Thursday, December 15, 2011

Who are your best customers (and why many don't know)?

Some time ago, I was at the box office when a major donor who lives out of town came up to the window. I instantly recognized her even though she hadn't visited us in quite some time. After warmly welcoming her back, I stepped away briefly to attend to another matter, and when I returned to continue our conversation, I was startled to see that she was being charged an exchange fee to transfer into another performance. When I inquired, the box office associate rightly told me that she wasn't a subscriber, and that waiving exchange fees was a subscriber benefit. In this case, the patron wasn't a subscriber because she lived thousands of miles away, however she was an incredibly generous donor, giving both to our annual fund and our campaign. Her giving over the years easily made her one of our most valuable customers, but because she wasn't a subscriber, the box office didn't grant her one of our entry level benefits.

This wasn't a human error, but a systemic one. At the time, we were operating a ticketing software that didn't reflect giving history, so there was no way the box office associate could have known the patron's lifetime value. And even if the ticketing system notified the box office associate of the patron's giving history, the associate would have had to override the benefits structure we had in place as complimentary ticket exchanges were a subscriber benefit, not a donor benefit.

We had a problem. Fundamentally, how we defined our best customers changed depending upon which department was asked, and the company as a whole had yet to identify our best customers in a holistic manner.

Two years ago, we took the first steps to address this issue. First, we replaced our antiquated ticketing software with an integrated database that housed all transactional data across our various departments allowing users to see an overall picture of each patron. Once in place, we had to develop a system for defining our best customers from the perspective of the entire company. We hired Target Resource Group to develop an algorithm that incorporated all transactional possibilities with our company, and then apply that algorithm to our database to develop a Patron Loyalty Index score for patrons in our system based upon transactions over the previous five fiscal years. The index scores allowed us to separate our database into four major categories, and today, certain overriding benefits are assigned to the higher level categories.

If the aforementioned major donor were to come to our box office today and request an exchange for a single ticket purchase, an associate would enter her information into our database, and the database screen would immediately turn red--our signal that we are interacting with someone with a very high Patron Loyalty Index rating. The associate would then know that an exception to the exchange rule would be in order as a result of the major donor's lifetime value to the organization.

The way the communications and development departments do business at Arena Stage has fundamentally changed over the course of the past two years. We view ourselves as full partners in building patron lifetime value. We work together to increase loyalty, reduce attrition and grow revenue. Subscriber renewal rates are at an all-time high, patron churn has decreased by 7%, the number of full season subscribers has increased 18%, and our membership program is pacing well ahead of last year.

Knowing who our best customers are has made all the difference.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Customer Service as a Competitive Advantage

I’ve just returned from the National Arts Marketing Project Conference, the annual gathering of arts marketers convened by Americans for the Arts. I’ve gone to the conference for the past seven years to reconnect with colleagues, learn from case studies and catch up on new trends. As I return home this year, I am mindful that some arts marketers have limited control or influence over mission critical decisions, many of which affect audiences, revenue streams and branding. As marketers position themselves as growing agents of influence in their various organizations, I can’t help but think that perhaps our energies should be spent concentrating on the underperforming areas in which we can be the most impactful.

In this new environment of reduced resources, the ability for an organization to identify its competitive advantages is vital. Some of which, marketers have no responsibilities for. Others, we lead. In listening to Scott Stratten's opening keynote address at the conference, I was reminded that the general woeful state of customer service provides a prime opportunity for arts organizations to distinguish themselves. In short, Scott reminded us that we should always look for "opportunities to be awesome."

Some thoughts on how we can achieve awesomeness…

Awesomeness comes from humanness. We have our rules. Our policies and procedures. It is easy and efficient to train automatons. But the greatest value of human interaction from a transactional perspective is our unique ability to empathize, reason and trouble shoot. We have to encourage front line brand ambassadors to use their judgment. Empower them to solve problems. Reward them for breaking the rules when required because by design, rules are created for routine situations, not exceptional ones. Why hire smart and caring people if those attributes don’t influence operations? I left the conference thinking that if we all treated our customers like we would our mothers, our spouses, our best friends, that we might have lifelong relationships with them as well.

Awesomeness is unexpected. In the spirit of a random act of kindness, what if we asked our brand ambassadors to perform one act of unexpected awesomeness each day? It doesn't have to be a splashy show, as even an understated, thoughtful gesture can make someone's day. Imagine a scenario where a man calls the box office to get tickets to a performance for his wife to celebrate their anniversary, and the box office associate makes a note and leaves a few chocolates and an anniversary card waiting in their seats when they arrive. Wouldn't that be awesome? and don't you think they would remember that gesture for years to come?

Awesomeness doesn't wait for approval. Many times awesomeness is a derivative of authenticity. If corporate policy dictates that brand ambassadors need to get approval to provide extraordinary customer service, then the window of opportunity to be awesome disappears. Great customer service comes from authentic responses. If we hire caring and helpful brand ambassadors, managers need to step out of the way and let them do what they do best. Don't lose an opportunity to be awesome because you have to send it up the ladder for approval.

Awesomeness often results from a mistake. We all make mistakes, even the best of us. Even when we have the best intentions. What really matters is how we respond to our mistakes. Mistakes must be viewed as opportunities to provide great customer service. An extraordinary response to a mistake can provide for a lifelong memorable experience for a customer. In 2008, Arena Stage had to cancel a performance due to a substantial snowstorm, and although we contacted all the patrons we had contact information for, we didn’t get through to everyone. Prior to leaving their house in Philadelphia, one particularly adventurous couple called the sales office, and were informed the performance in question was still scheduled to perform. When they arrived, and discovered the show was canceled and the weather had deteriorated, not only were they disappointed, but they were stranded as well. We should have canceled earlier to give our patrons more notice. But before us was an opportunity to be awesome. Without being asked, our sales office worked with a partner hotel to arrange a room for them free of charge that evening using some trade rooms available to us from a previous cross-promotion. We reseated them into the following day’s performance, and the couple headed back to Philadelphia with a fond memory of their visit to Arena Stage. The moment immediately following a significant mistake is crucial. Don't hesitate. Own the mistake, and resolve it above and beyond a customer's expectations.

Arts organizations are charged with building communities. Communities are centered around relationships. We are in the relationship-building business. As such, we should approach each patron interaction from a position of "yes" rather than "no." Policies and procedures should be built with a focus on deepening our relationships within our communities. And each day as we go into work, we should look for opportunities to be awesome.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Rebranding the Traditional Box Office

In a previous post entitled Subscriptions Dead? Maybe Not, I discussed various strategies Arena Stage employed in order to significantly increase its subscriber base. One of the most important was systematically identifying the best subscriber leads in our database, and then developing and implementing strategies to increase the number of similar leads.

Like many others, we traded lists with other performing arts organizations during the acquisition portion of our subscription campaign. However, in doing so, we experienced an incredibly high cost-of-sale for each new subscriber. Even when factoring in the value of each new subscriber over multiple years, returns from mailings to traded lists didn't justify the cost. Our strategy was flawed, and it was time for a change.

Data showed that our best leads were in our own database, with the best of the best being single ticket buyers who purchased tickets to multiple productions during the previous fiscal year. Instead of trying to attract new subscribers with no prior transactional history with us by sending direct mail campaigns to traded lists, we shifted strategy by focusing on building multi-buyers during the 2008-09 season. The new strategy was simple--if multi-buyers were the best prospects for subscriber acquisition campaigns, then the more multi-buyers we had, the better off we were for the following year's subscription campaign.

Instead of trading lists for subscription mailings, we traded lists for our most popular productions. Transactional data showed that by luring in new patrons via our most popular programming, we had a much better shot of cross-selling them into other productions soon after they had their first great experience at our theater. If new patrons purchased tickets to just one additional production during the season, they were exponentially more likely to subscribe than a lead with no prior transactional history with us.

Our focus was now clear--in order to grow our subscriber base, we must first focus on building the number of multi-buyers throughout the year. And the most critical component of that strategy was refocusing our ticket sales operations by shifting our box office to a sales office.

The prevailing feeling at the time was that our box office associates were "order takers." They were expected to pick up the phone and process each order in a courteous and timely fashion. They were evaluated on efficiency instead of effectiveness. With the beginning of the 2008-09 season, we rebranded our box office (now referred to as a sales office), and made it clear that associates were expected to function as sales consultants. They were now responsible for up-selling, cross-selling and proactively soliciting annual fund donations. To prepare the office, I promoted an exceptionally entrepreneurial minded manager to lead the division, and she in turn, brought in several experts to train our staff. We adopted a mantra of sales through service, and in doing so, viewed each opportunity to cross-sell as a moment to provide excellent customer service.

Three years later, I am very pleased with our results:

From FY08 to FY11, new-to-file households (those that had no previous transactional history with Arena Stage) increased by 90%, but even more importantly, multi-buyer households increased by 44%, giving us a much larger "best prospects" pool for new subscribers. In this fiscal year alone, that pool was converted into more than 5,100 new subscribers. Despite what some viewed as aggressive sales techniques, our 2011 customer satisfaction survey revealed that satisfaction levels were at an all-time high, and our attrition rate decreased 6% over the last two years.

Today, our sales associates up-sell seat locations, cross-sell buyers into similar programming, solicit various levels of annual fund donations, offer to make reservations at our cafe, suggest pre-paid parking, and will even arrange for a car service with a preferred provider. In addition, during slower sales cycles, our associates also provide support to our group sales office, and participate in outbound calling. By doing so, we maximize revenue, while growing the number of multi-buyer households and providing premium concierge service to all patrons.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Subscriptions Dead? Maybe Not.

When I joined Arena Stage in 2007, I came to my new job with a couple of preconceived notions about subscriptions. Perhaps it was in part a reflection that I am on the Generation X/Millennial cusp, but I was certain that the subscription model was outdated and ineffective. Many mature organizations that had developed their business models on subscriptions were seeing significant declines in subscriber numbers, and were literally caught between a rock and a hard place -- should they dump their subscription model and leap into the unknown, or keep putting band aids on a failing and timeworn strategy? Reports from major performing arts organizations at the time seemed to indicate a trend of declining returns, forcing a feeling that immediate change to a staple in our business model could be warranted.

In early 2008, Arena Stage along with a few other LORT theaters, began to test subscription alternatives in focus groups. In doing so, I was absolutely certain that the results would show at least one, if not several, attractive alternatives to subscriptions. I was wrong. Our work indicated that each option we put forth was less attractive to target single ticket buyers, multi-buyers and current subscribers than what we currently had. I was so surprised that we conducted a second series of focus groups with similar results. Amazed and confused, after a few months, I concluded our market research indicated that the subscription model wasn't outdated, but that our execution was flawed.

With the help of Target Resource Group, we conducted a thorough audit of all subscription related practices, and started making significant changes in mid-2008. Since our 2008-09 season, Arena Stage has experienced substantial growth in subscriptions, increasing our subscriber base by 57% and revenue by 73% in three fiscal years, beginning 1.5 years before the opening of the Mead Center for American Theater at the height of the global economic crisis and during a time when we were performing in transitional spaces throughout the metropolitan area. Even more surprising, during the same time period, our subscription related marketing expenses decreased, which along with increased revenue, effectively doubled our return on investment (ROI).

Below is a brief summary of major tactical changes:

Simplified Pricing. Our previous subscription pricing strategies were incredibly complicated. I remember spending hours poring over pricing strategy, and at the end thinking that one would have to be a CPA to understand how our pricing model worked. We decided that in order to create an effective value proposition, subscription pricing would have to be clear and easy to understand. We worked for weeks to develop a simple pricing structure that could be messaged easily, such as "buy 6 plays, get 2 plays free." The new pricing structure allowed us to easily communicate a value proposition and to eliminate complicated order sheets, replacing them with order forms that could be filled out easily. Clear, concise and transparent pricing was pivotal to effectively communicating the value of a subscription.

Introduction of Dynamic Pricing for Single Tickets. In 2009, Arena Stage introduced dynamic pricing for single tickets, and we immediately started to see an unanticipated outcome. Due to our new subscription pricing structure and the introduction of dynamic pricing for single tickets, we were able to guarantee subscribers "the best seats in the house at the best prices." Dynamic pricing eliminated last minute discounting on premium tickets, and rewarded single ticket buyers with a lower price for better seats if they were willing to purchase earlier. In turn, our patrons soon started to understand that the earlier they purchased, the better "the deal" they received, with the ultimate deal being given to subscribers. As we religiously track all customer service issues, we can say with full confidence two years later that dynamic pricing has not caused distress with our ticket buyers or donors, and in fact, from the moment we introduced dynamic pricing to current day, we have increased the number of single ticket buyer households by 84%.

Focus on Retention and Customer Service. We were allocating too much resource on subscription acquisition, and not enough on subscription retention. We developed a "say yes to the customer" approach with our subscribers, thereby earning us "industry leader" marks on our most recent customer satisfaction survey conducted by Shugoll Research. Year to year benchmarks for customer service have increased steadily as we focused on providing our subscribers the best experience possible. Given today's sad state of customer service at most establishments, we were determined that our customer service would be a competitive advantage. In addition, we allotted resources for special subscriber recognition efforts throughout the year, including a sneak preview of the upcoming season, complimentary artisan chocolates at specific performances and subscriber-only events. During the 2010-11 season, we introduced a concierge program for all new subscribers. Each new subscriber was assigned a personal concierge on staff, who was expected to make themselves available to answer questions, field requests or be helpful in any way. Concierges were reactive to inbound inquiries, but were also expected to be proactive throughout the year, offering new subscribers recommendations on local restaurants, parking, interesting tidbits about upcoming productions, and the like. By concentrating on customer service and retention, we were able to increase our overall subscription renewal rate by 13% over three fiscal years.

Eliminated Advertising, but Increased Direct Mail and Telemarketing. Prior to 2008, 25% of our subscription budget was allocated to advertising. After exhaustive efforts, we could not trace a single subscription purchase back to our advertising campaigns. Therefore, we cut all subscription advertising, and refocused those resources on direct mail and telemarketing. In doing so, we completely revamped our direct mail and telemarketing campaigns. In terms of direct mail, we would previously print hundreds of thousands of season brochures, and then mail them out in a few rounds of massive mailings. Our brochures were 28 to 32 pages in length, and functioned more as a branding tool than a sales piece. Today, we send out 30+ direct mail pieces during each subscription campaign that specifically tailor the offer to the target. We have eliminated our subscription brochure, cut our design costs by 60%, and have directed all of our resources to testing message and offer. For more information on our new approach to direct mail, please read "The Future of the Season Brochure." While retooling direct mail, we also invested heavily in telemarketing. If executed properly, many patrons actually view telemarketing as a service, as it allows them the opportunity to discuss the plays with a seasoned caller and to ask any questions they may have. As the economy worsened, we found that many potential subscribers needed personal interaction with a friendly and knowledgeable sales agent in order to make a commitment.

Delayed the Introduction of Smaller Packages and Concentrated on Upgrade Strategies. In 2009, we started to experiment with delaying the on-sale date of partial season packages in order to focus our efforts on upgrading subscribers to the full season. There was a fear at the time that our partial subscribers would become frustrated, and leave the company all together, but I was confident that our programming was strong enough that a delay would encourage subscribers to upgrade. The value proposition was clear -- the only way to guarantee the absolute best seats in the house for our most popular productions was to purchase a full season subscription. By focusing on full season subscriptions and postponing the introduction of partial subscriptions, we were able to increase the percentage of full season subscribers by 14% from FY09 to FY12. Expanding upon previous successes, in 2011 we launched a completely separate upgrade campaign alongside our renewal and acquisition campaigns. In addition to crafting and executing strategies that focus on renewals and acquisitions, we now also focus on upgrading subscribers throughout the year. These strategies have proven to be quite effective, and as of publication, we have upgraded more than 1,800 subscribers from smaller packages to larger packages in the current fiscal year.

Relentless Dedication to Monitoring ROI. In FY12, we will spend almost 20% less on subscription expenses than we did in FY08 despite the fact that the number of new subscribers has increased by 166% during the same time. I've always been taught that acquisition campaigns are expensive; that you have to "spend money to make money." In most cases, I agree, however if you aggressively monitor ROI on each campaign, in many cases, you will find efficiencies that will allow you to actually decrease your expenses in the middle of an aggressive acquisition cycle. Many marketers think that given limited staff resources, tracking ROI is too time consuming, however a relentless dedication to monitoring ROI will reveal where you should invest in the future, and more importantly, where you should cut.

In addition to the above, it should also be said that the most important ingredient to any subscription campaign is programming. A subscription campaign is both a referendum on the previous season and an indicator on the amount of excitement in the marketplace for the upcoming season. In my time at Arena Stage, I have been extraordinarily lucky that our artistic team has consistently produced and presented exceptionally high quality work, without which, the aforementioned tactics would have only resulted in minor successes at best.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Building a Budget that Empowers via Flexibility

Each September, a great deal of my focus migrates to budgeting for the next fiscal year. Even while the current fiscal year is just getting its start, many senior managers at Arena Stage are focused on the following year, knowing that in just under four months, a new subscription campaign is set to launch. As summer comes to an end, and the new theater season begins, I find myself already thinking about how in many cases, budgets are created to restrict, rather than to provide, flexibility.

If there is one thing I have learned since 2008, it's that success is greatly dependent upon one's ability to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. I've always been fascinated by people who consistently make the choice to stick with a strategy that isn't working instead of leaping into the unknown. In doing so, many believe they are mitigating risk, however refusing to adapt when a strategy is clearing collapsing only ensures failure, and what could be riskier than that? Those that are change adverse often times use a rigid budget to fortify their position, but a good budget lives and breathes with an organization, thereby providing plenty of flexibility when needed.

When budgeting, common practice at many non-profit performing arts organizations allocates revenue and expense into two categories: contributed (development) and earned (marketing). In doing so, each department is assigned resources and given revenue goals with a simple charge--use the resources provided to generate the targeted revenues. In my career, I have observed that this system of allocating resources and establishing revenue goals for separate and distinct departments can lead to inefficiencies that reduce, rather than maximize, return on investment.

Let me give an example:
Organization X anticipates that a certain production will achieve a significant single ticket revenue target, and as such, budgets higher than average expenses for advertising. The production opens to less than stellar notices, and word of mouth isn't helping either. After several weeks of slow sales despite the considerable investment in advertising, management concludes that the additional expenses set aside for marketing aren't providing the necessary return on investment, and asks that you reconsider your strategy. Meanwhile, you've begun to hear from the development department that the first annual fund campaign of the season is substantially over-performing, although they don't have the additional funds needed to grow the campaign beyond what was initially budgeted for.

In these types of situations, many marketing directors would reallocate funds from the under-performing production to productions later in the season, even though those productions, if budgeted properly, should already have plenty of resources allocated to support them. Fearing that they won't receive adequate resources in future budgets if they "give back" money in their expense budget, marketing directors can feel like they are incentivized to ineffectively spend resources on a struggling production or to reallocate them to productions that are already resourced appropriately. Meanwhile, the development department has struck gold, and could desperately use an infusion of additional resources, but none will come.

To avoid situations like the above, I believe budgets should be created with minimal essential resources allocated to each revenue stream, ensuring that each is supported adequately. Resources traditionally budgeted above the minimal level for campaigns that are anticipated to do well, should instead be used to fund a reserve that is used to allocate additional resources to over-performing revenue streams based upon actual highest achieved return on investment. Why religiously stick to a budget that 10 months prior allocated additional resources to anticipated successful revenue streams when current reality indicates that the additional expenses aren't warranted? Wouldn't it be nice to be able to move resources across departments to invest in activities that are actually over-performing rather than those that we thought would over-perform?

In addition, chief development officers and chief marketing officers should share responsibility for the total revenue goal of the organization, thereby eliminating any territory related issues that may arise. Together, they should be charged with shifting resources on a regular basis to fund activities that reduce cost of sale, maximize return on investment and best position the organization to achieve the annual institutional revenue goal.

At the end of the day, performing arts organizations are having to use their limited resources much more wisely than in previous years, and that reality should force all senior managers to reexamine how resources are allocated and spent.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Importance of Re-centering

A professor of mine while in graduate school at CalArts advised us that if we could envision ourselves doing anything else, we should get out now. He was very blunt. Life in the theater was hard. Long hours, low pay and full of personal sacrifice.

The past couple of years have been very difficult for the arts. State arts commissions are being eliminated, Tony Award-winning regional theaters are going out of business, corporate sponsorships are drying up and nationally renowned arts education programs are disappearing. If life in the theater was hard ten years ago when I was in school, it must be damn near impossible today in comparison, given the new realities of the "post-global economic crisis" world.

Being now a decade into the profession, I have found that most of my colleagues have seriously debated leaving the arts all together (and several have). And who could blame them? In fact, I find those that have never longed for a more stable livelihood a little suspect.

Last week was personally trying for me. Exhausted and spent after several weeks of very intense work, I found myself doubting whether or not I could sustain a lifelong career in the theater. Having recently received a couple of tempting phone calls from recruiters about chief marketing officer positions at various institutions outside of the arts (and one not so tempting inquiry from a construction company), the doubt continued to linger. However, at the end of several long days, I didn't rush out of my office and head for home, choosing instead to stay behind and take in a few performances at my theater. And as Robert Frost once remarked, "that made all the difference."

Sometimes it is easy when your nose is to the grindstone to get lost in the day-to-day, and forget why it is you chose theater as a career in the first place. Your day gets gobbled by sales reports, revenue forecasting, pricing models, customer service issues, copy writing and media buying, and the next thing you know, it is time to leave (and you're probably hungry because you forgot to eat lunch). Let too many of those days go by without returning to the art that attracted you in the first place, and you will find yourself in trouble. You can do all of the aforementioned tasks for any non-artistic venture in the world. The skills are transferrable, you'll have a more stable career and lord knows, you'll make more money. But you chose to work at a theater because you have the spirit of an artist. Take the art away from an artist, and you steal their soul.

So if you find yourself lacking motivation, or a sense of purpose, take a stroll into the rehearsal room, visit a class full of young artists or watch an audience react to a performance. Doing so will allow you to re-center, and remind yourself why it is you do what you do.

P.S. for those theaters that encourage closed rehearsals, I would encourage them to reconsider, especially if they want well-informed, inspired marketers promoting their shows

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Effects of Social Media on Traditional Journalism

In my role as Director of Communications at Arena Stage, I supervise media relations in addition to marketing and a few other areas. As originally intended, this blog was developed to discuss arts marketing, however from time to time, I stray a little and write about topics that affect media relations, as will be the case today.

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself participating in a very interesting discussion via Twitter with Howard Sherman, Peter Marks, Trey Graham, Nella Vera, David Loehr and Kris Vire. This impromptu panel discussion was centered around the affects of social media on traditional practices in arts journalism. With both publicists and journalists recognizing that the traditional media landscape is changing, it made me think about what's next. Below are my thoughts that formed in the weeks since.

For a primer on the subject, may I suggest the following articles:
"Should Theater Critics be Allowed to Tweet an Opinion Before Writing a Review?" Washington City Paper, 10/20/2010
"Hey, Broadway-Based Spiderman Boosters: Twitter's Not a Supervillain" NPR, 12/1/10
"Will the Embargo Hold?" 2amt, 7/12/11
"Stop Telling Me What to Think About Your Show" The Craptacular, 7/12/11

From my point of view, the affects of social media on...

New Play Development
The days of developing new work under the watchful eyes of millions of New Yorkers may be over. And the Broadway tryout in major metropolitan areas could be as well. Why anyone would make the choice to develop new work directly on Broadway itself baffles me, as there is no room for error. I couldn't imagine a worse place to develop work. To be extraordinary, one must be able to take risks. With the rise of social media, every risk taken (and failure made) is a potential headline in the now influential blogosphere. In the past, producers and publicists had to concern themselves with crafting stories for professional journalists and preparing for traditional reviews, but in today's world, before the first review hits, public opinion can be persuaded by millions of tweets, Facebook posts and blogs. In some cases, by the time the impartial and professional critic walks through the doors of a theater, the verdict in the court of public opinion has already been rendered. As information travels at the speed of light to every corner of the world these days, it would not surprise me if the major development work for high profile, Broadway-bound productions starts to occur at smaller and smaller venues in more remote areas of the country. Even major regional theaters in large metropolitan areas may become too "exposed" to be able to shelter the development process of new work. My prediction: Places like Virginia Stage Company, a LORT D theater in Norfolk, VA which just recently produced a highly acclaimed pre-Broadway run of Bruce Hornsby's SCKBSTD, will become the new go-to places for development of high profile projects.

Preview Performances
A production is never fully complete until it is performed in front of an audience. Preview performances used to be a testing ground that allowed creatives the ability to make adjustments to a production and then try them out in front of an audience. Previews are handled differently depending on the company. I have worked for companies where previews were very rough, often times being obvious that the creatives and the cast were still in the process of creation. However, I have also worked for companies where in most cases, the first preview looked as polished as opening night. As marketers, we know the most powerful marketing tool is word-of-mouth, and social media allows for the development of instant word-of-mouth campaigns. These days, artists and administrators have to be prepared that the first preview will bring instant feedback, and that feedback will have a direct impact on sales. Some administrators, as mentioned in the aforementioned article entitled "Stop Telling Me What to Think About Your Show," try to appeal to audiences to halt or slow social media. However, as a paying member of the audience, patrons have every right to say what they think to whomever they want using whatever means they want to. Trying to control social media is a waste of energy, and asking audience members not to discuss the play is like telling a teenager not to do something. Even more ludicrous are the producers that are charging $150+ for previews, and then asking patrons not to share their experiences. Whoever advised them to do so obviously has very little understanding of the value of transparency which drives so many social media mavens. My prediction: Producers will forgo long preview periods, and will in turn rely more heavily upon the developmental runs as discussed in the previous paragraph.

In his excellent blog referenced above, Howard Sherman predicts that the embargo "has begun to crumble and that erosion will only accelerate as every single person who cares to becomes their own media mogul and true stars of the medium begin to achieve influence akin to that afforded by old media." I couldn't agree more. As of today, traditional journalists are expected to hold back on reviewing until a producer settles on an opening date and then invites the critic to see the production. In the meantime, "citizen reviewers" are blogging, tweeting, posting on Facebook and Yelping, thereby allowing everyone except the professional critic the opportunity to weigh-in. However, to pull a line from Spiderman, with "great power comes great responsibility." Professional critics are expected to act with journalistic integrity and to honor embargoes as they are the arbiters of culture for, in some cases, millions of readers. But there are grey areas. What happens when the same producer that requests an embargo from professional critics invites Oprah Winfrey to attend a preview, and then Oprah tweets her thoughts to her 6.7 million followers weeks before critics can? or when an advertising firm uses pull quotes from comments on Yelp or Twitter to promote a show in ad campaigns weeks before a show is officially open to review? My prediction: The use of embargoes between producers and the media will change in the next few years as social and traditional media will compete directly with each over for prominence.

For some reason, when Washington City Paper theater critic Trey Graham tweeted a response to a show that he was reviewing from the theater, it caused a little bit of a brouhaha. To get the facts straight, he was an invited reviewer attending a production that was open to review at the request of the theater. I guess a couple of actors who normally like to avoid reading reviews encountered the tweet, and were upset because a review caught them by surprise as it was delivered via social media, thus leading to a complaint. From a publicist's perspective, Trey was well within his rights to tweet his thoughts. Theaters can (as of now) embargo reviews based on time (when shows are available for review), but it is amusing to think that any institution would expect to be able to embargo based on delivery method. Social media is just a delivery mechanism, just like a newspaper is. Critics have every right to deliver their criticism via whatever mechanism they like. Journalism is a very competitive field, and often times being able to weigh-in first, or before others, creates a competitive advantage. As such, I am not surprised at all that critics are now sending immediate, albeit 140 character, responses. Although I disagree, Howard Sherman developed a well reasoned argument as to perhaps why critics should not tweet responses in his previously mentioned blog. That being said, as a publicist, I would argue that whether we think critics should or shouldn't tweet their responses is a moot point, as it isn't up to us. The fact is, they are doing it and we don't have any logical reason to ask them not to. My prediction: Many more traditional critics will start tweeting immediate critical reactions so that their responses are competitive in the fast paced environment of social media.

Friday, July 08, 2011

The Nonprofit Variant of Dynamic Pricing

I think for most of us that work in the nonprofit theater, our dream is to create exceptional art that is accessible to everyone. Speaking for me specifically, this is the reason I decided to make a career in the nonprofit resident theater, rather than some of my peers who opted for the commercial theater. There are times when I am envious of the visual arts, particularly in Washington, DC, which due to their funding models, many of which can provide exceptional art free of charge to the public. The predominant model for visual arts institutions in DC is based on uninhibited access. Wouldn’t it be great if the performing arts were the same way? The nonprofit resident theater model developed in a completely different manner however. In fact, Arena Stage was founded in 1950 as a for-profit entity, and thrived for years as such. From the very birth of resident theaters, patrons were charged to access the art, and we have had to fight to keep funding models in place that support accessible fees. With the development of the nonprofit model, it allowed previously for-profit resident theaters the opportunity to raise contributed funds (private donors, government entities, foundations, etc) in an effort to keep ticket prices as accessible as possible. Most resident institutions took advantage of this new found opportunity to improve access for all and to provide educational programs, however there were some that did not. Still to this day, in our community (not to mention on Broadway itself), nonprofit theaters and for-profit companies compete all the time, which seems to be somewhat unique to the theater world (do you know of any for-profit symphonies?).

Prior to 2008, few companies had experimented with dynamic pricing, primarily because the technology wasn’t readily available to operationalize what had previously been a well thought out theory. The idea was relatively simple -- if your house was playing to less than 100% capacity, it was symptomatic of the failure to determine an optimum price. If an optimum price could be determined, which perfectly aligned demand and supply, every house would be at capacity. The first use of dynamic pricing by a nonprofit organization to my knowledge was at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In 2003, Deborah Rutter joined the symphony as their new president, and introduced the idea of dynamic pricing (resident theaters would experiment with dynamic pricing much later). Tessitura, an advanced new database system developed by the Metropolitan Opera, had entered the market in the early 2000s, but was so costly that only major symphonies, operas, presenters and commercial entities could afford it. However, Tessitura was robust enough to handle the operationalizing of dynamic pricing for those institutions that could afford it. From 2003-2008, most marketing directors at nonprofit resident theaters were aware of a new “dynamic” pricing model, but we didn’t have access to the technology to implement it. While very large nonprofits were experimenting with dynamic pricing, so were commercial entities. The Producers broke records in 2001 by establishing an unheard of top ticket price of $480 (which by the way, The Book of Mormon just surpassed on June 16 with a top ticket price of $487). I immediately began to notice a difference in how for-profit and nonprofit entities were applying the principles of dynamic pricing. From my observations, Broadway producers did not consider accessibility in the least when establishing ticket prices. They had responsibilities to their investors, and would charge the maximum price they could for every seat in the house. On the other hand, I noticed many nonprofit companies increased their top ticket price when demand warranted in order to keep a significant portion of their houses at very accessible prices. And even the top “dynamic” prices at nonprofits didn’t get anywhere near $480 (I wonder if this is what Diane Ragsdale meant when she said that "nonprofits are expected to leave money on the table?"). Whereas both nonprofits and for-profits were using the same pricing theory, it has been applied and operationalized very differently.

A tipping point for nonprofits occurred in 2008. By that time, Tessitura had been on the market for almost a decade. Competing database products were being developed and tested, and the pricing for Tessitura had decreased to a level that most nonprofit resident theaters could now afford it. In addition, the world experienced the beginnings of the global economic crisis during September of 2008. That fall, I gave a couple of speeches at national conferences, and the predominant question on the minds of arts administrators was how a crisis at such an enormous scale would impact organizations. We had models from 1987 and the 1970s, but all indications were that this crisis would far exceed anything we had ever weathered.

Some organizations cut back programming and reduced expenses in a hope to ride out the storm. Others recognized the crisis as an opportunity to reexamine business models. Most correctly identified that contributed revenue sources would be heavily impacted. As nonprofits operate on two revenue streams (contributed and earned), in order to maintain the same level of artistic excellence, maintain living wages for artists and offer extensive educational programs, many organizations looked for ways to bolster earned revenues. Nonprofit resident theaters became very good at maximizing revenues from non-ticket sources in order to maintain accessible ticket prices. New sources of revenue were popping up everywhere from real estate ventures, event rentals, restaurants, parking, corporate visibility opportunities, summer camps, bars, consulting services, and partnerships with for-profit ventures. However, new earned revenue streams took time to develop and decreases in contributed revenue were coming quickly. In order to maintain accessible ticket prices for a significant portion of the house, many nonprofits had to seriously consider a dynamic pricing model that allowed for an increase at the top pricing levels when demand warranted it. With a decrease in contributed revenue, organizations had a choice to make:

1. They could reduce expenses, cut programming and lay off staff in an attempt to resize themselves to match the new levels of contributed revenue available.
2. They could increase ticket prices at all price levels to make up for lost contributed revenue, however in doing so, making themselves less accessible across the board.
3. They could increase top ticket prices according to demand, and keep a significant portion of their inventory at accessible prices.

Not surprising to me, many nonprofit resident theaters went for option #3. To my knowledge, almost all the nonprofit resident theaters in the DC metropolitan area now utilizing dynamic pricing, and none so far have seen the negative ramifications as forecasted by some experts.

In today’s debates concerning for-profit vs. nonprofit incorporation, I am mindful of something Arena Stage Founder Zelda Fichandler said in a speech she gave in the 1960s: “while we are gathered here in the name of the nonprofit corporation (and, indeed, without the nonprofit income tax code, our American theater would simply not exist), being nonprofit does not really define us—our goals, our aims, our aesthetic, our achievements. What defines us, measures us, is our capacity to produce art.”

Ultimately nonprofit resident theaters should be measured by their capacity to produce art, and to make that art as accessible as possible without sacrificing excellence or their ability to compensate artists at reasonable levels. Given today’s new realities of reduced contributed revenue sources for many nonprofit resident theaters, the development of new revenue streams and the implementation of dynamic pricing allows institutions to make up for lost revenue without sacrificing their ability to be accessible to their communities.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Untapped Talent

Over the course of the year, I have been fortunate enough to attend several gatherings of artists and marketers, from the National Arts Marketing Project Conference to the #Newplay Convening at Arena Stage to most recently the Theatre Communications Group's National Conference. From these gatherings, a clear theme has emerged. Many artists feel that institutions do not use them to the best of their abilities, and they question why they are not approached to help with planning, budgeting, marketing or other traditionally "administrative" functions. In fact, as it relates to marketing, many artists went a step further by saying that they feel unwelcome by marketing departments.

At the TCG conference during a session entitled "The State of the Artist," sound designer Cricket Myers questioned why she isn't utilized more to promote productions she is working on. This echoed cries from playwrights that I have heard throughout the year asking why marketers don't seek out a playwright's assistance in the promotion of their work.

I think in some cases there is a serious disconnect between the marketer and the artist, which leads to situations of untapped talent on both sides. Why are artists not sought out during the marketing process, and why are marketers not sought out during the creation process? From the stories I have heard from playwrights, it sounds to me like several of them have legitimate reasons to feel like they are unwelcome when it comes to designing and implementing marketing campaigns. Those of us that spend a significant amount of time marketing new work might not understand the exclusion of artists in the marketing process, as outlined recently by Alli Houseworth's comments in "A Theater Marketer's Rant." Marketers that reject any collaborative environment with artists make it difficult for those that invite collaboration. I fear that some marketers are considered guilty by association.

If involving artists in the marketing process is beneficial (as I believe most of us agree it is), I question if involving marketers in the creation process could be as well? Theater is a collaborative art form, and it seems to me that the highway of collaboration should feature two way traffic. In my career, I have seen marketers locked out of rehearsal halls, denied access to draft scripts, and be uninvited to workshops and readings, yet they were expected to understand and promote the work. To those playwrights who question why marketers never seek their opinion, I would like to ask them if they have ever sought the opinion of a marketer?

Marketers and playwrights are both specialists, highly trained and very experienced in their perspective trades, but they are both creative beings as well. Good ideas come from a variety of sources. To assume that a marketer has no value in an artistic decision, or that playwrights have nothing to contribute to a marketing plan is foolish. Both sides lose, and when paired, they lose together.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

What if...We Cast Off our Non-Profit Status?

In honor of Theater Communications Group's 50th Anniversary, the performing arts service organization solicited "what if" manifestos for their upcoming annual conference. In that spirit, I decided to point the "what if" in the direction of the the non-profit business model by asking what would happen if resident theaters abandoned up their non-profit status.

I am by no means the first to address this topic. On Tuesday, May 17, Thomas Cott featured the three great articles addressing this issue in his "You've Cott Mail" that day:

L3C Cha, Cha, Cha by Diane Ragsdale
Questioning Old Dogmas by Colin Tweedy
Revenue Means More Than Business Models by James Undercofler

The Assumed Argument: Mitigating Financial Risk by Relying Less Upon Volatile Funding Sources
I assume that the proponents of reexamining the reliance upon the non-profit business model by our resident theaters comes from those who feel that theaters could mitigate their operating risk by relying less upon volatile funding sources. In a previous post entitled The Funding Conundrum: A Marketer's Response, I discussed tactics an arts marketer could take in light of major government funding cuts. Coming from an advocacy background, my first instinct was to look at ways marketers could become better advocates. In doing so, I was trying to find ways to maintain status quo in a time of dwindling support. However, I now find myself asking what would happen if we found a way to develop an artistically valid and sustainable model that didn't rely upon any government funding? Would that allow us to create our own destiny? Would it eliminate our reliance upon a funding source that at best is dubious these days. We wouldn't have to consult the tea leaves to see if we were going to get our rationing of government funds or face the devastation that comes when those funds are cut at the eleventh hour. I hear many organizations discuss risk management these days. I wonder if eliminating a volatile revenue source and replacing it with revenue that is more dependable could become a very attractive option to companies that want to mitigate financial risk.

The idea of leaving behind the only thing most resident theater administrators have known their entire lives is daunting. In briefly contemplating this issue, a few questions immediately came to mind:

Would we jeopardize the artistic product?
As Ms. Ragsdale pointed out in her well written article on this topic, Arena Stage covered all of its expenses for its first fifteen years from box office revenue. In reading Zelda Fichandler's personal speeches to the original investors of Arena Stage, they don't reveal a particular concern about needing to sacrifice artistic integrity due to the financial pressures of having to meet expenses solely from the box office. However, I do not believe that resident theaters can depend solely on box office revenue if they eliminated their non-profit status, and doing so, would in my belief, inevitably lead to artistic sacrifices. That being said, as contributed revenue sources have declined, many organizations have had to look for new revenue streams so that the box office didn't become the sole method of revenue generation. New sources of revenue are popping up everywhere from real estate ventures, event rentals, restaurants, parking, corporate visibility opportunities, summer camps, bars, consulting services and partnerships with for-profit ventures. As long as there are other substantial revenue streams that prevent the box office from becoming an organization's sole source of revenue, the artistic product should be protected. Check out these articles about popular sources of new earned revenue:

Arts Centers and Real Estate: Sustainable Business Model? Createquity
New Jersey Arts Center Sets Real Estate Venture The New York Times
Lincoln Center to Consult on New Arts Center in China Forbes
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Purchases Telemarketing Firm Artful Manager

Would we have to sacrifice the revenue currently generated by contributed sources?
Most annual fund campaigns track revenue from individuals, board giving, corporations, special events, foundations and government support. This isn't my particular area of expertise so my thoughts might be naive or worse yet, impossible, however below are my guesses at what might happen to these sources if theaters were to drop their non-profit status:

  • Individuals: Perhaps the largest loss of contributed revenue could be from major donors, who benefit significantly from the tax breaks received from philanthropic giving, although politicians are debating reducing the tax deductibility of charitable gifts. However, I don't believe that revenue from lower level donors would be significantly impacted. Research indicates that lower level donors primarily give to receive benefits designed to improve their experience while attending the theater, and not due to a value-based philanthropic reason. If theaters were to continue to offer experiential benefits in exchange for an additional fee, regardless if they were a non-profit or not, I believe they could maintain the revenue they receive currently from lower level donors.

  • Board Giving: I wonder if non-profit board members could be transitioned into investors in a for-profit model, serving in a similar capacity to a limited partner. That could allow an organization to maintain partial revenues from board members, while offering them an opportunity for investment returns.

  • Corporations: Corporate giving via truly philanthropic avenues has steadily decreased in the past decade. Most corporations now have moved their sponsorship dollars out from under philanthropic officers and into the hands of their marketing departments. Corporate sponsorships are primarily about visibility and client entertainment. I would guess that marketing officers aren't going to care if a theater is a non-profit institution or not when deciding where to spend their sponsorship dollars. They care about the value of the opportunities the theater can provide.

  • Special Events: Why not look at special events as one night, for-profit productions? By programming in-demand talent, pricing tickets at fair market value and controlling expenses, special events should be able to still generate significant revenue.

  • Foundations: Many foundations only give to non-profits because the IRS provides certain tax benefits to those that give 5% of their assets each year to organizations with 501(c)3 tax exempt status. For several theaters, this would be a substantial loss in revenue. I wonder if this could be resolved if the IRS offered to count grants given to LC3s in the same manner as those given to 501(c)3s.

  • Government Support: For many organizations, government funding is either non-existent or so volatile that it cannot be included in operating budgets by prudent organizations. Arts organizations close regularly because they lose municipal or federal support. Many well-governed organizations have already learned to treat government support as icing on the cake, and nothing more. Those that haven't, risk total insolvency if the political climate shifts.
So, What's Next?
For now, it seems there is a lot of talk. These days, there is very little certainty in or agreement on anything, including the best business model for a resident theater. I am mindful though that Arena Stage was founded in 1950 as a for-profit entity, and thrived as such for several years. Could it be that to go forward, the field [5/31: replaced the word "we" with "the field"] must go back? It seems fitting to end with a quote featured from Zelda Fichandler in Ms. Ragdale's article: "I bring this up simply to point out that, while we are gathered here in the name of the nonprofit corporation (and, indeed, without the nonprofit income tax code, our American theater would simply not exist), being nonprofit does not really define us—our goals, our aims, our aesthetic, our achievements. What defines us, measures us, is our capacity to produce art.”

Sunday, May 08, 2011

It's Time to Pay Your Age

The predominant method of pricing to attract young audiences involves the last minute discounting of available inventory, usually resulting in what is commonly referred to as a "student rush." At Arena Stage, we had a similar system called our "30 and Under Program," which allowed patrons 30 years old and younger to access $15 tickets beginning at 10:00am on Monday for that week's performances. The $15 ticket price represented a 75% off discount from our typical average ticket price, so these tickets were in high demand. With such a popular program, you might be asking why are we trying to fix something that is "working" by launching a "Pay Your Age" program specifically designed to replace the previously popular "30 and Under" program?

Well, if you dig a little deeper, you'd find that it wasn't working because...

We were losing them at 31. Imagine if you had spent ten years paying $15 for a good seat to the theater, and on the day you turned 31, you received a birthday card saying "congratulations, in order to attend your favorite theater from now on, you must now pay 75% more than you have been." As an organization, in some cases, we had spent more than a decade teaching young adults that a ticket to the theater was only worth $15, when in fact we should have been reminding them that they were receiving a $60 ticket on a substantial discount because we recognized they were in school or were just starting their careers. The jump from $15 to $60 overnight was just too steep, and after paying such a substantial discount for so long, the value proposition was completely distorted.

We were encouraging late buying behavior. I have been to countless conferences where experts have blamed decreases in subscriber bases on younger patrons who are not willing to commit in advance. Well why should they? For years, we have been giving them great seats at the best prices at the absolute last minute. If you eventually would like younger patrons to become subscribers, you must develop pricing systems which encourage earlier buying behaviors. They need to be taught early on that in order to get the best deal on the best seats, they need to commit early. I always found it funny that the same theaters that forced younger patrons to purchase via last minute rush systems where the ones that complained they couldn't attract younger subscribers to offset the attrition of their older subscriber base.

We could not fulfill demand. In many ways, our inaugural season at the Mead Center for American Theater has been a banner year for Arena Stage. Performances sold out weeks and months in advance, and when that happened, requests for access to any held inventory and house seats for sold out performances flooded into our Artistic Director's office. By requiring 30 and under patrons to wait until Monday to purchase tickets for that week's performances, we found that in many cases, we had very limited, if any, inventory available for such an important program. That being said, I know how hard it is to tell a major donor or VIP that we can't sell them a seat because the seat in question was being held for our 30 and Under Program. Imagine--"I'm sorry Mr. Ambassador, the performance you would like to attend has been sold out for weeks, except for the tickets we have held for the 30 and Under Program. You aren't by any chance under 30 are you?"

The Fix
So we developed a new system called "Pay Your Age (PYA)." The premise: for our patrons who are 30 years old and younger, they can purchase PYA tickets starting two months in advance of the first public performance by calling the box office and simply paying their age for their ticket. Tickets will be held at will call for pickup, and box office associates will verify age upon check-in. We have guaranteed that 3% of the inventory for each performance will be held specifically for this program. In the case of our upcoming summer revival of Oklahoma!, this means that on Monday, May 9, 1,800 PYA tickets will go on sale in a first come, first served format.

I anticipate that demand for these tickets will be very high, and they will sell out quickly. This in turn will underscore the importance of buying in advance if a 30 and under patron wants to get the available discount. Wait too long, and we'll be sold out. In addition, by paying just $1 more per ticket per year, we hope to gradually adjust each patron year by year, so that when the time comes, there isn't tremendous sticker shock.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Funding Conundrum: A Marketer's Response

Nothing can take the wind out of your sails and make one reassess current strategies quite like an unexpected and critical loss of funding, which is what happened to 24 major arts organizations in our nation's capital two weeks ago. Shortly after the federal government averted a shut down, it was revealed that a part of the budget compromise was 74% reduction in the allocation to the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs Program.

Many do not realize that the District of Columbia is a federal territory under the complete authority of Congress, and as it is not a state, it does not receive voting representation in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. However, DC residents pay some of the highest federal taxes in the nation and their city's budget is established by Congress, leading to a cry of "taxation without representation." At a moment when Congressional representatives were trying to make substantial cuts to the nation's budget without affecting their districts, the District of Columbia became an easy target, the results of which saw a relatively reasonable and proportionate cut of 7.5% to the National Endowment for the Arts and a crippling, disproportionate cut to the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs Program.

As a marketing professional working for one of the affected institutions in the District of Columbia, it caused me to think about how marketers view their role, and how a marketer could respond, keeping in mind that John Kennedy reminded us all that there are always moments of opportunity in crisis. I came to the conclusion that marketing professionals are going to need to reexamine traditional beliefs about our job responsibilities.

Arts marketers are very good at audience development, selling tickets and promoting their products, however maybe we should be thinking about the following as well:

Marketers as Advocates
Last weekend, I was listening to Ric Edelman's radio show on WMAL as I was driving. Ric is a very well known local financial advisor, and he sits on the board of Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. He took about ten minutes to discuss an upcoming proposed Congressional funding cut to Wolf Trap's STEM program, where he described an e-mail he received as a board member asking him to contact Congress to voice his objection to the cut. He shared with his listening audience that he decided not to contact his congressional representative, because he thought given the economic crisis Congress was facing, that he couldn't in good conscious ask them to protect the arts. In defense of Mr. Edelman, he did go on to say that he would increase his personal contribution to Wolf Trap, and then asked his audience to give as well. However, it made me think that here is a very intelligent man who is prone to supporting the arts and who makes his living off of maximizing return on investment for his clients, but he doesn't understand that arts funding fuels the economy and provides one of the best returns on investment of any public funding avenue. In 2007, Americans for the Arts released Arts and Economic Prosperity III, the most comprehensive study of the economic impact of the arts and culture sector. It revealed that the arts industry is responsible for $166 billion in economic activity, almost $30 billion in tax revenue and 5.7 million full time jobs. So why is a financial advisor advocating cutting an investment that has such high returns on investment? My answer -- arts marketing professionals aren't doing enough to educate their boards and audiences. If Mr. Edelman had all the facts, I am sure he would view the arts as a solution to the problem, not a burden on the system.

Marketers as Community Builders
Among arts professionals, there is a very familiar story often told about Sir Winston Churchill's time as Prime Minister of Great Britain. As the story goes, during the height of the second world war, Churchill's finance minister recommended cutting the arts to help support the war effort. Churchill responded with "then what are we fighting for?" Obviously, Mr. Churchill viewed the arts as vital to the daily lives of his constituents. Can the same be said for us? I would argue not. In the past, the arts organized communities. Today, in many of our nation's preeminent arts organizations, they only organize the wealthy and the elderly. As such, it is easy to see why some view the arts as frivolous. Arts organizations should be community centers, and marketers should work to constantly lay out the welcome mat to every member of their community, rich or poor, young or old. As government funding revenues dry up, we have before us even a greater challenge, as many arts organizations look to earned revenue sources (i.e. ticket sales) to make up for lost ground, but in doing so, could be sacrificing accessibility, ensuring that only a slight portion of their community is able to be served. I must commend organizations like Signature Theatre Company in New York, which leveraged a major philanthropic gift to provide $20 tickets to all seats for all performances. They boast sold out houses for every performance, and serve a maximum number of people in their community as ticket price is no longer a barrier. As marketing professionals, in a time where there is more and more pressure on earned revenue, we must work to make sure our organizations are community centers and accessible to all.

Marketers as Educators
I started out my career as a public school teacher. I went to college and received a Bachelor of Science in speech and theater education from Missouri State University. Soon after graduating, I decided to go to graduate school for producing, partially because I saw my peers struggling to find teaching jobs as arts education positions were being eliminated statewide. Today, many states have eliminated the arts in their curriculum entirely, as funding has become closely linked to performance on student achievement exams set forth by No Child Left Behind. As a nation, we are in our second decade in which a majority of public school students will have received no formal arts education. Soon, arts marketing professionals will face situations in which we will become responsible for educating prospective patrons on artistic offerings as even the most famous of artists will be unknown to a large portion of young adults. The time in which a marketer could reasonably expect the general population to know who major artists is coming to an end. We will become the front line educators.

Marketers as Fundraisers
I am continually amazed at the number of large arts organizations that function with marketing and development departments operating as silos. In some instances, the two departments have their own graphic designers, printers, mail houses, event planners and the like. When budgets are tightened, arts administrators must do everything in their power to get the best possible return on each dollar spent. All to often, the artistic product suffers because of the inefficiency of management. Combine resources and as a team, look for ways to reduce expenditures and maximize return. Make judgments together on where resources should be allocated, and eliminate redundancy. Marketers have to reassess their metrics of success. No longer is it good enough to make a sale. We must strive with each and every transaction to secure a sale and a donation. I challenge marketers to view themselves as having as much responsibility for hitting contributed revenue targets as they have with earned revenue targets. Only then will we be looking for the highest return on each dollar spent and on each transaction achieved.

I would like to conclude this post by alerting readers to an excellent blog post entitled "The Top 10 Reasons to Support the Arts" written by Randy Cohen, Vice President of Research and Policy at Americans for the Arts. For those interested in up to the date information on all issues facing the arts, the Americans for the Arts website is an excellent resource.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Devil (and the Details) are in the Budget

All major decisions that an organization makes are made during the budgeting process. In many cases, the budgeting process is informed by a strategic plan or multi-year proformas. However, the practical and strategic decisions that are necessary to put a strategic plan into play are primarily discussed and decided upon during the budgeting process.

Ideally, an operating budget is created and adopted by an organization’s senior staff, thereby ensuring that each department is represented. For senior managers that represent marketing and are responsible for earned revenue streams, the following are some important questions to ask during the budgeting process:

1) How accessible does your organization desire to be?
• Average Ticket Price and Percent Paid Capacity. In major organizations, earned revenue can come from a myriad of different sources including ticket sales, fees, parking, restaurants, concessions, event rentals, merchandise, advertising, classes and summer camps. However, for most performing arts organizations, the majority of earned revenue comes from ticket sales. When adopting sales figures for tickets, a manager must consider two variables: average ticket price and percent paid capacity. When a budget is being developed, the higher these two variables climb, the less accessible an organization becomes. For example, if an organization adopts a budget with an overall average ticket price of $60 and an average percent paid capacity of 80%, it will be forced to enact pricing and marketing strategies to fulfill its budgetary requirements, meaning that only 20% of its inventory can be sold at less than $60 (and this includes all complimentary tickets).
• Complimentary Tickets. All earned revenue budgets should include a well thought out complimentary ticket budget. In many cases, organizations will find themselves with competing interests. Economic pressures can force an organization to increase its percent paid capacity and average ticket price, but doing so will also force a change to how an organization uses complimentary tickets. Many organizations use complimentary tickets for charitable donations, community outreach, publicity, donor cultivation, staff benefits and artist relations. However, only the budget will determine the amount of tickets available to use in any given year for these purposes. It is the responsibility of marketing representative to remind the budgeting team that no matter what current standard operating procedures are or what the desires are of staff members, the higher the average ticket prices and percent paid capacities go, the fewer tickets, especially for prime seat locations, will be available for complimentary tickets.

2) How much risk are you willing to take? The budgeting process can be pressure filled. After several rounds of budgeting, the pressure mounts on the marketing representative to increase his earned revenue forecasts. In doing so, there is only one question the budgeting team needs to ask—how much risk are we willing to take? A couple of bits of advice:
• Let the Data Do the Talking. A marketing representative should have years of data at his disposable, and he should use that data to produce the most accurate earned revenue projections he can. In projecting ticket sales for individual projections, one needs to do two things: 1) study the micro sales patterns of similar productions in recent history (3-5 years), and 2) study the macro sales patterns of all productions in recent history (5-7 years). The sales patterns of similar productions should give you a good indication of what is both possible and probable. I try to select at least three similar productions: one that under-performed, one that performed as expected and one that over-performed. Using the data from all three gives you a statistically probable figure, with room to do better than your projections. The macro sales patterns gives you an overall sense of standard operating revenues as well as outliers. If you notice during your budgeting process that you are forecasting that each of your productions will perform in the top 10% of all productions in your recent history, you might want to leave a little more room for failure. If the organization you are working for is taking the appropriate amount of artistic risk, you will need it. Final word of advice—no matter how much you are encouraged to do so, never go with your gut or “a feeling.” Decisions like these are should be left to the data.
• If You Are Uncomfortable, Say So. Marketing representatives have one primary responsibility in the budgeting process—they must be honest and transparent. If a budget makes you uncomfortable, voice your opinion. Ultimately, the budgeting team and the executive staff have final authority over the budget, but as part of the budgeting team, you must tell people when you are uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pass a budget that makes you a little nervous. All of us have passed budgets in the past that have kept us up at night, particularly in the past few years during the global economic crisis. However, you should never support, present and defend a budget that is irresponsible and dishonest. I am fortunate that I have never been placed in the position where I have been told I must present a budget that is irresponsible or face the consequences. However, if am ever faced with that position in the future, I would immediately start my search for new employment.
• Tell the Truth No Matter How Uncomfortable. I am fortunate to have a close working relationship with the senior staff at my current position, which allows for open and honest discussion. However, even in the best of environments, it can be uncomfortable to tell the truth. As the marketing representative on the budgeting team, you are in your position because the organization requires your truthful analysis and opinion. To not provide it for any reason is tantamount to dodging your responsibility. That being said, you also must be open to hearing sometimes painful and uncomfortable analysis as well.

3) Do you have the capacity to fulfill the budgeted expectations? My boss at Arena Stage has a great way of phrasing this question during the budgeting process. He diligently asks throughout the process if we have the capacity and resources to match our ambitions. It is a succinct and direct question that focuses the entire budgeting process. I am afraid that too many times arts organizations extend themselves by having unrealistic budgets because this question wasn’t asked. In terms of marketing, even if demand warrants a high budgeted goal, one needs to ask if you have the infrastructure to execute, which can include a multitude of actors such as staffing, technology, and operating procedures.

The final question I like to ask myself in terms of revenue projections is the ultimate litmus test—do we have an equal or better chance of over performing on budgeted revenue goals as we do under performing? If there is evidence that a greater likelihood exists that an organization will under perform rather than over perform, then I encourage you to adjust expectations to mitigate your risk.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Is It Time to Re-Think the Way We Discount?

It seems to me that there are two reasons to provide discounts:

  1. To encourage and reward particular behaviors

  2. To provide access to targeted demographics

Too many times arts organizations provide discounts that don’t encourage desired behavior, or that benefit patrons outside of targeted demographics. While exercised with good intentions, a quick examination of some common practices reveals that there can be some detrimental unintended consequences:

Rush Tickets. Many organizations have policies that place tickets on sale, sometimes to certain demographics like students, at the last minute at a steep discount. Unless your organization is selling at a high percent capacity, or has thousands of seats, by practice, you are guaranteeing a steep discount to relatively good seats in exchange for people exercising an unwanted behavior (late ticket buying). Many organizations bemoan the deterioration of their subscriber base, but continue to promote their rush ticket policies. Why would patrons buy several shows at once months in advance when they know they can get a better deal on decent seats at the last minute? Instead, I would encourage organizations to develop policies to reward desired behaviors. In order to convert a single ticket buyer to a subscriber, an organization usually must do two things: 1) convert them into multi-buyers so that they are purchasing multiple productions in the same season, 2) incentivize them to purchase their tickets earlier and earlier. By doing both, you establish behaviors that closely mimic a subscription, and therefore your conversion from single ticket buyer to subscriber should be much easier. Recommendation: If you would like to provide discount tickets to targeted populations such as students, then do so in a manner that instills early buying habits. Instead of incentivizing a last minute purchase, incentivize purchases that are done weeks, if not months, ahead of time.

Pay-What-You Can (PWYC) Performances. The intent of a Pay-What-You-Can performance is honorable. Most organizations desire the ability to make their products available to populations that simply cannot afford standard ticket prices. However, in practice, another reality presents itself. I am always amazed by organizations that continue this practice citing accessibility concerns, when all one has to do is stand outside and count the number of patrons who arrive for PWYC performances in expensive luxury sedans and fur coats. If you can afford a Mercedes, I am pretty sure you can cover the price of a regular ticket. What those patrons are doing is taking away inventory from the people you want to serve. They are taking advantage, but only because you are allowing it. Recommendation: Several organizations are now requiring proof of limited income in order to access PWYC performances or substantially reduced price tickets. Much like how students must show IDs, proof such as an EBT card or a tax return can ensure that you are serving the exact populations you have created these programs for.

Complimentary Tickets. A complimentary ticket represents the ultimate discount, yet too many times they are used for the wrong reasons. Consider the following circumstances:

  • Potential Donors. Many development officers use complimentary tickets to get donor prospects in the door and into a performance. We all know that first impressions are critically important, so I would ask what message are we sending to someone with obvious means when we have to give them a free ticket to get them in the door? If they are seriously interested in your work, or in becoming a major donor, shouldn’t they want to pay the same ticket price that standard patrons pay in the first place?

  • Board Members and Current Major Donors. Giving at certain levels should come with exclusive benefits, such as access to purchase house seats or the ability to purchase tickets before they go on sale to the general public. However, many organizations simply give away tickets to Board Members and Major Donors. In the case of Board Members, they should always be looking for ways to help an organization increase revenue, and by taking complimentary tickets, in many cases they are using inventory that can be sold. Major Donors on the other hand are often gifted tickets at certain levels of giving, however the ideal situation would have them purchasing tickets and giving philanthropically. By providing large amounts of complimentary tickets to Major Donors, all an organization is doing is moving revenue from the earned line to the contributed line. When trying to build revenue, both earned and contributed, an organization cannot rob Peter to pay Paul.

  • Media. Many organizations don’t take the time to properly credential media, and by not doing so, they are tempted to provide complimentary tickets to every request that comes into their press department. Professional journalists deserve a complimentary ticket if they can commit to coverage via a properly credentialed media outlet. If journalists request a complimentary ticket, but cannot commit to coverage or they represent an outlet that is less than professional, it is the responsibility of your publicist to decline the request. In many cases as a courtesy, organizations will also provide a second complimentary ticket so a journalist can bring a guest, however this isn’t obligatory. Many Broadway producers and major organizations will only provide a single complimentary ticket for a journalist in circumstances where there is incredibly high demand on inventory.

  • Complimentary Standing Room (CSR) or Standby Tickets (CST). Many organizations have very liberal policies for CSRs and CSTs. However, similar to rush tickets, unless you are selling out regularly, you are training those that use CSRs that they are available for virtually any performance, thereby guaranteeing that those who use CSRs will never purchase a ticket in the future. In many cases, CSRs are a self-fulfilling prophesy. The argument being that if an organization has unused inventory immediately before a performance, why not use unfilled seats for CSRs or Rush tickets? Well in many cases, CSRs and Rush Tickets are the reason why organizations have unsold inventory at the last minute. In my opinion, CSRs should only be used for customer service issues for longtime subscribers/donors or for internal artistic staff that need to maintain a production in a long run. Other than that, CSRs should be subject to your standard complimentary ticket policies and tracked as a complimentary tickets.

A final thought on complimentary tickets:
It isn’t uncommon for an arts organization to use 5-10% of its entire inventory for complimentary tickets. Usually these tickets are provided to people that could easily afford the cost of a ticket. At the same time, many organizations are desperately looking for ways to make their work more accessible to populations of people who simply do not have the means to purchase a ticket, even at a discount in some cases. I wonder what would happen if an organization adopted a policy that complimentary tickets would be reserved exclusively for patrons who had no other means to access their work? Hundreds, if not thousands, of complimentary tickets would become available to the people who needed them the most.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Oh, How We Like our Awards

'Tis the season for award shows. Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, Golden Globes and the Tonys. We sure do enjoy our annual award shows. In Washington, DC, we have our own awards for theatrical excellence--the Helen Hayes Awards--which just announced their nominations last night. It reminded me that as marketers, awards present us with a significant question--how aggressively should we use these awards in our marketing campaigns?

You might be thinking that the answer to that question is relatively easy. Why shouldn't you celebrate your nominations and trumpet your awards? A few things to consider:

When you market an award...
  • you are willing building the brand of the award. It is said that smart lawyers only ask witnesses the questions they know the answers to. That way, the lawyer is in control of the situation, and there are no surprises. In my relatively short time in the DC market, I have seen numerous companies trumpet their large number of nominations and awards year after year until the inevitable year comes when they are left out in the cold. By building the brand of an award, performing arts organization's leave their perceived success in someone else's hands. They are no longer in control of their own destiny. When you say to a consumer over and over again that an award proves your artistic excellence, what does it prove when you are left out? were you artistically insolvent that year?

  • you are publicly endorsing the validity of the award. You should ask yourself if you have any serious misgivings about the awards process. If you do, then you should not prominently market them, as doing so implicitly gives your endorsement of the process. One cannot market the awards, and then second guess the process.

  • you are sending a signal to the artists who work at your organization. And what might that signal be? Is an artist's work not as important to the institution if it isn't recognized with a fancy award? Should an artist take less risk knowing that the results of the risk might lessen his chances for public acknowledgement? Is one artist more important to a production than another simply because of a nomination?

Awards are fickle. They will come, and they will go. And most of the time, you'll have no clue as to why. The one thing they are good for is bringing together the artistic community one time a year for a great big party. So if you are a winner this year, enjoy your glass of champagne, because if there is one thing I can guarantee, it will be that you will get screwed in the future.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

You're Mad -- What Are You Going to Do About It? (Reflections on Landesman's Speech)

Disclaimer: The thoughts and opinions in the post below are solely my own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of any institution I am employed by.

I count myself lucky to have been among the two hundred people that NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman addressed at the national new play development convening at Arena Stage on Wednesday, January 26, 2011. If you are interested in viewing the entire speech, it can be viewed here.

His speech caused a swift and emotional response from bloggers and media alike. Some of the more interesting responses are below:
Dear Rocco Landesman, We Don't Want Your Theater Death Panels, Arts Dispatch
Landesman Comments on Theater, The New York Times
Fighting Words from Rocco Landesman, Arena Stage Blog
On Rocco Landesman, Theatre Ideas

In his speech, Chairman Landesman said "there is a disconnect that has to be taken seriously — our research shows that attendance has been decreasing while the number of the organizations have been proliferating,” He continued by saying "You can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply.” I must say that hearing those words spoken by the chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts initially struck me pretty hard, but then I decided to reflect upon them. Landesman isn't the first person to suggest that the arts are over populated. His partner on the stage that day, Diane Ragsdale, previously of the Mellon Foundation, had a few days earlier written a blog entitled "Overstocked arts pond: fish too big & fish too many" with a very similar argument. In fact, yours truly wrote a blog on the same subject matter on November 17, 2008.

A couple of hours after his speech, outrage over his comments took over social media platforms. The tone was frighteningly homogeneous--how dare the NEA Chairman say that we have too many theaters! However, I would challenge everyone to momentarily set aside your emotional reactions to a statement that rocks who we are as artists just long enough to look at the data and ask if his conclusion, although painful, might be rooted in logic. Study after study shows an environment where supply exceeds demand, from the National Capitalization Project to the Americans for the Arts National Art Index to local reports like this one from DC's Helen Hayes Awards.

The data shows that at this moment in time, there is too little demand and too much supply. That is fact, not opinion. Where I believe Chairman Landesman drew sharp criticism was at his suggestion that we have to decreased supply, because we can't increase demand. Many marketers, such as HowardW, immediately went on the defensive, stating that of course we could increase demand (it is the job of marketers to create demand for art, right?). I respond by saying if you could increase demand to meet the current supply, then why aren't you? This isn't an acute symptom we are discussing, but a chronic trend. Marketers are not super humans. We cannot on our own create an infinite amount of demand to meet the skyrocketing numbers of non-profit arts organizations. The data shows that we are out of balance, and whether we want to admit it or not, we can only live out of balance for so long before outside pressures will return the system to stasis. Don't get me wrong. There is nothing I want more than to prove Chairman Landesman wrong, but I wouldn't bet the farm on it.

From a motivational sense, what Chairman Landesman has done is remarkable. There is nothing that unites artists like telling them they can't do something. By nature, we are counter culture. We like to swim against the current. We need a challenge. Well, Landesman has thrown down the gauntlet. He has said that in his opinion supply will have to be reduced to meet demand. So, if you so passionately believe he is wrong, my question to you quite simply is--what are you going to do about it?