The Question: With So Many Options, What do We Focus On? The Answer: Segmentation and Automation

By Mary Saville, Georgia Ensemble Theatre

In 2016, Georgia Ensemble Theatre received a scholarship to attend the National Arts Marketing Project Conference.  The scholarship was provided by a partnership between The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and the Georgia Repertory Theatre.

I came home from the conference buzzing with ideas: I was inspired to start educational programs for elderly patrons, shift our marketing dollars to video production, reach out to print publications in a new way, add creative interactive programs, identify and amplify our Unique Selling Proposition, devise a robust Twitter strategy, learn how to advertise using Google Grants and AdWords, comprehend Google Analytics, better define the voice of our company, renovate our building to reflect the character of our organization, take risks, make more room for failure, invest in more “cool stuff” that adds value just because it’s fun, and dominate the world of Facebook. 

As the truth of “we can’t do everything at once” set in, I started with a few things that we could implement at very little cost because our budget is always tight. I decided to focus on improving our email marketing and outreach using segmentation and automation.

At the conference, Brandon Briggs of DotMailer noted: “Customers want us to be human, and to anticipate their needs.” We need a blend of high-level automation technology AND a personal touch.

To use the technology available to us while giving patrons a personal experience, we moved immediately to semi-automation for ticket-holding patrons. We began sending “ticket reminders” to every ticketholder. This requires us to build each email manually, which we do in advance of each show and schedule the emails to be sent 48 hours before the performance. We’ve had good responses from people who appreciated the information about parking, local restaurants, and other details.  Although I don’t (yet) have any data to back it up, we believe we’ve cut down on the number of people who miss their show because they forgot they had tickets or forgot what time the show started.

Improving our Patrons’ Experience

We’ve had great success with these “reminder” emails in specialized situations—like the Alive in Roswell festival. This monthly event is attended by thousands of people, and the free parking areas around our building are prime real estate for the festival, which is just a few blocks away. We had to do something to help our frustrated patrons who weren’t arriving on time for the show because they hadn’t planned to struggle for parking. In our parking lot, we used traffic cones to reserve enough parking for our patrons, and stationed our staff and volunteers to direct theatre patrons to their parking areas. The emails we now send for shows on Alive in Roswell dates are different from the standard ticket reminder—they are tailored to describe the parking arrangement, telling patrons what to look for to find their “easy parking” area and warning them about heavy traffic and road closures in the area.  We found our patrons were incredibly appreciative of this effort on their behalf. Those who received the email about the parking arrangement were able to arrive in plenty of time, knew what to look for, didn’t have to circle the parking lots repeatedly, and generally were able to get to their performance without the stress of worrying about traffic and parking. Their customer experience was vastly improved by this combination of technological automation and personal attention. They thanked us profusely and repetitively—both in person and by email.

Thanking our Patrons – with an Unexpected Benefit: Feedback on the Show

We began sending similarly semi-automated emails thanking patrons following their attendance at a show. This simple email, sent within 48 hours of their attendance, contained a message of thanks and a reminder about what was coming up next on our stage. An early unexpected result, but one which we quickly took advantage of, was that patrons saw this “thank you email” as a way to communicate with us about the show they had seen. After our very first “thank you email,” we got many replies to the email: many were compliments about the show; one or two were questions about the theatre; and a few were complaints about the performance, the temperature in the building, a broken seat, etc. We do regularly receive feedback from our patrons in a variety of forms, but the “thank you email” gave them a more immediate method to send their comments. Once we noticed this trend, we began including a button in the thank you email that said “Tell us what you thought of the show.” We directed responses to that button to the email address of a staff member who responded to each one. We got even better at this by embedding a specific subject line so those response emails could be easily sorted in our staff member’s inbox. Patrons responded well to this casual way of soliciting their input.

Because the purpose of the email was to thank our patrons (not to solicit their reply,) they were more willing to engage with our request for feedback in a casual, relational manner. It helped us carry on conversations with some of our patrons who might not have wanted to stop and talk to a staff member in the lobby or might not have taken the time to call us on their own. We engaged with patrons we don’t usually have a personal conversation with. (And another bonus: we got positive audience quotes we could post on social media—with permission, of course.)

A Conversational Tone

With our semi-automated communication, I adopted a more conversational tone of voice in the email text. I drafted and redrafted the messages to remove “business” language and passive voice. I made the emails as personal and personable as possible. This has lifted our response rates.

Our current email platform makes full segmentation a challenge, but even with that challenge, we’ve seen improved engagement with the emails we do send. We can avoid harrying our season ticket holders with repeated messages urging them to “Grab your tickets” for the upcoming show, and that makes them more likely to open the messages that contain useful information. 

Targeting our Audience in the Right Ways

We’ve begun to invite multi-ticket buyers to purchase season tickets. Our messaging encourages them to become more invested with us.

We will soon shift to a new email marketing platform, and that program will bring both full automation and cleaner segmentation to our organization. We will target specific messages to people who’ve bought just one ticket in the past vs. those who’ve bought several; we’ll reach out to people who only buy tickets to musicals, or only to straight plays; we’ll make educated guesses about patrons who are motivated by price vs. those motivated by a show’s content, and much more.

I can’t wait to flex my segmentation muscles on messages that are carefully targeted to specific, narrow audiences – and reap the results of our new strategic focus.

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