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Info You Can Use: Treating Different Audiences Differently

It often seems one of the hardest things to do in the performing arts is to correctly anticipate audience interest in a show. Related to that is gauging the best way to market and position an individual show to a specific audience segment.

I recently faced a situation where anticipating audience interest wasn’t difficult, but an opportunity to fumble the marketing and interaction with the target audience segment presented itself.   This seemed like a good illustration of what is meant when we talk about understanding and treating audience segments differently.

Every year my department and a community arts organization partner on a nine show presenting season. This year there are a few shows that I wanted to do outside the season. Since our season brochure is one of our best tools for promoting the shows, I decided to list those two events as extras that could be purchased in addition to a season subscription.

There is a whole separate potential issue we may face with people thinking those shows were part of their season subscription. We used an entirely different color scheme and separated the events on the order form with explanatory text. We won’t know if that is sufficient until those events come up in the Spring.

The community organization’s board of directors asked if I was including those two shows, why wasn’t also including our annual concert by the Oak Ridge Boys as well. I explained that the audience for our subscription season was different from our Oak Ridge Boys audience. The board member noted that she attended  the Oak Ridge Boys and the subscription series. I replied that the concert audience had different expectations and needs, trying to avoid saying that the Oak Ridge Boys audience was a lot more enthusiastic than our subscription audience.

I wrote her an email later explaining that it was better to keep the Oak Ridge Boys concert listed separately for a number of reasons. The first is the enthusiasm of the Oak Ridge Boys audience. The day we open sales, they flood the phone lines and line up out the door.    They are used to hitting redial over and over until they get through. A subscriber would likely become angry if they were trying to resubscribe on the same day as Oak Ridge Boys tickets go on sale and the phone rang busy for an hour.

On the other hand, because we mail the brochure out at non-profit bulk rate which has a variable delivery rate, the Oak Ridge Boys fans would become angry if they received the brochure after the on sale date. Since we hold a subscriber’s seats from the previous year for 6-8 weeks after the re-subscription campaign begins, the brochure arrival date is not problematic.

What we do for the Oak Ridge Boys fans is mail a postcard to everyone who purchased the year before announcing a special pre-sale date that falls before the date announced on our website and in the newspapers.

Today was that special presale date and we were swamped. We sold more tickets in one day than we have sold in 4 weeks to the most popular Broadway show in our series, a show I expect will sell out.

Even though the subscription campaign started a month ago and the box office staff had been calling the last 25 people reminding them to resubscribe for two weeks, someone showed up this morning to renew their subscription and got caught in the horde. She was fine with having to wait awhile and a little incredulous at the crowd and the ever present din of the telephones.

As I stood watching over the activity in the box office today, I was reminded about that meeting where it was suggested I put Oak Ridge Boys in the brochure. In truth, it had occurred to me before anyone even suggested it. But I realized it would have been a mistake to treat the Oak Ridge fans like our season subscribers. While subscribers are generally content to keep the same seats year after year, the Oak Ridge Boys fans largely strive to get better seats than those they had last year.

I suspect there are expectations characteristic to people who only subscribe or buy single tickets to our classics, broadway or variety series that I could be doing a better job of fulfilling.  Those might be difficult to identify because they have been wrapped up so closely with other subscribers for so long that they may not really think about needing to be treated differently.

However, one of the two additional shows I am doing this year is targeted at high school and college students with the intent of developing an additional series tailored to them. They definitely have different expectations of their experience that I will need to learn to meet.

And even people who fall into one segment may exhibit entirely different behaviors as members of a another audience segment. That board member who mentioned they were both subscribers and Oak Ridge Boys attendees– her husband was 4th out of around 75 waiting when we opened the ticket office this morning.

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Info You Can Use: Non-Profits and Loans

If you didn’t catch it, in June Non-Profit Quarterly had a good 101 guide on when it is appropriate for non-profits to take out loans.  Most times you hear about non-profits and loans it is once the non-profit is in financial trouble and deep in debt.  The discussion of constructive use of loans by non-profit arts organizations is relatively rare.

In my own experience, conversations among arts administrators usually touches on earned revenue, fund raising/sponsorships and grants.  I have never heard anyone talk about using loans to fund an initiative. This might be, as the NPQ article suggests, there is a stigma of failure associated with taking out a loan. Or it might be simply that we are so used to worrying about falling attendance, lack luster fundraising and onerous grant writing that no one really thinks to mention loans.

In addition to discussing the times it is and is not appropriate to seek a loan, the article notes that there are no “one-size-fits-all” loans so organizations can negotiate terms that suit their needs.  They also provide a general sense of what answers and materials you might expect to be asked to provide as part of the loan process.



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Stuff To Ponder: Professionalizing Non-Profit Boards

Via Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution is a proposal put forth in the Stanford Law Review suggesting replacing board members with a professional board services company.

When I first saw the title “Why Not Put a Firm on Your Board” on Cowen’s blog, I thought maybe the Stanford article was going to be a satire of the whole “corporations are people” idea that is the basis so many recent Supreme Court decisions. However, they are completely serious and there is some sense to what they propose. (Though I suspect they may still have been inspired by the court.)

As I read the article, I started to wonder if something similar might be good for non-profits. The article is definitely aimed at large for-profit corporations, but the fundamental problems are the same:

-Both for and non-profit boards are comprised of people who have other day jobs and don’t have the time, either during or outside board meetings, to exercise proper oversight of the corporation.

-Board members either get too little information about the corporation to do their jobs, or are overwhelmed with too much.

-Board members often don’t possess specialized knowledge about the entity they are overseeing and therefore can not make good decisions.

-Finally, board members are in a position where they are more loyal to the management of the company than to the general community of stakeholders.

The articles authors propose a company, which they dub “Board-R-Us,” to provide professionalized oversight of management and assume legal liability for decisions made. I am not convinced that these companies wouldn’t succumb to pressure and influence from their clients like Arthur Andersen did or via their own corporate owners.

That aside, there were some compelling reasons for speculating on whether something like this might be viable for non-profits. In addition to the problems with effective oversight mentioned above, non-profit arts organizations often express frustrations trying to recruit a board that better represents the demographics of their community or target audience.

A board services provider (BSP) could recruit and train board members for a non-profit organization. A BSP would likely have extensive contacts at many companies, service organizations, universities, etc developed in the process of searching on behalf of many organizations which would make the search easier for them than for board nominating committees.

The BSP could advise both the organization and the board members about how to more effectively interact with each other so that neither dreaded attending regular meetings.

I am not sure if a BSP would essentially just be a recruitment firm or if the board members would work for them. The former situation would more easily permit board members to serve voluntarily. The latter might require a stipend of some sort.

I am not sure how a stipend might be resolved legally, but if a board member was paid by a separate company and if it wasn’t much more significant than gas money, it might pass muster.

One of the benefits of engaging a BSP for a non-profit is that you could actually have a healthy rotation of people through your board when the BSP assigned new people as terms expired.

A robust rotation system might also prove an incentive to companies to encourage employees to participate in non-profit boards via a BSP. The networking opportunities available as people rotated through the boards of different organizations can be valuable to companies. If the BSP is helping the non-profits provide pertinent information in an organized manner and the board meetings are being run efficiently, few may feel the experience is a waste of their time.

These scenarios assume a situation similar to the current arrangement of part-time board members helping to manage a non-profit with some guidance and oversight from a BSP rather than full-time oversight from a BSP simply because of the costs involved with the latter option.

In terms of how even part time services from a BSP might be paid for, I envision a dedicated good governance fund administered by a state arts council. If the arts council can’t find a source willing to specifically fund this, they might charge participating arts organizations a nominal fee and create a pool of money to pay a BSP.

The participating arts organizations could then choose from among a number of available board service providers.

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We Need To Stop Optimizing Our Synergies

Yesterday, I was speaking with a friend who was learning English as a second language. I don’t remember which word it was exactly, but we got on the subject of corporate speak, the nigh-meaningless terminology that businesses use to recast their activities as something impressive sounding.

I ended up sending her a link to Weird Al Yankovic’s recent video, “Mission Statement” which makes fun of corporate speak.

I let her listen to Weird Al sing about synergies, operationalizing strategies, monetizing assets and other esoteric phrases set to “Suite Judy Blue Eyes,” preparing to be asked what the heck those words meant.

As I waited, it suddenly occurred to me that my hopes for simplified grant reports where non-profits honestly reported the results of the project rather than claiming everything went as well or better than planned, were probably impossible.

As long as for-profit companies are using this self-aggrandizing language to talk about themselves, non-profits are going to be expected to mimic them to some degree to provide the appearance of competence and effectiveness. Most granting entities are either the non-profit arm of companies employing this blather or are foundations with boards comprised of people who work for these companies. For them, use of the latest corporate speak buzzwords are indications of organizational health.

It also occurred to me that the difficulty in attracting audiences from all strata of society might be rooted, in part, in the need to employ an esoteric vocabulary. The need to sound impressive for funders probably influences marketing text. .

But it doesn’t mean much to the audiences you wish would show up.

Certainly there are plenty of other factors which might inhibit a decision to attend an event. Programmings choices that don’t resonate with the interests of local audiences being one.

However, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that new employees who understand how to communicate in a way that interests desired community demographics find themselves pressured either overtly or subliminally over time to use more “polished” language.

I’m afraid that just as like death and taxes, the influence of corporate speak is going to persist until we can actualize a paradigm shift by distilling our core identities into a bleeding edge proactive client centric modality.

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