For more information, please visit Caramoor Center for Music & the Arts at https://www.caramoor.org/
Welcome to Program Book Talk. I’m Norm Orlowski, your host. Our podcast today takes us to just 50 miles from New York City in Westchester County. You’ll find a national treasure in Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts.
Our guest today is Tahra Millan, Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer at Caramoor. Her extensive experience as an educator, speaker, and senior manager at numerous non-profit organizations makes her well qualified to provide her thoughts on arts marketing in today’s environment.
NORM: We have with us today, Tahra Millan, Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts located 50 miles from New York City. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a destination for exceptional music, captivating programs, and spectacular gardens and grounds.
Tahra, welcome to Program Book Talk. How are you today?
TAHRA: Thanks, Norm. I’m great. Thanks for having me.
NORM: Well, thank you very much for taking the time. I know you’re busy because you’re right in the midst of writing your marketing plan, so this is perfect timing.
TAHRA: Yes, yes, definitely thinking a lot about strategic marketing and the year ahead.
NORM: Great. Well, before we get into the purpose of our little question and answer here, I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about your background in marketing for the Arts and how you got into it.
TAHRA: So, I actually am originally from Louisville, Kentucky. So I am a Midwesterner, as you are. And I – when I was growing up, had a real love and passion for musical theatre, always knew that I wanted to get into the Arts, just wasn’t sure in terms of what role. And so I ended up applying for schools. I definitely wanted to go and be in New York City and ended up going to NYU Tisch School of the Arts and training as an actor. And really my beginnings in arts marketing was really because I chose another direction rather than going in the original direction of being a working actor, I decided halfway through undergrad when my master teacher said, you know, “if there’s something you can do better, do it”, I had an ah-ha moment, and I decided there was something better I could do, and I decided to pursue the arts administration field and work on the management side rather than in the performance side of the arts.
NORM: Well, that’s great. That’s really an interesting background, and I love the ah-ha moment. Lots of times we get those things. We have one destination in mind, and all of a sudden some other doors are open to us. One of the things that really brings us together today is that I saw an article – a posting that you had placed on your Linked-In page, and because we’re Linked-In buddies, I read it and thought, “boy, this is really a great article.” It was called More Than Ever, You Are the Future of the Arts, and it was based on, I think, on the last class that you taught at Columbia Business School, and you reflected on your eight years with students, and there was just some great information and some great questions that I thought would be wonderful for you to expand on, and the first one, was that over the last eight years since you had been teaching the program, how has the Arts industry changed?
TAHRA: You know, when I first started teaching and it was eight years ago, it was a very different world. The reason I actually wrote this article is that I’ve gotten into a tradition every year at the end of the semester to answer questions or really kind of wrap up the course more in a blog article rather than just doing it in class, which we certainly have a lot of conversations about these topics in class. And I thought it would be worth sharing with a larger public than just classroom setting. And so what was interesting in writing this, is that it gave me a chance to reflect back on what was happening in our world eight years ago.
TAHRA: And that was really the recession. I was, at the time, working for Blue Man Productions, which is the corporate offices of Blue Man Group. We were certainly like all other Arts organizations really trying to survive real economic crisis in the U.S. as well as in the Arts.
NORM: I bet.
TAHRA: The Arts was really impacted, and lots of Arts organizations were trying to figure out how to shift and survive in a marketplace where their audiences could no longer afford to buy a ticket. Donations, you know, were changing as people’s lives were being, you know, were dramatically changing. So it was really a reactive time in the Arts.
TAHRA: And it was a time where some Arts institutions were dipping so much into their endowments that a lot of them sold it. A lot of them closed. There were Arts organizations that were really beginning to kind of scratch their heads and ask some questions about – not just about who is our audience and what products do we have to offer them, but the bigger question: why do we exist? And so it was a really interesting time to begin teaching young Arts administrators and MBAs when I was going through this at the same time.
NORM: At that time it was survival of the fittest, but then as the years went on and the economy started to turn around…what are the trends that you’re seeing now from a marketing standpoint? How has that changed in the eight years going from famine to maybe a feast of different ways that one can market their organization? What are the latest trends in marketing?
TAHRA: Well, you know what was interesting is the Arts organizations that really were game to survive and really look at their operations and possibly look to refine or shift gears. Because they began to ask themselves the question of “who are we and why do we exist”, that really tapped into a whole other way of thinking about the Arts. And one of the new ways of thinking about the Arts is not just as a service-product-focused organization, but an organization that is more experience based. And so I think that is one of the trends that you are seeing more and more. At the time in 2008 when the course was being taught, experiential marketing wasn’t even really a term. I think the term came into being in 2006, not in the arts at all but in the big brand marketing world through Advertising Research Foundation, they actually coined a term called engagement marketing.
TAHRA: So I think this whole idea of experiential marketing and thinking of the Arts well beyond the time that an audience member comes into the theatre, but really beginning to conceptualize the experience before someone comes to the theatre or museum, gallery or whatever your Arts organization is; what that experience is like when they’re there to even after. And really crafting that experience in all different departments – and Arts marketing then goes beyond even marketing departments. It goes to the Artistic Department. It is the Development and Fundraising Department. It’s operations; we all play a role in really crafting and building the Arts experience.
NORM: Branding is a hot topic. How does that fit in?
TAHRA: Well, you know, as an Arts marketer, it’s funny because it always seems like it’s marketing that’s initiating branding, when really branding is organization wide. It actually has to happen within all areas of an organization, and it is best if it starts as high as possible and then tricklates its way through an organization. So, you know, where I focus on branding, it is really the internal brand building. It’s the stuff that you cannot see that is probably the most vital to Arts organizations. And how I describe what – you know, because people think of brands as your logo or —
TAHRA: — the images you use, all the manifestations of the brand, but really the brand begins well before all of those beautiful designs are created, and it goes and starts with, again, where the Arts organizations found themselves in 2008-2010, which is “who are we, and why do we exist”. That’s actually where brand building begins, is asking ourselves those questions. And then from there the answers to those questions really begin to define an organization. And if everyone is invested, all the players, the volunteers, your fundraisers, your marketers, your board, your programmers, then everyone can basically be looking through the same lens. And by looking through the same lens, you can then plan and refine in your own area, but you’re all looking, you know, in the same direction. And that’s really where a brand is powerful. And for me, you know, a brand is like a roadmap, and it answers what kind of road are we travelling on.
TAHRA: Are we travelling on dirt roads, back roads, sidewalks, highways, or interstates? And based on that description then everyone can then plug in and make decisions accordingly. So a brand really goes well beyond marketing and really helps to give an Arts organization focus and really tie into, you know, their mission, vision, and purpose. And that’s where, you know, brands are really powerful.
NORM: So brand has to start internally before it can be external?
TAHRA: It’s very much about internal culture sometimes also.
NORM: Yes. Now in that article you mentioned earlier because I think when you started, there was an economic downturn and everybody was in trouble. Some of the organizations that survived were forced to become more entrepreneurial. What did they do before, I mean, what was the difference? Okay, all of a sudden they had this blinding flash that they had to do something and they had to become more entrepreneurial, but what did they do before?
TAHRA: I think, you know, in many ways we can become comfortable with certain patterns, and, you know, I remember when I was talking about Arts marketing before, you know, we really thought about butts in seats and, or if you’re in marketing, visual arts, bodies in buildings. And it was really much more about the sell and selling, you know, to individuals, and it was very consumer oriented, but it was very much about the sell to individuals. What happens when an industry is in crisis is that people begin to question the product or service or experience itself. And within that, that’s where, you know, a lot of amazing ideas and initiatives and certainly a demonstration of bravery and courage comes out. And that’s when, you know, I talk about the Arts becoming more entrepreneurial. People then begin to not try to solve the symptoms – or remedy the symptoms – but really try to cure the disease. And, you know, that’s very much when you start a new business, you’re starting a business from scratch, and I think when Arts organizations in 2008 to 2010, you know, they were really challenged to begin just to look at the core of their business model and ensure that because resources were so limited, a lot of us were doing multiple jobs by then with much smaller budgets. We had to be more creative and innovative, and we were really forced to take risks and ask questions that we might have not asked ourselves a few years before then.
NORM: One of the things that you mention in the article: you stated that the Arts leaders need to be more than administrators today. They truly need to be leaders. How is this happening?
TAHRA: I don’t think it’s happening enough in the industry. I think that – I believe that as Arts administrators we need to be more than administrators; we need to be advocates of our art form. And it doesn’t matter if you are a former musician, an actor that changed course, or a business major or a business professional that just really wants to tap into your love and passion for the cultural arts. I think you have to be really devoted to your industry and really believe that it is a vital part of your constituents and your audience’s lives. I think that like people attract likes, and you have to believe in your experience that you are promoting and you have to really back it. So, you know, that’s the whole idea of administrators being more than advocates.
In terms of leadership and management, I think Arts administrators are really challenged because many of us do work multiple positions or have multiple responsibilities than what we did when I first entered this industry. And in order to really be productive and really results driven, you have to have strong leadership and management skills. You have to understand what the role of a leader is if you so choose to take that on and become a leader of people. Or, you know, if you are really devoted to just an Arts organization in the Arts medium, to really understand how ideas get put into action, and that is, you know, really having an understanding of how organizations work, having an understanding of project management, and also really understanding how to motivate and inspire people. And I don’t think that that’s taught enough in school.
TAHRA: I don’t think it’s focused on enough in Arts organizations or at conferences quite frankly.
TAHRA: So I think it’s an area that needs to continue to be pushed, and there’s much need for innovation within management and leadership in the Arts.
NORM: How does that play into the relationship with Board members, a strong executive director or president or whatever and interfacing with the Board?
TAHRA: I think having a strong management background, whether you are the head of an organization or a Board member of an organization, or you are just working with the Board, I think having a clear idea of how things work, the mechanics, can be really helpful and instrumental even if you aren’t, you know, the CEO of the organization. Because I think understanding the operations and mechanics can only – and if you have an entire organization that really has a clear understanding of the operations and mechanics of your organization as well as curious enough about other organizations, whether in the Arts or not, to be able to study and continually refine, process and hierarchical structures, I think, you know, that you will only be able to innovate more and more. Understanding the difference between having a job and a responsibility and really having a passion for your industry, it’s two different ways of coming to work, and I think that, you know, when you really do have a passion for an industry, you really want to see it thrive and survive well beyond even your time in that particular organization. So, there’s just a different level of investment, and within that, there is much greater opportunity to influence and grow an entire industry, versus just an arts organization.
NORM: I can certainly hear the passion in your voice. Tahra, let me ask – we’ve know one another for a few years, and maybe we can get into that in a moment, but one of the things that impressed me when we first started talking with you and Caramoor, was the data management and what you were doing with data management. Can you tell us how you use it, what tools you maybe use, and what’s the importance to data management in your organization?
TAHRA: Well, I think it’s, you know, it’s really hard to set goals and objectives if you have no way to evaluate it or no way to review it. And for us, there are several different ways that we use data. We use our audience data. Owning, or being really invested in knowing who your audience is, it’s ideal if you can own that information. It’s incredibly helpful because, you know, we, in the Arts, we are – I always say, you know, “I’m not in the Arts. I’m in the inspiration business.” And when you’re in the inspiration business, your job is to build relationships and it’s really hard to build relationships if you don’t know the folks that are in your day-to-day world, who they, and if you don’t have a way of tracking that information or–
TAHRA: — staying in touch with them. So we do use, you know, we have a ticket, ticketing database. We also have a fundraising database that we use that is really important in really linking and syncing those databases together to help us, a) understand who our constituents are; b) know and get a little bit of a glimpse through data mining how they behave, you know, what are they purchasing tickets to. From there, maybe ascertaining some, you know, some basic interests. And c) just understanding, you know, maybe from that what their preferences are, you know, what’s the best way to communicate with them. And to work collaboratively with other departments so that we are all working to build relationships together. And one of the systems that we just acquired is with our ticketing system. We just moved last spring over to a ticketing system called Spektrix.
TAHRA: That’s a pay-based company that now is moving into the U.S. They have a handful of Arts organizations. But what I love about Spektrix is that it was built by people in the Arts for Arts people, and it’s, you know, tech based, but also Arts focused.
TAHRA: And they are very much like us. They love data, you know, they really understand it’s about the people and really, you know, being able to track and be able to respond to the needs of your constituents, and they continually refine their ticketing system so that you can, you know, pull more analytics, more interesting reports. And it does both development and ticket sales. So it’s a great system. But we also do a lot of work in digital marketing using Google Analytics, using email, software, and really being able to track open rates, being able to track how many people buy through certain ads or posts on social media and linking all of that information together as well as doing very targeted, and for us the survey work we tend to do is very targeted to help us address specific questions.
NORM: I really appreciate you taking the time. We’ve been working together with you publishing your program books since 2015, I think, so it’s been a couple of seasons, and I wouldn’t want to leave the interview without you letting us know what your thoughts are.
TAHRA: Well, you know, I have to say I came into Caramoor in a situation where we were creating all of our program books in-house, and so it was a whole other operation. As much as I love Arts marketing, I never thought I’d be in the publishing business.
TAHRA: And so I was thrilled to be able to connect with you guys and create a solution that worked for us in terms of our program books. And, you know, we’ve been so happy to work with your team at On Stage. You guys also like our partners, st Spektrix, and our digital marketing agency, Capacity Interactive and some of the other great folks that we work with, you know, you think like us, and you’re open to asking the bigger question in terms of your specific area of focus to the Caramoor experience, which for you guys is the program book. And, I appreciate that. Those are the kind of partners that you want to surround yourself with because, you know, Arts organizations must continually innovate. And so it’s been a great partnership, and I’ve actually probably recommended you a few times –
TAHRA: — since we launched our relationship.
NORM: Tahra, I know you’ve got to get back to your marketing strategy notes, and I really appreciate you taking the time to visit with us today. Thanks and have a great 2017.
TAHRA: It’s gonna be a good one. Thanks, Norm.
NORM: Thank you. Well, there you have it, good tips that you can use. If you’d like to contact Tahra, you can reach her through the Caramoor website. That’s at caramoor.org. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, check back. We’ll be posting lots more in the weeks to come. I’m Norm Orlowski. Good selling.