Blog Archive

About Marc

Dutch native Marc van Bree is a well-rounded marketing communications professional with more than 8 years of experience strategically communicating—on and offline—in a rapidly changing media environment.

Building a community classical music portal

Many cities and communities around the country have some kind of portal for classical music, or the arts in general. Many of these portals are funded, if not initiated, by foundations, local arts service groups, or a consortium of classical music organizations.

The quality of these portals ranges from terrible to excellent, and interestingly it seems that funding isn’t necessarily correlated with quality.

With this in mind, I set out to build a classical music portal for Austin: ATXclassical.

Austin already has service group backed sites like and commercial sites like, not to mention features and listings from media companies like the Austin-American Statesman and the Austin Chronicle. Yet I thought there was still a place for a dedicated Austin-centric classical music website.

While all great sites, the choices and sheer volume of events listed on the abovementioned sites can sometimes be overwhelming. And typically, when classical music events compete with other cultural events, they don’t necessarily come out as the winners.

So I wanted to create a dedicated classical music site with a clear and uncluttered look at the classical music scene in Austin. There are still nearly 250 events listed!

The how was simple: I unleashed the power of WordPress. In the same manner I built the Chorus Austin website, I used a premium theme, some paid plugins and some customizations.

But it’s not a case of build it and they will come. No matter how much I like the uncluttered design and clarity of ATXclassical, event listings alone won’t get people to come to the site or more importantly return to the site.

Right now, I’m solely responsible for the content. And while I enjoy writing articles, I am not a journalist. Like I wrote in the site’s first article, I think of myself more as a cheerleader, rather than a journalist.

Over time, I’d love to get others involved. I’m particularly interested in seeing if I can get students (journalism majors, arts majors) involved in reviewing. And I’m very interested in partnering up with the local classical music presenters to find ways of spreading their good work (again, think cheerleader role).

In the end, there’s not a business plan or strategic plan behind the site. Yes, I have ads to cover the costs of running the site. Yes, I have a sense of where I want the site and the mission to go. But I think the key to all of this is passion. Passion for all elements involved: web, marketing and classical music.

Visit and let me know what you think.

Marketing the arts when your budget gets cut

Going Back to Basics and Building for the Future
Or how we increased the return on marketing by 68% and put an opera company back on track

A little while ago, I presented a teleseminar for Opera Volunteers International about marketing on a budget. I talked about the year and a half I spent at the Austin Lyric Opera. I thought it would make an interesting blog post.

The scenario

In the summer of 2011, the Austin Lyric Opera found itself in a situation that was perhaps more dire than most opera companies around the country, but it also found a close family of supporters that—barely a year later—had turned things around.

The board did a tremendous job raising much-needed funds; emergency funds needed beyond regular annual funding to maintain operations. And the opera sold its biggest asset: its headquarters.

Without these drastic measures, the opera wouldn’t be here today. But it was also clear that without making some fundamental changes, the opera wasn’t going to be viable for tomorrow either.

Here are the changes that impacted our marketing most:

  • A renewed focus on traditional repertoire
  • A 25% cut in seating capacity by eliminating one performance night
  • A 35% percent marketing spending budget cut

The prevailing thought was that in order to even have a company, we should be building back the audience it takes to sustain a company that delivers top-notch productions and more adventurous programming. And I know, we can debate programming and audience development until we’re blue in the face, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Eliminating the least attended night from the schedule obviously cut costs. And while we still had the ability to host the existing audience numbers in this reduced capacity, it is important to realize that it’s not as simple as just that. Those last tickets are particularly hard to sell. And it makes sense: if you pay $135 for a top-level ticket, you want the best available, not the last available. In other words, the smaller capacity posed a challenge in managing the pricing and filling the last remaining seats.

The most immediate impact, of course, was the 35% cut in the marketing spending budget. The cut meant that we had to take another look at our marketing expenses and see where we could save. We had to go back to basics.

We had to—as the cliché goes—do more with less. There’s no such thing as giving it 110%. I’ve always hated that phrase (I’m looking at you, sports people). It’s mathematically and physically impossible. What it does mean is working smarter and more efficient. And that’s very possible.

You’ve maybe already read my blog posts on how we revamped the opera’s website and digital strategy. That was a key ingredient to the season’s success. But you haven’t yet read the rest of the story and the full results:


The number of subscriptions sold increased by 22% compared to the previous season. This signified the first increase in the number of subscriptions since the opening of a new performance hall, and only the second increase in a decade. The renewal rate for subscriptions hit a record 84%, and new subscriptions outpaced the past average by more than 25%. How?

  • If real estate has its “Location, location, location,” classical music might recognize something in “Repertoire, repertoire, repertoire.” You don’t have much room to play with just three operas in a given season, and they decided to play it safe. Remember the “proof of the pudding is in the eating?” Well, people at it up.
  • Prior to my arrival, subscription prices were dropped by 30-40%.
  • More than 25% of the renewals came in through in-house telemarketing efforts. While we still had an in-house box office staff, we focused much of their time on active selling. It paid off.

Unfortunately, the entire summer of 2011 was marked by uncertainty and a complete spending freeze, leaving only a small window to sell. We did well in that window, but ultimately, subscription revenue was down 11%. The increase in the number of seats did not offset the decrease in price.

Total revenue, as you’ll see in a little bit, still grew. And the important element here was the increase in the core audience once again. It really was a turning of the tide.

Single Tickets

The number of single tickets sold increased 21% compared to the previous season. It was the fifth best single ticket revenue year in the opera’s history and the best year when considering the reduced seating capacity. Furthermore, the a 46% increase in single ticket revenue offset the subscription revenue decrease; with combined numbers we saw a net 5% revenue increase.

Regular single ticket prices remained unchanged from the previous season, yet we were able to increase our average ticket price by 16%. Monitoring, analyzing, managing and targeting our ticket prices and inventory become crucially important, especially with the decrease in total capacity posing a challenge.


Let me first start with an example of a small change that can have a big impact. The upper balcony section, farthest from the stage, was oddly priced $99, our second highest price point. We changed this to $19, our lowest price point.

Let me explain with simple math: $99×0=$0 and $19×273=$5,187. And that’s per performance! We previously hardly sold any tickets in upper balcony; we sold close to 99% of the tickets after the price change. Common sense, right?

And don’t underestimate the side effect of being able to claim that “Tickets start at just $19” in marketing collateral.

You’ve probably heard a thing or two about dynamic pricing. But in order to implement dynamic pricing well, you have to have a strong foundation of reliable data and a ticketing system that can handle it. We weren’t quite there yet, but we were able to implement some of the principles.

We monitored the seating map closely and on a daily basis. We learned how the house filled up, or where it didn’t. And we then offered targeted, specific discounts for those areas that did not sell well.

Contrast that with daily deal sites. In the two seasons prior to and partly after my arrival, the opera had done one of those popular daily deals every single production of the season. People were actually calling our box office with the question: “when will you have another deal?”

As you may know, you don’t keep much of the revenue by selling tickets through these sites. At its peak, we sold 1,000 daily deal tickets for a single production, which was a third of the total single tickets for that show! It sank our average ticket prices and trained our audiences to buy discounted and buy late.

We knew we had to move away from this practice, and a season with blockbuster operas proved to be our best shot. By segmenting wisely and targeting relevantly, we were able to send tailored messages, including to past daily deal buyers. We got them back in the door, and this time we kept all of the revenue.

With each production, we lowered the ratio of discounted tickets versus regular tickets, and we moved from offering last-minute discounts to offering early bird discounts. It worked.

Don’t sacrifice long term results for short-term gains.

Lastly, we cut the number of complimentary tickets by 32%. We got it down to the bare minimum: media, corporate sponsors, and some box office holds to solve problems. This increased the value perception. People couldn’t just wait for a last-minute free ride to fill those last seats; we created an environment where you had to buy a ticket, or lose out.


We realized we had to go for the low hanging fruit and go where the low hanging fruit hangs out. Previously, our resources were spread thin across many channels, but we could no longer afford it.

Advertising is always a balance between reach, frequency and budget. We didn’t want to sacrifice frequency, we knew we had to limit budget, so what we had to do was focus on reach. Narrow the reach, but, again, reach the low hanging fruit, not a broad metropolitan populace.

Don’t get me wrong, it is important for an arts organization to reach out to new audiences. But to do so through advertising, in a cash-strapped environment, misses the point.

You cast a wide net, but catch few fish. And those fish you do catch will likely buy the lower-end or discounted tickets. You don’t want to spend a ton of money to get a small pool of $10 ticket buyers. When times get tough, you have to put your money where the results are.

And as we’ve seen in the Wyman study, contrary to popular belief, classical music organizations actually do a very good job at bringing in new audiences. We saw this very same trend in the ALO numbers. In previous seasons, more than half the single tickets were bought by people who weren’t in the system before.

So these “Unconverted Trialists,” as the study dubbed this group, are the low hanging fruit we should aim to get back. The Wyman study explained the importance of the entire customer experience. At the ALO, we put a lot of emphasis on customer service, from proactively working out gnarly traffic and parking situations to box office functions that were being outsourced for the first time to using social media as a customer service tool. We wanted to make sure a patron’s experience was nothing but extraordinary.

The other advice from the Wyman study was to target relevant messages and offers to these trialists. As we’ve seen in the daily deal example and the semi-dynamic pricing example, we were able to segment wisely and target relevantly and get results.

We also brought this kind of focus to our other marketing efforts. We cut the places we advertised in half and kept the staple outlets where our low-hanging fruit could be found: major print, classical and public radio, public TV. Because we narrowed, but specified the reach, we were able to keep the frequency, and even increase the size of our ads in those places. In other words, more visibility in a targeted, more concentrated market.

Another area of focus, one where I received tremendous benefit from working with a consultant, was messaging. Working with this consultant improved the ad copy and the sales messages, and made sure we had a sales message or a call to action in all our efforts. Everyone needs an editor, and everyone can use a coach to keep them on track.

Data and Customer Driven

In the end, when times get tough, there’s always a bigger sense and urgency for the need to account for dollars spent. Any marketer, whether they’re on a budget or not, should know how their dollars are performing.

Today’s arts marketing is decisively not like a Mad Men episode where every decision is based on gut and intuition; today’s arts marketing is based on data, and it is customer driven.

We were able to use data to direct our actions, from pricing to messaging, and we were able to enhance our data influx to better inform future efforts.

In just one season, despite some significant challenges, we were able to increase the return on marketing dollars spent by 68% and put an opera company back on track.

Why performing arts organizations are not app-ropriate

Let me start with a simple question: How many of you have opened an arts organization’s mobile app lately? And no, it doesn’t count if you were just looking to see what your competitors were doing.

Even more generally: How many apps have you used in your personal life just this last week? Email, news and Facebook. That’s about it for me. Maybe Instagram, Yelp, Fandango, LinkedIn and Google Maps. The average user has about 65 apps installed, but only uses about 15 apps per week (source).

What am I trying to tell you? Don’t waste your money developing an app for your arts organization.

Yes, the debate is still raging on whether the future lies in the World Wide Web or in apps. The Pew Internet Project invited experts to predict where things might be by the end of the decade. The results: 59% believe the web will dominate; 35% believe apps will dominate.

But many challenged the idea of the apps vs. web framing and considered the question to be a false dichotomy: “Apps are generally better for narrowly defined repetitive tasks,” as Tony Smith of the Open Source Developers Club in Melbourne, Australia wrote. “The Web will remain better for asynchronous exploring and continue its gateway role.”

Another, anonymous writer, states: “Apps will continue, as will app stores, but they’ll continue to be mass-market outlets for lightweight products on the one hand, and very narrow vertical outlets for very specific platform-dependent professional tools on the other, while the entire middle-ground will continue to belong to the Web.”

And that’s exactly why I don’t see apps as a viable option for most arts organizations. They live in this middle-ground; they don’t have the mass-market appeal and they are not a tool for a narrowly defined repetitive task.

Only a handful of large performing arts organizations will have a large enough following to keep a sustained audience for their app.  And then only if they can keep the audience engaged with fresh content, or say lets the audience stream an entire catalog of music.

Looking at current performing arts organizations apps, they mostly follow the same functionality: browsing snippets of content, some entertainment and info, and buying tickets.

Interestingly, as this simple infographic from MDG Advertising shows: users prefer mobile browsers for shopping, search, and entertainment. The key functions of most arts organizations apps! Users prefer mobile apps for managing data and connecting with others.

Well, so it’s decided, let’s go with a mobile website! Not so fast. There are some important pros when it comes to apps, and to make things more complicated, there’s a third option: responsive design.

What is responsive design? It is a development method that allows you to create a single website that will adapt to the device on which it’s being viewed, whether it’s a desktop, a smartphone or a tablet. A site built with responsive design will automatically resize, and can customize content or options, for different devices.

So I decided to put together a little matrix to outline the strengths and weaknesses of each option:

Of course, cost and time to develop apps or sites will differ greatly depending on your wants and needs: you can have a cheap out-of-the-box mobile app developed and an expensive responsive design site; or you can go all out on a mobile app and spend less than $100 on a responsive WordPress theme for your site. A mobile site will consistently be the least expensive to develop.

While I would put my money on responsive design, sometimes it might not be immediately attainable. A site overhaul can be expensive too, and that’s probably when you’d have the best opportunity to make your site responsive. At the Austin Lyric Opera, we made a huge stride forward by going from a Flash-based website that could not load on any mobile device to a WordPress site that loaded just fine on mobile devices. Yet it wasn’t a fully responsive design, so we opted to develop a low-budget, purpose driven mobile site that focused on elements such as key event information, program notes and traffic and parking info. All it took was an installation of a mobile specific WordPress theme on a sub directory (see

Another complicating factor is the fact that a lot of organizations will depend on a third-party, hosted ticketing solution. Unless you have the budget to work with a ticketing solution’s API (if they even offer it in the first place) in your design, you’ll likely develop a website with responsive design and you’ll get stuck with a third-party ticketing site that is not optimized for all devices. Even a mobile specific ticketing site will make a much smoother transition and some ticketing systems will offer at least that.

In developing a mobile app, you will be all but forced to use an API if you want box office functionality. The affordable, standardized apps offered by Instant Encore offer integration with Tessitura, but typically only larger arts organizations can afford Tessitura in the first place.

So when would you use a mobile app? If you have the resources and the audience for sustained engagement, a mobile app will offer the best user experience. But the keywords are resources, audience and sustained. You’ll have to measure and judge for yourself if the return is worth the initial and continued investment. I suspect for most organizations it is not.

But considering that, for the Austin Lyric Opera, more than 20% of traffic came from mobile devices, yet it only delivered 10% of revenue, and considering that mobile traffic has grown with the dawn of tablets and will continue to grow, you must address your mobile device traffic.

What you opt for will ultimately depend on your objectives and your budget. Just don’t neglect it.

Here’s my advice: forget about mobile apps, and aim for responsive design when you’re ready. You can use a mobile site as an intermediate option or for a very specific set of objectives and uses.



Perhaps it would make more sense to create a Fandango-like app for the performing arts. It has a narrow function and a mass-market appeal. Fandango, as you may know, sells movie tickets to most theaters in the country. But even this idea would be tremendously hard to implement: you’d need agreements with different arts organizations to sell tickets through a central point, and ticketing for the arts is much more complex than for movie theaters. Not to mention that the app would likely focus on a specific metropolitan area, rather than an entire country, so would you have a large enough pool to draw from?

Some Suggested Reading

Mobile Sites vs. Apps: The Coming Strategy Shift

Google How To Go Mo | Test Your Site

Drew McManus on responsive design

Marketing Automation in Performing Arts

I’m in a new industry, which means I come across different marketing approaches. I always like seeing how these new perspectives translate to the performing arts. My current industry is heavy on lead generation and marketing automation. Skip forward a little to this week, when I came across an interesting post from the TRG Arts folks.

The post, “Too Many Tryers to Sustain the Arts,” echoes the Orchestra Churn study I have written about in the past:

In our firm’s decade of arts consumer research, Tryers are the most prevalent type of patron behavior.  They are households that have infrequent, one-time, or long-ago transactions with your organization. Right now your database–like those of most arts and entertainment organizations–is likely comprised of 90% Tryers.  And most of them are patrons you’ve allowed to lapse.

In my Take A Friend to the Orchestra post about flipping the funnel, I cover a strategy on how to market to these “Tryers,” or “Unconverted Trialists” as the Churn study calls them. In particular, how you follow up with them after an experience is crucial.

A November 2011 post by PatronTechnology CEO Eugene Carr eloquently and anecdotally explains it in different words:

Often as arts patrons we are thanked personally for our contributions. But when buying a ticket, is a generic “Thank You” screen enough after a completed transaction? Actions speak louder than words. If patrons receive a “thank you” email after they buy their ticket, it registers. If they receive a reminder before the show, they are impressed. If you send them a message after the performance asking if they enjoyed it, or if you provide them with an invitation (or discount) to future productions you’ve proven to those patrons that you not only appreciate their business, but you appreciate them. In the end, individual attention is worth its weight in gold.

Speaking of emails, I’m always happy to know if an event I’m interested in is coming to town. On the other hand, I’m not terribly happy when I receive emails that have nothing to do with me. For example, if I bought tickets to see The Messiah, do I want to know when the Megadeth tour is coming to town? Keeping all correspondence relevant to a patron is not only a responsible marketing approach, but a respectful one.

Enter marketing automation. Marketing automation is all about a follow up sequence, or rather sequences, on leads you captured in some form or another.

Capturing leads

You may well consider these “Tryers” and “Unconverted Trialists” to be very hot leads for future performances (although technically, they would be repeat buyers). In addition, there are many ways for generating leads and capturing those leads. You likely already do so in a very basic form with a simple “Sign Up for Our Newsletter” page on your website.

Generally, the more information you can get the better (not just name, phone number, address and email, but also what performances interests them, what performance day they prefer), but the more information you ask the less likely a lead capture form gets filled out. The all-important question becomes: how do you segment your lists? Followed logically by what information do you need for your segmentation?

Looking at industries other than performing arts, we can learn a little about lead capturing. Usually, companies offer a white paper or a webinar or other content in exchange for contact information. Interestingly, I have not seen any performing arts organizations use their content for lead generation. Free downloads of music files, when offered, are often just openly available on a website. And what about that behind-the-scenes video you created? And why not generate a white paper from a lecture on a particular opera or symphony?

Nurturing and converting leads

When you’ve captured your leads and you’ve tagged them appropriately, you can start the nurturing process. Tagging is important, because a tag will determine how you’ll follow up with your lead.  Some examples:

  • Tag based on: money spent (Can we put them in a sequence for an up sell?)
  • Based on: repertoire (Indicated interest in what? Previously attended what?)
  • Based on: [insert tag that makes sense for your segmentation]

The tags determine in what marketing sequence your leads will be placed. Simplistically, it goes something like this: “If patron has A tag, then they’re in A marketing sequence” or “If patron has B tag, then they’re in B marketing sequence.”

This tagging and segmentation is key, because as Carr writes you need to keep “all correspondence relevant to a patron.” The Churn study too showed that offering a relevant “killer deal” will get those Tryers and Trialists back in the door.

And once they’re back in the door—once the lead is converted—they’ll be put in another marketing sequence. Perhaps you can put them on a path toward subscriptions.

If they don’t respond to a marketing sequence, tag them accordingly so you don’t keep bombarding them with messages or abandon the lead altogether. If, let’s say a marketing sequence consists of 8 email messages (or better yet, a mix between online and offline messages) and they haven’t responded by the time the eighth message appears in their inbox, you can put them on in a sequence that nurtures them more slowly, keeping the lead warm, but not annoyed.

Sample sequence where the patron is moved into another sequence if not converted by the campaign’s end, keeping the lead warm, but not annoyed.


Of course, marketing automation does not mean impersonal. In your sequence, one or more of the touch points can and should be a phone call or personal conversation. If a patron with tag A is in stage 4 of the sequence, you can flag your box office or sales team to call them, for example. And not all messages in the sequence have to be a hard sell; let’s say the purchase of a show is the entrance into a sequence, then that thank you note after a show should be part of the sequence.

You cannot execute a well-structured marketing automation campaign without accurate analytics. I’ve written before how I set up e-commerce tracking for the Austin Lyric Opera. This becomes key. One of the most important elements of marketing automation is testing and configuring the optimal messaging. This should be an ongoing process.

I admit, setting up a marketing automation campaign is complex (a lot of “if this, then that” scenarios). Even more so for organizations that do not have the resources to work with the software or vendors specialized in automation. In fact, I’m not even sure how well most ticketing solutions are set up for this. I suspect very few to none.

The point is also not to completely automate all your marketing, push a button and sit back. There should always be room for flexibility. You should take elements and apply them where you can and where you know they make sense. Perhaps you just want to test the concept with lapsed subscribers and put them in a nurturing sequence.

Start small, segment well and keep testing. Then, rinse and repeat and scale up.

If you have any examples of marketing automation in performing arts, leave a comment below!

Building a performing arts website on no or close to no budget

While I have developed websites from scratch, when I developed a new website for Austin Lyric Opera, I chose to go with a vendor. I needed the help, the service and the security. After all, my job was marketing director, and not web developer, and the season brochure still needed to get produced and the hall still needed to rescaled and re-priced.

Since October 2011, I have been a board member of Chorus Austin. I offered my services to develop a new website. This time, I did not have the financial resources to go with a vendor. All I had was my time and my knowledge and know-how.

My objectives were similar to the redevelopment of the Austin Lyric Opera website: driving conversions, being able to measure, customizable and easily manageable. In addition, a couple of things needed to happen:

  • Chorus members needed a guarded section and a login
  • Patrons needed to donate and buy tickets or merchandise directly on the site (events are general admission; payments processed through PayPal); an ecommerce/shopping cart system needed to be set up.

I had proposed a rough navigation structure, with the theme functionality partially dictating it, and other members provided the site copy. While I donated my time, there were still some minor expenses. I spent roughly 120 hours (included in this was time learning about the theme, the shopping cart system, and creating some of the visual elements). Here are the elements that went into the site functionality and their costs (warning, some of it might be a tad technical):

Premium Theme

Genesis framework

There are limits to what you can do with a free WordPress theme. Customizing a free theme can be time consuming and not update friendly. Premium themes can be very affordable and can offer a range of added features. After some research, I opted for StudioPress’s Genesis framework and picked the Associate child theme. I did very little customization and the end result mirrors the demo site closely; it is a fairly standard out-of-the-box version. Cost: $79.95

(I was so pleased, I in fact later upgraded this blog to a Genesis theme!)


Events Calendar Pro

Modern Tribe’s Events Calendar Pro does not offer the great features of Venture’s proprietary events manager, but I could make it work with some customization (mostly customized the event page template; see example) and more importantly it does integrate nicely with the Genesis framework. I’m particularly happy how it works well with using an event’s featured image (regular setting in the Events Calendar custom post type) as a home page slider image (Genesis allows the slider to draw from custom post types). Cost: $50.

Gravity Forms

The main reason I needed the Gravity Forms plugin was for integration with Woocommerce and being able to set up a donation page with functionality such as custom donation amount and a dedication message or special requests. Later, this plugin can also serve handy to create customizable subscription packages (with functions such as “If option A is picked, then display $XX price” or “If option B is picked, only then allow option D as an additional order”). In addition, it is good to have survey and form capabilities on your website. Gravity Forms offers a world of possibilities. Cost: $39


The shopping cart and ecommerce functionality was of major importance on this site. Not having previous experience setting up shopping carts, Woocommerce offered good documentation and was easy to install and set up. I made a couple of customizations in functionality and in the CSS rendering. Because Woocommerce is a product by Woothemes, it naturally works best with themes by that company. I later found—but have not yet installed—a plugin for integrating Woocommerce with a Genesis framework (Genesis Connect for Woocommerce). Cost: Free.

Gravity Forms Add-ons (Woocommerce extension)

As mentioned, I installed Gravity Forms primarily for the donation capabilities. With this Woocommerce Gravity Forms extension, you can customize donation pages where this would not be possible in a vanilla Woocommerce installation (unless you’re happy with only giving your patrons fixed options like $5, $10 and $25). Cost: $35

Order/Customer CSV Export (Woocommerce extension)

Manually tallying customer orders is painstaking. This extension allows you to download the data in one fell swoop in a CSV document. Very handy for keeping track of sales in a spreadsheet and reporting to others. Cost: $35.


Chorus Austin wanted a singers’ portal, a members’ area. I needed to have functionality where Chorus members could register for access to information and calendars hidden from public view. In addition, members can pay their dues and buy scores (set up through a non-public, non-indexed Woocommerce product); members can change their profile settings and password and recover their username and password. Administrators can manage users and approve registrations and the plugin is based on WordPress’ “User” functionality, but the great thing about this plugin is that it integrates login functions on pages, rather than having to rely on the standard admin login screen. Cost: Free.

MediaElement.js – HTML5 Audio and Video

I needed a simple player for embedding audio and video files. I found this particular plugin visually clean, easy for patrons and easy to implement with short codes. Cost: Free.


Of course other organizations might require other functions and other plugins. Some might work with a third-party ticketing solution and won’t need an integrated shopping cart (although I think it looks totally cool and professional to have your own!). You can build a website with WordPress completely free (not counting hosting and domain name costs, which can start as low as about $100 a year), but free is perhaps somewhat misleading considering the tremendous time commitment I made (admitting that more skilled WordPress gurus could have probably set it up in half the time). All things considered, total actual cost: $238.95

Optional additions

Here’s what’s on my wish list:

PayPal Pro (Woocommerce extension)

For a complete integration, rather than redirecting to PayPal, this extension allows direct credit card information input in the shopping cart check out, ensuring a seamless a professional look. Cost: $50. Requires a valid SSL Certificate on your website (~$99 a year) and a PayPal Pro merchant account ($30 a month).

Facebook Tab (Woocommerce extension)

Can’t wait to try this out. Generally, not even the largest arts organizations have a Facebook shopping cart integration. If it works like it says it will, this simple solution can really make other arts organizations see green with envy. Cost: $35. Requires a valid SSL Certificate on your website (~$99 a year).

Are you looking to build a new website for your performing arts organization? I might be able to help. Send me a note and let’s talk.

Join me for #ArtsMgtChat this Friday

Getting back into the blogging and tweeting habit came at the right time. I was invited to guest host a Twitter chat called #ArtsMgtChat this Friday, May 11. This chat is great initiative by Ally Yusuf, a young emerging arts leader, and had its launch on April 27 with a chat about navigating a career in arts management. You can read the transcript here.

This Friday’s chat covers social media strategies for arts organizations, a topic, as you know, that is near and dear to my heart.

My experience with the Ask the Musicians Twitter chats has been that you never quite know in what direction it will be taken, so I’m curious to see where this chat will lead us. I think I’d like to see my role as a guest host to explore those interesting, unexpected areas and, as an analytics and data enthusiast, ask follow up questions that delve deeper into measurement other than “this campaign got us 100,000 page views.”

Join us on Friday! Chat starts at 2 p.m. ET / 1 p.m. CT on Twitter with the hashtag #ArtsMgtChat.

ALO: final round up (complete presentation)

This concludes a brief overview of what went into a new website and new digital strategy for a performing arts organization. At the start of the season, the opera was in a precarious position. I had to work with a 35% overall marketing budget cut, so I knew I had to be more efficient with the marketing dollars I had to my disposal.

Because many parts of the digital strategy were outsourced, the opera had spent a little more than $40,000 on all things online in the previous season. This season, the number barely reached $15,000, yet we were able to significantly increase the effectiveness.

Aided by a new ticketing solution launched simultaneously, we increased online single ticket sales from 28% to 55% of total single ticket sales while delivering a greater ability to analyze patron behaviors, track conversions and account for advertising spending.

Going into the future, the next steps should include eliminating those points that skew data in Google Analytics. In the course of the season, I identified a handful of these issues and we need to find fixes so that the data is more accurate. You won’t want to make decisions on flawed or incomplete data. So even though certain banner ads didn’t seem to perform very well, I wouldn’t want to make radical decisions just yet.

Furthermore, we only started collecting e-commerce and conversion data for one production. As all arts marketers know, no opera or symphony concert or ballet sells in the same manner. What are the noticeable differences we can detect in the conversion data and what can we learn from these differences?

In addition to making the data stream more accurate by eliminating points that skew data, we should make sure we add certain elements in the strategy. We started testing this in Google AdWords already, and we can apply what we learn there in other areas. How does different marketing content perform in identical groups? Next steps must definitely include small scale A/B testing, in either email messages or landing pages, where one (random) half of the gets one message and the other (random) half gets another message.

But what becomes very clear is that if you have the human resources, and a knowledgeable staff, you can bring much of your digital strategy in-house. A company like Venture and tools like Google Analytics and Google Grants offer free or low-cost alternatives to expensive agencies.

Outsourcing can typically get you all the fish you want, at a cost. It’s much better, however, to teach yourself, or even have someone teach you, how to fish.

I am proud to have built a strong digital foundation and by collecting and analyzing data we will be able to fine-tune this foundation to become ever more efficient.

ALO: Mobile site

Approximately 20% of the traffic to the ALO website comes from mobile devices. This has been steadily on the increase and will continue to increase into the future. The new website displays well on mobile devices and touch screen devices.

What we wanted to build then was something to complement, not replace the new website. There is no auto detect for mobile browsers on the main institutional site, to redirect mobile device users to a mobile site. In the future, if the mobile site proves more effective in delivering mobile sales, auto detect can be enabled.

The core concept for a complementary mobile site was easily accessible program notes and pertinent event information readily available for patrons on the go. This is how the idea for was born. There are no extra costs and no considerable extra work involved; it’s a simple, straightforward WordPress installation with mobile specific content.

Traffic is directed specifically to mobile site where deemed appropriate: a Facebook post for production notes on the go; or promote accessibility and information at your fingertips in email marketing.

While mobile traffic accounts for 20% of total traffic, it only delivers less than 10% of the revenue. As mobile traffic will become more and more important, we need to bridge this gap in conversions. We will need to monitor how ALO on the Go converts to sales compared to the main institutional site. What can we learn?

Paciolan recently launched mobile specific box office sites. Auto detect for mobile browsers is enabled. So no matter how you arrive to the ticketing site, via ALO on the Go or the main site, if you arrive on a mobile device, you will see the mobile box office site. Will this mobile specific site improve conversion rates? As the site just launched, it is too early to tell at this point.


ALO: Social media

In my 2010 TAFTO contribution, this is what I wrote:

Over the past decade, the Internet has moved toward becoming a social medium with more participation (encouraging contributions), openness (no barriers to content and feedback), connectedness (networked relationships and sharing content), community (gathering around a common interest), and, of course, conversation (a two-way street).

The Cluetrain Manifesto, still pertinent after more than 10 years, tells us that “conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.” And that means being authentic.

And that sentiment has been the driving force in the social media efforts of the Austin Lyric Opera: messaging for engagement in status updates and tweets; no barriers to behind-the-scenes content; sharing content across channels; fostering an opera fan community; and not shying away from conversations and responding to customer service issues rapidly and personally.

In just one season, we increased the number of Facebook fans by more than 60%, but more importantly, we increased engagement and viral reach. Facebook is now the second largest referral source to the ALO website. By integrating YouTube into other marketing channels, such as event landing pages and email campaigns, we increased channel views by 60%.

Perhaps my proudest social media moment was turning a negative customer experience into a positive outcome by transparently responding and following up and following through with customer service. This patron now regularly “likes” and positively comments on the opera’s status updates.


ALO: Online advertising

One of the first things I did was to pull our online advertising in-house. Previously, it was not uncommon to spend $8,000 per production on an agency booking interactive banner ads and placing search engine ads on Google, Yahoo and Bing.

First, I applied for Google Grants. It’s a simple process for nonprofits, but it took a couple of months to be approved. Google Grants allows nonprofits to set up Google AdWords campaigns at no cost. It’s all in-kind advertising. There are a few limiting factors, but the biggest is perhaps the maximum cost-per-click (CPC) of $1.00, which makes you miss out on some popular keywords. Monthly “ad spend” will be capped at $10,000, but that won’t be a problem for 99% of the nonprofits.

Pulling Google AdWords in-house through Google Grants obviously saved money. But the biggest benefit is that you can use it as your own testing playground for ad content, especially if you can tie it in with Google Analytics e-commerce tracking. It was certainly interesting to see some ad content delivering more traffic than other ad content. But delivering more traffic doesn’t necessarily mean the ads are more effective, as you can see in the slides below.

Retargeting was introduced to me via our ticketing solution Paciolan. They helped set up a campaign for Turandot where we targeted consumers based on their previous Internet actions, in situations where these actions did not result in a sale or conversion. Basically, you visit the ALO website but don’t buy a ticket? Next time you visit Time magazine online, or any other media outlet in the network, and you might get served a Turandot ad. Compared to banner ads on local media websites, retargeting seemed to do much better. Paciolan reported a ROAS of $16 (the slides below only report what can be learned from Google Analytics, hence the significantly lower ROAS).

Facebook Ads are an interesting story. The CPM (cost per thousand impressions) is impressive for the campaign we ran. However, I didn’t see a positive return for advertising spending as reported in Google Analytics. This is somewhat understandable when you realize none of the ads drove traffic directly to the ALO website. Facebook ads seem to work best with a higher social reach (delivering the ad content to the social circles of your Page’s fans). Advertising is about frequency and reach and Facebook certainly delivers on that at a low cost. I certainly see value in that.

If we should believe Google Analytics, banner ads in local media seemed to perform far below the other channels. However, there are two reasons for not completely discarding them: 1) they are part of a print and online package negotiation; and 2) they do deliver a decent reach with prominent placement in media outlets that are frequented by the opera’s patrons (and Google Analytics will not have measured all the impact of that).