By Rolf E. Olsen
Director of Marketing
Hopkins Center for the Arts
Current thinking in arts marketing is that your efforts ought to be a process of engaging in a conversation with your patrons, both current and prospective. In any conversation, you're not the only one talking - you also do a lot of listening. People are telling you things all the time, and you have many opportunities to ask your audience members for their thoughts or opinions:
- When someone buys tickets, they're telling you they like that artist or art form. Next time you have a similar event, you can contact that person and let him or her know.
- The ticket sale is also an opportunity for your customer service representative to ask the buyer how he or she heard about the event. This can help you gauge the effectiveness of your marketing efforts. (By the way, it's worth mentioning that your staff needs to have a simple and effective way to keep track of patron comments, so they can be passed along to you. A pad of comment forms at every selling station can accomplish this at minimal cost. Otherwise, all that great information is lost!)
- Again, when people are buying tickets, a well trained staff member might hear an opinion or attitude expressed. Maybe the ticket buyer thinks tickets are too expensive or that parking is a big hassle. Maybe he or she has an up and coming artist to recommend or a positive comment about an event attended in the past.
- Listen in the lobby. It's amazing what you'll hear people say when they're talking among friends.
- Quick audience surveys with just 4-6 questions can provide a wealth of information about how well your patrons have been treated by your staff. In addition to learning what your patrons think, surveys that ask about service help keep your staff - whether paid or volunteer - on their toes!
- Online surveys after a show, or as an ongoing feature on your website, can be simple ways to measure opinions. If you offer an incentive - maybe tickets to a future event, dinner for two at a local restaurant, almost anything - people are very happy to tell you what they think. We've even found that people are willing to share such personal information as household income range, and this can be very helpful in attracting the attention of potential sponsors.
Are you and your staff asking patrons for information and then paying attention to what they say? It's been shown that even the simple act of asking people for their thoughts and opinions makes them feel good - even if you never act on the information! If you actually do listen and respond, so much the better.
So, engage your audience members in a conversation, a true two-way stream of communication.
Create a Culture of Service
Because it's not just the performance that you're selling, but the entire experience, it pays to establish a culture of service in your organization. Some would say that this entire experience begins when the patron leaves home and ends upon their return there after your event.
How was the traffic? Was parking easy to find and inexpensive? Did they go to a restaurant for dinner before the show? When they entered your front door, was there someone there to greet them and offer assistance with directions? Were they greeted by a friendly face at the will-call window? Was your lobby clean, bright and full of good energy and enthusiasm? Were your patrons shown to their seats by an usher who took an interest and found the correct seats - on the first attempt? What was the temperature in the theater? Was there enough leg room? Did they enjoy the performance and was there an emotional response to the artists? Did they have to pay a babysitter another $25-$40 on top of $70 for the tickets, $5 for parking?
Yes, all of this comprises your patrons' experience with your event. You don't have control over some things, but it's clear what you can control. Training for staff in all areas must include a clear message that service to patrons is paramount. It's helpful if everyone from the senior management through the volunteers shares a belief that a superior level of service will help ensure that people come back time after time. Your customers may not always be right, but we need to find ways to make them feel like they are!
Strategies and Tactics
Assuming you're not starting from scratch completely, you probably have an existing base of customers. In general terms, your goal must always be to preserve your existing audience while at the same time reaching out to people who have never bought a ticket from you before. Bear in mind that some portion of your patron base erodes each year. People move away, aging patrons may die; others may be starting a family and not able to attend performances as much.
In many communities, an average of 5 percent of the audience falls away every year. In other places - college and university communities in particular - there may be an even higher rate of audience attrition or turnover. In order to grow, you need to not only replace those people who move away or stop attending, but also find new people who've never attended before.
If you maintain a database of your patrons and keep track of their attendance every time they buy tickets, you can let them know the next time an event in one of their interest categories is planned. If you don't keep a box office database, you should. Your patron database is your organization's life blood!!
Ticketing systems automatically keep this information and there are several types of systems available. Go to www.intix.org for a list of computerized ticketing system vendors. You'll find everything from a free 'shareware' system with limited features to a state-of-the-art system with fully integrated ticketing, fundraising and marketing capabilities. Letting your past patrons know about coming events is a step of major importance But you also need to reach out to people who've not been in your audience before. You can do this through a wide variety of broadcast media options - newspaper, radio and TV advertising are just a few.
This is a complex topic, because design can be very subjective. But some aspects of design can be more or less objectively evaluated. In poster design, for example, what stands out clearly when the poster is viewed from ten feet away? The visual hierarchy of your design is an essential consideration. Here are things to consider as you're planning your poster design:
What will best - and most quickly - express the true nature and spirit of the performance event you're intending to promote? Is it an image of a noted performer's face? The title of a famous work by a known composer? Maybe it's an image of an instrument, especially if the names of the artist or the works to be performed aren't well known. Think about the one or two most engaging aspects of the performance and then make them very clear to the person who's hurrying past the community bulletin board in the grocery store, a posting location where your message is competing with everything from cars for sale to babysitting services to cholesterol screenings.
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