E-marketing E-ssentials: Breaking the Fifth Wall (Excerpt)

Eugene Carr
April 2011

As any actor will tell you, the “fourth wall” refers to the imaginary separation in a theatre between the action on stage and the audience sitting in the dark watching the play. When an actor “breaks the fourth wall,” he turns and speaks directly to the audience, breaking the illusion of the autonomy of the action. The effect is often startling—even a bit jarring—as the imaginary world of the stage is momentarily interrupted.

And when the play or concert is over, the audience passes through another wall: the “Fifth Wall” that separates the cultural experience (and the organization that produced it) from the ongoing life of the audience member. This effect can be equally jarring, as the lights come up and the world of the arts experience fades before the real world of parking lots, bad weather, and the late-night news.

The Fifth Wall separates your patrons both physically and mentally from your organization. Breaking the Fifth Wall is the act of reconnecting with those patrons in a meaningful way after they have left your venue, by creatively and regularly reminding them of the value of the arts experience your organization offers, coaxing them to return, and perhaps ultimately convincing them to donate. In the past, you might have simply called this “marketing,” but today, what’s required is more accurately described as “patron relationship building.”

The world has changed, and so too has the audience. The way arts marketers have gone about building relationships with audiences over the last fifty years is no longer relevant, and no longer works.

Subscription brochures, newspaper ads, and telemarketing calls are not enough anymore to connect to your audience and keep them coming back. The old “butts in seats” paradigm is simply too crude to be an effective goal in this more complex world. Of course, you want to fill your seats. But to address what’s truly ailing arts marketing, you must refocus on a set of new and different goals, and transform your organization’s audience-development efforts.

Our book proposes an entirely new framework for arts marketing as we begin the second decade of the 21st century. The arts-going experience is ultimately about a connection between the artist and the audience. Now, because of advances in technology and changes in consumer behavior, the arts experience—and arts marketing as well—is evolving into an interactive relationship that reaches far beyond a physical venue. It’s time to discard the “what we’ve always done” thinking that permeates the industry, and take a new approach that will lead to deeper and more meaningful patron relationships. This approach is what we call breaking the Fifth Wall.

How the World Has Changed

The way arts patrons access information about events and make the decision to attend them has evolved more in the past decade than it had since the invention of the radio or television. These changes are not superficial—they alter the landscape that arts managers must operate in.

  • Arts audiences are now living online. As the Internet has become ubiquitous, it’s no longer a question of whether your audience can be reached online. The question is,howwhen, and where is it most effective to do so?
  • Old media—particularly print newspapers and magazines—are in steep decline, and their audiences are rapidly migrating to the Internet. What we used to call “new media” are no longer new anymore.
  • A substantial portion of arts patrons prefer e-mail over direct- mail communications from their favorite arts organizations. Wired for Culture: How E-mail is Revolutionizing Arts Marketing, first published in 2003, suggested that if your patrons signed up for your e-mail list, and if you sent them regular, relevant, compelling, engaging, and useful information, they would respond in dramatic numbers. In 2010, we know this to be true. E-mail marketing works. Response rates for e-mail campaigns are much higher than for direct mail, and the cost to send e-mail is dramatically lower.
  • As ticket sales move to the Internet, arts websites have become the most important public face of an organization. In many cases, they have become the point of sale for more than a third of all tickets arts organizations sell each year, superseding the box office and the telephone. Some organizations sell almost 70 percent of their tickets online!1 A poorly designed website, or one that is nothing more than an online version of the season brochure, can cause great damage to the image of the organization.
  • The subscription, once the central and most reliable relationship an arts organization had with its core audience, an idea codified thirty years ago in the seminal volume Subscribe Now, by Danny Newman, is under siege. The fixed annual series is being replaced by the make-your-own series, flexible subscription packages, and more last-minute single-ticket sales than ever before. This transformation has led to a dramatic reduction in up-front cash and an unrelenting need to market empty seats until the very last minute.
  • Social media has arrived, and it is not going away. What seemed like a fad only a few years ago has evolved into a worldwide phenomenon, with Facebook and Twitter leading the way. Today, if arts managers ignore social media, they do so at their own peril.

What’s in the Book

While you may decide to read our book straight through from cover to cover, it’s been written as a series of five discrete lessons divided into the most important areas you need to focus on to be successful in the 21st century and break the Fifth Wall.

In Section I, we take stock of the online arts patron. Who is she? What does she do? We will present research from our own nationwide survey of arts patrons. This will help you understand better who your online patrons are, how they behave online, and how they interact with arts organizations.

Then, in Section II, we turn to e-mail marketing, which should be the bedrock of your digital marketing strategy. E-mail is the most powerful online marketing tool you have, and though it’s not as new or exciting as some of the other things we discuss, it’s still the most important.

Your website is the public face of your organization, but how well does it represent you? In Section III, we present the focus-group research Patron Technology conducted with arts patrons, which found out that most arts websites could be greatly improved with a few simple but powerful design guidelines. And ticketing, the most important e-commerce function on your site, has its own rules, which we put under a microscope.

In Section IV, Michelle defines what makes social media work in the arts. She will provide you with solid tips and techniques for building and strengthening patron relationships using Facebook and Twitter.

In Section V, we focus on CRM and explain in detail just how revolutionary a change it can be, and how cloud computingmakes CRM possible and affordable.

At the conclusion, in Section VI, Gene augurs some predictions about the future by analyzing the trends and technologies that are likely to create new opportunities for arts management in the years to come.

Our objective is to help you understand the world your patrons are living in, and show you how to reach them. We will introduce the most important technologies that are currently emerging, and offer sensible, actionable, and affordable ways to leverage them.

We want to emphasize that we are mindful that most arts organizations operate on slim budgets and have small staffs. As such, nothing in this book requires a large budget or capital investment. We have tried to present good strategies and effective tactics that can benefit organizations of any size.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, we believe that in many ways the golden age of non-profit cultural marketing is just beginning. This is an exciting time for rethinking our industry by examining the ways technology can advance the arts.

Breaking the Fifth Wall: Rethinking Arts Marketing for the 21st Century can be purchased online at


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