Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Some thoughts on Dynamic Pricing

A couple of months ago, a good dialogue about dynamic pricing began when Trisha Mead (PR and Publications Manager, Portland Center Stage) wrote a blog post on the benefits of dynamic pricing on the 2am theatre blog, and then Adam Thurman (Director of Marketing, Court Theatre) wrote a response entitled "the perils of dynamic pricing." It reminded me how often marketers disagree with each other when it comes to so called best practices.

If your organization is considering dynamic pricing, a couple of things to think about from someone who has some experience with it:

1. Tailor all marketing strategies to your organization. How can one pricing strategy be perfect for one organization, and completely wrong for another? The simple answer is every organization is unique, with a unique set of circumstances to consider. For example, if an organization's funding mix is 70% earned and 30% contributed, chances are, they might be much more likely to consider a dynamic pricing model, as ticket sales play a more prominent role in the organization's fiscal health. On the flip side, if your organization is known for more riskier programming, and relies upon contributed revenue more to subsidize less popular work, then dynamic pricing might seem like an alien concept.

2. Be mindful of your organizational culture and brand. Some companies are pioneering and entrepreneurial in nature, always looking for new opportunities to increase revenue streams. Other organizations have a more egalitarian approach to arts consumption. If your organization is known for having low prices available to everyone, then a dynamic pricing model might cause quite a disruption. However, those that argue that non-profits have nothing to learn from for-profit models are naive. There is now a long history of non-profits and for-profits working together. Even the most egalitarian of organizations, a "people's theater" like the Public Theater, routinely relies upon revenue from the for-profit theater world to fund its non-profit mission. Where would the Public Theater be today without A Chorus Line or New York Theatre Workshop without Rent? Sometimes for-profit strategies and approaches can be very beneficial to non-profit missions.

3. The funding conundrum. In his post, Adam asks a question which is meant to imply that the implementation of dynamic pricing could jeopardize an organization's "case for support." I have heard this argument before, and found it intriguing. Over the span of the past few months, I have sat on a couple of major funding panels with representatives from the top national arts foundations. I took the opportunity to ask them about the impact dynamic pricing might have in their opinion on an organization's "case for support." Without exception, each funder recognized that contributed support, especially from foundations and corporations, has taken a significant hit as a result of the global economic crisis, forcing non-profits to devise methods to increase other revenue streams. They understand these strategies in some cases are necessary for survival, and consequently said that they would not have any impact on a funding decision.

4. Dynamic pricing doesn't necessarily mean eliminating accessibility. Most non-profit art organizations would agree that accessibility to art is important. Dynamic pricing in itself doesn't preclude patrons from experiencing a performance if they can't pay top dollar. What it does do is force price sensitive consumers into an early buying pattern. Remember that in most cases, dynamic pricing doesn't affect ticket prices until a venue is at 60-70% paid capacity. If you purchase early, dynamic pricing shouldn't come into play. One of the reasons that I like dynamic pricing is that it rewards a buying behavior that is essential to converting a single ticket patron to a subscriber. Subscribers buy early and in bulk partially to get the best pricing available. If you can train more single ticket buyers that the later they purchase, the higher the price, it teaches the price sensitive single ticket patrons purchasing behaviors more aligned with the purchasing behaviors of subscribers.

Adam and Trisha are both right--dynamic pricing is both beneficial and perilous. Depending upon the needs of your organization, what's good for one, might not be good for all. Makes me start to wonder if there are any such things as general best practices.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Marketing to our Emotions

Long ago, I read Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends & Influence People, a book that I think should be required reading for all managers and marketers. The one lesson from the book that remained with me for all of these years, was a reminder that although we like to think of ourselves as rational decision-makers, we are first and foremost emotional beings.

In finishing my reading of Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide, which will be a new required book for my graduate students, I was reminded of a couple of important ways in which emotions override logic in decision-making:

Loss Aversion. The fear of loss is more powerful than the appeal of a gain, so powerful that often times it makes us make irrational decisions. To prove this principle, Lehrer discusses several studies and experiments involving investments. It has been proven over the past seven decades that stocks outperform bonds almost 12 to 1, leading one to question why bonds are so popular. In the early 1950s, an economist named Harry Markowitz won the Nobel Prize for developing an equation for the best investment ratio to ensure optimum performance. However, when it came time to implement his own theory, which supported heavier investments in stocks, he decided it was too risky and invested in stocks and bonds equally. In applying this principle to the performing arts, one could infer that the most powerful marketing message would be a message that demonstrated how one could avoid a loss (instead of acquiring a gain). For example: "Tickets selling out fast! Select dates still available. Don't be left out in the cold--call today!"

Expectation of Price. Arts marketing lore has it that price can affect one's perceived value of a brand. The thought is that selling tickets at a lower price will devalue the experience. According to Lehrer, there is some wisdom to this theory. In his book, he discusses a wine tasting experiment at Stanford. In front of a panel, scientists placed five bottles of wine ranging from $5 to $90, and the panelists were told that each bottle contained a different wine. However, there were only three types of wine, so two types were repeated (actually the $5 wine was placed in the $5 bottle and the $45 bottle). Even though the $5 and $45 bottle contained the exact same wine, the $45 bottle was considered far superior. The scientists followed up with another experiment, this time not listing any of the prices. When the taste test was executed completely blind, the cheapest wine got the highest rating of the group. Using the expectation of price to our advantage, wouldn't it be more beneficial to set the prices of our products a little higher (thereby establishing a higher perceived worth), and then discount if need be, allowing the customer to think that they are getting a bargain? Which is a great segue to...

The Anchoring Effect. Lehrer contends that a meaningless anchor--in many cases a contrived number--can have a strong impact on one's decision-making habits. To bolster his case, he describes a process that most of us are all too familiar with. When purchasing a car, we might first be drawn to the sticker price, even though most of us know that almost no one pays the actual price listed. That's because the sticker price is an anchor which allows the car dealership to sell a car at the actual price and make it look like a deal to the consumer. We leave the dealer thinking we just got a $20,000 car for a few thousand dollars less, when in actuality, we paid what the dealer was hoping for or else we would have never driven the car off the lot. So in our lives, if we need the average ticket price to be $50.00, why not set the price a little higher and discount so that our product's perceived quality is higher and the consumer walks away thinking they got a deal?

The Power of the Personalized One. Good fundraisers use this emotional quirk of our brains all the time. Lehrer examines a couple of experiments by Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon. In his experiment, Slovic shows a group of people a photo of a specific starving child while telling that child's story. Afterward, he asks for a donation to a charity designed to address starvation. For a different group, he provides statistics about starvation throughout Africa--numbers that illustrate the staggering size of the problem, and then he asks for a donation. The funds raised by the second group were 50% less than the first. The lesson -- causes need to be personified and at a scale where a person believes he or she can have an impact. In our daily lives, having a specific child tell how your organization's programming affected them could be more impactful than even the most compelling statistics.

Although not written for marketers or the arts, I would encourage everyone to read Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide. On average I tend to read a book about once a week, and I have found How We Decide to be one of the most challenging and intriguing reads I have had in a very long time.