Sold Out! Season Brochure vs. Digital Marketing

Heather Rigby & Ally Haynes-Hamblen
Thursday, May 23, 2013

As performing arts presenters are going to print this season with one of their biggest marketing budget items of the year, the season brochure, some are left pondering if it’s necessary to spend $30k, $40k, $50k and more on this single printed piece. With the decline of print* and growing ubiquity of digital media, do patrons still use the brochure? Do ticket sales appropriately return the investment of time and money spent on this printed collateral? In this article, we examine performing arts presenters that have explored this issue and are finding that a healthy and strategic mix of print and digital media informed by audience feedback and organizational intuition yield the best results. 

Taking the Plunge 

Two years ago, Natalie Hall, Marketing and Outreach Manager at the Sunset Cultural Center, Inc. in Carmel, California, asked her organization to begin transitioning away from the full, glossy season brochure they had produced for years. The impetus for the change was simple: creating the brochure consumed so much of the center’s staff time and marketing budget to print and mail. Natalie recounted during a phone interview: “we had to create the brochure so early in the year to announce the season and mail out and then had to design and print a second piece to include ads and event sponsorship information to use as a program. It was such an inefficient process, I thought there just had to be a better way.” 

The Sunset Center devised a plan to phase out the brochure over a two-year period while pushing their audiences toward digital communication. In the first year, they built out their online assets and revamped their website to improve navigation and integration with social media. At the same time, they moved forward with their brochure design but sent their printed collateral only to their subscriber base (a mailing of 500 instead of almost 30,000 in previous years). A postcard urging recipients to visit their website for season information was mailed to everyone else. First year results were promising. Natalie reported: “we had the strongest season onsale we’ve ever had. While I attribute that to the quality of programming, it proved that losing the big brochure didn’t negatively impact sales and awareness. Even though our traditional audience demographics lean toward the older retirement community that lives in the surrounding areas, they have followed our lead and moved to the web to find information about our season. Surprisingly, even to us, we had almost no negative feedback from our patrons.” 

Elimination of the subscriber brochure was also initiated by the Center’s overarching strategy of reducing and eventually eliminating subscription offerings. The subscriber brochure had originally been developed to help turn single ticket buyers into loyal multiple ticket buyers. Over time, this approach was so successful it began to cost the presenter in potential revenues. “Because our high profile events were advertised through the subscriber brochure before they went on sale to the general public, 80% of our most popular shows were selling at the subscriber’s 15% discount,” reported Natalie. “In response, we’re trying to transition out of a subscription model and replace it with added value memberships that give patrons access to social incentives like access to a wine bar, first notification for new show sales, VIP events and member parties… we want to move people toward finding value in supporting our center rather than just getting a sales discount.”

Natalie stresses that paper materials are still a valuable marketing tool for the Center, but will be deployed more strategically. This year the Center will continue to use its event programs to function as a kind of season brochure that can be taken by audiences as a reference for future shows or provided to passersby upon request at the box office. But, she says, “we are totally eliminating an upfront subscriber brochure—moving instead to a much smaller portable pocket calendar for pre-season marketing. The event program will serve many functions and gives us a longer timeline to get show information right. By combining the brochure and program, we’ll be scaling down on printing volume and conserving more of our budget for opportunities that we couldn’t afford before, like advertising or creating promotional videos.”

New Opportunities, Targeted Strategies

While the Sunset Center takes its second-year leap into discontinuing the season brochure, the Ford Theatres in Hollywood, California will soon open its fourth summer season since foregoing its own season brochure. The Ford’s Marketing Manager Kim Glann shared that moving away from producing a season brochure has freed up staff time and financial resources to venture into social media and new marketing territory. “When we assessed the usefulness of the season brochure, it ended up being too one-size-fits-all for our organization. Without it, we are more nimble and able to tailor our marketing strategies to the specific cultural and geographic communities our programming seeks to attract and represent.”

Ford Theatres Event PostcardThe Ford partners with local arts organizations and producers to present the majority of its summer season of events. In addition to providing technical assistance and infrastructural support for producing partners, the Ford crafts an umbrella season marketing campaign that compliments the targeted efforts of partners to promote their shows. In assessing the effectiveness of its season brochure, the organization felt that marketing efforts through these partnerships yielded the most ticket buyers, not the full-color brochure that took months to produce each season. “Our partners are on the ground, talking about their show to their audiences, in their communities,” Kim said. “Because of this, word-of-mouth continues to be the most oft-cited way audiences find out about our shows. Instead of creating a massive print piece, we are spending more time with our partners and developing marketing plans that will yield the best results based on what we know of their audience.” 

While the Ford no longer uses a season brochure, it won’t completely abandon print media just yet: “We have invested heavily in our website, social media, and email marketing, but we also print a season pocket calendar and individual event postcards,” reported Kim. “People still trust the mail and like having a printed piece to which they can refer. Being handed or mailed a postcard or pocket calendar might first spark their interest. The pieces are designed to drive people to go to the website to learn more and access the photography, artist interviews, and music and video clips, we’ve compiled. This provides increased opportunities to engage with our audience on a deeper level.” From a sales perspective, the outcomes are upward trending: Ford season ticket sales remain steady and net revenues per show have increased over the last three years.

Finding the Right Fit for Your Organization

In conversations with the Sunset Center and Ford Theatres, some common themes emerged which may be helpful for presenters rethinking the usefulness of their season brochure and rebalancing their marketing portfolios: 

  • Help your audience take the leap with you: Discontinuing the use of a season brochure can be a scary proposition, especially for presenters whose audiences overwhelmingly indicate that the brochure is their primary vehicle for finding out information about a presenter’s show. However, both the Sunset Center and Ford Theatres cited that while surveys are useful to understand current audience behavior, they aren’t necessarily good predictors of future behavior in the face of change. These organizations relied on their long histories of producing and relationship building within their communities to provide an intuitive basis on which to found new marketing approaches. They beefed up their websites, anchored their social media assets, and prepared a postcard in lieu of the full brochure to cue audiences to the start of their season and help guide patrons online to get more information.
  • Trim down print to the essentials: The Ford Theatres and Sunset Center still use print materials as key components of their marketing plans. However, they’ve trimmed down the size of those materials and condensed copy to the minimum amount they feel was needed to pique audience interest and get them online. Trimming down, however, doesn’t mean less work is involved. Instead, such changes can mean major investments in the initial years to simultaneously redesign print materials and experiment with new, uncharted digital strategies. Planning to transition slowly over a number of years can help break up the number of learning curves that need to be overcome in any one season and can also give staff a chance to experiment with what works best.
  • Brochure-less-ness as a means to an end: Neither the Ford nor the Sunset Center set out to eliminate the season brochure just for the novelty of it. Rather, the move came out of the organizations’ re-examination of their annual “business as usual” marketing cycles and some tough questions: is the investment in this product really paying off? Are we utilizing the most effective tools to achieve our goals? How can we position our organization to capitalize on new technology and meet the expectations of the next generation of audiences? A presenter’s decision about whether or not to forego its season brochure – or any other marketing asset – must be authentically woven into that organization’s overall strategic plan and future vision. 

Going brochure-less won’t be the right step for every organization in this moment. However, the digital world cannot be ignored as it continues to change the behavior and expectations of an evolving audience. Embracing it will reveal opportunities to increase efficiencies in the short term, and position presenters to engage with audiences through the technology that is increasingly becoming a central part of everyday life. 

*Broadway producer Ken Davenport underscores the trend that is widely perpetuated today about the decline of print media on his blog: The Producer's Perspective 

Heather Rigby is General Manager of Productions for the Los Angeles County Arts Commission at the John Anson Ford Theatres. She holds a BA in the History of Art and Architecture from Harvard University and an MA in Cultural Studies from Claremont Graduate University. Heather discovered her connection to the performing arts through social dance and is passionate about broadening access to participation in dance and music to make them a part of everyday life. She is an avid swing dancer and currently serves on the Mentoring/NextGen Committee. 

Ally Haynes-Hamblen is Assistant Director of the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts in Scottsdale, Arizona. She holds a BA in Theater from the University of Denver and an MBA from Regis University. Ally has worked in the performing arts as a performer, costumer, stage/production manager, producer, and presenter in Denver, Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco; she currently serves on the Mentoring/NextGen Committee.