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Our People Crisis in the Arts

Our People Crisis in the Arts

CI to Eye with Jill Robinson

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Erik and Jill talk about how people are more valuable than data, how organizations need to take responsibility for the success and failures of their employees, and how organizations must be as excellent throughout the whole institution as they are on the stage.

Erik Gensler: Welcome to CI to Eye. I’m Erik Gensler. I’m an entrepreneur, an arts marketer, and on a lifelong quest to learn and grow personally and professionally. In this podcast, I interview leaders and thinkers inside and outside of arts marketing to understand how we can grow to be the best we can be. My goal: to see eye to eye. I sat down with Jill Robinson, president and CEO of TRG Arts. Jill was a marketing leader at Symphony Orchestras before becoming a client of TRG and then an owner and company president. She helped grow the firm from a marketing consultancy focused on symphony orchestras to a data-driven consulting firm that now works with arts and cultural organizations across the globe.

Jill Robinson: We are deeply uncomfortable with the business requirements of running arts and cultural institutions, and so we can see and understand why we need to invest in what’s on stage. I really want to challenge the field to think differently. We must be as excellent throughout the institution as we are on stage or it won’t be sustainable.

Erik Gensler: This is a very long conversation, but I think super valuable for anyone working in any capacity at an arts organization today. We talked about how people are more valuable than data, how organizations need to take responsibility for the success and failures of their employees, and how organizations must be as excellent throughout the institution as they are on the stage. Thank you so much for joining me today. I’m super excited about this conversation. I’m a big fan of your work, so I’m really happy that you’re here today.

Jill Robinson: I’m so glad to be here, Erik. It’s great to be in New York on this frosty day and nice to be inside here with you.

Erik Gensler: Awesome. So I read in your bio that you are a futurist at heart. What does that mean?

Jill Robinson: I enjoy thinking out to the sort of top of the mountain, if you will. I enjoy thinking about what is possible for the field, what is possible for the firm and at TRG we do a lot of exploration of people so that we understand who they are and what they bring to the table. And I’ve learned this about myself and I suppose I’ve always known it, but I like to think about where we’re going as a field.

Erik Gensler: Where do you think we’re going as a field?

Jill Robinson: Well, I am glass half full, Erik, and so while there is a great deal of uncertainty right now and we see that boy, we see that everywhere we work. So we work in four countries now in the UK and Australia and Canada and the us. And so my viewpoint is one that is a little global right now and there’s a great deal of uncertainty and yet, and yet I see a great deal of reason for optimism because the question about what priorities are in the countries in which we operate, what priorities are for the arts in this country is right at the tip of everyone’s tongue. It sort of started with Brexit, but even before Brexit, government funding in the arts in the UK was shifting. It had long shifted here.

And so as I look out, I see both that landscape shifting and at the same time I see our clients and the people in the communities that they serve engaging more deeply with more resonance and in more relevant ways. I see more ticket buyers, more subscribers, more donors, more members. And I see the excellence with which these organizations are operating not only at the artistic level but also at the administrative level that says to me, this absolutely can be sustainable. And I see millennials as the future. They were raised by boomers. They know and care deeply about the things that arts and cultural institutions do. They’re going to transform the way this looks in very, very, very positive ways.

Erik Gensler: That’s fantastic. And that fills me with optimism, which is good because it’s easy to look at some of the dark things happening with who knows if this NEA talk is just a threat or could actually happen. What is your sense that if the NEA was dissolved, I have this sort of wishful magical thinking that some foundation’s going to come in and say, you know what? We’re going to cover this or that institutions will figure out alternatives. I’m just interested in your thoughts there.

Jill Robinson: Yeah, I have allowed myself to imagine this. I’ve allowed myself to go all the way down to the total abolishment of, and I actually, I give it a 70 30 in my own mind that it will not happen. I suspect there’ll be some adjustment, but if it did, mid and major markets aren’t going to feel much of a shift at all. 1% less comes from in our country. We have learned how to operationalize and sustain without government support. Now there’s an imprint tour that the NEA provides. It’s very positive, sort of a good housekeeping seal of approval. And past 10, 20 years, their shift in funding strategies have meant very good things for arts and culture across the country. So there’s the downside, smaller rural areas and the question is who will step in? Who will value? Now, this is where my optimism comes in.

Arts and culture play a role, like churches play a role, they bring people together and I think that will be missed. I think it’s, in fact, I had a really, really interesting conversation about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and where creative expression fits within. And I was challenged by a person I was talking to see creative expression as one of the most basic human needs at TRG. Over the past few years, we’ve gotten really clear about why we do what we do. And one of the reasons that we do what we do is because we think people are better because arts and culture helps us connect, commune, dialogue, fight, see other perspectives in these healthy ways and in putting together the visuals and sort of associated materials around that Y for us. One of them was a photo from a refugee camp in France and they created in this camp.

I learned about it when I was visiting the uk. The gentleman who was working there came with a presentation about the art camp. The art tent rather that had come up had been created by these refugees in France because they needed a place to feel human. So what will happen, I don’t know if it will be a funder who comes in with the cape and says or whether in fact it will be people who will say, we need a place to sing and we need a place to act. And so we’re not ready to let this happen. I tend to believe the latter and I think it’s a basic human need that we all have. So we’ll see. But I’m optimistic.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, I’m too and I really hope you’re right. I’d love to learn a little bit more about you. Could you give us a brief professional bio how you sort of in broad strokes got to where you are now?

Jill Robinson: Yeah, I was a frustrated music geek, that kid who played instruments and sang musicals, that sort of thing, and got a small scholarship to Indiana University, but had to early on decide am I good enough to, and I said no. And so for a while I thought I went to journalism school and thought I’d write for Rolling Stone or spin or something really, really cool like that. And instead of that, my first job out of school was for my local symphony orchestra. Where was that? In Fort Wayne, Indiana. And I worked in the marketing department and I was ambitious. So I worked there and then worked another place and kind of moved cities as I gained experience and the ability to make things happen. And then I met this fellow named Rick Lester. He was just starting, he was a sole proprietor back then. He was just starting his consultancy, a marketing consultancy.

And I had a boss at the time at the Kansas City Symphony who said, Hey, I’ve got a friend who is wanting to, he’s offering consulting services. Would you be interested if I was willing to invest? And ambitious young Jill said, yes, please sign me up as a client. As a client. Yeah, that’s right. So I worked with Rick and it was immediately good chemistry and as his business grew, I moved from Kansas City to Milwaukee and worked for a really enlightened guy there named Steve Osky. There weren’t a lot of people at the time who were actually getting results and our team and I were doing that. So I was being offered other positions and Steve Osky said, I’m going to do whatever I need to do to try to keep Jill here. And so our arrangement was that I could work with Rick on a project basis where came to me to say, can’t there are no more days left in my calendar.

Could you help me at the Arkansas Symphony in Little Rock, Arkansas? And so Steve said, yeah, let’s figure this out so you can do some consulting. And so it all began that way with the Arkansas Symphony. Bill Vickery was the executive director. He’s since passed, but that was an extraordinary experience. One of the really interesting things about that is that I learned that every city has something beautiful and cool, no matter the size. Every city has something beautiful and cool, a cool restaurant, a cool park or river walk or neighborhood or something. And Little Rock was not quite The little Rocket is today then. And it was beautiful and I really enjoyed traveling there. And so that work that I did with Rick grew his company, which was then Lester Associates grew and it grew. I did that for a couple of years and it became too tough to be both the VP for marketing and do work with Rick. And so we took the plunge and it became the Rick and Jill show for a little bit. And then we began to blossom and grow into Wow.

Erik Gensler: So were you employee number two?

Jill Robinson: I was indeed. Yeah, I was indeed. And shortly after became an owner and with Rick we moved from orchestra marketing services, which is where we started and what we did at first to dance and then to opera and then to theater, other team members who were as, the thing about Rick is that he was extraordinarily intellectually curious, enjoyed being provocative, not for its own sake, but to challenge thinking, to say, boy, if you turned it upside down in this way, what could we do and what might the impact be? And so he surrounded himself with people whom he could see were like that. His son was certainly, well, was one of those drivers in that way. Had a huge impact on the business. Joanne, stellar, Todd scarce. There’s a sort of merry band that was there at the beginning that were all people who could join Rick in his escapades and puzzle it through.

Erik Gensler: You always felt like when you were talking to Rick, it was important. That’s like an amazing skill. You felt like this was an important conversation and he was so present for it.

Jill Robinson: Yeah. When he passed, you heard people say that in virtually every application, whether it was personal or professional, it was one of his great gifts. He was there, super interested, insatiably curious. Yeah.

Erik Gensler: He took a shining to me and maybe he did to lots of people, but I remember he saw me speak at Opera AmErika when I was first starting capacity and he reached out to me afterwards and he was just a member in the room seeing this kid talk about digital marketing and he connected with me and said, I think I have a project for you. And at that time, capacity was me and I had two clients, New York City Opera and Alvin Ailey and he said, I’ve been working with the Pacific Northwest Ballet, you need to meet Ellen Walker. And he connected me with her and now she’s one of my dearest colleagues. I just had dinner with her in Seattle and of course she ended up hiring me and Rick just saw that Rick just saw that this was something that they needed and made that connection. And then after that connection when he’d come to New York, we’d have breakfast and I didn’t really have role models for professional services in the arts and Rick was that, and I was just starting to get to know him when tragically he died. And so I can’t imagine the impact that had at TRG.

Jill Robinson: You know what, I appreciate your asking because there aren’t so many people who will just ask me this question, what was the impact? I think out of a, not wanting to force me to talk about something that was so hard, but the downside of that is that I don’t get a chance to talk about what was so great about Rick. There are so many great stories and good memories and the legacy that he’s had on the field, which we remember every year at the time of his passing, I pen something that says, here’s something, let’s not forget this thing, this idea, this concept that he would’ve loved or that he pioneered or whatever. And on our wall in our Colorado Springs office, and one of them is dedicated to him and it’s got a picture of him and quotes around it of the things that he would tell us as we were building the business. Things like you have to listen more than talk and clients will always know more about their situation than you do. That’s a good one. And it’s like the least important thing to be the smartest person in the room.

There are just these kinds of nuggets that we wanted to preserve and I wanted to be sure stayed at the centerpiece of the firm. But yeah, when he passed, it was completely unexpected. He was feeling great. He was racing, of course for Children’s Hospital in Denver to support an initiative that his daughter was supporting and continues to support. And it lightning struck quite literally. So it resulted in a whole set of other things for the firm and for me personally that took an enormous amount of time to work through. And four years, almost later I can look back on it and say the legacy that he left of intellectual curiosity, honoring the of people in the business and in our client relationships and other things. I see them play out all the time and I feel really good about that. But we miss him every day. Of course.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. Thank you being open to talk about that. Like I said, I was just getting to know him and I miss him too, is that, I don’t know, he had this sparkle that was very rare and just he was such a great leader and just running into intimate conferences or chatting with him, I felt like I always learned something.

Jill Robinson: Oh yeah, we always did. I mean that was his, I’m teaching now at SMU class for their MBA and MA program. It’s the one he taught. And so I’m knee deep in thinking about what would he have done, but now it’s 2017 and four years, things are changing so fast today that it’s got to be adapted. But his intellectual curiosity was enormous and it didn’t just play out in the business. It was in his personal life and it was sort of everywhere. He was ferocious learner.

Erik Gensler: When you hire for TRG, is that one of the things you look for people who are ferocious learners?

Jill Robinson: Yeah, the intellectual curiosity, the ability to relate to people. It’s really important to us. And then having an ability to be sort of an analyst or an analytical thinker because our work is so data-driven. Even if you aren’t the geek who understands every trick in Excel, you’ve got to be able to connect the dots in data.

Erik Gensler: You can teach ’em the tricks in Excel.

Jill Robinson: Yeah, that’s right. That’s exactly right.

Erik Gensler: Skill to learn.

So you mentioned professional development. So I think I’d like to talk about sort of investment in people along the lines of professional development. And I remember early in my career, I came from a more corporate background. I spent my early twenties in management consulting and working for NBC. And those firms invested specifically management consulting, invested a ton in professional development to the point that it was my first job. And I thought it was weird. I was like, just started this job. Why am I in a conference center for three weeks? And it was because they were teaching you things and that’s really valuable. And then when I went to the arts and worked at New York City Opera, I remember it was a privilege to get to go to a conference conference. I got to go to the test tour conference and I went there and I learned so much. And so you and I have talked about this before and something that stuck with me is that you said that the lack of investment in people is at the level that you think it is a crisis in our field. How is this a crisis and why is this so?

Jill Robinson: Well, if you go back to the conversation about the NEA and you think about sustainability, which is what we’re obsessed about at TRG, the only way that arts and cultural institutions will be sustainable is if we have operational practices that help them sustain. And while we all believe in the art and culture that our clients and that our communities produce in today’s environment, which is uber competitive, there are so many ways for people to spend their time today. It is not enough to simply produce the art. We have to tell the story of the art. We have to invite people to engage in the art, we have to connect them, we have to work at it like any good endeavor. We’ve got to work at it. So it’s required. It is required that we operate as excellently, administratively as we do artistically. It is absolutely required.

And I think the reason why we don’t invest is because we’re deeply uncomfortable with it in arts and culture. We want badly for the art to be invested in and for that to be enough. If we just produce it and it’s excellent, then of course people will come and it feels uncomfortable still to talk about the need to sell tickets and memberships and throw galas and other things to invite people in. So even out in the blogosphere all the time, there’s all of this discussion about relevance and how do we become more relevant if we just become more relevant to our communities, to people who are younger to the whole out there. If we just do that better, then the NEA won’t be reporting on declining arts participation, then millennials will want to become subscribers. Then the NEA won’t go away. We just do that.

And it’s not that I don’t reject that we must be relevant, but we also have to do the hard work. And it’s people who do the work. It’s people who do the work. I remember when CRM systems were just coming on, Tessitura was just starting and there were other startups at the time and the pitch and the belief was, if I buy this system, everything will change. And of course we like to say data doesn’t do anything on its own. Data doesn’t do. People do and people, we are now increasingly believers and advocates and I don’t know what the word is, champions of nonprofit arts and cultural institutions investing in people. So you see evidence of the problem when you look at churn rates. I compare it to what we’ve learned about our own firm, the cost of replacing someone in my own firm, you talk about having learned from management consulting, it takes 500 hours to train somebody new at TRG. And we invest in all kinds of systems. I mean, it’s a whole curriculum that we’ve got because we want there to be stickiness with employees, success with employees, consistency with employees. And I saw your face grimace. Our clients look at us like, what on earth are you even talking about? And they accept,

Erik Gensler: Yeah, I grimace because it’s the same thing here. And we do the same thing now that the management consultants do. I just walked you through a tour here and you saw the conference room. It’s our five new employees that are sitting in that conference room for two weeks learning. And that’s a tremendous cost to our business. It’s fundamentally important, but we do it. And that’s our investment in people.

Jill Robinson: And imagine, and this is we three times a year in the states and twice in the uk, we do something called executive summits where CEOs come in and for two days talk about not pricing and not loyalty, but how do you lead a team of people whom you want to integrate around a plan, an idea? The integrated patron, I mean to integrate teams of people requires far more work than running siloed operations silos. They’re such easier animals to run. It’s much more efficient if all you have to do is manage your own team and not talk to anybody else. It just under utilizes and under exploits the opportunity in all kinds of things. So they come for two days and we’re now really spending time talking about what is your employee churn rate? What does that cost you in terms of lost revenues and time and what would it mean and what could it look like if you were invest in and think about your team as being there for 10 years? And we all know and can giggle a little bit at the clients we’ve seen where there’s been no churn and there should have long ago been. So it’s not just kumbaya hanging onto people. It’s having expectations that you can communicate and fair ways of managing people through performance, but investing in the people that you’ve got who are great.

Erik Gensler: And that starts with hiring the right people and then charting their path and observing their growth and where they are in providing opportunities that they’re constantly feeling fulfilled so they’ll stay.

Jill Robinson: Right. We’ve started to frame up, so our business is focused on patrons, and that’s a word that’s just a little bit more elegant than people or customers or customers. Certainly. Yeah. So we’ve begun to think about, okay, if you imagine pulling them together and moving to a model that moves from marketing and development a box off to something that is more integrated. While today we don’t allow our clients to get too tangled in that tinsel. We want the work to be integrated. We don’t need to reorg the entire organization. We are allowing ourselves to imagine what it could look like. And so we’ve created this framework that imagines that you’ve got audience development team members and then welcome back team members and loyalty team members and advocate team members. And we also then are able to say to executive leaders when we frame this up, imagine recruiting and then allowing people to move in up to and across and across. And we don’t think about it that way today. We think I’m going to recruit a marketing director. I’m certainly not likely going to promote from within. I hope to hang on to Jill, the new marketing director for a while before she has to move on somewhere else to advance her career. And imagine if we thought about it differently.

I am in this bully pulpit right now because I think it would be transformative to the way that we operate.

Erik Gensler: I think that’s fascinating. And we hear all the time, I mean I can list them in my head right now, organizations that are missing key leaders that are going without directors of development that are going without directors of marketing. And I’m trying to create a culture here that if someone wants to leave, look, people have their lives and we want to hold on to our people as long as possible. But we just found out today, one of our employees got into Harvard Law School and I’m so thrilled. And she told me she was looking at Harvard Law School four months ago. So that gave us six months to plan to replace her. And because we invest in her and she values her team and she values the company, she gave us months notice to replace her, which is amazing. And so if she had just given two weeks notice and left, that would have tremendous impact on our clients, a tremendous impact on her team members here. But I see that happening all the time in the arts. And I think that’s one of the things you’re getting at.

Jill Robinson: I read this article about employee satisfaction, I think it was an HBR article, and there was a company whose CEO made the decision to change the culture to assume that once you came into this company, you had a job for a lifetime.

And you think about that for a minute. And so he had to say, okay, first of all, we have to make sure we’ve got the right, let’s make sure we’ve got the right people on the bus, right, good to great. And then let’s really fine tune our recruiting so that we understand we invest in that. People were notorious for taking a long time at TRG. People complain about it when they’re recruited by us because it takes a long time, the recruiting process, but if we don’t get it right, no, it’s such a bummer. Just such wasted time, so much work. So this guy said, we’re going to create really in-depth recruiting processes, and then we’re just, once you come in, man, you’ve got a gig forever. That’s the orientation that we’ve got. And I’m not suggesting that that’s the answer, but that is definitely not the paradigm that exists in arts and culture. You get hired, your desk is shown to you, you’re told, okay, here’s the job and we’ve got a concert or a show in two weeks go. And if you fail, it’s your failure. If you fail, it’s your failure. It’s not the failure of the organization. And so that’s one of the questions that we ask our clients, whose failure is it if a new employee fails, it isn’t theirs. You brought ’em on, how are you supporting them? So it’s just a whole shift in thinking. It’s

Erik Gensler: So fascinating. It’s the mindset we have here. Certainly, I mean, we worked so hard to recruit now that we’re a certain size, it’s just to build those relationships and to do it well and to find the right people. But it’s amazing to me that I’ve had some series of conversations recently with really wonderful marketing leaders in the field, and the conversation goes like they’re getting itchy and they’re looking for new challenges or they feel like they’re underpaid or undervalued. And so they start looking around. But while they’re looking around, they have conversations with their leadership and the leadership will say, well, budgets are frozen, or there’s a big culture of, no, we’re not. You should be happy to have this job. And what happens is these people start looking around and they leave. I just had this conversation this week with somebody who was said, no, no, we’re not going to invest in you. And I just see it as such a critical mistake going to lose this person. And I think there’s some magical thinking that some great new person will come along and will fix everything and we’ll be innovative and have new ideas. But the pain that that’s going to cause that institution, I don’t think they’re thinking about that now. So the second that they say, no, we can’t give you any more money, or No, we can’t give you any more responsibility, or No, we’re not going to chart your next path here. That is a big stop sign in the face of that employee where they’re going to start looking elsewhere and it’s going to hurt that institution.

Jill Robinson: Yeah, I think it’s reflective of this deep discomfort that I referenced earlier. We are deeply uncomfortable with the business requirements of running arts and cultural institutions, and so we can see and understand why we need to invest in what’s on stage. And it’s not that simple, certainly, but it’s harder for us to say, of course we’re going to pay competitively for somebody who has marketing expertise because it’s about the art. It’s not about what happened. We’re not a business. And even that is not who we are. That’s not why we’re here. And I’ve begun to really think about this recently. I really want to challenge the field to think differently. We must be as excellent throughout the institution as we are on stage or it won’t be sustainable. And the people who work in arts and cultural organizations are arts and cultural geeks. They’re former dancers, former actors, current. We’re all in this together.

Erik Gensler: And they’re smart and curious. Naturally. They’re just not provided often the frameworks to be successful.

Jill Robinson: Yeah. And what’s also true is that money isn’t what drives satisfaction. Money isn’t what drives it. It’s a symptom. If somebody comes to you saying, I need more money, it’s a symptom of something else. So culture is everything and how you develop a culture where people feel like they have some level of autonomy, some ability to drive their own destiny and ability to grow and think and learn and contribute, all of those things will always matter more than money.

Erik Gensler: My friend has a very senior role at a big fashion brand in New York, and she was recruited and she’s at the senior VP level and talking to her about the recruiting process there, first of all, the person who is the head of HR has a humongous impact of the business where she’s incredibly connected to the CEO. And on day two of after she started in this SVP role, she had a meeting with the HR person saying, what is your next job here? So they were already charting her next path for her, so she couldn’t look elsewhere. So they were like day two, it’s not about your, of course it’s about your current job, but let’s start that conversation. What are you doing next? So they’re already thinking a year, two years ahead of her.

Jill Robinson: That’s so cool. Yeah. That is so cool.

Erik Gensler: That was profound for me to hear that.

Jill Robinson: We have a client in Phoenix, the Phoenix Theater, run by on the administrative side, run by a guy named Vincent VanVleet, and he is one of those thinkers. He doesn’t assume he has to recruit from the arts, A. B, he is always looking for ways that his team members can grow within Phoenix Theater. And as a result, he has developed a culture there of team and stickiness. That is impressive. He’s begun to take the next, we’ve worked with them, and this is not the point at all. He is driving their success, but we’ve known them for a long time for about a decade. And we are doing right now, strategic planning for and with that organization that is integrated in a very different way. So the team, rather than a strategic plan that says, we’re going to be the best theater company, we’re going to achieve these objectives.

What is marketing going to do this year or over the next five years? What’s development objectives? They have shifted the frame to say, here’s where we’re going as a theater company and yeah, yeah, yeah. Marketing, you’ve got a day job, you have to continue to sell shows, but the strategic plan is how marketing is going to help us achieve those three objectives. And it’s completely integrated. And so the team is not only working and growing within the institution, but they’re also thinking about each other’s departmental roles, how they work together. It’s a really good example of an organization that’s beginning to think about this in that way. There’s another organization that we know. Art is Naples. It’s the big performing arts center in Naples, Florida. And Kathleen Van Bergen runs it and she has an enlightened board member who has given a substantial gift for investment in people.

Erik Gensler: Oh my God.

Jill Robinson: I mean substantial.

Erik Gensler: That’s amazing.

Jill Robinson: And it’s all about how can we get better and invest in the people that are here. I see that our TRG stands for the results group, and that’s at the end of the day, what we want to have happen so that arts and cultural institutions can be sustainable. So it is about results, but data doesn’t do anything. People do everything. And so this is the thing, getting comfortable with the fact that people help make the artistic product sustainable and our artistic endeavors safe. Sustainable organizations enable risk. They can take risks and do all kinds of things. If you’ve got a way that the organization can function well, that’s the objective.

Erik Gensler: How do we help change this? How do we help shift the conversation to arts leaders who are pulled in so many directions realizing that so many of their challenges could be easier if they thought about professional development differently.

Jill Robinson: I’m starting to drive it around math, data…

Erik Gensler: The 500 hours thing was what made me, it hit me hard.

But also our next executive summit, which is in July, we’re asking all of the participants to talk to us about employee churn, and we’re turning that into dollars and cents and helping them imagine what it could be like if that wasn’t the case. So I think we have to give some mental models and some framework to it that I know from our consulting business, you can’t just identify a problem, you have to put some data around it so it moves from gut to something else. And you have to be able to frame it up so that you can see and imagine something different. And I think we have to talk about it and we have to showcase those people who are doing great work. Imagine you’ve got clients who do this, so you And we could be telling stories about the clients that we see who are really investing in people.

Absolutely. It’s been interesting to watch your parallel focus, and it occurred to us pretty early in our consulting practices that what people want is education. What the successful people want is access to us to ask questions when they have a itch to scratch. And so how that evolved was to our annual conference, to our capacity classrooms, to our webinars. And it’s been fun to watch you evolve in the same way with your executive summit and your space for leadership development. And it’s like that’s providing those professional development opportunities.

Yeah, I think it’s in both of our DNAs, it certainly, Rick was a teacher at heart. He identified talent. It came to him easily and naturally, you spoke of it yourself. He was constantly, and I now understand the instinct when you’re building something, you want to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are more capable than you are. So I find myself trying to mimic that too, and was, but he was just deft at it, but he was a teacher. And so early on we said that is how we will affect things, is to teach people how to do things differently. So it’s really a big part of how we approach everything that we do.

The teach a man to fish philosophy.

Jill Robinson: Yeah, a little bit.

Erik Gensler: You touched on this new model of audience development, which we’ve talked about before. And I remember it was probably about a year ago, I read a blog post from your colleague and it totally blew my mind and I immediately shared it with my whole team, and it was about actually breaking the silo that exists in most arts organizations, the silo between marketing development and turning that into a truly integrated patron focused model. Can you explain that model?

Jill Robinson: There’s a simple framework and then there’s an operational set of realities and frameworks. So the simple framework is imagining in your sort of head a triangle. And we have now for a dozen years honed what we call a patron loyalty model. It’s a consumer loyalty model, math driven analytics statistically driven that looks at all of the patron transactions we can get our hands on and transactions are things that people pay to do or participate in that we can track in ACRM or other kind of database. And we will dump all of that as much of that historical data as we can get into a soup and stir it up. And it renders back a picture of patronage that we call an advocate buyer trier framework. And we now have done those in all the four countries in which we operate and have seen very consistently that in arts and culture, we don’t benefit from Pareto’s principle quite yet of the 80 20 rule advocates and make up less than 10% of every dataset virtually that we study.

So it’s mostly triers. So it’s all triers. Yeah. Rick used to say this, and I continue to, we over prospect and under retain. Oh, totally. In arts and culture, we are so obsessed and it, it’s really true right now, foundations without meaning to drive it, the blogosphere drives it. We’re not relevant enough. We have only read people, we need to go out and find green people or we won’t be sustainable. Everything that’s out there is what we’re interested in. And as a result, as we like to say, we go on lots of dates and don’t ask people out again. Absolutely. And the dating is expensive.

So the framework that we offer is one that says, yes, let’s acquire new. We have to, and there are choices to make about how we do that and the math of that and simple terms, the people who look like the people we have are cheaper to get at than the people who don’t. And so if you’ve got the resources and the capital to work on the long game of acquiring audiences that don’t look like the ones you have, yes, you should do that. But when you’re trying to make payroll and you’re about, and we have clients that have gone through this about six months away from going out of business, and your board says, you need to try a new sort of technological solution to this, it’s laughable. No, no, you don’t. You need to shore up the patronage that you have, get that working for you so that you have the capital to be able to play the long game.

Absolutely. So that’s at the bottom of the triangle, so to speak. But then the question is how are you operating as an institution to retain the triers and grow their loyalty? And it’s interesting, the reaction that I’m seeing right now out there in the, I keep calling it the blogosphere, but in the sort of social media and other space about this, the tension between we have to be relevant to our community and all we want, all TRG wants are more donors and a smaller and smaller privileged few who fund arts and culture. And nothing could be further from the truth. We have to invite people to grow in their relationship with our arts and cultural institutions so we can organize staff teams in ways that do that more efficiently. Silos or silos. Don’t take advantage of all of the ways that we can engage patrons. If we’re thinking about my, I hear this a lot when we start client relationships. I just heard it, my donors, your ticket buyers, and yet Jill is both a donor and a ticket buyer.

Erik Gensler: You don’t see yourself that way. No. You see yourself as someone who loves this organization or likes the art.

Jill Robinson: Right? And back in the, I started in this business in the late eighties I was in, I would’ve been in completely separate databases if we had a marketing department. I didn’t talk to development, I ran my own campaigns. It’s different than that. Now there’s more conversation, but it’s not fully integrated. So we’re imagining how teams might be organized around that triangle. We’re allowing ourselves to imagine what are the roles, there’s an audience development role and imagine if we had an audience development team that looked like the people we were trying to attract. If you have the working capital balance and the reserves to be able to experiment, imagine if you had a team of people whose job it was to use data and they were really whip smart in all of the channels of single ticket marketing and digital and all of the things that you do here. And they both sought people who look like the people in my database, but also experimented with invitations in the community that might attract —

Erik Gensler: It’s a living lookalike model.

Jill Robinson: Yeah, it is. And look different if you have the ability to do it, test and fail and test and invite. And then imagine that the team, the next team is the team that is the welcome back team whose job it is to say, Erik, you saw Sunset Boulevard, and boy, we sure would like you to come back and this is how we’d like to tempt you to do that. And then the team after that is a sort of a patron relationship team that starts to develop more one-on-one relationships and can introduce you to maybe a membership or a subscription.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. So you’re not looking at it as a campaign, you’re looking at it as people in their relationship with the organization.

That’s right. Yeah. At the bottom of the triangle, it’s very much one to many. It’s marketing channels and ROI and math. But as you start to get up the triangle, it becomes one to, it’s one to many but fewer. And then you get all the way up to the top and it’s what major gift officers do today really well, which is act a little bit like a consultant too between the organization and the patron. And the job is to say, let’s make sure that you’re so supportive. Let’s make sure that we’re doing everything that we can to maintain that relationship. We use the dating analogy and by then we’re married, so we’re investing in the relationship and the anniversaries and wanting to meet your friends and introduce your friends to, and

I think sports teams are starting to do this, or I’ve heard this from, and I may be wrong, but I think the way some sports teams look at it is there are people there that it may not be exactly like this, but they have a group of people that they’re sort of responsible for. So if this was my ticket buyers from last year, I’m going to try to reach out to them on a more 1 0 1 way. And I remember someone who worked at Carnegie Hall told me this story that had been a Yankees, God, I’m going to get the term wrong, they’re not called subscribers. They’re called seasoned ticket holders. Season ticket holders. Yeah. Yankee season ticket holders. Whenever I try to talk sports, it turns into a joke, which is fine.

Some guy asked me if I could give him a lesson from sports when I was presenting once, and I said, do you see my socks? I can’t tell you anything about sports. Anyway, he was a Yankees season ticket buyer, and he said it was a gorgeous day of spring baseball season was about to begin. And he didn’t renew his season tickets that year because he just wasn’t going. And he was out at lunch in Central Park and his phone rang and was the number he didn’t recognize, but he picked it up and it was somewhere from the Yankees and they said, Hey, how are you doing? And he said, great. And he said, well, are you going to watch the season opener or whatever it’s called? And they just had a chat. And then the guy from the Yankees said, okay, I just want to check on you just want to make sure you’re still a fan.

And he hung up the phone and they didn’t try to sell anything, but that’s very sophisticated that he just had that touchpoint. And it turns out the long story is after that call, I got him thinking about the Yankees and he did end up the next year joining again, and he remembered that story because they saw something weird was happening. This guy was a long-term, single whatever, subscriber season ticket holder, ticket holder. He was a long-term season ticket holder, and he stopped after a long time. And they did that sort of hand-to-hand work to get him back.

Jill Robinson: Yeah, I think it is. Absolutely. There is math that tells the story that this is smart business. There’s an author named Reichheld who wrote about loyalty oriented business models back in the 90. He’s actually nineties. He’s the creator of the net promoter score. Oh, I love the net promoter score. And it came out of this whole orientation around the loyalty model. And the loyalty model says you need to have consumer loyalty, employee loyalty. So I hadn’t until right this minute been reminded to connect that and then investor loyalty. So in the commercial or for-profit world, investors play a different role than they do in nonprofit arts and culture, but the point in the commercial environment is investors who give you time and access to capital and access to introductions and do things on behalf of the company and that are sticky, are better for the math of the organizations for profitability of the organizations.
You bring that back over to. So it’s not surprising to me at all that sports organizations are learning this. They benefit from the loyalty model too. I see it inconsistently. I’m not sure that it’s something that every sports organization has gotten that and we have sort of connective tissue to some of those that sector through some other firms that we know. And so I hear evidence of it. There are lots of things to learn between the two. Definitely lots of things to learn between the two, but the notion of the loyalty model being employee loyalty, consumer loyalty and investor loyalty in arts and culture, you think about who the investors are, who are they? They are foundations.

Erik Gensler: The foundations, the major donors, probably cities…

Jill Robinson: Sponsors, maybe even cities. If you have the ability to engage in a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship with an investor in your institution to really invest in making that sticky is part of that.

Erik Gensler: I’ll never forget, I saw Karen Hopkins who is the head of BAM, speak, and it was an amazing conversation where she keeps her eye on everything that’s happening around that community. A developer builds a new condo, a store opens, she makes it her business or made it her business to meet with that person so she can, it’s those kinds of people that those are the investors in her community and she wants them to invest in BAM and be a part of conversation. Smart.

Jill Robinson: So smart. She’s on, I sit on the advisory board for the National Center for Arts Research, and she has just become a fellow there. She’s very bright. So she’s contributing now in really cool ways.

Erik Gensler: That’s great there. Do you have examples of an organization that have adapted this model and what have the initial results

Jill Robinson: Been? All of our clients, they all get that. This is the TRG orientation. So they don’t work with us unless they see this as a need. And yet we have clients who have worked with us longer than others. So the Phoenix Theater is probably the most consistently, it’s been a decade and it has moved from, first of all, it’s meant millions of dollars worth of growth. Second of all, it has resulted in a way that the organization works, that they have experimented with different patron oriented models, and we don’t have the model defined yet. So they now are, they’re attacking the buyer portion of the triangle and integrating and creating a patron services office that has a team of people who are responsible for managing. It’s one to many, but not one to many. Marketing is. So I, Jill have an account portfolio of two or 300 people, and I’m responsible for them and making sure that they renew and that they are happy and that they’re becoming a donor and that their behavior is increasingly integrated. So they’re experimenting with the kinds of pieces and parts of the model that we’ve been talking about. They also are planning strategically very differently. So like I described, it’s an integrated, they’re calling it apparently in academic circles, agile planning. So it’s something we’ve done now for a good while at TRG, but it’s not annual or three times a year strategic planning. It’s every quarter you’re together to think about,

Erik Gensler: I read the book you recommended about this.

Jill Robinson: Yes. Yeah. Rhythm. And so they’re implementing their version of that and it’s having 13 week sprints. It’s having a profound impact on everything. And an investor, the Piper Foundation in Phoenix has come to them to say, we see that your strategic planning process is working to do really terrific things, including build a working capital balance. And so we as the foundation are going to help you. If you can do that, we’re going to help you take those results and multiply them. So they’re really investing in their success in the longterm Omaha performing Arts, they have a name for it, but they’ve got a financial management system that they review on a monthly basis that has a series of key metrics in patron behavior that their whole team is working to achieve. So we want this kind of growth in new toile, brand new households. We want this kind of growth in repeat. We want this kind of growth in our subscriber donor metrics. We want this kind of, it’s integrated review.

Erik Gensler: It’s identifying the right KPIs and tracking them and then focusing your team on what the KPIs actually are.

Jill Robinson: That’s right. And learning from failure as well as from success so that you’re growing together. And in that case, they’re not busting up silos. They still have a marketing department, they still have a development department, but they have an extraordinary leader, Joan Squires, who says, we are going to do this together, and these are our benchmarks for success. It’s not marketing budgets per se, or development budgets per se. It’s what we’re doing as an ensemble.

Erik Gensler: What we see when we start to look at marketing plans and we start to work with clients is a lot of the, like you said, most of the money is spent and what we say acquisition where if you’re buying a radio ad that’s a hundred percent acquisition, you’re not speaking to your own audience. You’re not owning the audience. And so what we say is if you’re doing any sort of buying an acquisition audience, which is someone else’s audience, it’s the radio station’s audience, or it’s the newspaper’s audience, or it’s the television station’s audience, it must drive them to something where you are capturing a lead. So you’re driving them to a page that’s capturing email address, driving them to join you on social media or driving you to a page that is at least pixeled. So you have the ability to follow up and switching that thought of buying someone else’s audience to how do we tailor our marketing that makes people engaged and educated about the work and loyal.

Then it’s so much easier to turn that person into a ticket buyer. And even the idea of cutting a print ad and building some web infrastructure that allows your loyalists to then spread the word. So one example of that is instead of buying a $10,000 ad to speak to a new audience, build a tool on your website that when someone buys a ticket, it easily allows them to post that to social media. So it’s reframing the idea of how you’re spending your marketing mix rather than the top of the funnel. You’re spending it at the bottom of the funnel to enable people to become loyalists and tell their friends.

Jill Robinson: This is the thing that is exciting and awesome and sort of overwhelming to me a little bit sometimes is how quickly things are changing. It’s why firms like yours are so important because you are staying on top of all of the changes that are possible from a technology point of view. There’s a company called Experience App. It’s sports mostly, but they’re using technology to enable loyal behavior to be reinforced. So I come into the venue and I, I’ve seen that get cross and upsold, the guy who Richard Evans used to work for us and we’re still good friends and he —

Erik Gensler: Oh, really? He’s a TRG person.

Jill Robinson: He is. Yeah. Yeah.

Erik Gensler: That makes sense. That’s interesting. I think that’s such, I’ve seen what they’re doing. It’s very cool.

Jill Robinson: It’s very cool. And it’s about the cross simply put the cross and upsell. But in our parlance, the invitation to get more deeper, better and the application of technology is absolutely critical to the future. Relevance, I think of arts and culture even.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, and digital tools are now getting so much more sophisticated of being able to micro segment so you can tell the right stories to the right people where they are in their relationship. Where 20 years ago you could do that direct mail only or you could call people, but mostly it was spray and pray. And now I am saying over and over, your number one line item on your marketing budget should be Facebook, it should be Instagram, it should be creating content and then putting that content to people who care. And then yeah, there’s some acquisition in that, but all of your acquisition over time should decrease because you’ll have more loyalists that you can then be educating and engaging and that number goes down over time.

I mentioned that I’m teaching at smu, I’m heartened now. These are master’s students, so they’re not just starting, but I’m heartened by their awareness of the importance of segmentation. They are able to understand and say, well, of course I’ve got to get the right invitation, the right offer to the right person, and they can talk about it with some level of precision that I’m heartened by.

It is amazing. When I talk to a number of young people, young people, I sound like I’m a hundred.

Jill Robinson: I don’t feel like I turned 50 this year. I feel like I’m a hundred.

Erik Gensler: I’m turning 40 this summer. Through interviewing people who are speaking in arts marketing classes, and I’m just amazed of the knowledge around digital marketing and marketing in general. I feel like we’re in an age where people just as consumers understand marketing more.

Jill Robinson: Yeah, I think that’s right.

Erik Gensler: Which is exciting. You have smart hungry people who sort of come with already an understanding,

Jill Robinson: But then that comes full circle. You’ve got to have people who understand and bring a level of expertise and awareness to be able to implement. Otherwise, your arts organization isn’t as accessible as it could be.

Erik Gensler: That’s right. And it’s just going to get harder. I just wish Christina Murty is the director of marketing at Seattle Opera, shared with me a study that they did that was funded by Wallace where they did post performance surveys with all their audience members over a number of operas, and then they segmented that by age. They looked at millennials versus boomers and post boomers and the millennials are buying online at a much higher rate than the post boomers, but they’re much less satisfied with that experience. So the millennials buy more and are less satisfied with the online experience of purchasing a ticket on their website. The boomers, they’re like, oh, it’s fine. The buying online process. And I think that Seattle Opera has done a very good job with their website, and the boomers, for the most part are happy with it. The millennials aren’t —

Jill Robinson: They have much higher expectations.

Erik Gensler: Right. Absolutely.

Jill Robinson: Well, I am not a millennial, but I now have expectations that I can do everything seamlessly on my phone, and we are not there in the field.

Erik Gensler: Not even close.

Jill Robinson: Oh my gosh.

Erik Gensler: It is my mission this year to help change that. Every conference I go to, my new thing is I’ve taken videos of really amazing mobile experiences, like what it’s like to buy a plane ticket on Virgin America, 30 seconds, what it’s like to now on Ticketmaster buy a ticket to see U2 in a venue, 30 seconds. And then I’ve been pulling up art sites and buying a ticket and it is painful, and so I’m just out there showing this video and just, it’s on a blog post I just wrote, and we have to change this.

Jill Robinson: This is so important. I remember in the nineties we would joke because the internet was just coming to fruition then, and we would say, gosh, the Internet’s going to save everything because these cranky people training cranky people to cross and upsell and training cranky people to invite patrons. It’s really actually a very interesting conversation that we’re having internally. And what is true is that what we haven’t done, we really haven’t invested in either particularly well, unless you’re a very big institution. The technology’s there, but it’s not invested in at a level that gets us to a place where it needs to be.

Erik Gensler: Most organizations in our benchmark survey say that they do not have the required budget to maintain their website.

Jill Robinson: No. And so then box offices, they become help desks parenthetically. And so it’s super, I’m curious if you have a point of view about this. We know that people play a really important role in loyalty management. If I get a person who’s managing my experience, that can be very, very fascinating. It’s harder for me to say no to a person than it is for me to push a button.

Erik Gensler: It’s like a concierge almost.

Jill Robinson: Yes. And so we work with box offices to say, look, your role is not just fulfillment. It’s certainly not help desk people deal. Deal with your websites. Your role is to invite deepen relationship, be the resource and the friend and the advocate and all the rest. So we help our clients invest in training and systems and incentives and all the rest. And the technology is so bad and frustrating that I’m finding myself wanting to, for a lot of reasons, have our clients invest in people. And what is the role to be played where people plus technology, one plus one equals three?

Erik Gensler: Yes. I think there’s — I would almost say slight crisis. We could position as an opportunity. A lot of the organizations, almost every organization is faced with constraints of technology based on the ticketing system that they use. And so how a ticketing system enables flexibility for transactions, actions on a website determines how successful these organizations can be. And I think a lot of ticketing platforms know this. Technology takes a lot of work and a lot of time and a lot of money, and they’re serving a lot of masters. Meaning if you’re a ticketing platform, you have your very large institution that has huge money to invest in web development, still they’re under investing. And then you have the tiny organization that just needs something that they can turn on. And I think the ticketing systems have a lot of work to do to create both flexible sandboxes for the big organizations that have challenging business rules and the small organizations that just need to be able to turn something on that’s easy.

And what they enable within these platforms is fully dictates the success for a massive piece of the sector. And so if you don’t have a platform that is mobile friendly, the organizations don’t have the resources or time or the money to work on it to make it mobile friendly. And so what they end up having is non-mobile friendly websites that hurt sales. And we know that when you’re website is not mobile friendly, it not only affects transactions on a mobile site, it affects transactions down the road overall. Because mobile is a research vehicle, 65% of interactions that start on a mobile device ends somewhere else. So if people are not able to find the information they want, or if you’re not doing a good job selling and positioning what you’re doing on that small screen, people are then not taking the step to then look at it on their desktop or then call the box office because you’ve lost them. Because the expectation right now is I’m going to get the answer I need within three seconds, and if I don’t, I’m onto the next thing. So if you can’t answer that, and if your mobile site takes 15 seconds to load, which a lot of these do…

Jill Robinson: Oh my gosh, I was — just yesterday, I was in the cab on the way into the city and it was so frustrating. I was researching my spring break options in this particular city that I’m going to be. And so I was looking on my phone for entertainment options for my daughter and husband and me and boy, oh boy, fail, fail, fail, fail. These mobile sites that just didn’t. And like you, I’m used to buying tickets online. I book my hotel online. You’ve got Uber, you’ve got her, you’ve got all of them. Uber, Uber done. That should be the model. It’s so interesting. And yet I know that people play a role here too for us. That’s a question is how do you integrate the two?

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. And we can talk about that forever. And I have so much to ask you. And I do want to get to a taboo topic, which is subscriptions. And I learned it’s taboo from one of your blog posts. And if I can quote you, which I love, this subscriptions is a skeleton in our collective industry closet. It’s an uncool dirty habit that we prefer to not talk about in smart company. I’m hoping we can put the taboo aside, and I’m super excited to actually ask you about this. The model stuck around, it’s been around forever from subscribe now that classic book to many organizations are still rely on subscription income, but you hear so much about at arts conferences that it’s old fashioned and it’s something we should be moving beyond. And you hear a lot about membership models and changing that model. What’s your latest thinking about subscriptions?

Jill Robinson: It’s so interesting. It’s become a quaint thing. In the UK where we’ve just expanded to, it is viewed as long dead, long quaint. Of course we don’t. And our point of view is this is one subject that I can get really heated on and excited about because it feels so very simple to me, but it’s obviously not simple. But we would say follow the math subscription, membership, philanthropy, any kind of multi buying and multi investing program are what we would call it TRG loyalty programs. And loyalty programs cost a lot to get someone to move from unique inconsistent behavior into a loyalty framework. But once they move to that, then retention rates shoot up, lifetime value shoots up, and the math really starts to, it moves us to the 80 20 rule rather than the 90 10. And that improving the return on investment of a database is all everything that we’re about because our clients are really reliant on the income coming from the people in that database.

So that’s the framework that we’ve got. And we have seen all of the programs, loyalty points programs, frequent buyer programs, membership programs, so that are structured from a buy the membership and everything’s free to buy a membership and you get discounts. And first there’s all kinds of ways to skin this cat. And in arts and culture rather emphasis on the wrong salable there. In performing arts, the single most important variable to my loyalty in fact is getting me to experience the product on a repeated basis, getting my bum into a seat. Just math tells that story every single time. So there are outliers. So the development directors in the room, so to speak will say, yeah, but I’ve got the 10,000 million dollars donor. Yes. But on a proportional basis, the people who are the most loyal are the most active. So if the math says, you’ve got to get my bum in a seat, then the question is, what loyalty framework does that most predictably?

Well, and it is the subscription and we’ve done lots of research. Clients are obsessed about why the subscription is dead. We would say reframe it, ask your subscribers why they subscribe and then start telling that story. And the truth is that if you like theater or you like chamber music or you like Broadway or whatever, classical music and you want to in today’s just so many choices environment, you want to get that stuff into your life, then the only way to do it is to plan that stuff into your life. Now gone are the days of 12 and 18 concert subscription packages. We’ve got way too many options and people just, that has died in large part. But what has not died is people’s passion for arts and culture, people’s passion for the performing arts and their desire to reconcile that passion with their busy lives. And the subscription enables that. So we have to be smart about how we market. We have to believe in it. We have to orient our benefits around it. We have to have leadership that says, the math makes sense here, people, let’s invest in this and really value our subscribers. And when that happens, subscriptions grow, subscription package results grow, revenue results grow, and it requires a whole system of support around it.
But it can happen.

Erik Gensler: That’s fascinating. I want to quote you again. Today, many organizations believe that they have to change or die and to do that give patrons absolutely everything that they want at any cost. That thinking sets up a false economy that completely undermines their brand and eventually their ability to keep their organizations afloat.

Jill Robinson: So we have only red people, we need green. The sky is falling. It’s the NEA releases. That arts participation is on a decline. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my god. And what we forget is that we cannot be and will not be all things to all people. And that we give everything to everybody undermines our ability to grow loyalty and create incentives. I like to say that for loyalty, I like to say that in any given community, there are a group of people who are loyal because they just dig and enjoy what an arts organization or cultural institution is doing. But as administrators, we also have to maneuver in a way so that we’re pulling levers and flipping switches to create incentives for you to become loyal. And we’ve got to manage our seated event businesses and our mission and our admissions businesses that are 5 0 1 c three s, but that are businesses. So when you begin to implement in a way that has that strategy in mind, we find consumers, audiences, patrons, they will follow. They behave in ways that make sense for both them and for the institution.

Erik Gensler: So you’re incentivizing the behavior you want, right?

Jill Robinson: Right. Yeah, that’s right. It’s overly simple. And this is the part where you can start to think about, oh, we’re not just a business that doesn’t feel good. And the wrapper that I would just always put around it is we’re inviting people to deepen their relationship with. It’s always an invitation. It’s always the patron and it’s always about getting closer to the art form or the cultural entity that you love. And you’ve got to acknowledge that loyalty makes sense for both the patron and the institution.

Erik Gensler: Right, right. This is a perfect segue. Really what we’re talking about is the topic of art versus money, which is very sensitive. And I think the perfect person to quote here is Steven Sondheim from Sunday in the park with George. He says, art isn’t easy. Every minor detail is a major decision. Have to keep things in scale, have to hold your vision. Every time I start to feel defensive, I remember lasers are expensive. What’s the little cocktail conversation if it’s going to get you your foundation leading to a prominent commission and an exhibition. In addition, it’s a balance of creating great art versus getting it funded and produced or shown. And for some organizations idea of using audience and sales data to inform programming decisions is taboo. Like you’re saying. You’ve mentioned that if you give too many chestnuts, you risk losing loyalists or too many challenging or new works and you risk losing newbies. How do you frame this challenge between arts and money and what do you recommend?

Jill Robinson: We recommend integrated collaborative that is data-driven. And the word data and programming makes people nervous, just like the words revenue can make people not nervous, but it’s the business side that make us feel like we’re not being true to the art form that we love so much. But the good news is that the data tells the story that it’s a balance. It’s not one or the other that is required. So blockbuster or chestnut programming is very effective at introducing an art form to people who’ve never been exposed to it. And on the other end of the spectrum, too much of that prevents loyalists from being interested in the long haul. Because if I really love theater, I don’t only want to see titles all the time. I want to be surprised and delighted with something new and challenged. And I want that if I care about my art form or cultural institution.

So the good news is in our work, we’ve just done a three-part series called Data-Driven Programming, where artistic and executive directors came together and submitted data for the workshop. And we busted open the data and looked at some of what the data told about the impact of, or the connection between different kinds of programs and patrons. And we see the same story every time. And that is what I’ve just said. It’s loyalists, subscribers and donors and members gravitate to everything that their institutions do. And sometimes a little bit less on blockbusters. They’ve been there done that, and new patrons are brought in through. And if we’re doing the right job and we understand the connective tissue between it all, we bring you in through Nutcracker and then we begin to introduce you to other things. Of course. And so then when artistic directors see that, they go, what you just said, of course. And in fact, the data provides me the freedom to say, this kind of programming that I want to do helps make my organization sustainable because it’s where my subscribers and donors, they need that kind of programming. So it turns out to be very positive. It just starts out kind of scary

Erik Gensler: And it reframes how you market it. Where we work with theaters that always started their marketing with acquisition, even if they have a brand new play with no stars, they’re going to buy those ads. And of course they don’t work, new people are not going to respond to that. But the model is first we buy the ad, then we do this radio buy. And we’ve had some really smart clients come and say, you know what? For the big stuff, we’re going to spend that money on the big stuff. And for the shows that have no stars or a new play or people don’t know about, we’re only going to put that out through our channels. People we know we’ll do direct mail, we’ll do email and we’ll do targeted social media, targeted display…

Jill Robinson: For the right person at right time.

Erik Gensler: …only to those people. And if we get a great review, then we’ll go out beyond there. Yeah.

Jill Robinson: It’s the definition of success. The field in performing arts, museums too, and attractions, volume is success. Percentage of capacity sold? Do we have lines out the door? Is the exhibit hall full? And that is not the only definition of success. It’s not. And so a big part of what we work to do is to help frame how we are defining success because success can be 200 of our most loyal patrons there for this extraordinary experience, and it deepened their connection to and helped create investors for what we’re trying to do in the future. And that is a success. So let’s get over the, we have to sell out every hall and we have to have every exhibit full to the gills. It is not the right definition.

Erik Gensler: I was at a conference at Google this fall, and that was one of the topics, this senior level people at Google framing what the appropriate KPIs are, and everyone gravitates to ROI. And they pointed out all the things that you miss by using ROI as your metric. Because if you’re ROI based, you’re always going to limit your spending because you’re not going to take the nth buyer because, so say you want your ROI to be 500, guess what this buyer’s harder to acquire. It’s going to be at a 200% ROI. So you’re just going to stop when your ROI reaches a certain point and you’re missing out on volume. Totally.

Jill Robinson: So it’s like both ends. I remember early in our consultancy, we were working with an opera company who had a managing director who said this, I want just, I want to focus on cost of sale and improving cost of sale. And he had worked with a partner who helped him do that. And as a result, everything began to shrink because we were just fine tuning down. And at one point he abstractly asked the question, would we just not be better off if we stopped marketing because we spend so much on marketing and the cost of sale is so high. Could we not make the business model work if we just focused on, well, of course you can’t do that. It’s an exercise in futility. But we had to get them to say, you have to spend a dollar to make a dollar to feed the funnel. The question is, what do you do after someone comes in the door? That’s right. How are you investing in,

Erik Gensler: Yeah, what Google said is their example. They’re working with car companies and what one of the KPIs that they figured is percentage of clicks on non-branded keywords in my category. So the success, they found a connection. The more that if someone’s searching, typing in Google New minivans and you sell minivans, the KPI that this brand ended up relying on was the amount of times they won that auction in Google actually drove more sales. So that became one of their KPIs. And they stopped measuring their search campaigns on an ROI basis, but they measured it on how often they could win those non-branded keyword auctions, which it is just blowing up the model and reframing it.

Jill Robinson: This is the thing that I was talking about last week in my class at smu. Data is everywhere and we have a gajillion reports and a gajillion KPIs and a gajillion things that we could be tracking. The most important question is how are we defining success? And then that’s the data that we need to track and honor, and it can change.

Erik Gensler: It’s asking the right questions. Speaking of questions, we’re at the final question. This has been such a fun interview and I could —

Jill Robinson: I enjoyed it too.

Erik Gensler: I could really ask you questions for a lot more hours.

Jill Robinson: We could talk for a long time. We could do a part two, hopefully.

Erik Gensler: So this is your CI to Eye moment, and if you could broadcast to the executive directors, leadership teams and boards of say a thousand arts organizations, what advice would you provide to them to improve their business?

Jill Robinson: I would tell them to invest in people. I would say we have to believe that the whole team is part of the sustainability of arts and cultural institutions. And that the sophistication and stickiness and increased skillset that exists throughout the institution is really, I see the answer to our sustainability data doesn’t do anything. People do everything. And we’ve been at this for 22 years and I’ve been there for almost every year of it. And it is never a strategy or a tactic that causes a program or an institution to fail. It’s always people and their intractability, their mismatch with a particular role, our inability to hang onto them or move them on our ability to create culture that works. If we invest in people, we will solve all of it, but as leaders, we need to invest in that. I am convinced about it.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. Thank you so much.

Jill Robinson: You are welcome. And I just want to say, people causes me to just want to recognize Rick as the person who founded our firm.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely.

Jill Robinson: We just won an award in the state of Colorado and that doesn’t happen to us. And I dedicated it to him because none of this would have been possible without his vision and friendship and leadership. It’s just, I think about it every day and…

Erik Gensler: It’s a lovely way to end.

Jill Robinson: That’s how I’d want to end.

Erik Gensler: Thank you. Did you enjoy the podcast? Please join Capacity Interactive on email and on Facebook so you could be the first to know when we release new episodes. You’ll also get content all about digital marketing for the arts, and you’ll be the first to know about our webinars, workshops, and our annual digital marketing bootcamp. Thanks for listening.

About Our Guests
Jill Robinson
Jill Robinson

Jill Robinson is the CEO of TRG Arts, a management consulting firm that works with arts and cultural organizations seeking to build resiliency through transformative operational practices.

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