Arts organizations across Cincinnati, like their corporate brethren rely on research and compelling marketing to drive interest in their product, ideally translating into increased attendance and a robust bottom line. But with limited marketing budgets and an audience base already inundated with messaging from much larger competitors, how do these organizations compete?
Following tough economic times or a shortfall in contributed income, many arts organizations are tempted to put innovative thinking on the back-burner. Risk-taking can often yield to safer programming, pairing down of performances, and a reduction in dollars available for marketing. But some local companies are bucking the trend by rethinking and reinvesting their public engagement efforts in hopes of attracting new audiences.
Some credit for this push toward marketing innovation can be given to the Fine Arts Fund’s Boot Camp for Arts Marketers (BAM!) - a training program administered by the Fine Arts Fund’s Arts Services. Just one of the many programs organized by Vice President of Arts Services, Heather Hallenberg and Associate Director of Arts Services, Mike Boberg, BAM! selects up to four local organizations per year to participate in intensive discussions about best practices in the field of arts marketing. Each participating organization attends a series of workworkshops and seminars led by local experts spearheaded by program administrator Ric Sweeney, director of the Business Administration/Marketing program at the University of Cincinnati College of Business.
BAM! is a locally developed outgrowth of the National Arts Marketing Project funded by American Express in Cincinnati and 11 other host sites from 2000-2006.
An important component of adaptability in a changing marketplace and strengthening sustainability is identifying new ways to relate to audiences while staying current with ever-changing arts marketing trends and emerging technologies. An artistic group can thrive only by taking strategic artistic risks, investing in bold ventures and communicating inventively to the public.
Success for these companies is more than just learning new marketing tricks, however. “One key to the success of BAM! is that the marketing director and artistic director work side-by-side, with the full knowledge and support of the board, to program performances or exhibits designed to target new audiences and develop a marketing plan around their promotion” says Hallenberg.
Know Theatre of Cincinnati underwent NAMP training a year ago resulting in the organization's first marketing plan since its 1997 founding. The comprehensive plan involved market segmentation as well as a sizeable investment into new technology as part of their marketing strategy. This took the form of a revamped website and targeted emailing and text messaging communications.
“Multimedia has long been a focus of Know’s productions,” says Producing Artistic Director, Jason Bruffy. “At some point I looked around and saw how easily accessible (and cheaper) Pop Culture was to us than theatre arts. I knew we needed to start re-thinking our relationship to electronic media. American Theatre needs to stop emulating Pop Culture and start leading its own trends. It only made sense that we would incorporate it into our marketing strategy.”
Bruffy sees the theatre's work with video as a component of its marketing as a new way to reach a different kind of audience. "This generation has grown up with a completely new way of storytelling from what we understand," says Bruffy. "Their stories aren't necessarily coming from traditional sources, but rather through video games, music videos, television and instant access movies. We're looking for a new way to utilize and manipulate the mediums they're accustomed to and present them in a new, theatrical way. A more relevant way."
Sophisticated video trailers for each production appear on the company’s site as well as in the theatre lobby before performances. The latest incarnation takes the concept one step further by creating a series of web teasers surrounding the fifth annual Cincinnati Fringe Festival, kicking off Wednesday, May 28. Written by Associate Artistic Director Eric Vosmeier and shot by independent videographer Mike Maney, the first three installments were introduced to Fringe fans over the past few weeks on a variety of local websites. Episode one is available for viewing at CincyFringe.com, episode two at Cinstages.com, and episode three at CityBeat.com. The fourth installment premieres here on Soapbox while the fifth and final segment will air on Thursday, May 1 at CincyFringe.com.
“You never know what you’re going to get with the Fringe Festival," says Vosmeier. It’s not always high art, so we let ourselves have fun with this set of trailers.We wanted to do something different that also poked fun at ourselves.”
But it’s not just the small companies that are experimenting with alternative marketing efforts. The Cincinnati Opera released their first webisode last season and will follow up with another series for their 2008 summer festival reports Cincinnati Opera's Director of Public Relations, Jennifer Bellin. "This next round may even include audience generated content."
Cincinnati Ballet Marketing Director, Barbara Hauser has made ballet webisodes a staple of her marketing campaigns over the past two years. Working with local production company Rosetta Stone Studios, the Ballet has used the interactive webisode model coupled with a series of release parties to garner a significant jump in publicity for the ballet company as well as driving interest from a younger audience base.
"We wanted to reach out to the 'YouTube' generation that gets their information from online sources rather than traditional media," says Hauser.
The Ballet's newest webisode premiere party is this Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. on Fountain Square and will feature the Xavier University Concert Choir performing songs from Carmina Burana, the final production of the 2007-08 season.
Individual artists are also working to incorporate business concepts into their efforts to increase sales and visibility. Portrait artist Dawna Boehmer was unhappy with the progression of her career and struggled with selling enough work to support herself. That changed after meeting retired marketing executive, Mike Crossen at a seminar offered by Cincinnati SCORE Chapter 34, a national corps of retired executives who mentor fledgling entrepreneurs and small businesspeople. The two began meeting regularly to discuss marketing, expanding her product line, and publicity.
As a result of their partnership, Boehmer adjusted her sales focus from large scale portrait pieces to smaller reproduction print work. “Now each piece has an end purpose and is directed towards a particular market," she says, "and I’ve started to make money at it.”
Lead photograph of Know Theatre of Cincinnati's production of In The Blood taken by Deogracias-Lerma
Dawna Boehmer painting in her studio
Cincinnati Fringe Festival
Carmina Burana image courtesy of Cincinnati Ballet