United We Mail
In the Bay Area, the Big List is arts marketing’s next big thing
By Margot Melcon
Challenge: Theatre A knows arts lovers. Theatre B knows some too. Could A + B = bigger audiences for everyone?
Plan: To create a single, shared database of audience information collected from arts organizations of varying size and disciplines.
What Worked: More than 100 organizations have signed on and are targeting potential patrons with new efficiency.
What Didn’t: Organizations were initially wary of turning over proprietary information.
What’s Next: Bring more organizations on board, and incorporate an e-mail component.
As arts organizations face a dismal economic climate and disappearing audiences, one might expect to hear a cry of “Every man for himself!” echoing across the creative community. But cooperation is the name of the game in the arts world. How better to weather these rough waters than to band together?
Such was the feeling that came over Brad Erickson, executive director of Theatre Bay Area (TBA). Inspired by a program he came across in Pittsburgh—similar, he notes, to ones being implemented in Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta and Orange County, Calif.—Erickson partnered with the San Francisco Foundation and Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund to create the Big List. Its aim: to encourage Bay Area presenting arts organizations to grow their audiences cooperatively by sharing information about the population most likely to be patrons of the arts—namely, those people already patronizing the arts.
The Big List is a single, merged audience database for direct mail designed to exchange patron information based on demographics, behavior and preferences. Participating organizations send information about single-ticket buyers and subscribers to a database once a year. A database management company then organizes and standardizes the information, removing duplicates and verifying addresses with the post office. Then, for a fee, participating organizations can pull a list from that central database using such criteria as age, neighborhood, ethnicity, income and frequency of attendance.
Around the same time Erickson and partners had the idea to create a Big List for the Bay Area, the New York–based Wallace Foundation was investing in innovative audience-development models in urban areas around the country—and the Bay Area’s scheme fit the bill. The foundation granted funds to initiate the program, solicit participation and underwrite part of the cost to those organizations.
The Big List collaborators contracted Enertex Marketing, a veteran database and list management company with extensive experience working with nonprofits. An Enertex consultant set up the database in February ’08. For the first year, invitations to participate were extended only within San Francisco city limits to members of TBA and grantees of the San Francisco Foundation or Grants for the Arts. Within three months, 69 presenting arts organizations were on board—including two of the largest arts institutions in the city, American Conservatory Theater and San Francisco Opera, as well as dance, music and film companies and galleries of all sizes.
For Erickson and the foundations, it was key to have representation across all disciplines and from small and large companies. “There was a preconception that people who go to small and mid-sized companies are not the same groups that go to major institutions,” says Erickson. “You can use the categories of low-, middle- and highbrow art, but people are all of the above.” The Big List aimed to identify passionate artsgoers who would be open to a variety of arts experiences.
That openness does not mean patrons are disloyal or prone to abandon one organization for another. Even so, concerns about audience poaching were voiced, and invitations to join the Big List were met with hesitation. Some institutions expressed concerns over the legality of exchanging patron information so freely, though similar databases have been used for years with names being shared, traded and bought and sold without restriction. Some patrons have opted out, but, says Erickson, “It’s a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the total number.”
TBA worked with participating organizations to structure guidelines for use of the list and answer questions and concerns as they came up. For example, an organization can be notified when its patron names are pulled. Or it can impose blackout dates, restricting access to its patron names when launching a big subscription push or during a renewal campaign. And the list may not be used for fundraising; its only purpose is to build audiences through single-ticket and subscription campaigns.
Patron list exchange has been a common practice among arts organizations for years, but pooling information saves time. “We used to have to go to each organization and ask to trade names,” remarks San Francisco Opera marketing analyst Chi-Hsuan Yang, “but now so many organizations are part of the Big List we get names all at once, rather than waiting for one, or 10, or 15 organizations.”
Randy Taradash, who serves as associate director of marketing and promotions for ACT, confesses he has Enertex on speed dial. “It’s not just about direct mail; it’s a really wonderful research tool. I want to understand patterns and trends from my own list better, and our decisions are much more informed with the research they provide.”
In January ’09, San Francisco’s Big List was expanded to include the East Bay and South Bay regions, as well as adding more institutions in the city, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The list is now up to 112 organizations, with more than 500,000 patron names, and next year it will grow to include the North Bay.
Currently the Big List is for direct mail only. But, as Erickson points out, “Everyone is doing more and more marketing online, so the next step for enhancement of the list is to figure out a way around e-mail blockers and filters. The Bay Area is traditionally at the cutting edge of technology,” he says, smiling, already working plans out in his head, “so it seems like we should be able to figure this out.”
Margot Melcon is the literary manager and dramaturg at California’s Marin Theatre Company and the recipient of a grant from American Theatre’s Bay Area Commissioning Fund, supported by the Hewlett Foundation.