Sunday, March 22, 2009

Institutions as Media Outlets

In this moment of substantial change, most companies are looking inward to determine what adjustments need to be made to their business models to flourish in today's new economic climate. Significant shifts need to be made to address the new reality, and that new reality includes taking a hard look at how consumers get information about the arts.

Since the mid-1980s, newspaper circulation has been declining in the United States, but the current economic crisis has thrown gasoline on the fire, causing huge losses for newspapers nationally. Just recently we have seen four major newspapers cease print publication: the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Rocky Mountain News, the Tucson Citizen and the Christian Science Monitor. Additionally, four newspaper companies including the owners of the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Philadelphia Inquirer, have sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Even before the rapid failure of many printed newspapers, arts coverage in many daily newspapers was shrinking, going from 912 column inches on average in 1998 to 702 column inches in 2003 according to Reporting the Arts II, a study conducted by the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University.

A huge shift in communications is about to occur away from organizations pitching stories to mainstream media for coverage and toward setting up institutional distribution channels to cover stories themselves. We have seen this in the past decade as the ways we communicate with our customers have become cheaper, quicker and more segmented. We now have e-mail lists, websites, direct mail, telemarketing, social networking, online video distribution, podcasts, photo streams, and blogs. Some large organizations can currently reach more than one million people using these distribution channels. Considering the New York Times has a circulation of 1.6 million, these distribution channels which used to be considered on the fringes of communications have become almost as powerful for some companies as their local newspaper.

Barack Obama learned in his presidential campaign that if he invested wisely in cultivating his own method of communicating with his supporters, he would be able to use that method to speak directly to the American people when in office. Now President Obama has an e-mail list of 13 million Americans that he uses to garner support for political initiatives. This list is five time larger that the daily circulation of USA Today, the newspaper with the largest circulation in the United States.

Just as we have invested in media relations over the past decades, we now need to heavily invest in developing our own distribution channels and our own content. This is a two pronged approach--we need to develop the infrastructure to distribute content and the ability to create content that our customers will want to consume. It is a significant change in strategy that is now upon us.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Make your voice heard with your advertising dollars

This past Friday, I was on a conference call with several marketing and PR directors from various LORT (League of Resident Theaters) theaters. The purpose of the call was to plan discussion topics for the upcoming LORT conference in Los Angeles. We all agreed that the disappearing arts coverage in local and national press is one of the top issues currently facing non-profit arts organizations, and we recognize that the shrinking coverage has forced arts organizations into becoming content providers themselves. As we make the shift from pitching interesting stories for reporters to cover to covering them ourselves through various media channels (YouTube, Facebook, Blogs, Twitter, Flickr, BlipTv, etc), I believe it is also important to fight for the remaining arts reporters and critics.

We all know that the newspaper industry is in a world of hurt right now. The Rocky Mountain News, one of Denver's largest newspapers, has already bit the dust, and it looks very likely that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer will do the same. The chicago-based Tribune Company has filed for bankruptcy, and the New York Times doesn't look so hot either. Locally in DC metro area, we have seen the Baltimore Examiner go out of business and rumor on the street is that the Washington Post lost $40 million last year, however it owns Kaplan which made $50 million so they can continue to operate in the red, at least for awhile.

With all of this, you can imagine that the pressure is high to cut costs, and why not cut arts coverage? We are perceived by most not to be as valuable as other industries (I am thinking of the huge debate over the $50 million stimulus money for the NEA in the $800+ billion stimulus package, and how much controversy there was over that). So that is where we must step in. We need to make it clear that if a media source cuts arts coverage it will do so at the cost of advertising dollars.

It has been successful in the Washington metropolitan area. Just recently, a media source was going to cut a major source of arts coverage, going so far as to tell the writer that within weeks, she would be released. The League of Washington Theatres along with the management of several of the area's largest arts organizations sent a letter to the company outlining the likely economic consequences of the decision. Soon thereafter, the decision was reversed. Since the company changed its mind, and continued to support arts coverage, I have vowed to increase the amount of advertising I am spending with them this year, and am proud that they continue to be a great source of information on the local arts scene.

As I advocate to reduce advertising expenditures with companies that eliminate arts coverage, I would encourage you to consider increasing your advertising buys for companies that show an increased dedication to the arts. Locally, Arena Stage hasn't traditionally supported the DC Examiner (a local print publication) or (a local theater website). However, both have recently made efforts to increase their arts coverage, the former by printing a theater and museum guide and the latter by doing significant website improvements. Arena Stage now supports them both, and I plan to continue to do so.

The arts are an economic engine. We are a source of revenue, and it is about time that we are taken seriously. Don't be shy--vote with your advertising dollars.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Programmatic vs. Institutional Marketing

At the invitation of my Board Chair, I had the pleasure of attending a speech at George Mason University given by Michael Kaiser, President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and author of The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations. Prior to his speech, I was introduced to Mr. Kaiser, and as I reached out to shake his hand, I secretly hoped that some of his wisdom would transfer from him to me through osmosis. It came as a bit of a surprise that when I introduced myself, he knew who I was, and mentioned that he enjoyed reading my blog.

I admire Mr. Kaiser not only for his expertise in arts management, but also for his tremendous passion for helping struggling arts organizations. Most arts organizations are looking inward during this moment of economic downturn, trying to figure out how to adjust what they are doing to address anticipated future challenges. Mr. Kaiser on the other hand has made it clear that the Kennedy Center has a responsibility as a leader in the field to reach out and help other struggling organizations. I know that times are tough, and the economy has to be impacting the Kennedy Center as well, but even with less resources, the Kennedy Center has launched a new initiative called "Arts in Crisis" which focuses on providing planning assistance and consulting to struggling arts organizations throughout the United States. It truly takes a visionary leader to expand services in an attempt to fulfill an obvious need when resources are so scarce. And this is something Mr. Kaiser is personally committed to as he was proud to share that he has personally taken on consulting for 10 small arts organizations as part of this initiative.

That all being said, Mr. Kaiser discussed the difference between what he labels programmatic marketing and institutional marketing. Prior to reading his book, I had never heard of this distinction, but now find his argument incredibly valuable. He defines programmatic marketing as marketing that is designed to promote a certain activity (i.e. to sell tickets). Conversely, he sees institutional marketing as activities that are designed to promote the institution. He makes the argument that too many organizations do too much of the prior, and too little of the latter. I would have to agree with him. Most marketers feel comfortable with programmatic marketing because it has an obvious, quick and measurable impact (mostly measured on ROI, or Cost of Sale, etc). We don't feel as comfortable in institutional marketing because its not as easy to measure, and it takes a dedicated effort over an extended period of time to see the results.

That being said, the results of a well executed institutional campaign can be remarkable. Mr. Kaiser notes that an eight year aggressive institutional marketing campaign has been mostly responsible for a 250% increase in contributed revenue at the Kennedy Center, and when he was previously at Alvin Ailey, they doubled their fundraising in two years. A programmatic marketing campaign is limited in its abilities and scope because it lives in a finite period, where institutional campaigns pay dividends in both earned and contributed revenue because they help brand the institution and sell the vision. Why be satisfied with selling a slice when you can sell the entire pie?

To me, it all goes back to planning. Mr. Kaiser advises organizations to constantly be working in the future -- planning seasons three years in advance, crafting a long term vision, etc. Too many of us get bogged down in the day to day, and who can blame us, we are only human. When there is a fire, we all concentrate on putting it out, but if we are constantly putting out fires, it is good to be reminded that we also need to put effort into digging new wells, for without new wells, we will eventually run out of water for the fires.