The week before I moved to Richmond, I had the great fortune to see Michael Kaiser (President of The Kennedy Center) speak at the Ferst Center at Geogia Tech. If you are in the non-profit arts world and have not yet read his book, The Art of the Turnaround, you should buy it now. His 10 rules alone are worth the cover price.
A few weeks prior to this talk, I had read an article Mr. Kaiser had written for The Huffington Post regarding pricing strategies in the arts. He proposed the industry’s pricing structure, and not a general lack of relevance, is the key to low attendance records. Coming from a theatre who’s top ticket price is $23, I begged to disagree. Luckily for me, he brought this same topic up at the Ferst Center and I had the opportunity to ask his opinion on our situation.
Mr Kaiser praised our moderately priced tickets and agreed that pricing was not our issue. Instead, he suggested that it was a problem with our institutional marketing and said he would “love to know what [Synchronicity is] doing.” I, jokingly, asked if he had time for lunch and he replied, “email me.” Of course, being who I am, I went up after the program and asked for his email. I was already building the list of things we were doing in my head. Mr. Kaiser, being the generous giver of gifts that he is (in Seth Godin parlance … c’mon you know I couldn’t let a post go by without mentioning Seth!), gave me his email address.
Well, with everything that has gone on in the last few weeks, I didn’t get to write that email until today. I am pasting the note in its entirety here and, with Mr. Kaiser’s permission, will do the same with his response. We can only grow as a community if we share what we learn, no? As always, your thoughts & comments are appreciated!
Dear Mr. Kaiser,
Thank you, first of all for taking the time to come down to Atlanta and speak with us. You left the entire theatre community feeling re-energized and excited. Secondly, thank you for being so generous as to offer to chat with me about Synchronicity Theatre’s institutional marketing plan. (You can learn a little more about us at www.synchrotheatre.com)
Immediately after you agreed that our problem was not pricing and that it was surely institutional marketing, I started making a list in my head of all the events we attend, projects we participate in, and press we receive. Then, as I was walking out of the theatre, a friend came up and said, “When he asked what are you doing for institutional marketing, I thought ‘Are you kidding?!? She’s everywhere!'” That is when it hit me. Almost all the work we’ve been doing for institutional marketing has actually been within the arts/culture community in Atlanta, not in the public eye. Yes, Rachel and I sit on panels, we attend all the major events and monthly roundtables, participated in the crafting of the arts platform for the mayoral race and spearheaded a consortium to allow smaller orgs to sublicense the Tessitura database system, but these are all with our peers. I know Synchronicity has a tremendously strong reputation and brand within the arts and culture community, but we still lack wide public brand recognition. The only events that have been for the general public have been local PAC open houses and arts fair-type events. While useful, these don’t exactly make us stand out from the crowded landscape.
In a time when most organizations are decrying the lack of press coverage (with good reason), we’ve actually been getting more than our share. But, again, it has almost been entirely project-focused. In the past two months we’ve been featured twice on the local NPR station, had reviews and/or features in every major print news source in town, and been highlighted in a number of neighborhood newsletters. All of this focused on our two most recent shows, Women + War and Free to Be … You and Me. Last week we did receive an article in Creative Loafing about the company itself and where we are headed (http://atlanta.creativeloafing.com/gyrobase/synchronicity_theatre_weathers_hard_times_to_wage_women_war/Content?oid=1402745). The question now is how to follow that up? Due to the economic realities we face, we cancelled our last two shows of the season. This means that our official 2009-2010 season ended on Sunday. We are going into an in-depth strategic planning period for the next 3-4 months. We have plans for smaller scale activities, such as readings prepping for our SheWrites women’s playwrighting festival next season, but no full productions until October.
You’ll notice that I am writing from a gmail account. This is because I have actually ended my tenure as Managing Director at Synchronicity as of March 1. In the coming season we have cut our budget from $450k to $330k and with this came a restructuring of our administrative staff. We’ve been running with 4 full-time staff (Prod. Art. Director, Managing Dir. (I also handled marketing), Development Dir., and Mktg Assoc). During the spring and summer we have cut down to just Rachel May, our Producing Artistic Director. In September, Rachel will hire a new director of marketing and development and an associate marketing and development position. I have a deep commitment to the company and am volunteering my time from my new home in Richmond, VA to help Rachel through this transition period. As part of that, I would like to help her create a new institutional marketing plan to help carry the company forward. This email is one of the steps in formulating that plan.
Any thoughts you have regarding next steps for us would be greatly appreciated. Thank you, again, for being open to my writing to you. At Synchronicity, it is part of our DNA to collaborate. If it is agreeable to you, I would like to post any thoughts you have to my blog so that the wider Atlanta theatre community can benefit from your insight. Please let me know if you would rather I didn’t.