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.