Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Saying No to GroupOn

GroupOn is the new darling of deep-discount promotions.  Each day they offer a deep discount on some product or service, like "Get a $20 dinner gift certificate for only $10"; typically the quantities and buying period are limited, so people stampede to redeem the offer.  The merchant gets the proceeds minus a cut taken by GroupOn. GroupOn's reach is so wide that its aggregating power virtually guarantees you'll sell a lot of whatever you're offering.

Altarena, a theater on whose Board I serve, was recently approached by GroupOn asking if we wanted to offer discounted show tickets through their program.

We said no.

We're not averse to discounting; we offer half-price and complimentary tickets through Goldstar.  Why would we turn down GroupOn, whose reach is surely much wider?

But that's the problem.  While there are caveats about offering too many comps or half-price tickets on Goldstar, at least we get customers who are interested in live entertainment, and might therefore become repeat customers. In contrast (and with no disrespect to GroupOn), I suspect most of the customers we’d reach there would just as happily take half-price hot dogs, because GroupOn’s focus is the idea of getting the discount, not the specific product category offered.  In contrast, Goldstar has positioned themselves as offering  bargains for people who want to “go out more”.

It’s already a challenge for small theaters to identify their niche audiences, even from among a group of known theatergoers.

GroupOn may put some butts in seats, but it won't keep them there.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Telling a story, singing, & laughing

On my way home tonight I happened to stop at the library (it’s usually closed by the time I get home) and I plucked Yellow Brick Road off of the “recent arrivals” of the nonfiction-DVDs section.  It’s a documentary about a New York-area arts program for mentally-challenged and learning-disabled adults (Down’s, fetal alcohol syndrome, epilepsy, severe CP, autism…) that decides to stage a performance of The Wizard of Oz.

Besides being one of the most poignant documentaries I’ve seen in some time, it drove home to me how ingrained is our instinct as a species to tell a story.  Here’s a group of people who, in general, have serious trouble driving a car, playing an instrument, writing poetry, doing athletics… yet they relish the opportunity to tell a story, and they rise to the challenge.

Tonia pointed out that two other behaviors we saw in the rehearsals—singing and laughing—also cut across levels of mental ability.

So there it is.  Telling a story, singing, and laughing—the universal constants.  I knew there was a reason I did this theater thing.

And if you harbor even the least bit of idealism about how theater can affect people, watching Yellow Brick Road will be an hour well spent.

“… and your little dog, too!”

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Who loves you? Not most people.

Most people don't like what your theater does.

That is: most people aren't theatergoers, period, and unless all you do is Mamma Mia year after year, most of those people probably don't like what you do.

During my time on Altarena's Board (2004-2011), there have been a couple of very challenging transitions during which I inhaled several very good arts marketing books (and some bad ones). Somewhere in there I read about how a certain car company surveyed its customers about a particular truck model: 80% of the customers hated it, but the 20% who liked it really loved it and wanted to have its children.

That's why I don't buy the argument that just because there are so many small theaters in the Bay Area, there is too much competition.  That would be true if all those theaters offered substantially the same product at comparable prices.  If there's something your theater does differently and/or better than others in the eyes of your patrons, your product is different. And if no one else offers that product as well as you, you're golden.

The trouble is that that differentiating thing can be elusive to identify.  It's not just the choice of material: Altarena has done (and continues to do) many "old chestnuts" like Cabaret and Death of a Salesman, but patrons tell us the intimacy of the space and the directorial choices that exploit that intimacy distinguish our productions of those well-explored shows.  And beyond the performance itself, patrons tell us there is a "neighborhood feel" to  hanging out in the theater, and that keeps them coming back too.

The key phrase is "patrons tell us".  A couple of years ago we started doing something new: we identified "star patrons"—longtime subscribers, key donors, patrons who are also performers—and started inviting them to the theater after hours, one-on-one or in groups of two or three at most, to have some wine and cheese (total cost: about $20 per occasion) and just tell us their thoughts on what they liked about the theater and what we could be doing better.  We thought about having these meetings in a nicer location—say, a local restaurant or bar—especially because between shows the theater lobby would be full of set-building materials, costume racks, etc.  But, mindful of the earlier feedback that patrons enjoyed feeling like they were "part of a family" when they entered the theater, we decided to have them in the theater lobby after all—indeed, we even had to have one of them in a dressing room because the lobby was full of auditioners that night!  But in the end, I think it was the right thing to do because inviting those patrons to spend time in the space as "collaborators" and not just as paying customers made them feel even more invested in the theater, despite (or because of?) the austerity of the surroundings.

I've become a big fan of these "friendraiser" events.  They cost little (but they do cost something, so think of it as an investment in your own patrons) and have big payback potential.  Since I'm an engineer, here's my tabular representation of your patron base and how it relates to "friendraising":

May like your workDon't like your work
Have heard of youInvite to friendraisers; target for promotionsCut your losses
Haven't heard of youReach out via friendraisersMost people

The top-left quadrant are your high value customers.  Even if they're not subscribers, maybe they've purchased single tickets for a lot of shows recently, or maybe they've received comps or discount tickets through outlets like Goldstar.  (Price doesn't matter at this point: discount tickets are probably available to lots of shows, but they picked yours.)  Or maybe they attend only 1 or 2 shows a year but they also donate.  Use your CRM system to mine your patron records for these people, so you can get them into a room, get a couple of glasses of wine into them, and ask "Why do you like us so much?" You  may surprised how much they can tell you about why you are so great, and how much that can help shape your brand and messaging to attract others who will feel the same way.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Finally made it into SCIENCE, albeit via the back door

A SCIENCE editor attending the National Academy of Engineering FRONTIERS event last September asked if I’d write a short Perspectives article on why scientists should check out cloud computing as a way to help with their work.

I did, and it appears in the January 28, 2011 issue.  You can download a single copy for personal, noncommercial use and without the right to redistribute by clicking here.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Why do I write about show business in addition to shows?

I love theater.  I grew up in NYC going to the theater, I played in my first pit in seventh grade, and as an "adult" I've done a fair amount of Music Director work in the Bay Area, mostly for small theaters.

In 2005, after doing a couple of shows at the Altarena Playhouse, I was invited to serve on their Board of Directors, ostensibly because as a computer science professional I might be able to help the theater in non-artistic ways as well.

Ever since, I've been learning "the business of show" as it applies to small nonprofit theaters, both on Altarena's board and through formal and informal relationships with other small theaters.  [Update: as of June 2013 I’m no longer on the Board there, but I’m still involved as an Advisory Board member.]  Altarena is in a good place now, though along the way mistakes were made, angst endured, and organizational churn weathered—and though every theater's circumstances are somewhat different, I was inspired by Jim McCarthy's similar-in-spirit blog to write about what I've learned so that maybe someone will get something useful out of it regardless.*

It's no revelation that the economic environment for the arts has never been great, but for small theaters I think it's particularly tough.  We have lots of volunteers, yet there always seems to be a shortage of manpower, in part because the tasks involved often require specialized skills or continuity of commitment.  There are lots of audiences out there, but also lots of competition (especially in places like the Bay Area where I live), so getting butts in seats is a never-ending endeavor.  Most theaters with budgets under $500k/year already rely on fundraising for 50% or more of their income, so raising money is high on everyone's agenda, but with so many arts organizations clamoring for money it can be hard to be heard.  And in all these categories, there are seemingly so many "opportunities"—grant programs, publicity channels, discount-ticket outlets, "free" advertising—that it's easy to get carried away only to realize you've now taken on even more work for which you have insufficient manpower.

At Altarena we struggled with this like everyone else.  Altarena is very strongly a "community" theater: it has been in Alameda for over 70 years, and had a subscriber base comprised largely of loyalists who had been with the theater for decades. When I joined the Board in 2004, our subscriber base had eroded from a high of around 700 a few years before to a low of less than half that.  Subscribers were aging and not being supplemented by younger theatergoers, and the theater had acquired a reputation as the kind of place whose material appealed solely to the older generation and whose lobby d├ęcor was correspondingly dowdy and dated.

Much has changed since then, but I think in retrospect a key to turning things around on the business side was to really understand our "brand"—what it is we do differently and (IMHO) better than other comparable theaters that keeps people coming back.  This sounds like an obvious thing to do, but it took us awhile to figure out how to make it concrete.  And once that was done, we needed ways to stay in touch with those people and move them along the "patron lifecycle", that wonderful process by which someone who went to your theater on a lark because of a free or discount ticket eventually becomes a subscriber, donor, and even a Board member within a year of their first visit to the theater.  (This really happened to us.)

Anyway, what you can expect if you keep reading is some details about what we did right (and wrong) in the process of making that happen, in hopes they might be useful to you.  Stay tuned.
*(Full disclosure: one of my contributions to the theater is Audience1st, a backoffice/CRM/ticketing system designed specifically for the needs (and budgets) of small theaters.  This blog isn't "advertainment" for Audience1st, but it's fair to say that the stories and experiences I relate are directly responsible for its features and design.)