In the Data Era, Theater Marketers Can No Longer Act Like Digital Understudies

Targeting takes center stage

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Marketing for plays and musicals probably hasn't been this tough since the Great Depression—even on Broadway. Producers can largely thank the Internet and smartphones for that tough reality, though. Getting people off their digital screens and into real-life spaces has vexed events organizers everywhere. But the source of their agony—as is sometimes the case in theatrical storytelling—can also represent the seeds of their salvation.

Tom Gabbard, president of Blumenthal Performing Arts in Charlotte, N.C., said he's one of a growing number of nonprofit entertainment marketers who recently have started mining digital data to better target potential customers.

"Everyone has been conceptually there, but we haven't had the tools," Gabbard said.

Specifically, Gabbard got tired of seeing people unsubscribe from his emails while mailing print brochures to seemingly dead-end addresses. But on a shoestring budget, he wasn't willing to give up on those two cost-effective channels. So, he enlisted Arts & Analytics to zero in on prospective theatergoers who hadn't bought show tickets for two years. Denver-based Arts & Analytics combines clients' in-house data customers with data it has sourced and bought.

With purchase history and behavioral stats, the theater's marketers created online targets that included a primary group (former theatergoers) and "look-alikes"—wine lovers or stock investors who shared similar buying histories were included in an audience segment with lapsed theatergoers who regularly purchased wine and stocks—while employing Arts & Analytics PatronLink360 software.

Gabbard then began sending out email and paper brochures for Blumenthal's Belk Theater in Charlotte to a more targeted list of former customers and prospects.

"We had response rates between 50 percent and 60 percent," he said. "In direct mail or email, between 1 and 2 percent is more typical. It lets us more precisely identify who our buyers are in a cost-effective manner. In the old days, particularly with nonprofits, we were encouraged to create brochures and then mail them to millions of people. And that's just not cost-effective these days. And then we went through the phase of sending out these giant email blasts, but people are tuning that stuff out and actually unsubscribing."

The effort has boosted sales and driven people to the theater, according to Gabbard, who is specifically happy with the speed at which data can be accessed through a company like Arts & Analytics.

"For large brand marketers, that's something they've been doing for a while," he said. "But for us, this can help us get this data on our desktops in a way we haven't before. We are not relying on third parties, sending them the data and then getting the information we need two or three weeks later. Now, it's instant."

Explaining how his vendor helped the Blumenthal group achieve such a high response rate, Arts & Analytics CEO Lee Gallagher pointed to his PatronLink360 system, which is being formally announced today. With predictive modeling, his 2-year-old startup can attack as many as 110 audience segments and has attracted theater clients in Las Vegas, Utah, Chicago, New York and Florida.

"Look-alike targeting is typically based on nonpurchase history," Gallagher said. "Ours is based on transactions."

Of course, Arts & Analytics and Blumenthal Performing Arts aren't the only players in the space getting deeper into data.

Take Capacity Interactive, a digital marketing services provider that's also aimed at art orgs.

Erik Gensler, president of the New York-based shop, said the marketers in his niche are increasingly tapping into targeting capabilities made popular by Google, Facebook and Amazon.

"We now do it for almost all of our clients," Gensler said. "It beats the old ways of simply interrupting a lot of people, which is not necessarily efficient. At least with look-alikes, you can use data to speak to a person who is hopefully further down the sales funnel."

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.