Arts Conference Redux: What's New Is Old?
The conversations I heard mirrored those of prior years, though the recent economic crisis seems to be finally giving way to business as usual. Of course, this isn’t to say that there aren’t challenges. Theatre tries to reconcile the siren song of commercial dollars versus the imperative to take risks with programming and offerings; the symphony world continues to wrestle with decades-long issues around the salaries of its unionized workers (musicians) and the financial realities of raising money and selling tickets, with a huge gap of misunderstanding in between.
And the great subscription debate continues. Somehow, the oft-repeated obituary “the subscription is dead” flies in the face of reality. More than a few colleagues whispered to me that subscriptions were still the financial lifeblood of their organizations. Some said their subscriptions were up by double digits. Others said their fundraising was up and their single ticket sales last season did really well. None wanted to trumpet their success, lest their less-fortunate colleagues look bad by comparison — or perhaps they were hesitant to challenge the gods of their fortune? Overall, however, it appears that as the economy improves, so too, it seems, do the arts as a whole.
So, what are the lessons or directions for the future? Two links caught my eye shortly after these conferences, and they seem to summarize what matters most. First, Blackbaud’s annual analysis shows an increase in online giving, one that seems to be a long time in coming. According to the Charitable Giving Report for 2012:
- Online giving grew 11 percent in 2012.
- Online fundraising accounted for 7 percent of all donations in 2012, up from 2011.
- Small non-profits’ overall giving grew by 7.3 percent — the most of any segment.
Donating online is an easier way than any other, so it seems logical that more people would do it. It has taken longer for online giving to catch than it did for online ticketing, but I think we are now seeing the beginning of a tipping point where eventually the majority of donations will be made online.
Personally, 100 percent of my giving is done online these days. I like the instant confirmation and the digital paper trail at tax time. But, just as with online ticketing, the customer experience you offer for online donations has to be great. More than a few organizations didn’t get a donation from me because their sites were simply too convoluted.
Second, according to eMarketer, worldwide e-commerce continues to thrive, growing 12 percent in the United States and more overseas. This trend continues to validate that the Internet is continuing to become the first place patrons will transact with your organization. I recommend that before you spend a lot of money redoing your subscription brochure, or hiring a PR or branding agency, get your online ducks in a row. Make sure that your site is clean, clear, updated, and that people can buy your tickets and donate in as few clicks as possible — in real time, in a completely secure and transparent manner from their PCs or mobile devices. That is clearly job #1 for any organization. There’s really no excuse for having a horrible website, and our book Breaking the Fifth Wall: Rethinking Arts Marketing for the 21st Century has some straightforward design tips that can help make your site instantly better.
Behind all of this stands better technology. If you’re going to offer a better online experience for your patrons — or target your donors better, or segment your email marketing better — you have to have technology designed to meet the needs of an entirely online world.
Many organizations still wrestle with separate systems for each department. But the future is clearly in the “CRM” (customer relationship management) approach, where your technology is part of a larger change to serve the patron as a person, across the organization, irrespective of what department she contacts.
To make this move to a “one-system” approach requires a conversation across your organization and across departments. It requires staff to be on board with an overall vision of how you plan to build customer relationships.
However, ours often seems to be an industry that hesitates to embrace this kind of change. It’s more likely you’ll see innovation and change on stage than in the back office. But change is clearly upon us. The economy is improving, and the web is becoming more and more important every day — not only for email marketing or ticketing but now for online giving.
So it behooves the industry to embrace these “warm winds” and take advantage of these trends. The structural issues of programming and money will not go away, but surely we can agree that embracing the change that’s already taking place among our patrons is good for business.
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