For more information about Christopher Stager, please visit crstager.com
Welcome to our program “Book Talk”. I’m Norm Orlowski, your host. For 2017 we’re adding some exciting podcast interviews with leading experts in marketing, management, social networking and leadership…all dedicated to you, the performing arts professional. This podcast will be available in its entirety or in bite-size pieces by subject in a blog. Make sure that you check out our blog page of our website to get the latest from thought leaders in our business. Now let’s get to our podcast today. Our guest is Christopher Stager, a leading consultant to symphony orchestras.
This afternoon we have with Christopher Stager, who is a veteran advertising and marketing executive who has spent more than three decades in the field of audience development. Since ‘89 he has specialized in marketing orchestras and the performing arts. He has an extensive knowledge of repertoire and musicians, allowing him to communicate the artistic assets of any program. In ‘99 Christopher introduced CR Stager Marketing & Audience Development to help orchestras, opera companies, and performing arts presenters focus their marketing challenges around the specific contour of their communities, rather than the industry presumed audience trends. With over 28 years of classical marketing experience in collaboration with more than hundreds of organizations, Christopher has developed marketing strategies specific to each that has generated over 500 million dollars in ticket sales – Wow!
NORM: Christopher, thank you for joining us on Program Talk. I wonder if, before we get into a few questions, if you could tell us just a little bit about how you got into the arts marketing.
CHRISTOPHER: Well, I was fortunate to live and grow up in Cleveland, Ohio, where the Cleveland Orchestra was very, very accepting and encouraging of students who liked concerts. And, so, if you know Cleveland very well, Severance Hall is not downtown, it’s in the eastern suburbs and I would be able to basically leave my home in Cleveland Heights, put the car in neutral and coast down to Severance Hall and hear a concert for $3, and so I would take the rest of my money and spend it on records from a really good record store near my home in Cleveland Heights. And so, I was buying records and reading album covers on the back and going to concerts and reading program notes from the time I was about 12.
NORM: One of the things that your consulting service provides is interim management. Your major is marketing. I wonder if you could tell us, for a mid-size organization, maybe three to five functions of a marketing manager and what they should be.
CHRISTOPHER: That’s a great question, Norm, and my waffling answer is, it depends.
CHRISTOPHER: So, why don’t we talk about the variables that a marketing manager might consider before sort of leaping in and saying what we need to do.
CHRISTOPHER: There are a handful of numbers I like to look at with institutions, sort of the – to get a sense of where the institution is poised…and, I like to start with the number of concerts and the number of seats available in that hall, the primary hall.
CHRISTOPHER: So let’s say the classical series is a six-concert series of two performances, 12 concerts in a house of 2,000 seats, would be 24,000 seats available, correct?
CHRISTOPHER: — For the season.
CHRISTOPHER: Then, I like to take those 24,000 seats and I like to divide it into a number that’s available to anyone. It’s the Arbitron Metro Population, which surveys people over 12 or 18 to see how many people are in the market. And, I like that number more than the Census because the Arbitron number really shows me the radius of advertising. If I’m going to go out and try and sell these tickets, in this radius, to who, who can I reach. You see?
CHRISTOPHER: And, so, you know, if there’s 24,000 seats in a market of 240,000 people, then you have 10% of your market available, correct?
CHRISTOPHER: That’s a difficult number to fill, and I think it to be realistic about how many seats we can sell relative to how many concerts we have, how big our hall is, and how big our market is.
NORM: All right.
CHRISTOPHER: And I’ve seen that to be as low as 1% or 2% or 3%, which is about ideal, to as high as 7-8-9% in some cases. In the case of Rochester Philharmonic, it was up to 10% until they reduced the size of their house, which basically said, “Walk down the street, past everybody, every tenth person has to go to a concert.
CHRISTOPHER: So, I like to see what’s manageable, you want to keep that number where it should be. And then I also like to look at the size of the database. How big is your database? If you have a database of 20,000 people in a city of let’s say of 200,000, you have 10% of the market; that would be great penetration. Half of that would be great penetration.
CHRISTOPHER: If you have something below 5%, you have a bigger problem attracting people than developing. And the key to all this is being able to get people into the system, attract them to their first event experience – a concert or an opera or whatever the performance is. Get them in there for the first one, and then once you have them, develop them through your channels of mail and e-mail and social marketing to get them to return. So, if I were to be a young marketing manager starting in this, I’d want to know, quickly, of the accounts we have, what percent of the population is that, which should be somewhere between 4% and 5%, which is a pretty good number —
CHRISTOPHER: — And the number of my seats as a percentage of the market. That way we can direct the kind of work I will need, need to do. If my market penetration is high, I will spend more of my time working those names to get them to come more often and subscribe. And if that number is low, I will spend more of my time acquiring new people and moving them into the system to get them to come, to get them to return.
NORM: So, to summarize then, you would look at the number of concerts, the number of seats and then the size of the database that they have right now —
NORM: — And then what is the marketing penetration that they have right now and then that determines where the focus should be for that —
CHRISTOPHER: All those numbers in relation to the size of the market – the actual number of people you can attract to a concert.
NORM: Would this concept, would you do this, would it be the same with symphonies, operas, dance, and theatre? Is it about the same?
CHRISTOPHER: I will be honest with you. I work mostly with symphony orchestras.
CHRISTOPHER: I’ve worked with several opera companies. My opera companies have been – we’ve used this with them and it’s been very effective. But, I haven’t, I haven’t tried it yet with theatre, and I certainly haven’t tried it with dance. But, I would think that those measurables are out there somewhere.
CHRISTOPHER: And, I would presume, Norman, that the problem – the issue would be with the dance companies that, is your, are your Nutcracker, is your Nutcracker market skewing those kinds of numbers.
NORM: Yeah, which is always a big seller, and sell-out with lots of seats.
NORM: Okay. Since you’ve started the consulting practice in ’99, that’s – time flies when you’re having fun – there’s a lot of changes that have taken place certainly in arts marketing. What are some of the major changes that you’ve seen, and has it kind of skewed more recently to some dramatic changes?
CHRISTOPHER: There have been a lot of changes, mostly in – obviously the whole digital marketing aspect is entirely new. I can say with some assurance, based on my experience, that it’s an important new media to understand and to use carefully. But to presume that it is replacing older media is a mistake. And, I have, in recent years, spent a lot of time with organizations that switched over completely to digital marketing, lost a lot of audience —
CHRISTOPHER: — Only through restoring the core competencies of direct mail, radio, print, telemarketing, have those audiences returned. So, I’m not dismissing what’s changed, but you need to – it doesn’t replace anything. You have to build on it, you have to add to the media mix with these new technologies.
NORM: But some of the things that you mentioned – mail and print and even with digital, the buzz term that everybody’s looking at now is branding. I’ve got to spend a lot of time and effort on my branding. Is that as important as we’d like to think it to be or is it a buzz word?
CHRISTOPHER: I would – well, I don’t think it’s a buzz word. I would change the word from branding to values. What does the institution stand for, and market what the institution stands for. Its brand is – you know, brand is like Crest. If I need toothpaste in Portland, Maine, it’s the same toothpaste I get in Portland, Oregon.
CHRISTOPHER: Branding is sort of reach repetition, a tried and true. Our programs change from week to week – Mozart one week, Messiaen the next. The brand is very variable. So, I would say I’m more interested in marketing the individual program assets over the brand and hope that people will be attracted to brand. I’ve never seen branding advertising replace program-based marketing. But I have seen branding be very, very effective in fund raising, especially if it reflects, if it carefully reflects the institution’s artistic and community values.
NORM: Any suggestions on how to tie branding into, as you said, what does the organization really stand for? I mean that’s, that’s kind of a tall order. How can that be done, any thoughts on that?
CHRISTOPHER: I’ve worked with institutions that had very, very strong brands and very strong values, and I’m thinking of organizations like Houston Grand Opera, which stood for something very, very unique in that part of the world, in its way it presented opera.
CHRISTOPHER: The Cleveland Orchestra early in my career, and then many, many, years into my career, which had a very, very specific set of artistic values. All orchestras have them. The extent to which they leverage them is always variable, and it’s something I encourage constantly. I would say that your audience may understand more what you stand for than the staff might at some point because —
CHRISTOPHER: — There’s a wonderful statistic a colleague shared with me, the average tenure of our audience is almost two to three times that of an average staff member. It can change how an organization is perceived in the community. But what’s remarkable to me is, if the values are there, how resilient the audience will be, even marketing doesn’t go right, tickets aren’t sold properly, once those fundamentals of marketing are restored, all the, the audience returns and it’s striking to me how resilient our audience is. When we talk about aging audiences, declining audiences, in fact, they’re remarkably resilient and tend to return when we invite them to.
BREAK: We’ll get right back to our podcast, but first, I just want to remind you that this program “Book Talk” is only possible through the partnerships we have developed with our 85 plus organizations and venues coast to coast, allowing them to do more with less. Onstage Publications – great performance guaranteed. To get a free evaluation of your program book, just give me, Norm Orlowski, a call at 866-503-1966 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Now back to our podcast….
NORM: How about social networking? It seems like everybody wants to get Facebook Likes, and they all have a Facebook page for their organization.
CHRISTOPHER: Important for public relations, very much, and I think it’s a media option like any other. It needs to be employed. I think we have to be careful of our expectations for it. And we shouldn’t be presuming that if we get our Facebook page right and our Twitter feeds right, we will suddenly have this huge growth in ticket buyers. I have yet to see that and I don’t and I’m actually…with all the analytics it has, I’m always very closely looking at what did this drive to the box office? And then, couple that with the cost of doing it and you get a pretty good sense right away of, you know, is this delivering ticket buyers to you…if you’re using it for that reason. If you’re using it for other reasons, like promoting community activities and educational activities, that’s probably far more legitimate, a far more realistic expectation.
NORM: How many organizations that you’ve worked with really have a good way of collecting and managing their data?
CHRISTOPHER: I would say that it’s variable. Some are very, very good. Some aren’t. And in the ones that aren’t, there are two schools. One is a staff and a set of executive leadership that is horrified at the level of data capture and the other one is those who doesn’t think it matters. But, when you consider what it costs to acquire a patron, it could take over .50 cents on the dollar to acquire a new patron. To not maintain that data, track that data, watch that data, leverage that data, analyze that data, to get that cost of the sale down into the teens or .20 cents on the dollar or less, you know, you have to, management is not only important for selling more tickets, it’s a critical financial function.
NORM: One of the terms that’s thrown around a lot now is what they call “reputation management”. The thought is that everything that we put on our webpage is going to be how great we are or whatever, but when somebody really wants to know how a performance is, they might go to Google Plus or they might go even to the Facebook page to find out what people are really saying about an organization. And, certainly that might work well for the butchers and the bakers and candlestick makers, but is reputation management important to performing arts?
CHRISTOPHER: I have to answer your question with another question. I’m not quite sure how different this is other than the channel of it being different. I’ve been reading a lot of Virgil Thomson’s music criticism from the ‘40s, and he had a pretty powerful grasp of the culture of music in America at that time – what was being performed, the artists who were doing it, and the new music that was being created. If he was around today, he might have a blog. But that triangulation experience between the performers and the audience and then those who comment on it, on sort of the third side of it has always been important. Whether it’s, you know, Eduard Hanslick talking about Bogner and Brahms, or somebody today going to a concert for the first time and having their first experience with a live Beethoven symphony, all those comments are important and they help an organization tell who they’re serving, how they’re serving them and the impact they can have, good or bad.
NORM: What do you see the role of the Board as compared to the executive director?
CHRISTOPHER: I think it depends. I’ve seen organizations that were Board managed, which is supposed to be the wrong thing to do, managed very, very well and managed better than when staff did it. I’ve also seen Boards get into the weeds and make horrifying decisions about audience development that actually hinder the effort; do enormous damage and have to be reeled back and retooled to be effective again. But an ideal situation – you have a strong leader who is providing the vision of the organization, is clear about what the institution stands for, its values, and communicates that, and the Board both oversees and reflects and understands and embraces those values, and together there’s a synergy with all those people coming together for the common good of that common understanding.
NORM: What are your thoughts about the future audiences?
CHRISTOPHER: Well, that’s a great question, Norman. There’s been a lot of talk about how millennials will behave, the next generation, this and that. I don’t know what to make of that. I have a hard time anticipating what someone in their mid to late 20’s now or early to mid 20’s is, how they’re going to behave in 20 years. We do change. What’s more troubling to me is instead of them taking the time to anticipate what they will want or what their needs are or what their expectations will be, I’m actually more concerned about what they will be paying for a ticket when they do eventually come to us. I’ve been noticing over my 30 years the dramatic increase in ticket prices – far in excess of inflation – and how it is creating audiences that are risk averse…because the concerts simply costs too much to try things they don’t know or may not like. And if these audiences of the future are going to be looking at 130, $140 ticket price, base price, that’s our bigger problem than what their expectations are as a generation.
CHRISTOPHER: And, I’m as guilty as anyone of creating pricing models that tend to discourage experimentation and a willingness to try something new or different. In working with Spring For Music at Carnegie Hall over four years and seeing how people would try concerts for $25 a ticket and how the houses could fill at that price was mind changing for me. I think it’s our single biggest challenge. We don’t talk a lot about it, but if we don’t do something to make concerts affordable, we’re never going to have an audience. It’s going to be priced out of people’s reach, not out of their interest.
NORM: Well, I really appreciate you taking the time. And, as we wrap things up, would there be three key points, take-aways, that someone could implement immediately to increase subscription sales for the 2017-18 season?
CHRISTOPHER: I would say this, I mean, after doing this for almost 30 years and running literally hundreds of subscription campaigns, I’ve only recently come to the understanding that the renewal campaign and the new acquisition campaign, the new acquisition for subscription campaign, are actually two campaigns. And, what it takes to get 75-80% renewal rates is a relatively task-based function of mailing multiple times and then calling the “non-renewers”. And, if you get an 80% renewal rate, then you have to replace that 80% through your new acquisition efforts.
CHRISTOPHER: But that effort that yields 80% of the money takes about 20% of the effort. The new acquisition effort, which is much more strategic, yields only 20% of the revenue to keep even and requires 80% of the energy and the attention. And this sort of 80/20 rule has been occurring to me lately because I’ve seen it myself, realized, analyzing my work where I was spending most of my time. And what helps sell subscriptions is more time. And sort of by divorcing those two aspects of the subscription campaign, the old fashioned subscription campaign, that renewals can sort of happen any time in the time cycle. But what has to happen is that new subscriptions have to be sold year round. And I’ve sort of abandoned the idea of selling a season and embraced the idea of packaging the most eminent concerts with the ones that are further out. And so a subscription offer that goes out in February right after the fall/winter season is announced – if it’s February of 2017 and we’ve just announced Fall/Winter 17/-18, I might create a subscription that would include a concert in April, June, and then some for next season to just get people more involved immediately. This has had a remarkable effect on subscriptions in the work that I’ve done and I’m a big proponent of 24/7, almost, acquisition campaigns that constantly repackage creating urgency and importance.
By divorcing the two campaigns, I find I can focus on new acquisition giving it more time, more attention, more strategic thinking. And I’m always with one mailing testing the one that will follow it. It’s a different way of looking at subscriptions, but new acquisitions have to begin earlier if we’re going to sell more subscriptions, and we must sell more subscriptions. I don’t believe the model is dead. I don’t have a lot of evidence that it is. And in the absence of anything better, that leads to greater participation by donors, there is no other model and we have to – we must make this work and adapt along the way to make that happen.
NORM: That’s very, very interesting to me. I didn’t think we’d get into any discussion on program. It’s very similar to program book advertising – the 80/20 rule. You’ve got the renewals which are the advertisers, and probably a little more difficult than the tickets because a lot of those have to be sold again on the concept and why it’s important, and particularly in the world of print it’s not the most exciting thing. But then to acquire the new businesses is a huge job, and you’re always losing – now, you said 80% of renewal. Ours is maybe 70% renewal, so you’re losing 30% so you’ve got to rebuild that and, of course, go over that so that you’re always moving ahead. Very similar.
CHRISTOPHER: Well, yeah, if your sales cycle was limited, you could only keep up with what you’ve lost instead of —
CHRISTOPHER: — this is a core problem we don’t talk about. It’s something that we need to focus on.
NORM: Again, with the advertising sales and when you do it, most of the organizations we talk with think that, you know, maybe a month before or two months before the curtain goes up they can go out and sell the advertising. It has to be started while they’re still performing last year’s performance, even before the line-up is made because the advertiser wants to know what’s in it for them.
CHRISTOPHER: Well, it’s interesting, Norman, that we tend to want to sell things on our cycle not considering our customers.
CHRISTOPHER: When they don’t respond, we think they’re changing.
NORM: Christopher, it’s really been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your expertise with us. I’m sure that our listeners will get a lot out of it.
CHRISTOPHER: It’s been a pleasure, and I love the work you do for the Orchestra and that we work together. These program books are terrific, and the ability to get those program notes in people’s hands in advance of a concert, which is something we all aspire to and can never do and you seem to do very, very well. It has an awful lot to do with getting people informed and ready for their performance.
NORM: Thank you.
Until next time, I’m Norm Orlowski. Good selling.