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TRG Blog: Analysis from TRG Arts


Why do arts marketers keep placing ads that don’t return?

J.L. Nave | March 7, 2016 9:15 AM

Photo: Marlon Malabanan (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

If your work involves promoting the next performance or production, you already know there’s never a shortage of things you can do or places to advertise. However, no matter how hard we work, we’re limited by staff time and our own budget. So how we spend that time and budget matters.

When you’re facing a long list of tasks or advertising opportunities, your first instinct might be to prioritize the list in order of urgency and importance. However, this approach assumes that everything on your list is worth doing. I recommend dividing your list into two: a to-do list and a “stop doing” list.

Stop doing: easier said than done.

The first time I tried to create a “stop doing” list, all I could think about were the obstacles I would face if I actually tried to stop doing something. Everything was important to someone. But then I realized I was looking at this wrong. When it comes to advertising, it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality. So I knew I needed to work smarter, not harder. That meant looking at the return on investment (ROI) of how and where I advertised.

TRG often sees clients buying untargeted mass media that have negative ROI. So why do arts marketers keep doing things that don’t return? It goes beyond, “We’ve always done it this way” or not having a great way to track ROI. Most arts marketers are smarter than that. The reasons that they continue to invest in media even when data is telling them not to is much more nuanced.

In my experience, there are three common obstacles that get in our way. However, (spoiler alert) the good news is that these obstacles are manageable–if you’re willing to manage it. Here’s how:

Obstacle #1 – There are expectations, and then there are board member/artist/funder expectations.

This is a classic nonprofit no-win situation: when data is telling you something and a board member is telling you the opposite. And it happens often with mass media—especially favorite publications and outdoor advertising.

How to manage it:

I counsel my clients to start by picking one event and change one thing. For example, what if we stop advertising in the paper or monthly magazines for the spring opera? We’ll get the ticket sales data after the production and mitigate risk at the same time. Then we can look at the data and let it guide the decision, rather than someone’s opinion.

Obstacle #2 – But it’s “donated.”

Another common scenario: The print outlet is donating free space. How can you turn down free advertising?

How to manage it:

My first question is to find out if it’s really free. Usually, there is a cash outlay tied to the “free” advertising. And sometimes when the print outlet sponsors your advertising, your price is based on the rack rate for for-profit businesses. It may seem like a terrific deal on the surface but a deeper look is less convincing.

This is a situation I have personally found myself in. After several years of a media sponsorship, I discovered that the sponsorship was based on the top advertising rate which was 3 times the non-profit rate. Since the sponsorship was a dollar-for-dollar commitment, we were actually getting 50% less advertising than if we had turned down the sponsorship and paid the same amount of cash at the non-profit rate. We made the bold decision to respectfully decline the sponsorship and revise our cash outlay accordingly.

Obstacle #3 – It’s not just about the ad (a.k.a. “pay to play”).

For at least the last 15 years, the blurry line between editorial and advertising is becoming the new norm. It’s mutually assured destruction—if an arts organization pulls back on advertising, editorial coverage will stop. If we pull our ad dollars, which pays for the people to write the review, aren’t we contributing to the death of arts journalism?

How to manage it:

There’s no perfect answer, but there needs to be balance. Is it appropriate for an organization to expect editorial content when they’ve cut their entire ad spend? We can no longer pretend the two are unrelated. But, if it’s not returning, do you have to put in $50,000? Can you support your local paper and still protect your own bottom line?

Why it’s worth it

Choosing ads to put on your “stop doing” list might involve a difficult conversation or two. When a conversation is difficult, it usually means that it’s important to have it. Instead of dreading the challenges ahead, imagine what could be possible once you’re able to optimize your budget.

Here’s some inspiration. One of our current clients, Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma, had a single ticket marketing budget in 2013 that broke down as follows:

  • 11% on direct mail
  • 9% on online
  • 80% on traditional media like radio and newspaper

In 2014, they re-allocated their spending, borrowing from traditional media to spend more on online and direct mail, breaking down like this:

  • 20% on direct mail
  • 20% on online
  • 60% on traditional media

This re-allocation, in combination with other pricing and campaign changes, has resulted in a 41% increase in single ticket revenue from 2013 to 2015. Even better, the influx of single ticket revenue has been a driving factor in the 21% increase in their annual operating budget over the last 3 years.

As digital media continues to overtake print, organizations should thoughtfully re-examine their marketing strategy on a regular basis. As you’re finishing the 2015-16 season and planning for the year ahead, think about your own situation. What’s currently on your “stop doing” list? What should be on your “stop doing” list?







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Case Study: Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma

Annual operating budget up 32% in 5 seasons

Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma 
 Photo: Joseph Mills

After a poor year for earned revenue in 2012, Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma (LTO) had rebounded and was experiencing a growth spurt. In 2013, Director of Marketing Danyel Siler had turned her attention to single tickets.

Her hard work had paid off, but season tickets were still a challenge. “Season tickets were steadily declining,” she said. “The season ticket campaign had been done the same way for years, maybe even decades. And we blamed the fall on the trend that subs were declining everywhere. Our executive director, artistic director, and I all knew something needed to change, but we didn’t know what.”

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