Commentary: Lessons learned from arts marketing experiments

Susan Parker, "Building Arts Organizations That Build Audiences, 3/12 Wallace Foundation report  Organizations that value innovation live with the uncomfortable notion that some ideas are bound to fall flat, according to [David] Bradford, the management author. "Innovative organizations have a high failure rate because they experiment a lot," he said. Bradford pointed to how arts organizations can adopt this mindset: doing small experiments; having a strong, consistent vision from leaders; and finding ways to clearly support failure so people will take risks.

  • The Minnesota Opera provides a textbook example of what experimentation looks like, having tried two different broadcast promotions and ended up with two different results. When the company found itself scrambling to fill seats, it hit upon the idea of a 500-ticket give-away from a local radio host. The promotion proved such a success the company has been able to move some of the people who redeem free tickets "up the ladder" to buy $20 tickets, then half-price tickets and finally subscriptions. Then the company decided to try the same tactic with a local television show. This time, results were disappointing. In the case of the radio show, the host was an opera lover whose enthusiasm apparently rubbed off on his listeners. Not so for the TV hosts. "What we're finding is if you are trying to have an advocate in the media, you have to find someone who is already a fan of your organization," [marketing manager Katherine] Castille said.
  • In its experiments with ZIP code-based promotions, ODC, a contemporary dance company and dance school, has learned another lesson: that proximity does not necessarily translate into bigger audiences. Located in San Francisco's Mission District, a home to artists, young professionals, and some of the trendiest restaurants in the city, ODC had data showing that its ZIP code contained the highest percentage of arts patrons in the area. [H]owever, the efforts fell short of expectations. The lesson? "We are in what should be a pot of gold ZIP code for arts [patrons], but if they are not contemporary dance people already, you are not going to get them to come to contemporary dance," [marketing director Nancy] Bertossa said. "The fact that you are in the same ZIP code doesn't matter." [A]ccording to Sandy Radoff, a consultant: "Where people live is really incidental to how they choose art. In some ways, the more avid a fan you are, the less crucial it is that you live nearby."


Commentary: 2 newly-itinerant arts groups experiment with audience outreach

Brian Wise, WQXR Blog, 3/5/12

Having vacated their longtime homes after near-calamitous financial crises, New York City Opera and the Brooklyn Philharmonic are faced with another task this season: reaching out to some of New York's most far-flung neighborhoods. Both organizations have been remade as touring outfits. Here's how the two organizations are getting the word out about their new nomadic seasons:

  • New York City Opera developed a campaign around the slogan, "Our Theater Has 8 Million Seats," to emphasize its new touring mission, untethered from Lincoln Center. The campaign aims for a hip irreverence -- a sensibility seldom found in opera ads. In an ad for Cosi Fan Tutte, two attractive couples are seen in a furtive embrace above the caption "Friends With Benefits. With Sisters." An ad for Telemann's Orpheus shows Euridice being sucked down a manhole.
  • Brooklyn Philharmonic [has] established a series of residencies in neighborhoods [and] focused on partnerships with community groups and local artists. To spread the word about a concert in Brighton Beach, for instance, the orchestra created Russian-language posters, and reached out to local Russian television, radio and newspapers. A nearby Russian restaurant served free dumplings at intermission. Less effective was social media. "Hot tip: If you want to get a bunch of older Russians going to your concert, Twitter doesn't work," said [new chief exec Richard] Dare.

For both, getting the word out is one matter, encouraging people to buy subscriptions is quite another. Chris Stager, a marketing consultant specializing in orchestras and opera, said three-quarters of today's orchestra patrons still buy tickets using catalogs and direct mail pieces, even as the Internet grows in importance. But such old-fashioned methods [are] not necessarily going to work for the Brooklyn Philharmonic or City Opera. "They're going after several niche audiences and the programming looks to be a collection of individual events rather than a series that attracts loyalists," he said. But subscription sales nationwide have been declining for many years. Stager believes City Opera could offer a test case for other arts organizations that desire more flexibility. "No one's quite tried itinerant opera yet," he said. "Whatever success they have could be seismic."


Commentary: What we learned from Woolly's infamous Tweet Up experiment

Deeksha Gaur of Woolly Mammoth Theater Company,, 3/1/12

About a month ago, Woolly Mammoth [in Washington DC] came under fire for launching a new Twitter-based program aimed at deepening engagement with a new audience. There was a lot of support for the program, and a lot of fear as well. People loved it or hated it; quibbled with our language (this is not a tweet-up); wanted more access (it felt too top-down); wanted less access (the rehearsal room is sacred); shared strong opinions about live tweeting; and much more. We promised that we would allow the program to run its course, and then report back on what we learned. It was early December when Woolly's Director of Artistic Development approached Marketing and Connectivity about a new project she had just heard about: NASA's TweetUp Program. There were many reasons for us to get really excited about this. We met a few times to figure out how to do something like this ourselves. The plan: a call for applicants to join a "Tweet Up," out of which we would pick three participants. Our three participants were invited to attend our first rehearsal of Civilization (all you can eat), a technical rehearsal, and then the final dress rehearsal. Participants were invited to tweet their reactions to these events. Now that all's said and done, some of the best things to come out of the project are as follows:

  • The day it was announced we received higher than average new followers on Twitter.
  • The three guests chosen were not Woolly subscribers, frequent attendees, or industry people.
  • The guests have since been frequent participators in the #WoollyCIV hashtag.
  • They were incredibly respectful of the process, positive and enthusiastic.
  • We got press in the mainstream media about something other than our shows, and non-theater people who don't usually read about us started to pay attention.

We also made a lot of mistakes. We learned a lot and are hopefully smarter for it. Here are some lessons that might be helpful, should you want to try something like this too:

  • Make sure you discuss this idea with all the artists involved! We didn't tell [the playwright] we were doing this, and he learned of it -- like everyone else -- on Twitter. We got caught up in the excitement of a new idea, and didn't do our due diligence. I think Jason knows just how sorry we are. Don't make the same mistake as us.
  • Use clear language. We used the term "tweet-up," while our actual project had none of the social elements associated with such a program. Three people do not a tweet-up make. As for the tweet seats component of this program, this was a distraction from our main goals, and while not a big part of our process, was the focus of our many critics. Greater clarity may have prevented some of the misinformation in the press that followed.
  • Prepare for a lot of feedback. The press went hog-wild. Articles in The Washington Post and were particularly attention-grabbing and a few donors and board wrote in with their concern. It is important to note that most of their frustration was with the "tweet seats" element of the program. I was extremely grateful for the support of Woolly's leadership. They were excited to stir the pot and were behind us every step of the way. It's important to know that about your leadership before embarking on such an adventure.
  • Don't shy away from it, or, find your allies. We tried to respond to everyone. Unfortunately, as we lost control of the story (as tends to happen on social media), it looked to people like we were cutting ourselves off, when in fact, we just didn't know where all the conversations were happening. And yet, we had an entire cadre of board, staff, artists, claque, and designers, who could have been advocates for us. Indeed many of them told us later that they wanted to support us in the Twitterverse but didn't know what to say. It would have been fairly simple for us to email them and let them know about the project, our goals, and how we were responding to feedback.
  • To Tweet Seat or Not To Tweet Seat. We were really happy with how the Tweet Seats component of final dress went. Our tweeters were [not] looking to be a critic; simply share an experience. We often talk about the value of live theater as being one where strangers sit in a room and share an experience. Tweet Seats is simply a heightened version of that connection.

We had a great time doing this and learned a lot. We hope the adverse publicity does not scare you from trying the same.

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