by Michael Nabarro, Aug. 9, 2013, Guardian Professional
The arts have to compete with retail, leisure and travel for customer attention – better use of tech can help them stand out.
It's no secret that theatres are facing tough times, with increased funding pressures from central and local governments. What it means is that they need to make their case for public support, while at the same time diversifying their income streams.
Technology has been a big part of audience engagement and development for many years. The first computerised box office systems arrived as early as the 1980s, opening up opportunities for informed direct marketing and customer analysis, and over the last few decades these systems have grown in capability and functionality.
But we now need a step change in the way we use technology if the box office is to engage a wider audience that is increasingly digital and – to borrow a phrase from media circles – always switched on. This technology is, in my view, absolutely critical in transforming the way that theatres engage with their audiences and meet the challenges facing them.
Competition for attention
The number of marketing and brand messages that each person is exposed to on a daily basis is constantly increasing. Arts organisations now have to compete with retail, leisure and travel sectors for their customers' attention and disposable income. At the same time, they are interacting with a younger audience with a more diverse range of interests and regular activities.
Arts organisations cannot rely on their potential customers curating their own experience from the masses of information sent to them. Traditional mass marketing approaches, such as printed season brochures and whole list announcement emails are giving way to more targeted methods. This is achieved by using information the organisation knows about each individual, reflecting the personalisation techniques deployed by companies in other sectors.
Some organisations like Derby LIVE, a large-scale, local authority-run arts organisation, reaching audiences of over 400,000 each year, are using email marketing effectively to reduce direct mail costs and increase re-attendance. By segmenting their audiences, they can target the right people with news and offers their customers want to hear about.
Understanding the power of dataThe retail sector invests huge sums of money into loyalty schemes to collect and analyse customer data. In contrast, arts organisations have an abundance of customer data collected through ticket sales, but often have significantly smaller resources to invest in technology to handle it all.
With a growing understanding of the power of data and more tools for analysis becoming available at a lower cost, theatres will do more with what they have, by examining the data in their box office systems. They'll also pool external resources to gain a broader perspective and insight into their customer data.
This is particularly true when it comes to sharing expertise, and benchmarking data across the sector. It is encouraging to see recent news from both NESTA and the Audience Agency, launching projects that seek to promote collaboration between arts organisations on the subject of data.
Over the next few years, we're also going to see the tools we need for the "super-personalisation" of marketing communications, like those used by large multi-nationals such as Amazon and Tesco, gradually come down in price and complexity. This will mean that smaller organisations can start to benefit from advanced tools like marketing automation, dynamic message content and real time analytics.
In the meantime, arts organisations can get ahead of the game by creating relevant, timely marketing messages with the tools they already have at their disposal, by profiling their current and potential customers and adapting their messages to suit.
Increasing pace of technological innovationThe fact that we inhabit a technological world that is changing quickly is self-evident. Ten years ago, there were no smartphones, no Facebook or Twitter, no AppStore, no tablets, and over half of the UK's population accessed the internet through a dial-up modem.
In the face of this rapid change, the challenge for arts organisations is to develop and refine new ways of communicating with their audiences using these new technologies. Arts organisations often benefit from strong, recognisable brands. However, this also means that audience expectations of what can be achieved technologically often outpaces the resources that the organisation can access. It means that often they are expected to behave – digitally – like much bigger, consumer-facing organisations that have the ability to invest in new technology on a continuous basis.
Over the coming years, we will see arts organisations take on this challenge by working together to pool knowledge more effectively. They will take on digital experts who are not only fluent in the language of the web, but experiment with new digital technologies as they develop. We will also see more widespread adoption of flexible cloud platforms which allow software to rapidly adapt and evolve, arming arts organisations with the tools they need to stay at the forefront of innovation.
Michael Nabarro is founder of Spektrix
Canopy Arts Desk
Tammy Hampel (Isaacson)
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