Sam Freeman

Storytelling | Theatre | Arts Marketing

Arts Marketing: Freaks, Questions, Testing and Careers

All my blog posts begin in the same way – “I’ve not written for ages”. It’s especially true right now, I’ve been off doing artistic things and have rather neglected my audience of 17 (you know who you are) arts marketing professionals who enjoy my blog in locations as diverse as Adelaide, Glasgow and Hull (thank you google analytics).

I’ve had trouble sleeping so rather than endlessly scroll through twitter, or continually swipe through Tiktok, all the while imagining that Twitter was anything but a caverns of echoing angry voices and that I’m young enough to know what Tiktok is (am I a Tikker or a Tokker?), instead I’ve been reading.

I started with reading Priceless by William Poundstone and then moved on to Think Like A Freak by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. The latter you’ll recall wrote the endlessly amusing and fascinating books Freakonomics. While reading these books I started to think about how what they write about (data, causality, testing and fun) could be applied to the world of Arts Marketing.

Straw poll time. How many of us send a season brochure? Pretty much most regional theatres right? Now we send them because we have an inherent belief that they work, that they bring in a huge amount of sales – but how much of these essential pieces of print is developed through research and how much is developed through preference and anecdote.

To give an example of anecdote: “In Waterstones they put Staff Recommendations alongside the books, we should do that with theatre to help guide people as we know about theatre”. That was one of mine from 5 years ago. Based on anecdotal evidence that I bought a book that a staff member had recommended. Once.

But of course it goes bigger than that – whether it’s size (A4, A5, DL, A6), or word-count, or whether the creative team is listed, or the uniformity of the design, or our tone – there’s a huge amount we make decisions on which is, frankly guesswork. Maybe we’ve seen another theatre do it, or we read about it in another industry, the point is that it’s incredibly rare that we know the variance and difference that change makes.

For our Spring brochure to a segment we’ve named Lapsed we decided to test a theory. Our theory was that the DL brochure (with letter) would sell more tickets than the smaller, slimmer, A6 brochure (with letter). Our thought was that the extra info, image space, design pedigree and readability of the DL would persuade people who used to visit regularly but don’t any more to come back.

We were dead wrong. Or were we?

The ROI after 14 days from this lapsed audience for the DL brochure was 600% while the A6 brochure managed 985%. The response rate for the A6 brochure was higher and the cost-of-sale (thanks for reminding me of the Stephen) for the DL brochure was higher.

Our A/B test data (after 14 days)

Now of course it’s easy to look at that and say “well let’s get rid of the DL brochure”. There are a few problems though. Firstly, the sample size for the DL brochure isn’t massive – it’s only 500 items – it’s very possible that running it again might end up with a few more big buys in the DL’s corner to get it back on track. Secondly it doesn’t tell us why the difference – is it the size of image, the length of copy, the ease of carrying (handbag size is always quoted as a thing which makes me cringe). We also don’t know whether any of these sales are from the brochure.


Well, in all likelihood a good chunk of the sales have been motivated by the brochure. However given that we also send e-mails, run season launches, do facebook, make trailers, send press releases and, even do Tiktoks, we don’t really know the impact of the brochure. So we’re planning a slightly different next test:

We’ll send (to a specific segment)

  • 1k – a DL brochure with covering letter
  • 1k – a A6 brochure with covering letter
  • 1k – a DL brochure
  • 1k – a A6 brochure
  • 1k – a simple, listings style 6 pages of A4 crudely folded
  • 1k – Nothing.

To explain. I want to know the difference between an A6 brochure and a DL brochure – what’s the marginal gain in doing one over another – then I want to know what difference a letter makes and whether the difference is more pronounced depending on what it’s paired with. I want to know if doing something super-cheap-as-chips (but well designed, I’m not a monster) could do better than the lot. And then finally I want to know what the impact of doing something as opposed to nothing really is.

It seems like a lot of work – but on a scale it could make a massive difference – imagine sending a brochure and getting 700% ROI instead of 500%… What might that mean in terms of a season?

I’ve also been pondering memberships too. We, like every theatre in the land, have a membership scheme. The problem is that recruiting new members is, well, hard. Telling people about a benefit is one thing – we can send postcards, mailings, make social media etc… but unless people experience the benefits then it’s a hard sell.

My question therefore needs to change from “how can we sell memberships” to “what makes membership hard to resist”. What about if we stopped telling and we started experiencing? How do we turn something that seems frivolous to something people fundamentally need?

My partner persuaded me that getting a Gusto box would be a great idea – they’re the company where they give you delicious easy-cook meals in a box – I was resistant, we just don’t need it. Then they did a super-crazy-cheap offer and we got our first box. It was a great experience – it was a great value experience, and it became something that didn’t seem quite so frivolous – “after all” I found myself waxing on, “it’s much cheaper than a takeaway”.

What if we applied the same principle to membership? What if when you bought a ticket you get 3 months of free membership? Then another 3 months when you’ve been to see your 10th show. What if the experience of membership was like being a VIP on the Titanic – it’s fabulous, you’re treated like royalty and you don’t have to share a lifeboat? Would that make us go more? Is membership a vehicle for arts engagement or a vehicle for income generation, or a bit of both.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to do in the future. I had my appraisal at work and was asked where I thought my future lay. I’m not sure has been my consistent answer. But I’ve started to realise that what I love and get excited by is problem solving, suggesting ideas for venues to make a difference in terms of their audiences, and also to try to find solutions to make life easier. And I hate invoicing. So…Yep. That.

Finally – if you’ve enjoyed reading this and live near or in – Huddersfield, Harrogate, York, Lancaster, Wolverhampton, Brecon, Cardiff, Aberystwyth, Wigan, Halifax or Liverpool* – then I’m touring a show called Every Little Hope You Ever Dreamed (But Didn’t Want To Mention) in March and April. I wrote it, I perform it and, I’ll be honest, it’s better than my marketing blogs, so… Yep. The message is if you enjoy this then spend between £8 and £12 and see my show in a regional theatre staffed by legends near you.

Night x

P.S. You’re probably wondering the relevance of the image to what I wrote. There is none. I couldn’t think of anything really good this time around.