Arts Organizations Find Web Success

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This is the first of a two-part series.


Seeking success stories amid the wreckage of the failed and nonprofiting denizens of dot-com land in early 2001, I give you my thoughts from the field about the spinning world that is online commerce.


I am happy to report that not all is lost.


For commercial businesses with strong, survival-based business models, the sky is not falling.


And among the intentionally not-for-profits, particularly some savvy and wired arts organizations, pockets of e-commerce are thriving.


Better still, these companies are using the Web to develop and nurture the kind of long-term relationships with their constituencies that may give traditional dot-com pure-plays pangs of envy.


Nonprofits make an interesting case study because of the prime importance of a balanced budget and the compelling need to see good returns on any advertising or marketing investment.


I will tease you with some statistics: We have spoken with several arts organizations that not only have developed integrated and attractive Web presences, but also each generated more than $1 million in online ticket sales last season. And one - Chicago's Ravinia Festival, www.ravinia.org, online since 1995 - does more than one-third of its total annual ticket sales online. The Web is Ravinia's biggest sales channel.


This is happening while some of the biggest spenders and most recognizable advertisers of 2000 called it quits last year after sales did not live up to high ad spending and growth expectations.


This indicates that branding alone is not enough. It is heartening for customers to recognize the mascot and know the company name, but is there a compelling reason to click through and shop, rather than buy at the local pet shop or grocery store? The arts groups seem to have considered this carefully.


The Ravinia Festival did $1.7 million in online ticket sales for its three-month summer season last year. The company benefited from streamlined operations, enhanced customer satisfaction and more pleasing cash flow. It plans to expand its online presence even further into online fundraising.


Last season at the Mark Taper Forum, www.marktaperforum.com, a resident regional theater company based in Los Angeles, $1.6 million in ticket sales were completed online - more than 12 percent of total single-ticket sales.


The theater ambitiously expects to do about half its single-ticket business on the Web by 2003. It has reason to feel optimistic. The Mark Taper Forum logs more than 75,000 user sessions per month on its new Web site, which was launched last September and has amassed a permission-based e-mail list of 45,000 households.


Denver Center Theatre Co., www.denvercenter.org, the newest online presence among these three organizations, debuted its Web site in 1999 and in 18 months did nearly $1 million in online sales, recouping the cost of its site design in just four months.


More than 90 percent of those sales came from audience members who were new to the database. They had never purchased DCTC tickets, or had purchased only through an outside outlet such as Ticketmaster.


The opportunity to capture information about those patrons was even more valuable than the initial sale.


The numbers alone illustrate the success of these organizations' online presence. But they do not tell the whole story.


Even sweeter than high sales and buoyed bottom lines are the relationships these organizations are nurturing with the audience and the comfort level of patrons with the arts groups' Webby ways. Learning and growing with their audiences, the companies are gleaning insights worth far more than the price of a ticket.


Consider the following comments:


"We've achieved a heightened awareness among new audiences," said Maureen Anderson, box office manager at the Denver Center.


"We've started a dialogue with audience members, who we've found love to be in the know," said Jim Royce, director of marketing at the Mark Taper Forum.


"We've made a dramatic improvement in our customer sales for those who order online," said Angus Watson, director of ticket operations at the Ravinia Festival.


In my next column, I will report on some of the tools and techniques these groups are using - the how and why behind these success stories.


I want to hear your opinions about which marketing strategies hold up in today's online environment. From candy bar hawking to car sales, what works?


If you have an insight, I want to talk to you, and I may even feature your case study in a future column.


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