E-marketing E-ssentials: The Virtual Front Row- Using E-marketing to Capture and Develop New Audiences

Christina Blodgett with Sarah Pressler
June 2008

Antonin Artaud, the French playwright, actor, and director, said that the theatre, “for all its artifices, depicts life in a sense more truly than history, because the medium has a kindred movement to that of real life.” That feeling of watching a play surrounded by an audience equally inspired by the work is something that can’t fully be replicated outside of the theatre. The challenge for arts marketers in a culture dominated by television and cinema is how to encourage patrons to continue to seek out the theatre for an experience of active exchange. Sarah Pressler, the Marketing & Public Relations Manager at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, MD, has answered this challenge by using e-mail as a tool to develop new audiences and bring the theatre to life.

Round House Theatre, now in its thirtieth season, is one of the leading professional theatre companies in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, staging over 200 performances each season at its main stage theatre in Bethesda and its black box space in Silver Spring. Round House Theatre produces literary adaptations and contemporary works for the stage, conducts community-based education programs, and provides a home to diverse artists and arts organizations. With a mission to explore big ideas, broaden minds, and build community through the shared experience of live theatre, Round House uses e-marketing to capture new audiences and build lasting relationships with patrons. Sarah cites their desire to personalize messages to their subscribers, namely through what they call a BlakeMail, as a key element of this strategy.

“A BlakeMail is a personalized e-mail from Blake Robison, our Producing Artistic Director, to the e-mail list. While it includes basic marketing and ticket sale information (as do all of our e-mails), the focus of this type of e-mail is a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the upcoming play from Blake’s perspective. For those people who have been on our e-mail list for a while, it’s something they look forward to — his e-mails generate some of the highest open rates for us. We think of it as an exclusive opportunity for our e-mail list subscribers to read about the production from Blake, and it provides them with information they wouldn’t otherwise be privy to. Oftentimes these e-mails share Blake’s experience with choosing the play and directing (or watching) the plays in rehearsal, and include his take on what relevancy the play has for the DC theatre community. This plays a major part in our e-marketing strategy as a means of marketing our current and upcoming productions and as a way to reward patrons’ loyalty and dedication to Round House Theatre.”

“It’s important to allow the patrons’ interests to be the springboard”

Round House Theatre has an e-mail list of over 10,000 names (and growing rapidly). Sarah attributes this list growth to training their box office staff to always ask for an e-mail address from patrons when they purchase tickets, having their e-newsletter sign-up form easily accessible on their Web site, and doing community outreach at cultural and educational events that offer an incentive to win free tickets to patrons who provide an e-mail address. By incorporating e-mail design best practices in their newsletters, Sarah makes it easy for her patrons to locate the most important content, resulting in an open rate and click-thru rate that regularly exceed the industry average and permits the easy integration of multi-media elements that positively impacts ticket sales and audience recognition.

“I believe it’s important to allow the patrons’ interests to be the springboard to learn more to enrich their experience. Any time we include a link to a video, we add the video above the fold and incorporate it in the subject line, and people like that they’re getting the sneak peak. We use the verbiage ‘exclusive video’ preview; we want patrons to feel that this is something special they’re getting because they’re on our newsletter list. Our associate producer loves to dabble in video editing, and as she has been growing in that, we’ve been able to do that. It’s really nice that we have someone in-house. The Book Club Play video was one of our favorites, as it really captured the energy and spirit of the play — it was a comedy and fast-moving and relationship-based.”

The Book Club Play, a comedy that features a group of thirty-somethings who invite a new member into their beloved book club, represented a major milestone for the Round House in the evolution of their e-marketing program. By specifically targeting patrons in book clubs to generate “advance buzz” and modifying their editorial calendar to begin sending e-newsletters months before the show opened, Sarah believes that this winning combination was the secret to their exceptional sales.

“Prior to The Book Club Play, our editorial calendar for PatronMail was fairly static: We would send out two e-mails per show, with the first one being the week before it opened. For The Book Club Play, we were interested in seeing if we could drum up ticket sales (especially group sales) through PatronMail, and decided to try an earlier e-mail date. We sent out our first e-mail in November, several months before the show opened. That e-mail was a true group sales push, and we were thrilled with the results – we had extraordinary presale for The Book Club Play, especially with book clubs. What we’ve learned from this is that it’s okay to think outside the box and try new strategies – now we send e-mails a bit sooner than we used to, and we’ve also realized the fruitfulness of targeting groups. At Round House, we primarily do literary adaptations, so it’s easy to reach out to the book club population. But even for shows that don’t have an exclusive book (like our current production, Nixon’s Nixon), we put together a list of book club reading that accompanies the production.”

Thinking outside the “e-marketing box”

Thinking outside the “‘e-marketing box” can also provide insights on how direct mail can serve as a complement to e-marketing. For instance, including an incentive in your direct mail postcard that can only be redeemed online gives your patrons a reason to visit your Web site and in turn, register for your e-newsletter. Sarah has found that this technique has created a mutually beneficial partnership between their direct mail and e-marketing strategy.

“Creating an exclusive online offer on our direct mail postcards has done a world of good in driving traffic to our Web site. Once patrons are at our Web site, if they like what they see and have a good experience, they are apt to sign up for our e-mail list during their visit. We have a direct mail postcard that we send out for every show to approximately 30,000 patrons. On this postcard, we feature an online ticket discount — for example, ‘Save $10 per ticket during preview week by ordering online’ — which draws traffic to our Web site. Often, when patrons are visiting our Web site to purchase tickets, they sign up for our e-mail list as well. We also showcase this online ticket discount through our PatronMail campaigns, which consequently draws more traffic to our Web site.”

E-marketing has the unique ability to serve as a portal for patrons to make use of modern technological marvels such as online ticketing while simultaneously inspiring them to remain members of a live audience. As the electronic portal to reach out to the individual from the heart of an organization, e-marketing in the arts can quickly transform that individual into an active member of the organization’s community. By using e-marketing techniques that best capture the voice of the theatre, Sarah has successfully expanded that connection to develop lasting relationships with patrons — relationships that give greater clarity to who we are as individuals, both on and off the stage.

Sarah Pressler is the Marketing & Public Relations Manager at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, MD. Christina Blodgett is the Director of Client Services and Consulting at Patron Technology. Join them for Patron Technology’s June Arts Marketer Town Hall webinar on Thursday, June 26th at 2:00pm EST – click here to register.

Learn More about PatronManager, the powerful CRM platform that helps you sell more tickets, raise more money, and cultivate stronger bonds with your audience, all in one database.