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Putting bums on seats: new ways to sell old arts

Bums on seats. Punters through the door. Tickets selling fast. It’s the unwritten commandment of the Australian arts industry. Artistic directors might wax lyrical about how they are presenting “challenging” and “exciting” work that will “divide audiences”, but when the time comes to tally up the Excel spreadsheet and prepare the annual reports, audience numbers matter.

And the people in charge of getting those bums on the seats are the arts marketers. Like marketers generally, they are a much-maligned crowd, misunderstood and disdained in equal parts by an industry that likes to pretend its not an industry at all.

Spare a thought for the arts marketing executive, handed a program or a season at the end of the year and asked to sell the subscriptions needed to keep a performing arts company afloat. So what’s it like to have that responsibility? Crikey spoke to four prominent Australian arts marketers and asked them about their job.

Kristen Eckhardt is a senior marketing executive at the National Gallery of Victoria. “Really, marketing for the arts is the opportunity to appeal to the widest possible audience and engage them with the visual arts, in my case,” she told me in a phone interview. “Its about engaging people, getting their participation, encouraging repeat visitation, encouraging first-time visitation.”

For Leisa Bacon, the marketing director of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, it’s about supporting the arts community at large. “In general, we want the arts community to be vibrant, healthy and growing,” she wrote in an email. “Our job as marketers at a state performing arts centre is to support this. This can mean putting extra resource behind a work, or a company-producer, because it is new and it will positively add to the diversity of the cultural fabric. At other times there may be a strong commercial imperative.”

For Kate Scott, marketing and communications manager at the Australian Ballet, it’s about engaging the entire Australian community, “so that every five- and seven-year-old old doing ballet can engage with us in some way”.

Sydney theatre Belvoir St’s marketing manager Tina Walsberger explained the hectic work schedule of an average day. “You have a few different issues as a marketing manager: you’re dealing with season marketing — our main bread and butter is generating a subscriber base — you have the single-ticket campaigns, you have the publicity, you’re generating relationships with audiences, you’re running events, you have sponsors, it’s a mix of all those things.”

Walsberger thinks that “our main challenge is managing supply and demand”. Belvoir St has a subscriber base above 9000, and the company is always keen to get subscribers to go and see shows early in their run. This helps generate word of mouth and sells single tickets later in the show’s run.

The challenge of managing reasonably full houses across a season is something Scott agrees is one of the more difficult aspects of the task. Across the arts and entertainment industries, people are buying tickets later than they used to. “People [in the industry] are concerned about audiences buying tickets later and later,” she says. “Of course Romeo and Juliet sold out months ago, so if the demand is there they’ll buy early, but if they know it’s something they can wait on a bit more and see what word of mouth is like, they’ll buy later … I think every season is a challenge, things are fragmenting, you can’t rely on the same channels.”

This fragmentation of what the marketing people like to call “channels” is making marketing more difficult everywhere. Bacon agrees: “There is an obvious fragmentation of media channels. This does make a publicists’ job more challenging.

They now have to cover traditional TV, radio and papers, as well as all the emerging online media from publications to social media and bloggers, and ensure they have strong relationships and appropriate content for each.”

Scott says “it’s about using more and more channels at your disposal”. The Australian Ballet has more than 30,000 fans on Facebook and an actively engaged online audience. “We’re really lucky, dancers are photogenic and so are costumes.” But the the old channels still work too: “Press still works, direct mail still works for us, particularly when you’re looking at a ballet that speaks to traditional ballet fans.”

Of course, for many productions, the best channel remains good old-fashioned word-of-mouth. “I can see word-of-mouth happen,” Walsberger said. “When a show that is really strong opens, the sales curve does something that it wouldn’t normally do.” But none of that will occur if the work is not exciting audiences. “You can provide tools to an audience, do social networking, give out flyers they can hand on, resources they can access easily, but I think naturally that stuff happens because whatever you put on works very well.”

For everyone I spoke to, audience research remains critical. “You gotta know who you’re speaking to,” Eckhardt confirmed. “Not only do we do extensive research in terms of exit surveys, so we know our current audience, that research allows us to identify gaps, people who aren’t coming for various reasons, whether distance, or lack of engagement.”

Bacon wrote that QPAC tailors its marketing mix to every show: “We work with the producer and analyse similar shows to determine the appropriate target audience. We have some good tools to then help us profile that audience (mosaic and vital statistics) to help inform the best marketing strategy.”But you don’t always need a big budget to make a splash. Bacon argues that “the small and independent companies I have seen succeed in this space develop good relationships and networks, do a lot of the marketing themselves to keep costs down, understand the value of online, especially video and social media, and are so passionate about their product that they explore every opportunity.”

Walsberger agreed: “It’s really funny, I was talking to another arts marketing manager and she had come from a different industry. She was amazed at how other industries lacked the imagination and creativity of the arts. They were limited to marketing things in ways that cost money, we sort of go out and talk to a lot of creative people who are able to gain momentum in bizarre ways.”

Eckhardt and Scott stress the importance of partnerships to stretch small budgets. “Compare it to a major corporate and we’re in the business of making small budgets go far,” Eckhardt said. “We work partnerships really hard.”

In the end, though, it’s about the work itself. Scott thinks the point should be to get to the point “where people come out of the theatre feeling they’ve had a life-changing experience”. To do that, you’ve got to get them into the theatre in the first place. “Once you get them there, you’ve got a convert for life, and a way of doing that is using people you collaborate with, your partners, your sponsors.”

Walsberger talked about a recent Lucy Guerin production, Human Interest Story, in similar terms: “It sold out to subscribers only this year, that’s an exceptional situation, it’s very unusual for an Australian company to sell out with modern dance.

If you can team it up with a strong brand, if you can generate huge word of mouth, then begin to attract a strong subscriber base, which then generates new audiences — that’s a nice sequence of events.”

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