04/18/2011 08:23 am ET Updated Jun 18, 2011

The Marginal Buyer

One of the facts of life for all arts organizations is that we do not have the resources required to market to every potential ticket buyer.

Arts managers who do not recognize this are in danger of spreading their marketing resources too thin. They will try to reach so many people that no one gets the message clearly and often enough. This is one reason, for example, why television advertising is not effective for 99% of arts projects. Only if a project has huge earned income potential can television be a good advertising option. For all other projects, one could only afford one or two television spots; anyone can tell you that is not enough to make a dent on the consciousness of potential buyers. For a marketing campaign to be effective we have to deliver our message over and over again to the same audience. This is why political advertisements, which seem so numbing after so many repetitions, are effective.

But arts managers can also make the mistake of focusing their marketing too closely on those who always buy tickets anyway. Our most dedicated core audience requires very little advertising. A newsletter or email may suffice. (Please note: this entire blog is about programmatic marketing -- the marketing we do to sell tickets. Those who know my work know that I also believe strongly in institutional marketing, which creates excitement about our organization as a whole. That form of marketing is essential year-round to foster engagement and encourage donations.)

So if advertising to a broad audience base is too expensive and focusing on the core is too restricting, what is one to do? I believe in focusing on those I call 'marginal buyers.' Marginal buyers are those who are as likely to buy a ticket as they are to go out to dinner or go to a performance of an alternative art form.

I believe we need to aim our scarce programmatic marketing dollars on this group, for they are the most likely ticket buyers apart from our core audience. How do we identify them? Many of them will have come to a past performance; obtaining and maintaining lists of email addresses for past audience members are essential. Others go to performances of similar arts organizations. This is why sharing mailing lists (and more recently, e-mailing lists) is so effective. Creating and maintaining a Facebook page is also helpful, as is advertising in the program books of similar arts organizations.

Another method is to capture the addresses of everyone who visits your website. Those who care enough to come to your website are likely prospects for future ticket sales. The Kennedy Center has an E-patron program that allows web visitors to register at no cost. These E-patrons receive targeted mailings and special discount offers. This helps us to identify and to market to many marginal buyers.

Some people may fear that by focusing our marketing efforts we will fail to reach new audiences, especially from diverse communities. I believe we need to address these potential audience members with special outreach efforts -- targeted programs that do far more than simply advertise our programming.