IN THIS EPISODE
Many of us are staring down end-of-fiscal-year goals, but it’s hard not to feel discouraged by prevailing economic uncertainty and ever-changing audience behavior. How do you keep your team motivated and mission-focused when the sands are shifting beneath your feet?
Hear from fellow arts marketers who are leading their teams in fresh and creative ways, and dig into positive industry trends that show us the way forward. Today’s episode is the boost of inspiration you need to cross the fiscal finish line.
Dan sits down with CI Senior Consultant Ali Blount to discuss our industry’s road to recovery. They review heartening research from IMPACTS Experience, share promising trends they’re noticing with CI clients, and offer tips for adapting your digital marketing strategy to meet the moment.
CI to Eye Interview with Van Ackerman
Dan joins Van Ackerman, VP of Marketing & Communications at Cincinnati Arts Association, to reflect on the resilience of the arts. They discuss leadership lessons from the ‘08 recession and the power of psychological leadership to motivate a team.
CI to Eye Interview with Charles Buchanan
Dan catches up with Charles Buchanan, Senior Director of Marketing & Audience Development at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. They discuss innovation during challenging times and tips for avoiding digital marketing ruts.
Dan Titmuss: Hello everyone. Dan here. Now, many of you are busy wrapping up your current seasons and announcing lineups for 23–24. As the curtain closes on another fiscal year, we thought we’d pause and reflect on the recovery of our industry so far. We’ve come a long way, that’s for sure, but it’s still tough out there for arts marketers, and selling tickets can feel like an uphill battle between inflation, economic uncertainty, and audiences just not behaving as they did before the pandemic. A lot of you are still clawing your way through the end of the fiscal year, so we thought we’d give you a little boost–just some extra inspiration to get you through this quarter. Today, I’ll chat with CI Senior Consultant Ali Blount about our industry’s road to recovery. We’ll review some uplifting research from IMPACTS Experience, discuss promising trends we’re seeing with clients, and dig into some heartening data that shows us a light at the end of the tunnel. We’ll also cover tips for adapting your digital marketing strategy to meet the current moment. Then I’ll sit down with Van Ackerman, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Cincinnati Arts Association. We’ll discuss cheetahs, enneagrams, and hard-won leadership lessons from the 2008 recession and how they might apply today, as well as the power of psychological leadership to motivate a team. Finally, I’ll catch up with Charles Buchanan, Senior Director of Marketing and Audience Development at Detroit Symphony Orchestra. We’ll talk about innovation during challenging times and tips for avoiding those digital marketing ruts that we can all fall into, especially when your first instinct is to constrict rather than expand. Hopefully these conversations will inspire you to cross that fiscal finish line with confidence. Let’s get started.
For today’s Media Moment, I’m joined by Ali Blount, a podcast favorite and Senior Consultant of CI. And theater nerd. I think that’s fair in saying that, right?
Ali Blount: Definitely fair to say. Yes.
Dan Titmuss: So it goes without saying this is a challenging time for the arts. It’s been a long few years since the pandemic and it’s hard to convince audiences to return, especially when consumer habits have changed permanently, right? People aren’t behaving as they were before the pandemic. There are still lingering health and safety concerns. People have less disposable income. There are more options out there. You know, we are kind of in a building year, right?
Ali Blount: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I think that you’re spot on that we’re in a very transitional year, and for some people, I think a very scary year, but there is a lot to be hopeful about. Even though things might feel a little hard right now, if you’re struggling to rebuild audiences, that is not just you, you’re not alone in this. Arts organizations are still recovering from what happened during the pandemic. Single ticket audiences are slower to return than expected. Data from JCA shows that subscription and membership sales are down 27% across the U.S. compared to pre-pandemic levels. People, you know, did kind of think that entering 2023, that perhaps there would be some improvement. And there are definitely some things to celebrate, but there is still that increased competition. And, you know, growth—regrowth—is perhaps not as fast as people might have wanted it to be.
Dan Titmuss: Yeah. At least if you’re feeling the burn right now, you’re not alone. But is there any good news?
Ali Blount: I would say there’s a lot of good news, actually.
Dan Titmuss: Oh, good!
Ali Blount: Yeah. I took a kind of informal poll here at CI of all the consulting teams, and I was curious if people are feeling like the clients that they work with are… sales are looking great, sales are looking not so great, sales are looking kind of in the middle. And actually, overwhelmingly—this surprised me—overwhelmingly, everybody said that sales are actually looking really good, and that’s something that I’m feeling with my clients that I work with. So it was kind of heartening to hear that that is the case across most of the organizations we’re working with. I have recently been pausing campaigns because there just aren’t tickets available for those shows anymore, which is very exciting. I love when I get to do that, when we can’t run campaigns, because what’s the point? There are no tickets. That’s really exciting. I have had multiple clients say that they’re reporting their best-ever sales for shows, you know, breaking records within their institutions. So that’s really exciting. I’m seeing, I would say, across all the organizations I work with, I think my ROIs, my return on investment, is pretty consistently, you know, 200%, 300%. In many cases, I’m seeing four-digit ROIs, and that’s in the smaller attribution window that Meta has—right now, the seven-one window, which is a very limited window. There are a lot of restrictions right now with Meta reporting, and that’s in that smaller attribution window. So we’re talking about really strong results coming in, actually. And as I said, that’s kind of, we’re seeing that across organizations that everybody works with.
Dan Titmuss: Yeah. And then we still have this feeling of like, oh, no, something’s gonna happen. Like you said, the other shoe’s gonna drop. Like even if the data doesn’t always support the reasons for that nervousness. Right?
Ali Blount: Yeah. I hate to say it because I feel like working in the arts, I feel like I wanna be, you know, I don’t wanna be cynical, but I feel like I’m kind of inherently a little cynical and I never wanna be like, yes, everything is successful. I mean, we are definitely hearing from a lot of organizations that there is a slump for sure. But on the flip side, we actually are hearing a lot of success stories. I think that the narrative right now across the industry is that there is actually kind of no narrative. There is really, there’s a mixed bag of results coming in. Yeah.
Dan Titmuss: There’s a reason to be optimistic, right? There’s a lot of things outside our control, but there are actions we can take to lessen the blow and deepen engagement with audiences, right?
Ali Blount: Absolutely. I mean, you know, we can’t change what the economy is doing, that’s out of our hands. But there are lots of things we can do. I think one of the really, really big ones is brand strategy, institutional branding. That is so important. And frankly, not enough people are doing that, of creating a really strong digital presence, emphasizing their organizational values, their mission, you know, what they stand for. Those are things that actually really matter. Especially now, we today are not competing with each other. We are competing with the whole world of options available. And there are a lot of options available and people have lost time to make up for. So, you know, people are not just deciding between going to the zoo versus going to see a play. They’re deciding between going on a cruise for two weeks or, you know, going to a movie or… there are so many options and people really need to pick and choose. We only have a finite amount of time. So there’s a lot of competition out there, and that’s honestly one of the big things is just cutting through the noise and showing people why they should be visiting your institution with their precious free time and their ability to go out into the world now. Why should your thing be the thing that they spend their time at? I think that’s a really big issue right now.
Dan Titmuss: Yeah, I love that you talked about the why first, right? Often as like arts marketers, we can, you know, as marketers in general, we often think about, when is this happening? Like, what is it? Where can you buy tickets and stuff, but the why is kind of your brand. It’s kind of like, why do people choose your organization? And I know you feel strongly about like, branded marketing campaigns.
Ali Blount: I really do. I think this is something that people don’t get across enough, and I think it is the message right now, it is so crucial right now, is the feeling of being in a live performance. I did not get Taylor Swift tickets, which I’m devastated about for when she comes to New York, and I keep telling myself—
Dan Titmuss: Can I tell you something?
Ali Blount: Yeah…
Dan Titmuss: I did.
Ali Blount: I don’t even wanna talk to you.
Dan Titmuss: I went to see her in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago. And it was very, very good. I’m like a big early Taylor Swift fan, and Natalie—my wife Natalie—is a big late Taylor Swift fan. So it was a perfect tour for us.
Ali Blount: Well, I’m upset about that. So I’m a huge Taylor Swift fan. I did not get tickets despite—there were many people trying to get tickets for our friend group, and none of us got tickets. And I was sort of thinking to myself, well, they recorded her last tour for Netflix. I could watch— presumably, they haven’t announced that they’re going to do that again, but I’m assuming that they are going to. And I asked myself, why am I willing to spend an exorbitant amount of money to see her live when I can probably just watch her on Netflix in you know, however, whatever strong of time? And I realized that it’s because it is such a different experience going and being part of that crowd and hearing people scream the lyrics that is such a different experience than just watching it in my home. And I think that is what all of performing arts, exhibition-based, everybody needs to get across, is what it feels like to walk in the doors and have that collective experience. So if you are not creating content that focuses on that, that is a huge missed opportunity. I think it’s so crucial. And then you of course need a campaign to support that. You can’t just create the content, put it out organically, and, you know, hope that a couple eyeballs get on it, which if you’re putting it out organically, that won’t be very many eyeballs. You need to support it with paid advertising, and that means an institutional branding campaign.
Dan Titmuss: Yeah. That sort of like mission centered messaging. Absolutely. So powerful. And it’s like, your brand is such a powerful thing. Yeah.
Ali Blount: I think of it as, programming-specific campaigns are the short game and institutional campaigns are the long game, and we need to be playing both games. If you just keep advertising your programming, only your shows, your exhibitions, people are gonna come, but you’re not gonna build your audiences. You’re just kind of gonna keep chugging along and like always trying to catch up and really racing. Whereas if you also play that long game and you really put money investing in messaging about your institution, that audience is going to grow so much, it’s gonna grow exponentially, and then it’s actually going to make your short game much easier because you have that built-in audience for your programming. So it’s not gonna cost you as much, and it’s not gonna take as much energy and money to get people in the door. So it’s super important. And look, there’s data behind this. One of the theaters I work with, I’ve been running a season-long campaign on Meta with them for years that literally is just about institutional branding. And they put in messages about random things, like maybe a great article comes out about them in the local paper, and we’ll just kind of advertise that. If they have a cool TV spot, we’ll advertise that. We’ll just put it out there. There’s no call to action. We’re not asking people for anything. We are literally just saying, here’s this information about our organization. And we recently added paid search to that effort, and we actually are finding that that paid search campaign has a return on investment that has thus far this season been consistently above 2000%. So we’re seeing massive value with these campaigns.
Dan Titmuss: Yeah, that paid search, that’s not surprising to me. ‘Cause like the SERP, the search engine results page, is something you can’t necessarily control. Right? It’s Google’s property. And so you need to do everything you can to get your branded SEO performing as it should, and then also supporting that with those paid campaigns as well.
Ali Blount: Absolutely. We also are finding, which is really cool and exciting, we’re finding that if you run these institutional campaigns, you actually are going to see an increase in associated donations.
Dan Titmuss: Oh, wow. That’s interesting.
Ali Blount: Yeah. The same theater where we started running this institutional branding campaign for them, you can actually see in the campaign results when we ran our end-of-year fundraising campaign, that campaign and the campaigns following it have had much stronger results. And presumably, you know, you can peg it to when we started institutional branding. And the thought is that you are already putting that story in front of people for a full year, or however many years. So it’s so much easier to convince people to donate when you don’t actually have to tell your story in this like, short strong of time in December. People already know your story. They know why you’re worthy.
Dan Titmuss: They already know who you are. Yeah. What else can we do? What other actions can we take?
Ali Blount: So another big thing is taking advantage of machine learning. Google has really invested in itself, and there’s never been a better time because of that to invest in Google, because they have really taken advantage of machine learning. You can use responsive formats now to tailor your ad to each user. So really being able to personalize your ads and make sure that people are seeing the type of ad that’s most going to resonate with them is crucial. And you can do that through machine learning. It’s like a built-in A/B test.
Dan Titmuss: Yeah. It’s exactly kind of what we used to do ten years ago, you know, in terms of that A/B test. But it does it more efficiently, more granular, and to more different segments of your audience. Right? So it’s like an A, B, C, D, E, F, G, all-the-alphabet test instead. Now speaking of investment, we’ve got another thing noted down here of another action people can take.
Ali Blount: Yeah. I mean, unsurprisingly, I’m going to say investing in your digital marketing. And I’m not just saying that because I work in digital marketing. It’s truly… you know, there’s so much data out there that says that you should not cut your budget—your marketing budget specifically—especially when, you know, in a time of tumult, but in general, you just shouldn’t be cutting your marketing budget. You know, organizations that sustained their marketing budgets during the pandemic found that once they were able to reopen and things kind of returned back to whatever state of normal we’re in, they found that those organizations have the most success now because they were remaining top of mind for people. So it’s kind of this like, interesting thing happening where people are doing well. So they’re gonna cut their marketing budget, but their marketing budget is the reason that they’re doing well in the first place.
Dan Titmuss: It’s also more expensive down the road, right?
Ali Blount: Absolutely. I mean, Bain did a study and they found that it’s gonna cost you about six to seven times as much to reacquire lost audiences than to keep the audiences that you already have. So if we’re thinking about cutting budgets and what you can and can’t afford to do, the one thing you really, really cannot afford to do is lose audiences. It is going to be so expensive to gain them back.
Dan Titmuss: Speaking of investing where it counts, we just announced the theme for this year’s Boot Camp conference, which was “Anchored in Impact.” It’s a lot like cutting through those distractions and honing in on areas that have like the largest impact for your organization. So if you are excited about today’s episode, we hope you’ll join us in New York or on demand to continue the conversation.
Ali Blount: I’m very excited for Boot Camp. You always learn so much there. And you know, of course, one other huge thing we can do is take leadership advice from people who have been through similar circumstances before. This is not the first time that we have been in a situation where the economy is uncertain or potentially, you know, on a downslide. We are in the arts. We repeatedly find creative ways to navigate these types of challenges. So we should learn from what happened in the past so that we don’t repeat those mistakes and we kind of move forward in a smart way.
Dan Titmuss: Right. That’s why I’m very excited about today’s episode. It’s a great reminder that our industry is resilient. Right? You know, even if you look at like, the majority of—this is a fun fact—the majority of Fortune 500 companies have been around for 20 years or less. Right? And the majority of organizations we work with have been around for longer than that. It just goes to show like, you know, our organizations are not these fragile little things. Right? We’re powerful. We’re strong.
Ali Blount: Oh, yes. We work with a lot of organizations that have been here for three digit numbers, or something around there. Yep. There, you know, obviously there were a lot of casualties of the pandemic, but I am heartened by what survived and what came out, and in some ways what came out stronger and leaner. I think that there are a lot of lessons just within that, but also, you know, as you said, there have been many instances of hard times in our country and our culture, and all of the organizations standing today, they’ve weathered those times and they’ve learned and they’ve grown. So there’s no reason to think that that won’t be the case here. We just need to make sure that we’re being smart and strategic about what we do.
Dan Titmuss: Yeah. There’s so much that is out of our control, but I feel like what I love about talking to you is, it makes me realize how much is in our control as well. So thank you so much for joining us and I hope you get Taylor Swift tickets soon.
Ali Blount: I really hope so. If anybody has them available, hit me up.
Dan Titmuss: I got them for $90. How crazy is that?
Ali Blount: Like, we’re not friends anymore.
Dan Titmuss: $90! What are the chances?!
Dan Titmuss: I’m really excited to talk with our next guest from the Cincinnati Arts Association. He’s an arts marketer extraordinaire, enneagram expert, and we’ve recently discovered we both have extensive knowledge about cheetahs. Van Ackerman, welcome to CI to Eye!
Van Ackerman: Thank you, Dan. Good to be here. Good to see you.
Dan Titmuss: It really resonated with me because my origin story was, I studied zoology and so I’ve got like a science background and I’ve always been obsessed with animals. But you, your origin story is you were an actor, correct?
Van Ackerman: Yes. That’s all I ever wanted to do. When I was 10 years old, I saw a high school production of My Fair Lady and said, that’s what I wanna do for the rest of my life. And that’s all I did through high school. I have an MFA from Ohio State University in acting and directing. And yeah, I just, I’ve always loved the arts. It started out, I think, as an escape for me. And then I realized that the arts have the power to change and transform lives. And the theater for me is a sacred place. I have the privilege of walking into a theater every day and feeling like it’s so sacred here. I just love what I do. So after I got my MFA in acting and directing, I acted and directed for many, many years around the country. I actually taught at Wittenberg University for a while. Then I began work at a regional theater in Columbus where I did ticketing development and marketing. I was doing some copywriting when that theater finally closed. And then I came down to Cincinnati because I had gotten a job here to manage the Broadway series here in town which I did for eight years. The last three of that, I was their Director of PR. And then after that in 2001 I joined the Cincinnati Arts Association where I work now as their Director of Marketing and PR. And after 22 years, I’m still here, and now I’m the Vice President of Marketing and Communications. So it’s been a long road.
Dan Titmuss: Amazing. And Cincinnati Arts Association is a huge operation. Right? You’ve served over half a million people across your venues?
Van Ackerman: Yeah. Yeah, between a half million to, I would say 800,000 annually. We manage two of the premier multipurpose arts centers here in Cincinnati: the Aranoff Center, our contemporary space, and Music Hall, which is our classical space. We have 12 resident companies between the two spaces including the Broadway series, which is here at the Aranoff Center, and the ballet, which is also here. They spend their time between here and Music Hall. Music Hall also houses the symphony, the pops, the May Festival, the opera. And there are a handful of small local resident companies here at the Aranoff Center. So in some way I help market all of the events that come into our venue, and most of the public facing communications come through this department. And I do all the media relations too. So we do a lot of things and a lot of digital marketing, which I’m sure will resonate with a lot of a lot of the viewers of this.
Dan Titmuss: We have a couple of listeners who dabble in that for sure.
Van Ackerman: I bet you do.
Dan Titmuss: So you are pretty busy then. That’s a lot, yeah. You wear a lot of hats and you’ve worked in the arts for a while. And you’ve experienced many of the ups and downs of our industry firsthand, including the 2008 recession.
Van Ackerman: Exactly, yeah.
Dan Titmuss: What was that like? Because I feel like we are now in a similar sort of place where it comes to like economic pressure. Do you see any similarities between then and COVID in terms of their impact on the arts?
Van Ackerman: Oh, of course. And I think we’ve all seen that. I think the, the biggest impacts that really affect what we do are, is a major shift in ticket buyer habits, which we saw with both of these, because there was just less disposable income with the economic pressure on everyone, which created a very tenuous time for all of us in the arts. Because that’s the business we’re in, is selling tickets to events. And as our president here calls it, it was a very ominous, very dark time. Because no one knew how long it was going to last. How long people would go with not wanting to come back or, or buying fewer tickets than they were doing. There was a slowdown in the product pipeline, so the product wasn’t out there the way it used to be. So those of us who present, there was a lot less to actually book and present in our venues. So there was this odd sort of sense of dread like I said, about will this ever end? So morale tended to be down, and there was, yeah, the uncertainty was just pervasive. As my boss said, it was a very ominous, dark time. And there was nothing like it ever before, so you didn’t know what to do with it. So you had to sit back and very quickly shift. And as some people say, it’s not a word we all love anymore, but pivot and make changes. The impact in the recession seemed to be a little bit shorter and a little less than it was, of course, with the pandemic, which was massive. The month of the shutdown, I think we all thought, oh, this will maybe last a week or two, or then maybe a month. And then when it went into three months, six months, and then a year, I think a lot of us had no idea, will this ever end? Will we have a job next year? When will we be back in business? So what happens in that is this collective trauma that happens to us all that we all have to deal with in some ways, which affects us even once we get back to almost normal. There’s still those, what I almost call post-traumatic effects that stick with us. We are getting back to really being in business, but we’re all doing it very differently. And many of us are doing it with absolutely or somewhat new staffs. I think 50% of our staff is new here right now. So that changes the whole dynamic of what it used to be because you’ve lost a lot of corporate history and a corporate knowledge in that. So yeah. There are many things I think we are still recovering from. One thing I think that happens during crisis periods like this, or dark and down periods, is that there’s a special kind of bonding that happens in talking to your colleagues and knowing you’re not alone in this, and that we’re all kind of in the same boat and we’re all trying to stay afloat, and how can we help each other get through that in trying different things. So I think that certainly helps keep morale up a little bit. It doesn’t help the frustration of where you’re at and what’s going on, and not knowing what’s gonna work or how long you’re gonna be in this boat. But it does help to know you’re not alone in there.
Dan Titmuss: Yeah. And we all—the majority of people in this industry come from a background where we’ve, as you said, you were an actor, you’ve had like this actor background. I also have like an acting and writing background. And so we come from a place where we’re in this for a reason. Right?
Van Ackerman: Right. Yeah. I think unlike maybe some people in the corporate world who work for money, I think we work for the passion of it. I think most of us are very, very passionate about what we do. One thing that keeps me in this—and I can’t think of anything else I would be doing in with my life other than working in the arts—is that I truly believe that the arts are transformative and really can change lives. So walking into this theater space every day is walking into a sacred place for me. So there’s that deep connection we all have for what we do that I think also buoys us up in times like this and puts us perhaps in a different place, like you said.
Dan Titmuss: Yeah. So, fast forward to today. There are plenty of arts marketers who are hitting these roadblocks for the first time and feeling discouraged. Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to them?
Van Ackerman: Just remember that all of us in the U.S. are resilient. And doing this as long as I have, I’ve weathered many storms with the people I work with. And we’ve always come out the other side. In some ways we’ve come out of it better. It may take a while, but you’ll get there. And remain adaptable. We are very adaptable creatures, I think, in the arts. I think marketers especially are. We have to adapt all the time as how we market and how people get their information changes, as technology changes. And trust that you can get through that, and as these shifts happen, especially in the darkest of times where it’s hard to understand what’s going on, rely on your data. I mean, do surveys, get anything you can to know what your audiences are telling you, and then make reactions and make new decisions. And like I said before, also, just that constant sharing of ideas with each other, supporting each other and learning from each other as we go through this, are some of the ways I think we can get through it.
Dan Titmuss: I think it’s a massive strength of our industry, being able to talk to other organizations. I think as arts marketers we’re very good at chatting to other organizations and sharing, you know, and sort of leading that with empathy.
Van Ackerman: Yeah. It’s a remarkably collaborative industry that we are in, and that could be really kind of rare to us. And even in Cincinnati, the arts group here, we’re always getting together and talking about what we’re doing and what’s working, what’s not working, and working together on things. It’s kind of remarkable and really helpful to know that you’re not alone in this.
Dan Titmuss: Yeah. Absolutely. So the past few years have been challenging for all of us. Right? Both personally and professionally. But how do you meet your colleagues where they are and lead with empathy?
Van Ackerman: Well, for me it’s pretty easy ’cause I’m instinctually empathic. That’s just kind of where I’m based as a personality. It’s a big part of my leadership skills. That’s how I sort of come at everything that I do. Which is helpful in this industry because I think we’re in a very empathic industry to begin with. So the emphasis on psychological principles of leadership has always been very important to me. One thing I use to do that—and there are many systems like this—I use something called the enneagram, which has served me very well. I’ve been studying this for now for 15 years. Most of my staff also knows the enneagram. I know all of their personality types. They know mine. Here it’s helped me understand the reactivity that people have, especially in times like this, in terms of what they’re feeling, what their point of view is about things, how they make decisions because of that. And then how we could dynamically work together within that, knowing those styles that we all have, and how we can support each other in that.
Dan Titmuss: Yeah. With those, with enneagrams or the others… What is it, Myers-Briggs?
Van Ackerman: Myers-Briggs, DISC… There are many of them out there. Yeah.
Dan Titmuss: It’s so interesting to apply that to yourself. Often it’s about, oh, what is this person, what is this person? Sometimes I’ve used those like… I think I’m an enneagram seven. And like, I apply that to myself. I’m like, okay, why am I thinking the way I do? That’s a really interesting way of like looking inwards and sort of double checking yourself sometimes.
Van Ackerman: Yeah, it is. And I think the more aware you can be of yourself and how you operate and what your style is, the better you can be in working with other people. I use it here all the time in knowing what another person’s style is. Oftentimes to see where the conflict is there for me. Why does that person drive me crazy? Or, why don’t we work well together? And then knowing both of those, I can then shift, make some changes, or meet them where they’re at. I think it’s really, really important in this kind of empathic work so that we are working better together. There’s a deep, deep understanding of where we come from, not just from a strategic way, but I think from an emotional and psychological perspective, which has really helped build a very strong and trusting team here. I find sometimes leaders, a lot of leaders don’t naturally gravitate to this kind of work. They’re more into the strategic work, which is also very important and whatever we do in the day-to-day operations and the day-to-day decision making. But if you can combine that with this work also, in terms of understanding your team, I think it creates a much better work environment. Especially, once again, during these very difficult, odd times ’cause there’s so much emotion going on in that, that we all have to balance so that we can just do our work more effectively.
Dan Titmuss: So everyone is eager to return to 2019 attendance numbers, especially senior leaders. How do you navigate those conversations and ensure you are setting realistic revenue goals?
Van Ackerman: Yeah, I think one important thing if you can get there is to understand where you’re at and where the situation’s at. And really acknowledge that we probably can’t go back to the way it was before. There is no normal anymore. And coming to some kind of levelset. And to be then very realistic with those goals and what you have ahead of you. One thing I know we’ve had to do here was really break down some silo mentality about people sort of working only in their own areas of really not talking to each other, to let each other know what our boundaries are, what can and cannot be done within our own departments. And then moving on from there.
Dan Titmuss: Our industry has faced so much disruption as of late and we’re still really figuring out what the industry looks like going forwards. What are the causes of hope?
Van Ackerman: Oh, I think there’s a lot of hope that comes out of these dark times. I personally feel like even in my own personal life, I grow the most and learn more about myself and about things when I’m struggling and when I’m challenged than when I’m successful and I’m comfortable. I don’t think a lot of growth comes out of comfort. I think growth comes out of challenge. And it doesn’t get more challenging than the recession or the pandemic. And I think if we all look back over those times and look at what came out of it, we’ll find that there are a lot of wonderful innovations, a lot of changes that we’ve used, a lot of new ways of doing things that may not have happened if we weren’t challenged like that. And I think one thing we have to do with this is look back and really objectively look to what happened and say, these are the changes we made. What works now and what doesn’t? What can we let go of? What do we keep? Why do we keep it? And really kind of pat ourselves on the back that we’ve actually learned from this.
Dan Titmuss: If you could broadcast one message to the executive directors, leadership teams, staff, and boards of a thousand arts organizations, what would that message be?
Van Ackerman: Through any dark times like this, just have patience and stay creative. As I said before, arts organizations are resilient. So are the people who run them and work for them. And we’ve weathered many storms like this. And we will come out the other side and we will come out better. And I mean, trust that, trust your team, trust your staff, and treat each other with love and respect.
Dan Titmuss: Yeah. Trust and patience. That’s a good message. Not just for arts organizations, it’s just a good message for humans, I think.
Van Ackerman: In life in general. Yeah.
Dan Titmuss: What an awesome point to end on. Van, I’ve enjoyed this chat so much. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Van Ackerman: You too, Dan. And I’ll tell you the full cheetah story one day.
Dan Titmuss: So I’m here with Charles Buchanan from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to talk about innovation during challenging times. Charles, thanks so much for being here.
Charles Buchanan: Thanks for having me, Dan.
Dan Titmuss: Now, you’ve worked in marketing for some pretty high profile arts organizations like the New York Phil and Sydney Opera House. Tell us a bit more about your background. Like, did you always know you wanted to work in the arts?
Charles Buchanan: Well, I guess unlike many people in this industry, I’m not a performer or a musician or artist in any way. But I am a pretty avid attendee of performing arts experiences across all genres. I’m kind of one of those people that does a little bit of everything all the time. And that started in high school. And so when I went to university, I ended up in the box office at the Penn State Center for the Performing Arts working, and just discovered that I could make a career out of that. And that was about 20 years ago. So along the way I worked in a few other box offices before landing in the marketing teams at New York’s 92nd Street Y and the New York Philharmonic. And then I also worked at the Sydney Opera House for a few years before landing where I am now at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Dan Titmuss: Amazing. Sydney Opera House is so beautiful. I’ve seen it from the outside, but not the inside, when I was there. I was only in Sydney for a couple of days and it was such a beautiful building.
Charles Buchanan: Yeah. It’s the biggest team I’d ever worked in marketing with, like 40 to 50 people. And surprisingly, most of the visitors don’t come in the building. It’s somewhere in the realm of like eight to nine million people come up just to take a photo there. And then it’s about like one and a half million that actually buy a ticket to something. So…
Dan Titmuss: Oh, just one and a half million. Yeah. No biggie. And you are currently at Detroit’s largest—one of Detroit’s largest performing arts organizations, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. So tell us a bit more about your role there and what you do.
Charles Buchanan: Well I joined the Detroit Symphony about 15 months ago and I lead the marketing and patron services and sales teams. That’s about 12 full-time people. And we oversee a budget of 2 million to generate about 7 million in ticket sales. And I was really drawn to this position leaving New York to come here because the DSO has a really unique profile in the performing arts, known for trying new things and taking risks, and that whole idea of innovation and risk-taking really resonated with me, and it’s so far a great experience.
Dan Titmuss: Mm-hmm. So you said you’ve been at DSO for like 15 months or so. So you joined in sort of early 2022. Let’s talk about that. How was that, coming into the organization? And let’s talk about, what were you tasked with when you came in?
Charles Buchanan: Yeah, well probably like many teams coming back from the pandemic to live performances in the fall of 2021, they were definitely… a lot of the team was struggling to get going. Half the roles were empty. So my main mandate was to rebuild the team and get the roles hired for, train up new people. And then the second big mandate was really to focus on the sales and attracting new audiences to address just the attendance being down. Last year our attendance was down overall about 30% compared to before the pandemic. Mainly what I tried to do is work to quickly bring stability to the team. And especially, even though I wasn’t there in the months that were probably the most chaotic before I arrived, I tried to just show empathy, to appreciate what they’d gone through before they had a boss that had all the empty roles filled. And mainly that everything was gonna be okay.
Dan Titmuss: Yeah, absolutely. I I love that you said that you weren’t in a rush to build things back. And like, taking time to question things, especially in terms of like, what rules have we been following that you don’t necessarily need to follow going forwards?
Charles Buchanan: Yeah. I think during this time where we’re facing very different challenges than we’ve ever faced as arts marketers–with audience behavior, with sales…—we have to be questioning everything and thinking about why we’re doing things the way we’re doing [them]. You just sort of, once you have a plan, you copy, you paste it year over year. And in some cases, some of these plans probably have been going for decades, but then the pandemic blew up everything in good and bad ways. But because I was coming in new, I didn’t wanna just try to spend time figuring out, how did they do this before I arrived, before the pandemic? And really look at what made sense to meet the moment. So we really did overhaul a lot of things. First of all, we completely deconstructed the entire marketing expense budget and where the money went. We started making the time to do data analysis on certain questions we had before making big decisions. And then we also, not just the expense budget, but we also kind of looked at all the processes within the organization, within the marketing team, and tried to be sure that they made sense for what we were doing and were the most efficient. And the other big thing we did was really looked at the messaging on everything. ‘Cause sometimes you’re moving so fast in marketing, you just want to push the campaigns out, but really taking the time to ask, is this message saying what we need to say to attract people back? It can’t just be like, here’s the program. We really need to romance them a little bit, remind them of like the experience to get them off the couch. So all of that basically meant that we dropped our investment in a lot of traditional media, especially radio advertising. And then we also worked to move into some more efficient marketing technology. So one of the things we did there is implemented a sales pacing tool that just… we can see in real time what’s happening so we can make very quick, nimble decisions. One of the other things we’ve been doing is evaluating our subscription model and working to provide more flexible options to lift people up from the level of single ticket up to the next level of commitment and looking at packages where we can have a lower concert commitment to attract new subscribers. And then the other thing is, our audiences have definitely noticed and commented on the change that we made to kind of our messaging and the look and feel of our creative materials and content. So I think the investment in that, not just messaging, but photography, better videography, has made a difference.
Dan Titmuss: Yeah. I like what you said about like reminding people what it was like to get off the couch and get back into things. I think that’s been common across a lot of organizations. We’ve seen, like, really the most powerful messaging has been like, Hey, this is why you go to live events. Remember when you weren’t just on your couch for 18 months in the pandemic?
Charles Buchanan: Yeah. Because the basic marketing is… Right. You’re gonna have the date, the time, the program, or the blurb about whatever it is. But that’s not enough right now. We’ve really invested in—especially to our core people that were coming at a high frequency before—where we, if… say it’s a mailer, we have a few pages of just really branded, beautiful imagery and language that’s just like pulling you in and reminding you of the experience of live music and the emotions of it. And then it gets to the nuts and bolts. Here’s what’s happening, day and time, the location. Yeah.
Dan Titmuss: Yeah, leading with the why and then doing the who, what, when after. That sort of thing. You mentioned subscriptions and that is a big topic for arts organizations right now. What does the future of subscriptions look like to you?
Charles Buchanan: Great question. Well, I think first of all, a lot of people say subscriptions are dead. I do not believe subscriptions are dead. They’re still a huge amount of our ticket inventory and revenue and also a huge amount that comes in in such a short amount of time. Like, I think about, we just launched eight weeks ago. We’ve already brought in what will probably be about a third of our revenue for the year in eight weeks by just a few brochures to those people. So it’s a long way from subscriptions as we know it being dead. But the main thing is subscriptions do continue to decline. And also the types of subscriptions people prefer is rapidly changing. I think the pandemic accelerated all of these trends. For us, before the pandemic, it was seen as a huge benefit where you have like this tiny group of people buying a majority of your inventory. So sometimes that’s like 20% of your households buying like 60 to 70% of your ticket inventory. It’s like, great, we only need that small group of people. But what happened during the pandemic is such a small group of them just stopped coming, but it’s a huge impact. So one of the first things we’ve tried to do just to understand our problem with subscriptions was really hear from audiences, especially the people who’ve lapsed. So we’ve been doing some pretty in-depth surveying and learning a lot from that. The first thing is that people are reporting to us. They very intentionally are doing a lot less, like they’re eating out less, they’re attending less performances, less museums, and they’re also reporting that they’re intentionally coming less to the DSO if they’re coming at all. And so really, to address all of that, like I said, we’ve tried to kick our marketing materials up a notch with the messaging and the design to really have like impactful pieces and campaigns. But the other thing, to address one of the things we are hearing on the surveys, our lapsed audiences were reporting they want more flexibility. So we really dumbed down on a create-your-own product, which wasn’t really an official product at the DSO before the last two years. So we made it like an official product, you could buy it right along with the traditional subscriptions. And last year that grew to being 20% of our subscriptions. And actually 85% of those were new subscribers. So the main thing though that all of this has helped with this year is that, last year where our subscriptions were down 30%. We’ve closed that gap and we’ll end this year where we’re down 17% compared to pre pandemic. So we’re hoping that that’s an indication that things will continue to build back up.
Dan Titmuss: Yeah. So no topic is off limits for questioning. That opens up a lot of possibilities for reinvention. How do you help your team set priorities?
Charles Buchanan: I think the main thing is, right now there’s so many things that we could be doing that there’s not enough hours in the day, because with attendance down, it’s like you could go, go, go and everyone works like 60 hours, 80 hours a week. And that is just not sustainable. So the main thing is to empower people in my team to know it’s okay to say no to certain things and also to let go of things that we’ve done in the past.
Dan Titmuss: Yeah. How do you make sure everyone is heard in meetings and brainstorms?
Charles Buchanan: Yeah, so during this time where things are kind of unknown and you really need to be nimble and react, I think the main thing is really like unlocking the team’s creativity and brainstorming potential. And so I’ve really tried to create an environment in the marketing team where everybody can share ideas and there’s no bad idea. I’ve tried to check myself, even when there’s something we’re trying to do and I might have my own ideas of the way I would do it, to be open to the team’s suggestions of other ways to get there.
Dan Titmuss: Yeah. So I heard that you had a big brainstorm session recently with your team. What did that process look like and what were some of the ideas that came out of that?
Charles Buchanan: Yeah, so because we’ve been kind of living in this space of brainstorming more and thinking creatively, we actually set up basically a two and a half day retreat in our building. And we had about 25 to 30 members of our team included. And we were all of marketing, all communications, some folks from the fundraising team, and the artistic programming and operations teams. And we got everybody gathered together, we told them to clear their schedules, no meetings, have your work done in advance, or set aside the work. Nobody’s like on email in the meetings. And basically just to think about, to think creatively about what we could be doing with our organization and our brand. And we had this terrific facilitator, Tito Melega, who’s a veteran of brand advertising. And one of the biggest challenges that—one of the biggest things that Tito challenged us with was thinking about what if. And essentially if an idea comes out and somebody thinks, oh, that’s impossible, but you can start to poke around the edges of the idea and be like, yeah, but what if you did this with it? Then maybe it is a feasible option. And anyway, we had a lot of ideas. Some are now kind of behind the scenes in development. But there was one that really rose to the top as being an easy one to do quickly. And that was having the DSO do a campaign as part of Detroit’s 313 Day, which is a big day on March 13th, and 313 is the Detroit area code. So we thought, well, what if we did a $3.13 ticket, which is pretty insane of a discount. But we went ahead and did that. We did $3.13 tickets on 313 day and it worked ’cause it cut through everything and all the different media outlets picked it up. I think we were covered in over 20 different area newspapers, television… and basically what that led to was a pretty busy day on March 13th between our website and the box office. We ended up selling nearly nine thousand $3.13 tickets, and 65% of those were brand new buyers. And the interesting thing was it also caused a lift across all of our products that weren’t even on the promotion. So we sold about another three thousand tickets that day. So it ended up being twelve thousand tickets sold in one day. And a lot of new people that are now in the pipeline.
Dan Titmuss: Yeah. Many arts marketers at this time feel that they want to constrict innovation because of revenue goals. And just by everything you’ve said, it’s just… you are putting innovation and like a growth mindset at the forefront of everything you do. What’s driving that growth mindset?
Charles Buchanan: I think it’s a necessity to be thinking about growth and to innovate during this time. I mean, the market that we operate in is just, not only is it dramatically different than before the pandemic, like I don’t think it’s gonna ever return to what it was. So we have no choice but to adapt and innovate to meet the moment. I also think that although we talk a lot about the stress of the moment right now as marketers with attendance down, we’ve also never had the freedom to do new things like we have now because you really can blame it on the pandemic. So I find it kind of fun that we’ve just had our creativity unlocked to try anything. Like all of that’s a good thing because we’re gonna come out of this operating more efficient than we’ve ever operated and possibly reaching new audiences or growing programs in the long term. Another huge benefit has been the impact on our marketing team, from the brainstorming to sharing ideas, trying new things… I can see that everyone is more engaged than they were a year ago. Although we are still a very new team and we have a lot more of growing and getting to know each other, the vibe is different and the visible collaboration that is happening is awesome.
Dan Titmuss: Mm-hmm. Why do you think innovation and experimentation are key to success in marketing and leadership?
Charles Buchanan: First of all, I guess I think about innovation… It’s not just thinking about technology or like rapid changes or flashy changes, which is what comes to mind for many people. I recently read a book called Great By Choice, which studied a lot of the big corporations over the last 50 years and, and the ones that were the most successful, how were they led and how were they managed? And one of the quotes from that was that across the board, all the leaders and all those leaderships tended to be more disciplined, more empirical. And I think about the empirical part where you’re constantly looking at how things are doing, looking at the data, you’re rapidly and frequently experimenting with new things. To me that’s innovation. And sometimes it’s behind the scenes and maybe not seen by the public at all, and sometimes it’s not sexy like other kinds of things we think of with innovation. So I think that’s the biggest thing I would wanna get across to people about innovating. Like if you’re just looking at like how different things are operating and studying the results and the numbers and maybe arriving at things to make them more efficient behind the scenes, that’s innovation. You can start there.
Dan Titmuss: Yeah. Sometimes you’re dealing with a lot of unsold inventory and that can feel discouraging. How do you keep your team motivated and forward thinking when you, when you have those sort of empty halls a little bit?
Charles Buchanan: Yeah. Well as a leader I’ve tried to clearly name that like, okay, this is what the sales are, this is what it looks like. It’s okay, we’re gonna talk about it, the good and the bad. Like we’re not gonna skirt around the issue. But then to also stress to the team that we’re not gonna be just measured by… our success is not gonna be only measured by the sales and attendance right now. And not to let those numbers be discouraging. And that’s even a lesson to myself ’cause I’m very numbers-driven. Like, I’m one of those people that opens that report first thing every morning and looks at every single concert and what’s moved and what hasn’t. And to just realize like, okay, it’ll take maybe a few seasons to get back there. And then the other thing is like really not to operate in a mode of like, every single day and moment can’t be a crisis. And last year that was really tough because every concert was in a crisis situation, as far as the sales. But if you get people stressed out working in that environment, then they’re not gonna deliver their best work. And what I want is the team to be operating in a happy and healthy way and thriving so that they’re nimble and they’re making the best decisions when they’re thinking creatively. And that’s gonna help everything in the long run instead of, you know, just kind of thinking everything’s on fire.
Dan Titmuss: Yeah. I think as people who love the arts, we are emotionally tied to it quite heavily. Right? But in the same way, when we care about something, sometimes that emotion can be a little bit crushing when you have, you know, empty seats.
Charles Buchanan: Yeah. And this is why it’s so important for everyone to talk to their colleagues in the industry and to help people that you meet outside your organization. Because for me, the biggest thing that eases my mind is to know we’re not the only ones. Like everyone in some ways is chasing a different kind of audience behavior and attendance. And it’s not just us or not just, you know…
Dan Titmuss: Yeah. What values do you try to embody as a leader?
Charles Buchanan: The first thing is transparency. So I try to really talk through with them everything that’s happening, decisions I’m making and why and what I’m thinking. The other thing is to really trust the team to do things. Even if they would do it a different way than what I would want. That’s the best way I found people grow and really start to contribute. And then the other big thing is just trying to create a positive environment and room for fun, so, ways to celebrate each other and to celebrate wins. So we start every weekly meeting of the full department with shoutouts. That’s always right at the top of our agenda and it’s just a way for people to go around and just freely—if they wanna contribute or not—shout out somebody who’s helped them in the past week do something, or some big accomplishment we’ve made as a team. And it’s always a really fun way to set the tone of the meeting, of the vibe that we want. And then the other thing is we’ll do our best work the more connection that we’ve created across all of the individuals in the team. So within our team, we’ve created kind of like a fun committee and I’ve tasked them with like, thinking about things to get us together, especially when we’re hybrid and not always physically together. And so we always change it up and do different things. But I think it’s really important for us because so many of us are either new or new to our roles and that’s how we really are building up the relationships among us.
Dan Titmuss: Yeah. And having those experiences where you are sort of with someone and not thinking about work necessarily. It can help you when you’re at work feel like, oh, I can just pick up the phone to this person, or…
Charles Buchanan: Yeah, exactly.
Dan Titmuss: Has your team’s commitment to innovation paid off? Are you seeing positive results or tickets this season?
Charles Buchanan: It has. So last year, like I said, the 21–22 season, we ended about—across the board—30% down. And this year we’re projected to end about 16% below pre-pandemic. So like that gap, we like halved it. But within that, there’s now two very different stories. Last year we were kind of down across the board—subscriptions, single tickets, groups tickets—all of our audience segments. We’ve actually entirely closed the gap on single tickets this season. And we’re projecting if things go the way they look, a few of our series might actually be somewhat record-setting on number of single tickets sold. So… I almost don’t wanna say it cause I don’t wanna jinx it, we have a few months of sales left, but just how everything’s pacing. But I think the biggest thing is focusing hard on our single tickets because no matter what, those are the pipeline to become future subscribers and future donors. And so we really try to get as many of those in this year. And so we’re gonna end the season with about 3,000 more unique buyer households than we’ve ever had in the past decade, per year. So it’s not just like we’re getting the same old people back. It’s like definitely growing and we’re getting a lot more single ticket buyers. So I think these wins are equal parts our team’s efforts paying off, and then also equal part, the market environment has improved dramatically. And people are just finally willing, audiences are finally willing to get off the couch and come out to a concert.
Dan Titmuss: Awesome. Amazing. So you mentioned before the book Great By Choice and that kind of looked at the business side of different industries. You said before that you want the business side of the arts to operate as sophisticatedly as the artistry on display. Tell us some more about that perspective.
Charles Buchanan: Yeah, this is something I’m pretty passionate about, just having worked at so many different organizations and across different cities, that the musicians and the performers and the artists are the best in the world that are on stage. And I really think there should be equal investment in the administrators who are basically making the business decisions, running the business side. So I think it’s important that organizations invest in talent, in developing a pipeline of future leaders for their organizations and for the industry as a whole, and along with that, also equal investment in technology and process and efficiencies. It’s kind of almost comparable to like, you always have the best lighting, the best sound, and the best instruments behind the scenes to make a performance work. You’d want the same thing for the business side. So all of this would lead to having a world-class administration around our world-class arts organizations.
Dan Titmuss: Mm. So if you could broadcast one message to the executive directors, leadership teams, staff, and boards of a thousand different arts organizations, what would it be?
Charles Buchanan: I think the most important message right now is that we have to let go of what things look like before the pandemic. If I had a dollar for every time I have to say pre-pandemic in every single presentation and every single meeting… And if you think about it, for most organizations, our last completed season was 2018–2019, which is now four years ago. And so we know for certain that it’s a very different market today and that things have been changed permanently. How people consume entertainment, how they spend their time, whether they leave the house or don’t leave the house… And we need to basically accept that this current year is the new benchmark. And if our attendance numbers don’t work for what we need, we need to be thinking about how we grow from there and how we attract new audiences to replace what we’ve lost.
Dan Titmuss: Yeah. So many of our clients have attempted to sort of constrict their marketing plans when they feel pressure and you’ve done the opposite and found ways to stay creative and innovative and expand at the same time. And it’s, as you said, yielded amazing results. It goes to show that we need that innovation and creativity to avoid marketing ruts. You can’t just stick to the same old, same old and expect different results. So this has been an awesome conversation. So thank you so much for joining us, Charles.
Charles Buchanan: It was a pleasure to be here.
Dan Titmuss: Thank you for listening to CI to Eye. This episode was edited and produced by Karen McConarty and co-written by Karen McConarty and Krisi Packer. Stephanie Medina and Jess Berube are CI to Eye’s designers and video editors, and all four work together to create CI’s digital content. Our music is by whoisuzo. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube for regular content to help you market smarter. You can also sign up for our newsletter at capacityinteractive.com so you never miss an update. And if you haven’t already, please click the subscribe button wherever you get your podcasts. Until next time, stay nerdy.
About Our Guests
Senior Consultant, Capacity Interactive
Ali Blount is a Senior Consultant of Digital Marketing at Capacity Interactive. She joined the CI team after working in marketing and management at Roundabout Theatre Company and the Huntington Theatre Company. She received a bachelor’s degree with honors in English from Harvard University, and then earned her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.
Sr. Director of Marketing & Audience Development, Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Charles Buchanan is the Senior Director of Marketing & Audience Development at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. He has twenty years of experience in marketing for the performing arts, and has worked with institutions such as the New York Philharmonic, the Sydney Opera House, and 92nd Street Y. Charles is a champion of optimal use of analytics and marketing technology to drive efficient campaigns and to grow audiences.
VP of Marketing & Communications, Cincinnati Arts Association
Van Ackerman is the Vice President of Marketing & Communications at Cincinnati Arts Association (CAA), where he recently celebrated his 22nd year with the organization. Prior to CAA, Van worked with the Fifth Third Bank Broadway Series as Managing Director and Director of Public Relations. He holds a B.A. in Theatre Arts from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL, and an M.F.A. in Acting from The Ohio State University. After graduation, Van worked professionally as an actor/director/professor across the country, including a year in Cincinnati with ArtReach Touring Theater. He has created and chaired major fundraising events for the Cincinnati Zoo’s Angel Fund and Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (board member 2000–2006). Van is a Leadership Cincinnati (Class 30) alum and chaired its Arts & Culture Day committee for many years. In addition, he has studied the Enneagram for more than fifteen years, a tool he uses professionally and personally.
Erik speaks with Courtney and Russell about the New Victory Theater’s Spark Change research, quantifying the positive impact of performing arts education on kids.