Arts Marketing – So What Do We Do Now?

Over the last 6 to 8 months I’ve become increasingly unproductive in writing about the industry in which I work. It’s been a combination of reasons when I think back – being a bit stressed at work, tiredness, a mild bout of pneumonia and not wanting to put that on a page. But also not really having any particularly original thoughts, and, most pressingly, thinking that every seed of an idea for a marketing-based blog sounds “pointless and, frankly dull.”

Yes, my internal monologue is brutal.

I’m never sure I have a tremendous amount to give other than shared experience and thoughts of what I would do if I had the time. Last week I hosted a small group of Heads Of Marketing from venues I like or have worked at (or both) to share ideas. Nothing particularly new came from it if I’m honest, we didn’t solve marketing or invent a new audience segmentation system (I’d be social owl), but afterwards I didn’t feel as alone in trying to deal with this storm of shitfuckkery™ that has landed on all our doorsteps and is altogether exhausting, constantly shifting and tragically devastating.

So, I decided I’d write down some ponderings of where my head is at, what I think the direction of travel might be. I’m not an American data-led consultancy (other flavours of consultants are available, mostly in Cambridge) so it’s not data-led – instead it is a relatively hands-on marketing person giving thoughts about what he might (or might not) do.

Worth saying there’s lots of TRG stuff in here, also ideas stolen from other venues along with a few thoughts of my own.

These are, it should be said, in no particular order and not written in the sort of depth that you probably want (so sorry, although there is a good solution to this at the very end of the page).

Brochures

So when’s the brochure coming out?

A few days before lockdown happened we’d just landed our summer brochure – it was the best brochure we’ve produced while I’ve been at the theatre – genuinely brilliant with some great imagery and some bits that made me incredibly proud of our team.

The sales were, of course, harrowing – I beat myself up over whether we should have pulled it, delayed or something else before eventually landing on the reality that I’m not omnipotent and all-seeing – the decision we made about continuing to land a brochure at that time was right for what we knew – retrospect is a brutal mistress.

We know we’ve lost the summer – it seems in all probability that our plans are now for making the best of the Autumn and how we welcome and encourage audiences back.

I’m planning on how we deliver an autumn season with a much shortened timeline on a lower budget. Changes are daily so we have to be responsive so we’ll look at how we can turn around a brochure in record time (under 10 days including all design and translation) – how we can make it as simple, clean and sales-focused as possible – how we can get messaging that says “we’re here for you” and “think to the future with us”.

It’ll also probably be either smaller or thinner than previous incarnations. When I started our season brochures were a bigger than A5 size, often 50+ pages on nice paper stock. We’re now doing 32 page DL brochures on thinner stock. It hasn’t made a difference to ROI. Incidentally what does make a difference to ROI are difficult, inaccessible shows. Reducing cost to print and cost to post means we can do more with our money, hitting a bigger audience and we’ll need that more than ever.

It will land much, much later than normal for us, probably late June, maybe July – if current sales (and anecdotale international evidence) are a measure then until there is public confidence about there being an end date in sight then broad major campaigns (in the traditions of which we are steeped) are unlikely to be worth it.

However, evidence from TRG and other arts clients has suggested that for the most loyal of our audiences they will still support us with advance sales. What I’m pondering is whether we make the brochure – but land it on doorsteps with different segments of our loyalty ladder at different times (ideally in batches of 4k to keep postage discounts)? Also whether we can link this with stellar top segment subscription offers to encourage multibuying while also finding deep-discounted easy-entry multi-buys for lower engaged audiences which are time limited to drive sales.

The middle and lower segments of our loyalty ladder, who tend to book late anyway might be worth holding off until we and they feel more confident they might purchase for an organisation they’re not heavily bought into. So maybe drop the brochure either side of August depending on the segment.

None of this is new or original.

Subscription

I guess we’ll give it a rest then?

Fuck. No. I was, a few years ago, a massive cynic about subscription (and also the merits of season brochures) – how times have changed. I genuinely believe that a brilliant subscription campaign can make a poor season average, an average season good and a good season phenomenal. I think it sends good messages about loyalty, drives income, takes pressure off marketing teams, alleviates short-termism, encourges better organisational planning and reduces single campaign spend.

I’ve been thinking about how we make our subscription as ruthlessly commercial and accessible as possible – no passengers – dropping it to top segments with a ‘future’s bright/we’ll be back together’ sort of message. I’d like to make the discounts deeper than usual, to offer bonuses to members for booking them as well (at the moment our members don’t subscribe enough), but also change the message about big savings, to a tone of togetherness, shared experience and getting what you can’t have now (i.e. live culture and, possibly, free toilet roll in the bogs).

We’re looking at how we really tailor the subscription to individuals, make personal recommendations alongside personalised recommendations (or at least make them feel like that) while also trying to get the costs of delivering subscription lower. We’ll also say a massive thank you to people who’ve supported us either through donating or by putting their cancelled ticket value on credit. Part of me wonders how we thank people for crediting in particular – how do we connect what they missed and what we now offer? Do we say “You were due to see X, but now you can see Y (which is really similar)?”

Finally, how do we offer reassurance that their transaction is safe and secure? Should we? Do we paint a picture of the green and pleasant future (which is probable but not certain for the early autumn) or do we create a mechanism should people feel they can’t attend (it’s of course different if shows are forced to cancel)? Do we make those subscription tickets for the autumn special in some way that helps alleviate risk even more? Maybe 24 hour cancellation or crediting system?

For the less frequently attending segments and first timers there’s a real consideration to made about the offer we ask of people – it’s going to be (I suspect) a big ask of people to come back, particularly those who don’t know or trust us, or who haven’t been through the cancellation disappointment with us (which I think we might have handled pretty well). Do we go deep on our standard flex multibuys or do we create custom packages to encourage multibuying of 2 or 3 shows (which still represents a major step up).

Also… How do we talk about Covid 19? Do we recognise it and move on or just move on becasue, well, “Duh, it’s obvious”? Both have merit.

Finally we’ve got to nail it when they get to us – the welcome they get must be the best they’ve ever had – every detail about how we make subscribers feel special and part of what we stand for – making the world a happier place – needs to be in there – that could be unexpected surprises (a free programme or ice cream) or maybe just a little card when they arrive with a pin badge. We’re building for the future.

Membership

Our membership is predominantly transactional – it’s discount-led rather than necessarily philanthropic – those people have missed out using their membership during this closure. It’s not been the primary thing I’ve been looking to sort – I’m a believer that landing bad news and good news at the same times is really challenging – it’s a mixed message essentially. So while we’ve been cancelling performances its felt like membership messages are always going to get lost.

Where will you land?

I suspect we’ll extend memberships by 6 months across the board but also offer some extra ‘thanks for staying with us’ as well, that might be nice random acts of kindness or maybe an extra bonus discount on subscriptions. The key is that we want to do it to be fair, to maintain faith that what they’re getting is great value, but also to start to change the relationship (within the boundaries of GDPR) to make it more personal – establishing a person-to-person relationship rather than business-to-person relationship and ideally pushing us towards more philanthropic and brand values.

Communities

When we come out of the Coronavirus pandemic our society will be fundamentally changed – there will be new realities we have to understand and respond to – defining our response will not be simple – there will be ethical and subjective reasoning behind many of them.

How will we respond to those who were on the front line, not only in the NHS and health service but also key workers? This is a crisis where everyone has a part to play, but, of course, some people’s parts are more prominent and important? From staying at home or self isolating to key workers in food and retail and then NHS staff – where will our line be in how we help/reward/thank them, or equally, where we understand solving this fundamentally relies on every person’s participation for the greater good do we try and find a more egalitarian solution? And where the frig does any of that sit in relation to sales?

I’ll be honest in saying I have no certainty of thought behind any of this. I guess my driving thought is that of generosity – how do we become kinder, more understanding, more helpful and warm than we have ever done before? How do we do this on an individual basis but also on a mass basis particularly when the audiences we serve and the sizes of organisations we have mean that individuality, treating each audience member, person by person, is practically challenging.

There is likely to be a rise in unemployment – the arts should, must be accessible for everyone – how do we ensure this though pricing, but also how do we use our organisations to help people find hope, have a base, and find a path through this?

Data

We have a running joke at work that we can never accurately compare ourselves to the previous year because we make changes to improve every year. 2020 was the first year in many where our panto was going to be directly comparible with the previous year – not any more.

All our data is going to feel tricky to judge. We’re not going to know what the new “normal” looks like – success will probably look different to how it ever used to and, in the short term at least, sales patterns will be all over the place.

What I will cling on to is ROI. For our first mailing I will compare it to pre-corona – I suspect I will compare it and be shocked. But for the second, third, and everyone after that, the new state of play will come in, I compare like-for-like. It might even be a guide as to how public confidence is shaping, not least in us as organisations.

Responsive

I’m totally anticipating that:

a) The moment when we should start major campaigns will be discovered last minute. Possibly with the Prime Minister saying that the theatres can open in “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, open.”

b) Theres a strong chance that dropping any campaign too early will get terrible response, or dropping one too late, will also get a terrible response (but for different reasons).

c) This won’t end in a single moment. There won’t be an armistice or VE day when overnight(ish) things resume back to normal. This will take months, possibly over a year.

To get around this I’m thinking about lots of “toe in the water” campaigns – lots of little campaigns to gauge the temperature of the water and decide if it’s the right point to dip in a leg or, possibly even swim.

Everything in my marketing planner is now being designed to turnaround fast, but more importantly be picked up and moved forwards or backwards a week or month. There’s little scenarios I’m playing with in my head but I think by building starting blocks of campaigns that can be actioned last minute with little turnaround or delay, then we’ll be able to get around many of them.

And finally…

There’s a few people who’ve said to me that they’re not sure if what they’re doing is right or wrong. I suspect that there’s a reality that we dont get to find out what we did right or wrong until this has all passed and, in all probability, many years down the line, when we either say “hey, we recovered from that okay” or we say “fuck, that was the moment it got hard”.

And even then we mightn’t know if where we ended up was inevitable or not.

This crisis is scary, it’s tiring and stressful. I can’t sleep as well as I used to, and I have panic attacks forming semi-frequently. Work seems such a minor thing at a time like this, but I find myself trying to focus on it perhaps to an unhealthy amount. What was useful to me was chatting to other heads of marketing about what we’d been doing – it calmed me down and helped me with the gruelling self-doubt about how to handle something that few people have handled before in the arts.

So. If anyone wants a zoom chat then just tweet me (@mrfreeman1984) – it’s good to chat and share ideas and if you’re worried that either you don’t know me, or the stuff you want to talk about doesn’t feel consequential enough, or whatever, then please remember, the connections we make bind us and make us stronger, and those who look like they’re sorted are often screaming inside and a simple conversation can often silence (or at least lessen) it all.

Cheers. Sam