Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Spending Resources & Building Audiences

This past September when the Artistic Director for The Carolina Actors Studio Theater, Michael Simmons came to Buffalo to take in a production of ART's Floyd Collins, he told me something insightful about the way he runs his theater's marketing and promotions. 

"I get $500 per month to spend on marketing," Simmons said while being interviewed for the Voices of WNY Artists Internet Broadcast. "I chose to return that money back to the theatre." 

Amounting to $6,000 per year, I promptly questioned why he would chose to return this opportunity to promote his productions.

Simmons pointed out the number one source of advertisement that gets folks into the door is simply word-of-mouth. 

In addition to this approach, a local well-known restauranteur once told me that when starting up a food-business that you should invest $1,000 in initial promotions to get the folks into your place and let word-of-mouth take care of your advertisement from on out.

So, its not the shiny package; its what is inside. 

Fast-forward to February 2012 and while driving on the 33, I spotted a billboard for a local theater's special event/fundraiser  First thought that popped into my mind was "that's expensive" and then a trickle-down thought was "where did they get the money for that considering everyone is bitching about how strapped they are in the wake of Erie County budget cuts and a weakened economy." 

Was this a line-item in the budget approved at the beginning of the fiscal year, or was it a sudden windfall of cash that enabled the theater to take out a high-profile billboard on a highly trafficked road.

If its the latter, I understand sometimes a show brings in a couple of extra dollars and a quick decision is made to promote a future show or event with this surplus money. Of course, the shrill hoot of Michael Simmons is being heard in North Carolina, but, each company has its own way of spending resources and building audiences. 

Spending resources and building audiences.

Realistically, and contradictory to Simmons, an Arts organization has to divert a portion of its revenue into some form of marketing or publicity. This investment can come in the form of postcard and posters while other expensive advertising outlets include the dead-tree media, radio and/or online sources. 

WNY cultural organizations cannot rely on the local media sources to consistently give previews of works and productions, so inline with what the restauranteur said, there has to be an initial push to get folks interested in the work and through the doors. After the show, providing its good, these folks will go out and tell their friends to catch the production. 

In 2009-10, the American Repertory Theater of WNY spent about $482 in snail-mail postcards, posters, brochures and other marketing items. Budget constraints or windfalls did not allow ART to do any additional beyond-budget promotions or marketing for the remainder of the season. 

Comparatively, more established theater companies invested a higher amount of resources into marketing, publicity and advertisement. The amounts gathered through 990 statements on Guidestar indicate these companies, despite being in the middle of a "budget crisis" show a considerable amount of money given towards advertisement. 

In the 2009-10 fiscal year, the less-established Road Less Travelled spent $17,366 in 2010 on marketing, publicity and advertisement. Conversely, two heavier hitters in the WNY theater community, Musicalfare and Irish Classical Theatre Company spent, $66,495 (Musicalfare) and $67,766 (Irish Classical) on these budget items. 

Against those numbers, smaller companies and independent artists cannot compete for the public's attention. Leaving them to rely on less-reaching social networking, email blasts (most likely blocked as spam), posters (with a two-day shelve life) and other highly resourceful yet inexpensive means of promoting productions. 

What can be done?

Cultural organizations have popped up in Buffalo claiming to be an advocate for the Arts in WNY. These groups could create a "bulletin board" ad for local media sources. 

For example, the Theatre Alliance of Buffalo (TAB) requires members to place a comprehensive group schedule in their programs so patrons see what other companies are doing. Its effective because it draws attention to other productions and may send these patrons to see the work. The downside is that one has to be a member of TAB to reap this benefit, but the template could be used for other organizations. 

Unfortunately, as of 2012, none of the cultural agencies have taken the initiative to create a promotions program for smaller companies and independent artists.

Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance boasts on the website "proud to represent the community of WNY" but does not offer any means for small companies or artists to promote upcoming works. It does list the steering committees members with web-links, but no other sources of promotion are sighted. 

The newly formed Arts Initiative Services of WNY has a Facebook page that folks can post information they've already pasted on their pages, but haven't seen any opportunity offerings for companies or artists for dead-tree, online or radio media.  

The playing field remains uneven.

Ultimately, a theater company or arts organization has every right to reap the benefits from a successful season, a well-planned fundraiser or community donations based on reputation, and spend this money in whatever way it sees fit. 

The question of fairness comes into play only when funding comes from public or independent fundraising groups relying on donations given in a random manner. 

In a balance process, public money or donations from independent organizations, for example, Give for Greatness, should result in an equal share of this distribution. Each company receives "X" amount (nothing more or less), and they can spend the gift in whatever manner best serves the company. 

Another process needs to be implemented is lesser-than companies and independent artists receive a bigger portion of funds to, at the very least, be on advertisement par with their contemporaries. 

By getting funds reflective of their established peers, to be strictly spent on marketing, advertisement and promoting, these companies will have a greater opportunity to become more visible and increase ticket revenues. 

This would be the first step in leveling the playing field and add more diversity to WNY's cultural scene. As for the bigger economic picture, the broadened range of entertainment could act as an economic catalyst, in terms of generating cultural-tourist dollars, and stimulate growth for both private and public sectors. 

Not sure if this could become a reality. 

Foundations look to reputation and familiarity, Public money follows the same route and independent fundraisers will implement some formula that benefits those with bigger budgets. 

Who truly suffers in this disparity are the actors and designers who put in hard-work and effort to present top-notch theater only to find small houses as a reward.  There are great productions are being overlooked because the of the lack of funds to market the work in a broader means. 

Indeed, Michael Simmons has a point in saying word-of-mouth is a powerful tool in promotion. Simply allowing smaller companies the same promotional opportunities to bring in more "mouths" isn't some difficult paradigm shift. 

It just takes the vision to see that this region benefits when the "Haves" include the "Have Nots".