. When resources are cut, one of the first things to go is analysis, tracking, reporting and measurement. But when looking to work smarter, the one thing you need is what you have just cut. Before launching any major marketing campaign, make sure you have the tools in place to track results, analyze sales and measure success. Over the years, I have had more than one staff member get frustrated with me when I asked them to set aside the time they would normally spend promoting a production in order to create more sophisticated reporting tools. But without clear and reliable data, your campaigns will never improve, and if you do see an uptick, you won't be able to replicate what worked.

Don't Save Your Way to Trouble. Several months ago, I visited a client that was deep into their subscription campaign. The campaign was going well, but the company was financially struggling for other reasons. The marketing director, being incredibly conscientious, thought that every dollar saved, was a dollar earned for the company, and started to decrease the amount of money he spent on his subscription campaign in order to come significantly under his budgeted expenses. He wanted to save, and give back the money in order to help the company. His intentions were admirable, but his plan would have placed the company in an even worse financial position. His cost of sales reports were showing that for every dollar he spent on the subscription campaign, he was selling five dollars worth of subscriptions. This wasn't the time to under-invest, in fact, this was the perfect opportunity to spend more if cash flow allowed. If your cost of sale is below $1, for every dollar you don't spend, you place your company at additional risk. You only want to consider cutting your marketing expenses if your campaigns are resulting in negative net revenue, and even then, it is risky if you are cutting acquisitions.

Sometimes working smarter means doing the opposite of what's intuitive. Have the courage to challenge systems, the ability to measure results and the good fortune to discover efficiencies.

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