Saturday, April 28, 2007

Regional Theater Crisis (and how you can help)

Look at the recent headlines:
Coconut Grove Playhouse Closes its Doors (Miami, FL)
Empty Space Theatre Calls it Quits over Debt (Seattle, WA)
Charlotte Repertory Theatre Closes its Doors, Lacking Money & Support (Charlotte, NC)
Crisis at Papermill Playhouse (Millburn, NJ)

I hope that the current crisis in American regional theater will be addressed at this year's Theatre Communications Group (TCG) Conference. Below are my completely unsolicited and biased opinions on what regional theaters (and the marketing professionals working at them) can do to help stabilize the industry:

1. Invest in Education Programs & Market them Aggressively.
I truly believe that investing in education programs will prove to have the best return on investment in the future. Consider it an R&D expense (research and development). No Child Left Behind has had disastrous effects on arts education, and one of the very few indicators on arts participation in adulthood is an early exposure to the arts. Future marketing directors will thank you for focusing your resources now on exposing children to the arts.

2. Take a Look at Your Programming.
Try to become a trusted advisor to your artistic director, so you can advise him or her on the development of your organization's programming. In my opinion, regional theaters have a responsibility to push the envelope--expand the craft of theater. Too many are ignoring this responsibility in favor of developing "safe" seasons packed with shows "guaranteed" to bring in revenue. I would classify Papermill Playhouse and Coconut Grove as two theatres who had very "safe" offerings, and it didn't seem to serve them well. On the other hand, there are those theatres who have such progressive seasons that they ignore the preferences of the majority of their audience. I believe Empty Space and Charlotte Repertory may have chosen seasons that wouldn't attract a majority of theatergoers in their respective cities. So, I suggest everything in moderation--give your audience a sampling buffet. Go ahead and choose a show that will push the envelope. Throw that ever popular musical in your lineup. Feature a world premiere by an unknown playwright. But balance your season...too much of any one thing might lead you to a disaster.

3. Continue Your Education.
Always focus on keeping up to date on the most current marketing theory and practices. Just as a doctor needs to attend continuing education classes, you too must stay current. I hear too many marketing directors say that they just don't understand new technology because they are from "the old school." How would you like it if you went to a doctor who advocated using 1970's technology because that was how he was trained and he never focused on keeping up to date on practices? Go to conferences. Read books. Scan blogs. Keep current. Talk to your colleagues—I have learned so much from my friends in regional theaters across the country.

4. Be Passionate About What You Do.
There is almost one thing in common with successful marketing directors--a passion for the work of their organization. I have been successful primarily because I truly love the organizations I have worked for. When you begin to "phone in your performance" as a marketing director, be mindful of that and recognize that it might be your time to leave. To many people become bitter and trapped because they don't leave when they should. If you no longer have the passion, it will affect your work, which will in turn affect the earned revenue of your organization.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Why I go to church...

I can read the bible at home. I can download my priest's sermons the week after every Sunday. There is even a Yahoo group for the congregation. If I need anything, I know I can call the clergy and talk to them on the phone. So why do I go to church? It is for the collective experience. I like walking into my church and feeling like I am at home. I get to see friends. Share experiences. Find support. Sometimes get a cheap supper, not to mention the free wine at communion. I like to see my priest deliver his sermon, live and right in front of me. These are things that I couldn't get from a podcast. Or by reading the bible alone. Or by listening to a televangelist at 6am on a Sunday morning.

So why is everyone so concerned that the uses of new technology are going to drive audiences away from live performances? This has been on my mind lately as we discuss the concerns that arts organizations will face in the next five years as part of our environmental scan at Americans for the Arts. Then Andrew Taylor hit on the subject again in his blog entitled Time to Rethink the Professional Arts Conference. In his blog, he criticizes arts service organizations for not providing content from conferences for fear that releasing the content would deter actual attendance at the conference (rest assured that Americans for the Arts will offer videos of our keynote & plenary sessions for free on our website after our conference). He refers to the concept "that people pay their registration fee for the content of the event, rather than the context of smart people together in space and time" as "flawed." I tend to agree with Andrew, and this is why a live experience will never die.

Maybe we should ask Peter Gelb at the Metropolitan Opera if the ticket sales at the Met have fallen since they started to simulcast their operas to movie theaters across the nation. Or if they fell when they started to broadcast their operas on Sirius Satellite Radio. I haven't seen exact figures, but I have heard that ticket sales are doing better than ever, which is refreshing since it has been reported that prior to these efforts, ticket sales have fallen every year since 2001.

So even though on a beautiful Sunday morning, I might be secretly praying that my priest delivers a very short sermon so I can hit the golf course early, I will still be in my pew, because a podcast doesn't substitute for the experience.

Nationwide Survey on the Arts

Please participate in Americans for the Arts' Nationwide Survey on the Arts by clicking the image below:

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Unhappy Customer

Most of us would like to operate a business or organization that rarely has unhappy customers. However, unhappy customers can become your greatest supporters if they are handled properly. Coming from a performing arts background where I almost always was the final authority on customer service issues, it is really easy to fall into the trap of doing only what you have to, or abiding by the organization's policies no matter what--especially if you happen to be really busy. But I would encourage you to view each unhappy customer as an opportunity to create a lifelong customer. If you go the extra mile for an unhappy customer, they will remember it. It seems as each year passes, customer service on a national scale is getting worse (just check out the airline industry). Set yourself apart by treating your customers like family.

For example, how would you handle it if the weather is bad and a single ticket buyer calls the box office to see if they can switch their tickets to another night, and your theater has a policy that only subscribers have that privilege? I would advocate saying something like "normally it is our policy that this is a subscriber option, but the weather today is horrible and I wouldn't want you to risk the safety of you or your family by trying to get to the theater. I would be more than happy this one time to switch your tickets to another night, as long as there is availability. Please keep in mind when you are purchasing tickets in the future, that subscribers always have this option." Switch their tickets, mail them the new ones with a note that said--glad we could help out, and we look forward to seeing you at the theater.

When I first started at Virginia Stage Company, I wanted to get to know our customers better so I attended most of our shows my first season. Parking was a problem so many customers would pull up to the front door to let their passengers out, and then would try to find a parking place. I made it a habit to try to greet people at the door, and when some of our elderly patrons were dropped off, I would walk out to the street and help them into our lobby. Or on rainy days, I would walk them in with an umbrella. Most of our patrons were amazed at such personal service, but these were golden opportunities for me. Not only did I get to visit with our patrons and learn more about them, but our patrons felt special. Two years into my time with Virginia Stage Company, the theater had the highest subscriber renewal rate of any theater in the nation.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Back to the Basics #2: Capture Those E-mails

Everyone I talk to is trying to reduce costs while increasing revenue. One of the best ways to do that is through e-mail marketing, but you have to have a good pool of e-mail addresses before your e-campaigns will be successful. So try to capture e-mail addresses in everything that you do. With this in mind, here are some suggestions:

1. Put a "For More Information" button on your home page. When someone wants more information on your organization, they click this button and can sign up for your e-newsletter. In doing so, you capture their mailing address and e-mail. There is debate on how much information you should require. I am a proponent of requiring only two fields: name and e-mail address. The more you require, the less likely people will sign up. However, you should always give them the opportunity to supply more information, such as their mailing address, performance preferences, etc.

2. Do a product giveaway. Many non-profit advocacy organizations use this technique very well. For example, the Arts Action Fund gives away free decals which are very popular. To receive the free decal, you have to go to the website and register to get one. In the registration process, the Arts Action Fund captures your name and e-mail address.

3. Run a contest in your lobby. Give away something that will attract a crowd. Make them fill out a very quick form which captures their basic information such as name, address and e-mail to register for the contest. Make sure that you ask for an e-mail address as the first question and state that the winner will be notified via e-mail.

4. When you send out an e-blast, run a contest for the people who forward their e-blast on to all of their friends. For every 10 friends they forward the e-blast on to, they will be entered into the contest one time. Make sure they CC you on the forward so that you can count the number of e-mails the e-blast was forwarded to. Then you can capture those e-mail addresses and send them a solicitation of interest. Make sure though that when you send the first e-blast to this group, that you identify who you are in the subject field so you are compliant with the CAN-SPAM laws.

5. Use an email append company. There are companies out there now that if you send them your database, they can return your database with e-mail addresses for those that you were missing. There is a charge of this (usually something like 25 cents per e-mail) but usually it is worth it and the e-mail addresses are accurate.

6. Encourage patrons to sign-up for your e-newsletter or e-blasts by giving discounts or other premiums only to those who are on your e-mail list.

7. Make sure every e-blast that you send out has a forward-to-a-friend link and a way for an individual to sign up for your e-blasts if the e-mail is sent to them. This is a very powerful viral marketing technique, one which allowed Hotmail to become so popular.

There are several other ideas out there, and I would encourage you to talk to you colleagues and see what they are doing.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

National Arts Marketing Project Conference (Registration Open)

Sorry I haven't been blogging much lately, however I have so many things I want to write about so keep an eye out. I have been working on the National Arts Marketing Project Conference, and I am pleased to announce that registration is now open.

The theme of the conference: Flourishing in the New Frontier: New Media, New Audiences, New Opportunities. The NAMP Conference team has put together an amazing lineup for you, including a fantastic keynote speaker, several stimulating plenary speakers (including a marketing expert from the Metropolitan Opera and speaker extraordinaire Ben Cameron), a preconference sponsorship bootcamp, and of course many social events to interact with your friends from around the country.

We are getting ready to roll out the marketing visuals for the conference. I hope that you all really like what we have put together. Try marketing a conference to marketing professionals... no pressure there. Well we have our secret weapon as well--the conference is being held in beautiful Miami during November!

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Back to the Basics #1: Testing & Direct Mail

A new colleague of mine at work brought up a good point in the past couple of weeks. Before spending a lot of time on exploring new marketing techniques, you should first make sure that you have the basics in place. How many of us are exploring the uses of new technologies in the marketing mix, and ignoring some of the basics? With that in mind, I am going to spend the next couple of weeks talking about a few basics.

This same colleague is a direct mail expert. I will confess that although I know my fair share about direct mail, it isn't my favorite thing to discuss. It isn't as sexy as some of the newer techniques out there, but it is definitely something we all have to deal with. I have been reminded lately of two important things when looking at your direct mail campaigns: 1) the success of any campaign is directly related to testing, and 2) although testing is important, make sure you are not too aggressive with test campaigns. I think most of us know something about the first is important to test messaging, packaging, promotions, timing, etc. to see which combination of the aforementioned variables work the best. If you aren't testing these sorts of things in your campaigns, you need to start. Even small changes in copy or design can make a huge impact in results.

I will go on a limb and guess that many of us already know the importance of testing, but we might be too agressive with our test campaigns. If you have a mailing of 100,000 pieces, how many should be part of a test campaign, and how many should be part of your control group? If you have a control group which is still performing well, I would suggest not having more than 20% of your total mailing be part of a test group. That way, the group should be large enough to gather results that are statistically valid, but not enough to kill the entire campaign if your test groups completely fail.