Is E-mail Dying? Digital Preferences of Arts Patrons Revealed

There is something that’s been nagging me for years, and it has to do with marketing research, and the urge to compare what we’re doing against other such studies.

For the last seven years, in an attempt to advise our clients and inform our presentations and seminars, we’ve fielded a national survey of arts patrons’ online behavior by working with a selection of our clients and sending a survey to their e-mail lists. I’ve used this as a proxy for arts patron behavior in general and quote from it extensively in our publications. In fact, the whole first section of our new book, Breaking the Fifth Wall: Rethinking Arts Marketing for the 21st Century, reports on our 2010 survey.

Each time I present this data, inevitably someone will challenge the results by pointing out that since the survey is fielded solely via e-mail, the data is skewed — the results don’t really give an accurate assessment of the arts-going public, because the survey over-represents online interest and participation.

That it is a purely online survey is true, and we’ve always taken great pains to point this out when we present the data. However, my assertion is that the sample is actually a very close approximation of the entire arts-going public because such a large proportion of the audience is in fact online.

That’s why I was so interested to find out that the most recent study released by The Broadway League, focusing on the nearly 16 million attendees of Broadway touring shows across North America, was conducted entirely online. They too have gone to a 100% e-mail-based survey approach.

Since both pieces of research were done in the same way, and ask many of the same questions and examine a similar audience, I thought that comparing our survey results with the Broadway League’s might shed some additional light on the nature of the online arts community.

Here’s what we found. (For purposes of simplicity I’ll refer to the Broadway study as “BL” and ours as “PT.”)

●  72% of BL’s attendees were female. In PT’s, women comprise 66%.

●  The average age of the Touring Broadway theatregoer is 53.8 years old, and PT’s is 58.6.

●  74% of BL’s audience held a college degree; 38% of PT’s audience had a college degree.

●   BL’s survey showed 31% held a graduate degree and in the PT study 50% had a graduate degree.

●  46% of BL’s national theatregoers reported an annual household income of more than $100,000, and in the PT study it was 45%. (This compares to only 20% of Americans overall.)

As you can see, the demographics are relatively consistent across both studies. My explanation for why the BL audience is more heavily weighted to women is that our study included all performing art types, including classical music and opera, which tend to have a higher percentage of men as attendees.

Going on, let’s look at online behavior.

● In the BL survey, 36% of respondents were subscribers to the “Broadway Series” at their local venue. In the PT survey it was 33%.

● Nearly two-thirds of BL audiences looked to the theatre’s website to find information about the show. The PT survey results were similar: 68% said the same.

● 35% of BL’s Touring Broadway theatregoers used the Internet to purchase their tickets. This was much higher in the PT survey: 73% of our respondents said they bought tickets online in the past year.

Most of the participatory aspects of the two audiences’ responses are similar — what surprised me here was what’s different.

The online ticket-buying ratio for BL’s survey is much lower than the average from our survey. My theory is that this may have something to do with the way these series are marketed, or the degree to which these series are sold online versus in a more traditional direct-mail and print-oriented marketing approach.

As for communication preferences, 69% of respondents to the BL survey said they would prefer to receive theatre information electronically, rather than via postal mail. In the PT survey we offered an additional option: while just 48% prefer e-mail alone, another 37% prefer receiving both e-mail and postal mail (for a total of 85% of responders being “e-mail friendly”).

Out of everything examined in both surveys, it’s this e-mail preference that shouts out at me. Over two-thirds of the touring Broadway audience says that e-mail is the preferred method of hearing about shows. This is a staggeringly high number and speaks to the continuing power of e-mail marketing, particularly for those who are already online. As I wrote in a blog post earlier this year, the persistent rumors that e-mail marketing is less relevant in a Facebook-dominated world can be put to rest. Among the older audiences in the arts sector demographic, e-mail use is actually increasing.

So what’s a big takeaway here? I think it’s that when you survey an audience online, you find that those who respond to it overwhelmingly demonstrate a preference for online communication. So even if traditional methods are still at work, you ought to exploit online marketing to these folks as much as you can because they prefer it, it’s less expensive, it’s faster and you’ll get a better response rate from them.

It may now be a good idea to simply ask your patrons how they prefer to hear from you. You can do this through surveys, during subscription renewals, and even when they are buying single tickets. Once you now have information about each customer, you can segment your marketing and reach those who tell you they are interested in online marketing in the way they prefer. They will be happier — your response rates will be higher.

We’re living in a world in which there are two audiences out there — those that have adopted online marketing and those that haven’t. Why treat everyone the same?

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