Boston Symphony – By combining direct mail with a Web pitch, BSO pulls in subscriptions

Forget research. Sometimes the best ideas for personalized marketing come from fiction. In the TV show Cheers, the character Norm is greeted by a chorus of regulars in a place where everybody knows his name. Now the Boston Symphony Orchestra has adopted a similar technique for its Internet marketing.

The program combines the marketing muscle of direct mail with the technical sophistication of Web site personalization. Looking for a way to lure dormant concertgoers back into the fold, in 2001 the orchestra tried a unique personalization campaign. It first sent a traditional direct-mail piece to 34,000 people. In each piece, recipients were given a personal code number and directed to a special Web address. There, the customer met with a 90-second “intellimercial”—a combination of audio and video. Customer were greeted by name, treated to a brief clip of BSO music, and invited to return to the fold. Response rate was 10 percent, conversion rate was 3 percent, and BSO was sold. “Our customer base clearly appreciated the targeted effort,” says Kim Noltemy, marketing director for the BSO.

That experiment has given rise to what is now an ongoing personalized marketing program at BSO. This year, seven different email or digital audio promotions have gone out, all reaping 5 percent to 10 percent conversion rates. Rates for traditional direct mail are closer to 3 percent, Noltemy says.

The orchestra’s personalization efforts boosted its bottom line and also its reputation with its audience, says Jo Bennett of Marketing 1 to 1 Inc. Noltemy says the key is understanding the other forces that tug at her target consumers. “These are high-powered people and they get a lot of pitches for their money, from credit card companies, from all kinds of marketers. We need to be selective and be sure that what they get is what they want. That’s why they respond.”—E.N.

Ellen Neuborne is freelance writer specializing in advertising and marketing.