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Avoid the Dot Bomb

Jessica Hird • Box Office and Marketing • August 1, 2008

A chance to win two tickets to Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking was the incentive for an Arena Stage Internet Marketing survey

Back in the stone-age of 1996 a long-haired Information Technology-type friend of mine was trying to convince a major LORT theatre to create a Web site. The theatre marketing department was highly skeptical of his proposal. The marketing director questioned the possibilities of the seemingly faddish (or, at best, niche) technology and, with cutting and knowing-tones, compared the Internet to the ‘70s fad of the CB radio.

More than 10 years later the Internet, e-mail and mobile technologies are now taken for granted in our lives and the value of the Internet is definitely more obvious.  However, while we are distracted by the latest hot Internet tool, we may be tempted to lose site of the genuinely relevant question from 1996:  “How can the Internet help my [insert timeless traditional marketing goal]?” Here’s how three theatres are doing just that.

Reversing Subscriber Attrition
Lovers have given jewelry to each other for millennia. Chad Bauman, director of marketing and communications at the Arena Stage of Washington D.C., is giving out pearls, or PURLs, to his audience to similarly favorable results.

An artist’s rendering of the new Arena Stage at the Mead Center for the Performaing Arts

The Arena recently started a two-and-a-half-year, $125 million building project for its new center for the arts. While construction progresses they set up shop at an interim theatre just 2.1 miles away. Unfortunately, that 2.1 miles is across a river, into another state and quite unfamiliar to usually loyal long-time subscribers who are, like many audiences, regionally bound or biased.

“We wanted to find a way to make the transition as seamless and as easy as possible on our subscribers,” Bauman says. The company projected they would lose 5% of their audience because of the move. In order to counter that attrition Bauman had his tech team contact each subscriber with a Personalized URL (PURL). This PURL led the subscriber to a personalized Web site that displayed step-by-step directions from the subscriber’s house to the interim theatre in Alexandria, Va., a highlighted seating chart that showed exactly where the subscriber’s seats in the new theatre were and included discount restaurant offers from restaurants in the new area. The subscriber was also provided with a link to download FAQs about the move and an opportunity to e-mail a theatre rep with questions. Because of this proactive use of tech, Arena found that their actual attrition rate was only 1.3%.

According to Bauman, PURLs used to be incredibly expensive up until just six or seven months ago. Now the major mail houses provide the technology and build all the domains at about 20 cents a PURL — not including the postcard and the postage which deliver the PURL to the subscribers.

The PURL postcard Arena Stage sent to marketing prospects.

But that’s not what PURLs are really good for.

“A PURL is supposed to be used to collect information,” says Bauman, before describing how they used PURLs in an ingenious multi-tiered prospecting campaign to garner new subscribers.

The Web page prospects landed on when they typed their PURL into a browser.

After analyzing the Arena’s subscriber database for demographic commonalities and then comparing that to similar unsubscribed residents in the region, Bauman paid a service to find 50,000 prospects to target with another PURL campaign that started with a postcard. With the incentive of winning two VIP tickets to Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, prospects were requested to go to their personalized Web site, enter their e-mail address, and answer three questions regarding their purchase habits, preferred days of the week for theatre attendance, theatre genre preference (musicals, classics, etc) and determiners of purchase habits (location of theatre, amenities around the theatre, etc.). Finally they were asked to verify their name and address, which had been originally gathered by the prospecting service.

Prospective ticket-buyers were then asked to complete a short survey about their viewing habits.

The project was ongoing when we spoke, but Bauman estimated that with a 10% response rate, 5,000 respondents would be mailed season brochures, followed up with an e-mail, and then contacted over the phone with messages tailored to their preferences, as input via their PURL. (“I see you like musicals, did you know the Arena is doing three musicals this year? We could put together a Thursday night package and send you these restaurant offers because we know that you like these types of restaurants.”). 

Finally, prospective ticket-buyers were asked to confirm their contact info.

Using the PURL technology, the Arena marketing group is able to both find out what customers want and help customers get what they want out of a great night at the theatre.

Getting Out of Direct Mail
A holistic approach to customer service through Web site development and e-mail campaigns have allowed the Center Theatre Group of Los Angeles to consistently grow their relationship with both new and loyal customers while saving money on direct mail and print advertising.

Benjamin Walker in front of the cast of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, presented by the Center Theatre Group

“Our philosophy is that e-mail and the Web site are not necessarily just representing what we do, we see it as a service for our customers,” explains Jim Royce, director of marketing, communications and sales for the Group. “First and foremost is that our Web site is useful to our customers for getting information about getting and receiving what they want to see.”

Royce uses free services like Google Analytics to track where customers are coming from when they land on and where and how long customers click around or where they go once they leave the site.

“It allows us to see in the ticketing process, from page to page, how many of them started the ticketing process, how many leave in the middle of it and then how many actually complete the process,” says Royce. It also lets him discover how to give customers in the most advantageous ticketing process.

“We discovered they left the transaction process because they went back to look at something else on the Web site and then they had to start the transaction all over again. The new version of the Web site solves that flow.”

Additionally, Google Analytics shows the search keywords that customers are using to land at Center Theatre Group, helping Royce to determine which Google AdWords to purchase. Google AdWords are far less expensive than traditional print ad buys and are measurable, making them a more attractive use of a campaign budget for shows that may or may not already have buzz.

Benjamin Walker (left) and the cast of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, presented by the Center Theatre Group

Royce uses another online service, to do general surveys as well as post-show follow up surveys with customers. His team matches up the responses with the known sales information and demographics of the patrons (long-time subscriber, new customer, musical-exclusive purchaser, last minute buyer) and determines the needs of various segments within their customer database to build technology services around those needs — services that ultimately build better relationships with customers.

“One of the big complaints is that they forget, especially among new subscribers, they forget their night, they forget their tickets, all that sort of thing,” says Royce. “One of the reasons why people don’t renew is that they didn’t see a value in it, because they didn’t see the show, they forgot their tickets…they are not in the habit of going to the theatre.”

In order to encourage the habit, then, Center Theatre Group e-mails customers reminders of their upcoming shows and provides customers with restaurant information inside the e-mail as well. Having grown a trusting relationships with their e-audience, Center Theatre Group has a database of 250,000 patrons, backed up with demographic survey data and complemented with e-mail addresses. This pool of potential audience members can be easily and less expensively targeted for upcoming shows and season campaigns, allowing Royce to move away from expensive print advertising strategies and direct mail marketing and move towards word of mouth and online advertising, yet still maintain a rate of 20% completely new ticket buyers at each show.

Waking Up to Teenagers

The original Broadway cast of Spring Awakening

While there aren’t many theatres who haven’t caught onto to the value of Internet show trailers, video or blogging, the producers of the Tony Award-winning Broadway show Spring Awakening, which deals with timeless teen issues, decided to use internet tools to  help a teen demographic engage with the show.

Along with their marketing agency Situation Marketing they found a partner in, a Web-based company that helps users to create mash up videos. Spring Awakening provided songs and footage from the show for fans to mash up with their own footage to create a personalized story around the same issues in the show. These user-generated clips could then be entered in a contest to win free round-trip airfare and tickets to see the show, as well as possible inclusion in future Internet advertising for the show.

Pun Bandhu, a producer for Spring Awakening, said “The eyespot promotion wasn't so much a way to let teens tell other teens how cool we were, it was more about giving them the tools to creatively express in their own words how relevant this 100-plus-year-old play is to modern teenager's lives, while at the same time showing that the production was open to letting teens contribute to our online advertising.”

In addition to their Web site ( ) Spring Awakening also created their own Facebook and MySpace pages and a fan site with exclusive video, podcasts and contests and made lots of content (music videos, wallpaper and show art) easily available for fans to use on their sites. Bandhu even blogs for the site so that fans have the experience of talking with an actual producer. All these and other interactions engage over 40,000 fans who help spread the word globally so that the tour, which kicks off this September 2008 in California, now has reliable ambassadors that can be counted on to help market the show locally as well as buy tickets when it comes to their town.

Whatever demographic or marketing goal you want to hit, the Internet can help you target it and achieve results beyond a paper-only approach, but it’s not a magic bullet. These theatres innovated theatrical marketing with technology but the success of their campaigns was not in the technology (no matter how cheap or expensive) itself but rather in the strategy applied to the technology, strategy based on traditional and familiar goals. Strategy is something that can be replicated anywhere, with a multitude of tools. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the Internet it’s that a cheaper, faster tool set will probably come around tomorrow.

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