Web Is a Winner for Arts Groups

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This is the second of a three-part series.


Last month I wrote about the impressive numbers reported by several nonprofit arts organizations that were using the Web to automate ticket sales and enhance their relationships with audiences.


The three - Denver Center Theatre Co., Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and Chicago's Ravinia Festival - each did at least $1 million in online ticket sales last season. But that was only the beginning.


Now I will share some of the customer service and customer relationship initiatives these groups have implemented in the name of exploring the hows and whys of their online success.


Jim Royce, the Mark Taper Forum's director of marketing, noted that the Web is an especially effective tool to enhance customer relationships for businesses selling products that people already desire and in which they have confidence. Selling intangibles online is a natural outgrowth of these companies' offline business models.


"We didn't take a huge risk," said Royce. "We're following the trend, not trying to invent something. We're using the Web as an extension of what we already do well."


The Web serves two distinct purposes for these companies - ticket sales and customer communications.


"We approach the Internet not as a place to simply find information, but to provide a service to the theater's customers," said Royce, who has surveyed the audience base over each of the past four years to discover their online predilections.


Royce discovered that customers consistently wanted to purchase tickets, view seat locations and manage their accounts online.


The Mark Taper Forum, www.marktaperforum.com, uses tickets.com software to sell tickets on the theater's Web site, then offers customers the tools to complete planning their trip to the theater immediately. The site provides interactive information about area restaurants, maps to the theater and more links to information regarding the shows.


"If they join our e-mail list, we'll send them breaking news - updates," he said. "They love this behind-the-scenes stuff. They like to see the program before coming to the theater."


The site is aggressively promoted by displaying the Mark Taper Forum URL in all offline materials (in an equal point size to other contact information) and online ticket giveaways. E-mail list membership (easily requested by a click from the main page) drives people back to the site for information that matters to them and to participate in the company's message boards.


The Internet seems to be the perfect way to get this up-to-the-minute information to an audience that already values the company - and values being in the know. Enhancing the experience in a way that costs little or nothing to the nonprofit organization can lead to big returns.


For the Ravinia Festival, www.ravinia.org, which implemented real-time online ticket sales in 1998, the site is its single biggest sales channel.


Angus Watson, director of ticket operations, reported, "the growth among our audience using the site has been almost spectacular," which he attributed to "a well-wired audience base; promoting the heck out of the site in traditional media; and immediate feedback for online ticket buyers."


Ravinia also provides a small financial incentive by waiving its handling and processing fees for those who order online. In return, Ravinia has experienced smoother cash flow and greater efficiency in handling ticket orders during peak sales periods.


Denver Center Theatre, www.denvercenter.org, has been driving traffic to its site since September 1999 by promoting the URL and using a variety of e-mail tools including alerts about special offers, event announcements and spot news flashes - such as alerts that parking may prove difficult on a particular evening - to members of the theater's e-mail club. Visitors can fill out an online form and e-mail it to the box office, where it is processed like a regular order, and the company hopes to fully automate its ticketing soon.


New audience members and large numbers of the existing audience use the Denver Center site as a resource. Ticket buyers gather information on a play they will soon see or discuss the plays on the theater's message boards. Students use the site for research about plays and Shakespeare. Teachers can read and print study guides, and theater volunteers do online scheduling.


Why does the Internet work so well for these nonprofits? Everyone wins.


Customers get alerted to pre-sale periods, receive insider information on the shows and performers and gain a convenient way of purchasing or renewing their seats. The arts groups collect valuable data on their constituency's habits, and if they are careful and respect the audience's privacy, can collect more granular and specific information about demographics and preferences.


All three companies have collected audience feedback about the Web presence from season to season, strengthening the online program in response to areas of priority to the audience - a lesson to any online business.


What's ahead?


Online fundraising, extranets for employees, community sites and outreach to the corporate community are some of the ambitious plans that these arts groups hope to implement soon.


And why not?


Their online presence has already achieved three laudable goals: increased the number of audience members requesting information and regular correspondence; made value-added service and information available anytime, day or night; and improved efficiency of ticketing operations.


Theaters and other arts organizations are in the business of relationships - whether it is the relationship among characters onstage, instruments in the symphony or between audience and performer. My days in nonprofit consulting sold me on the value of customer loyalty and listening to the audience.


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