Friday, June 30, 2017

Email marketing for community theaters


For several years I served on Altarena’s board of directors, and when I first joined, the mentality was that of an “email blast” sent indiscriminately to the few thousand people on the email list. Besides the fact that such behavior is generally illegal now, it’s a poor way to think about email marketing.

In 2004, when e-marketer Eugene Carr wrote Web Sites for Culture (about designing effective arts websites) and Sign Up for Culture (about building email marketing lists), the Internet was already an important channel for arts marketing. In 2017 it seems to be the primary channel. In this post I summarize some still-relevant main points from the latter book.

Mr. Carr runs a company (or used to) called PatronMail, which handles email marketing for many arts organizations. The findings in his book are based primarly on that company’s surveys administered to the participating arts organizations and in some cases to those organizations’ patrons.

With respect to email, although Mr. Carr doesn’t put it quite this way, my takeaway based on the book’s messages is that most theaters make two fundamental mistakes in email marketing:

  1. Not realizing that building up a good email list is not something that happens by itself, but is a campaign like selling subscriptions, which requires corresponding attention to design and execution.
  2. Misusing their email list once they have it.

Building an Email List as a Campaign

Opt-in is a must. You must use a system that allows customers to gracefully opt in or out. Besides the legal requirements of complying with CAN-SPAM laws, people who do opt-in tend to read your email: Carr’s surveys find that only 5% of opt-in patrons report that they delete those emails without reading them. And while it’s technically legal, don’t opt someone in as soon as they buy a ticket on your website: show goodwill by giving them the opportunity to opt in or not. Most modern email marketing platforms (EMPs) such as MailChimp, ConstantContact, etc., require opt-in by default. 

Get signups on your website. Watch a friend visit your theater’s website and try to signup for your email. How easy is it? How many clicks are required? How do the placement, visibility, and ease of use of the signup link compare to those of successful arts organizations in your peer group? 70-90% of visits to arts websites are about event selection or ticket buying; the patron didn’t come there to sign up. Therefore, an ideal mechanism is a clearly labeled, highly visible signup link that triggers a pop-up, so the patron can quickly sign up without interrupting what they came to your site to do. If they have to click over to another page just to get to the signup link, you’ve lost 50%+ of your users.

Don’t rent, sell, or buy lists. Historically, the yield from purchased/traded lists is low, and the cost in patron goodwill is high. (Some people like me don’t even join a list unless there’s an explicit promise that my info won’t be shared with others, and I actually create multiple email aliases so that I can always figure out who sold my email to someone else.) Any signup vehicles should carry prominent language that you won’t sell or trade your patrons’ info, and that every email they receive from you will contain an “unsubscribe immediately” link (which is required by CAN-SPAM anyway).

Get signups everywhere, if necessary by offering small incentives. You can make up inexpensive cards that people can fill out and leave at the boxoffice to sign up for your list; give them out in the lobby before the show, in the parking lot, at the coat check, everywhere. You can tuck cards or an insert into the show program, but make sure it’s slightly larger and highly visible (e.g. using colored cardstock) so it clearly sticks out of the program and calls attention to itself. You can offer simple incentives to signup, both online and with the cards: Get $1 off today’s ticket purchase if you sign up for our list (easy to implement—setup a table where a staff member is collecting cards and handing out dollar bills); get a free cookie or soft drink at the concession stand; and so on. You might even raise your ticket price by $1 to neutralize this cost if you have great response.

Make every “transactional” email include a signup link. Transactional emails are sent to individual patrons to confirm a ticket purchase, pass along performance information, and the like. Create a standard “footer” or signature block for you and your staff’s outgoing emails that includes an exhortation to sign up, and a link.

Ask a few questions. Patrons are willing to answer 2 to 3 non-intrusive questions at signup time, and historically, it’s quite hard to collect such info after the fact even if you have their email address. An ideal thing to ask is what aspects of what your theater does are of interest to them (regular season shows? children’s programs? readings of new works? etc.) and use your EMP’s ability to segment the list accordingly.

Using Your Email List Effectively

Don’t flood. 55% of arts patrons are happy to receive 1 email per month from a given organization, and 25% are OK receiving two or three per month. One organization I really support has the annoying habit of sending many emails per month, most of them announcing additional forms of promotions or discounts for the current production. This makes it seem as if they are desperate to sell tickets, trying any promotion that will stick. Time your email dates strategically and well in advance to coordinate with your show sales cycles. A typical cycle might include a “get your tickets now” email for a production before it opens, a “critics say” email (if the reviews are good) partway into the run, and a “last chance” email before the closing weekends.

One message per email. A single email should highlight exactly one call to action (renew subscription, buy tickets for this show, etc.) This also helps keep email short, making it more likely it’ll be read. The call to action should include a link to a page that minimizes the number of clicks for the patron to follow through. For example, Audience1st allows creating links that take the patron to a Buy Tickets page pre-populated for a particular production or even a particular performance.

Be selective. The organization I gripe about above has another problem with their emails: they are not selective. The only thing more annoying than getting repeated emails with N different promotions for a show, is getting those emails when I have already paid for tickets to that show. First, if I’ve already seen the show, the emails just get in my way. Second, if I paid full price in advance to see the show, seeing email after email describing a promotion that would have let me get the ticket at a discount just makes me feel stupid and makes me want to wait for them to get desperate on their next production so I can save some money. Each email you send is “training” the patron to act a certain way; think about what you yourself would do if you received them.

Have a consistent look, feel, and sender. Use the same well-branded email template for all emails to your list, and always have the same “person” sign it (“Barbara Jones, Artistic Director,” or the box office manager, patron outreach coordinator, whoever—but the one public face of your email campaigns). Spend some time getting the template right and matching your organization’s and website’s brand, since you can then re-use it forever. Most EMPs have rich editors that allow you to develop templates using your own logo assets.

Track your success. Most EMPs let you track open rates, and any links in an email should contain a UTM code so you can track clickbacks. I’ve heard it remarked that because email is so inexpensive to send, it doesn’t matter whether it works well or not. But if someone approached you with a publicity opportunity that would be free but of questionable effectiveness, and might alienate patrons if mishandled, would you accept?

Integrate email with your box office/customer management system

All of the above will be a lot less painful if your EMP (MailChimp, ConstantContact, etc.) integrates with your patron database, so that you can easily target specific patrons for email campaigns and export those lists to your EMP, as Audience1st does. It also ensures that when patrons change their contact info or email address in your database, those changes are automatically propagated to your EMP, and vice versa.

Email can be an effective marketing tool, and even in 2004, audiences 55 and under preferred to receive arts information via email rather than direct mail (and those audiences are now approaching 70), which saves you a lot of money and allows you to do quick targeting. But building a list doesn’t happen by accident, and once built, you have to curate and grow it by thinking carefully about the timing and content of each message you send, rather than thinking about “email blasts”.

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