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My most frequent answer

Rick Lester | April 28, 2010 2:58 PM
I am often asked about the most frequent question I get. To me, the more relevant question is, “What’s my most frequent answer?” This one is much easier.

Much of my work as a consultant has been based upon a simple premise: help sell or raise more money while reducing risk. That was the reason for TRG’s entry into the world of database management a dozen years ago. Simply put, we grew tired of guessing. Should the client do this? Should the client do that? Who knew? If pressed personally, I would express an opinion. It would be an educated or experienced guess, but still just a guess. One of TRG’s primary goals is to eliminate such guesswork – even the type that comes from years of experience.

I often joke that many of us veteran arts marketers kept our jobs because we guessed right more often than we guessed wrong. A long time colleague recently reminded me that we kept our jobs because “no one really knew what the heck we did for a living and the survivors knew how to fix their messes before the boss noticed.” Today, everyone – boss, board, colleagues-- notices. In this information-focused era, guesswork is for suckers and perhaps the soon-to-be unemployed.

I was reminded of this just the other day when reviewing a preliminary stage of research that is winding its way through the TRG Data Lab. It is a study of half-priced ticket buyers in the San Francisco market. Where do they come? What happens to a patron once they buy that deeply discounted ticket? Are they loyal? Do they come back for a second visit? Do they ever again buy a full priced ticket?

In this case, my three decades of experience was not helpful. I was convinced that cannibalization was likely to be a serious problem among half-price ticket buyers. Once converted to a deeply discounted ticket, it was unlikely that they would ever again buy a full priced ticket. I was wrong. The cannibalization rate for the study data was less than 1%. The majority of returning ticket buyers (from the 1%) made their next purchase directly from the organization they started with. Why? Today I have no idea – but we now have a new place to focus our study. We also have a long way to go before delivering the final report.

My point is simple: guessing about patron behavior is about as accurate as guessing the next winning number at roulette.

So, going back to the original question….what is my most frequent answer? Simple. For a wide range of questions, I proudly state that while “I may have an opinion – a guess, really -- I just don’t know yet. If you are serious about finding an answer to that question, let’s go check your database and find out.”

This seems to me the best way for savvy arts marketers and fundraiser to reduce risk – for their organization and their careers.


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