Wednesday, July 24, 2013

On Hiatus Until Fall

Hello world. Sorry I haven't participated as much as I usually do both on this blog and in dialogue on other social media outlets. As I've accepted a new position as Managing Director of Milwaukee Repertory Theater, all of my energies have been focused on relocating to a new city and learning about my new theater. Looking forward to reentering the blogosphere in the fall, and to participating in conversations in the near future!


Sunday, March 03, 2013

What if you didn't have to guess?

In decades past, the success of a marketing director depended heavily on his or her ability to predict the future, often times by guessing. Guess well, and you were a success. Guess poorly, and your marketing career was short-lived. Marketers became adept at reading the tea leaves, and depending upon their gut and experience to make educated guesses.

As my friend Rick Lester says, "prayer should not be a marketing strategy." On this blog, I've written several times about the importance of using data to make decisions. Often times companies have years of transactional data that can be invaluable when developing strategy for future campaigns. That said, I've somewhat neglected another important tool that I've used throughout my career to help guide decision-making - market research. Combined, market research and data analysis form a formidable team. One should not be chosen over the other, but they should be used in tandem, and if done so, the need to guess is almost virtually eliminated.

Data analysis is best used to help inform future operating decisions that closely align with past performance. For example, when rescaling a house, marketers can be relatively certain which seating sections can withstand a price increase by analyzing sales patterns and looking for sections that are in constantly high demand. We can also tell which households are most likely to subscribe and what package and price point to pitch based upon their interactions with us. But what happens when you are faced with the unknown? Over the years at Arena Stage, I've been faced with challenges that have very few, if any, precedents. There wasn't any data to pull from, either internally or from other companies. We were in uncharted waters. And that's when market research became critical.

Since moving to Washington, DC seven years ago, both at Americans for the Arts and Arena Stage, I've depended on the wise counsel of Mark Shugoll, CEO of Shugoll Research.  Throughout the years, Shugoll Research has conducted many studies that have helped inform my decision-making, and below are just a couple of instances where market research was invaluable:

Arena Restaged. In January 2008, Arena Stage moved from its SW DC home into two temporary locations - a theater in the basement of a Marriott in Arlington, VA and the Lincoln Theatre in NW DC on U Street. We would remain in these temporary locations for two years and eight months while the Mead Center for American Theater was built. During that time, we had to minimize patron attrition caused by the move, and work to grow our audience base, as the new building would require a significantly increased patron base. I searched the country for a good precedent to learn from, but not a single one surfaced. Feeling on our own, I turned to Shugoll Research to help map out a strategy. I wanted to know what barriers existed for our patrons in moving to our temporary locations. What would motivate them to stay with us through the construction years? What competitive advantages existed at our temporary locations that were good selling points? How we could make the move less onerous? We tested messaging, sales strategies and tactics. From that, I learned a great many things. I learned that if our patrons got lost on their first trip to our new theaters, they wouldn't return. I learned that we had to make sure that parking and public transportation was readily available. I learned that dining options were incredibly important. From this, I spent months on signage plans. With the Crystal City Business Improvement District, we installed more than 100 new directional signs within a two mile radius of our temporary theater in Virginia. In coordination with the MidCity Business Association, we aggressively marketed the restaurants on U street and offered valet parking for every performance, as the neighborhood had very few parking options. We sent out personalized websites to each of our subscribers which among other things offered up step-by-step directions from their house to the new theaters. For these efforts, Arena Stage was recognized with the Box Office of the Year Award from INTIX and the Helen Hayes' Washington Post Award for Innovative Leadership in the Theatre Community. More importantly, we were budgeted to experience 7% attrition during the move and only realized 1.9% - and it all started with market research.

Branding. Forget the high gloss, four color brochures that list your mission statement and vision. We all know that our brands, regardless of what we say, actually live in the minds and hearts of our customers. Over the years, I've almost always found a disconnect between what an institution thinks their brand is and what their customers view their brand as being. In 2008, Shugoll Research conducted a series of brand focus groups for Arena Stage. Only two years later, we would be opening the Mead Center for American Theater, so as a new marketing director, I wanted to test the current state of our brand before launching a rebranding campaign repositioning Arena Stage as a national center for American theater. Inside the company, it was clear to most at the time that Arena Stage was a home for American voices, something that Molly Smith had focused on since coming to Arena Stage in 1998. But when tested in focus groups, less than 20% of our subscribers and donors knew that we focused on American voices, and almost none of the single ticket buyers. We had to be much more aggressive in marketing our brand, so we developed a tag line ("Where American Theater Lives"), commissioned a series of spotlight articles on the American voices in each season, developed a new color palette which was a play off of red, white and blue, and eventually put the word "American" in our new logo and name. Two years later, we retested and found that more than 80% of those asked knew our American focus.

Customer Service. As I've written about previously, I view customer service as a very valuable competitive advantage. So, how is your organization doing? Beyond diligently tracking and responding to complaints, what are you doing to monitor customer satisfaction? We've hired Shugoll Research to develop and deploy customer satisfaction surveys, and benchmark us against peer organizations and ourselves for the past several years. I'm proud to report that we've received "industry leader" marks every year since 2008.  But more importantly, each year we learn where we can improve, and we know where we should invest time and resources to improve our customers' experience. For example, in our first year in the new building, we received exceptionally high marks for our parking lot; we were delighted to see that our parking attendants were routinely going above and beyond to take care of our patrons. And the patrons noticed. That said, some of our elderly patrons reported that it was a challenge to walk up the ramp from the parking garage to the main lobby. So we responded by offering valet parking at the same price as standard parking for those who needed some extra assistance.

Pricing. We spend a lot of time discussing pricing at Arena Stage. As marketers, we want to devise strategies that keep our institutions accessible to our communities all while developing price points that lead to sold-out houses. Get too aggressive with your prices, and your percent paid capacities will drop (hence why the Metropolitan Opera announced that it would be lowering prices next year). But if your prices are too low, then you are leaving money on the table, something that most non-profit arts organizations can't afford to do in today's economic climate. So are you charging the right price for the right seat at the right time? To help us navigate pricing, we sought the assistance of TRGArts and Shugoll Research. TRGArts created heat maps, advised us on the rescaling of our halls, and analyzed sales data to determine optimal price points. Shugoll Research conducted focus groups and surveys to determine price elasticity, and to procure feedback from customers. Did our patrons think we were over-priced? would they be willing to pay more for certain dates/times? what could we do to make our pricing more attractive to our patron base? One of the most interesting questions we ask is how satisfied patrons are with the value we provide. Each year we ask the question, our satisfaction ratings on value are in the "industry leader" range indicating that customers perceive that they are getting good value for the money they spend on a ticket. Something every marketing director loves to hear.

The days of reading tea leaves, consulting the gods, and leaping into the unknown are over. A healthy combination of data analysis and market research allow modern day marketers to make informed strategic decisions. I for one am thankful, as I've never been particularly lucky when it comes to guessing. In decades past, I know I would have been fired.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Subscription Equation (and other tactics)

Probably the most frequent question I am asked is if I believe subscriptions are dying.  And if you would have asked me five years ago, I would have answered in the affirmative. I, like many others, believed the subscription model was outdated--a worn out old chestnut that needed to be replaced. I even had data to prove it. From our peak in 2002 until 2007, Arena Stage had lost 40% of its subscriber base! I was convinced we had held onto a failing business model for far too long, until I started testing alternatives. 

In 2008, working with Shugoll Research, we developed several focus groups with specific target audiences, including current subscribers, lapsed subscribers, multi-show buyers and single ticket buyers. During these focus groups, we presented several alternatives to the traditional subscription, many of which had been recently introduced by other theaters, and to my complete horror, none of them tested anywhere near as well as the traditional subscription. Even if I wanted to abandon our subscription model, I didn’t have any attractive alternative.  Then the realization came – if our customers still want subscriptions and our subscriber base is rapidly declining, then the way we sell, market and promote subscriptions if fundamentally flawed (it should be noted that we also tested satisfaction with artistic product and found that was not a challenge for us). In short, we were killing subscriptions. 

As our 2012-13 season comes to a close, I’m happy to report that we have experienced significant increases in our subscription base for four consecutive seasons, almost achieving a record high number of subscribers and  since 2008, have increased our subscription revenue by 115%. Even more surprising, the turnaround started to occur in 2009 at the height of the global economic crisis and a full 1.5 years before the opening of the new Mead Center for American Theater.  

If I were to articulate the formula of our success, it would look like this:

great artistic product + best seats + best price + outstanding customer service = more subscribers

Artistic Product: Whether we like to admit it or not, the most important of the 4Ps of marketing is product. If your customers are not satisfied with the artistic product of your organization, you will not see an increase in your subscription base. 

Best Seats at the Best Price: Being able to get the best seats in the house at the best possible price is a powerful value proposition for subscribers. If you have a robust subscription base, often times the only way to get the best seats in the house is by subscribing. Make sure to message that in your sales materials. Also, be very careful of undercutting your subscriber average ticket price, particularly at the last minute. A substantial last minute discount may provide a lift to an under-performing production, but the long term side effects could be much worse. 

Outstanding Customer Service: Let’s be honest – customer service usually sucks these days. So it’s the perfect opportunity to shine. Steward your subscribers like development does their donors. Be proactive in finding ways to provide exceptional service. For example, if inclement weather is coming, instead of waiting for subscribers to call you to exchange their tickets, why not send them an email alerting them of the inclement weather and offering to make the exchanges on their behalf? And if you don't already, find ways to thank your subscribers throughout the year. For example, there is a theater on the west coast that partners with a winery each year to give their subscribers a free bottle of wine when they renew their subscriptions as a way of thanking them for their support.

Beyond the formula, below are a couple of significant strategic changes we made that made all the difference: 

Lengthen the Subscription Campaign: Prior to 2009, Arena Stage would announce its season in March and would continue to sell subscriptions until October, providing for an 8 month subscription campaign. These days we begin our subscription campaigns in January and sell through March of the following year, thereby lengthening our campaigns to 15 months.  Avoid delaying the start of your subscription campaign at all costs. Each week you lose will be very costly, and you cannot replace lost weeks. 

Don’t Forget About Upgrades: When I was taught how to market subscriptions, I learned to break a subscription campaign into two parts: renewals and acquisitions. Today, we have an additional focus on upgrades. Our goal is no longer just to renew our subscribers; we want to upgrade them as well year after year. Primarily we focus on getting subscribers to increase the number of plays on their subscription, but you can also have them upgrade into better seats, add parking to their orders, or increase their annual fund donation. This year we are even experimenting with add-ons for café meals to great success. In FY13, almost ten percent of our subscription base upgraded into larger packages, which doesn’t sound like much until you consider that amounts to roughly $175,000 in additional revenue. On top of which, full season subscribers have a renewal rate 25 percent points higher and give donations that are 4 times larger than partial season subscribers.  

Speak to Subscribers Like You Know Who They Are – Because You Do: Gone are the days when you can create one beautiful season brochure that speaks to all of your patrons, and then mail it over and over again until you beat people into submission. Subscription renewals and solicitations should be highly targeted. You know what types of productions each patron likes and on what nights they like to attend. If you sell café meals and parking through your box office, you even know if they like to park and what they like to eat. You know if they are a full price or discount buyer, how many shows they attend a year on average, and how many people are usually in their party. So why are we still wedded to one size fits all solicitations? Our job is to get the right offer in front of the right prospect at the right time. And we have all the data we need to accomplish that. 

Develop a Sales Pipeline.  Even up to a few years ago, we would mail subscription solicitations to traded lists. Then we started to look closely at our response and tracking reports. Guess what – we found that list trades were not working, not even close. It would have been just as effective to drop season brochures out of a helicopter over the city. And this was considered a “best practice” that every major arts organization in the city bought into. However, we were not measuring efficacy. The failure of these campaigns is easy to understand. In short, we were asking people to marry us before we went on a first date. Most of these targets had never seen a show at Arena Stage. Why would they invest hundreds of dollars when they had never stepped through our front doors? We changed tactics and concentrated our efforts on developing a sales pipeline. We would trade lists for single tickets, primarily to our most popular productions. This in turn would create an influx of new single ticket buyers. Once they had their first experience at Arena Stage, we would send them an offer to return to a second show. Once a patron had seen two or more shows, the likelihood that that would then respond to a subscription solicitation quadrupled. Don’t waste time and money mailing to poor prospects. Instead concentrate your resources on developing more multi-show buying patrons as those will be your best leads in your next subscription campaign. 

Testing and Failing. The only way to succeed is to fail. The key is to succeed on a grand scale, and fail on a small one. Aggressively measure the success of every campaign, no matter how small. And test something new at least every week. Tactics will change from year to year, and you’ll need to adjust in order to maximize return on investment. As we doubled our subscription revenue over the past four years, we actually started to spend less as we grew more efficient. For example, I like to test new offers in our telesales room. Over the period of a week, we may have three or four offers in the telesales room. By the end of the week, after a thousand or so calls, we usually have a clear winner among the offers tested. That offer is then rolled out in an email solicitation, and if it responds well, then we’ll include the offer in a large direct mail campaign and then test it against the current control package to see if we achieve a better ROI.  

If you are currently experiencing less than stellar results on your subscription campaign, before throwing the baby out with the bathwater, I’d encourage you to examine each of the variables in the subscription formula above, and then vary your tactics to see if you get better results.  Sometimes it isn’t the model that is dying, it is how we apply the model that is responsible for our underwhelming results. At least it was in our case.