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You’ve Cott
Episode 5

You’ve Cott

CI to Eye with Thomas Cott

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Erik and Thomas talk about what marketing was like before the Internet, the origins of You’ve Cott Mail, how Alvin Ailey is working to speak to millennials, and they may have chatted a bit about Beyoncé.

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 an 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 my friend, former manager, and longtime client, Thomas Cott. To arts administrators, Thomas is perhaps best known for You’ve Cott Mail, an email digest of news and commentary about the arts he sent for free almost every weekday for over 20 years. Thomas’s career has encompassed producing and administrative roles in dance, theater, opera, and the humanities. From Broadway to the New York Public Library and now at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Thomas Cott: I’ve always been a media junkie and I’ve always read way too much, partly the way I was built and my family was always read papers and watched the news and it was just in my DNA, I guess to try and educate yourself about the world around you. And as I got into the arts world, I really just wanted to know what other people were talking about and thinking about.

Erik Gensler: In this episode we talk about what marketing was like before the internet, got into the origins of You’ve Cott Mail, and how Alvin Ailey is working to speak to millennials. And we may have chatted a bit about Beyonce. Thomas, thank you so much for being here. I’m so excited to have this conversation with you and it’s always interesting when you’re talking to someone you know so well, but I feel like there’s still a lot to talk about and discover here. So thank you for spending the morning with us.

Thomas Cott: Thanks. Happy to be here.

Erik Gensler: So I feel like a lot of people have heard your name through, You’ve Cott Mail, but I don’t know if people know what your professional bio or experience in the field is. So just start out with a quick professional bio.

Thomas Cott: Well, for the last, gosh, almost 35 years, I’ve held a variety of producing and administrative roles in the theater, in music, in dance, and worked everywhere from Lincoln Center to Broadway. Now I’m at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Erik Gensler: Great. So when you started at Lincoln Center Theater, how many years ago was that?

Thomas Cott: Gosh, it was 1985, so whatever that is, 32 years, I guess.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. And I’m interested what it was like to market a show then. What was the process like when you were thinking through your marketing plan for the year? What did that look like?

Thomas Cott: Well, it was a lot shorter than it is now, and we relied a lot more on things that we don’t rely on so much anymore. It was very common to take out a full page ad the New York Times as a way of announcing a show, sometimes even a double truck ad two page spread. We also did things that are not available anymore, like three sheets in the subway, which don’t, you can’t even buy a three sheet in the subw

Erik Gensler: ay. Why was it called a three sheet?

Thomas Cott: I think in the old days they had to print them on three pieces of paper. Eventually they became two pieces of paper, but they still called it a three sheet. It’s a very long, tall poster. You can still see some of them around Lincoln Center, but you can’t see them in the subway stations anymore. And then telemarketing, which we did back then, which not a lot of companies are doing as much as they used to do. And of course television and radio if you could afford, it was also part of the mix depending on the show.

Erik Gensler: Do you feel then when media was there was just less of it that when you got a really positive review it made a larger box office impact than say now?

Thomas Cott: I’m trying to remember back. I think that’s true. That may be just my memory of it. I think now we have so many different voices expressing opinions about shows through social media and just other ways of expressing your opinion that maybe that has diluted the impact of a professional critic’s voice. Also, there are fewer critics than there used to be. So I think that the landscape has changed a lot. I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten the mix before. I didn’t say direct mail, which was a big part of what we did back then. And of course there was no internet, so we didn’t have email, we didn’t have display ads online, that kind of thing.

Erik Gensler: So you placed your broadcast ads, you placed your newspaper ads, you handle your telemarketing direct mail. And what did you do with the rest of your day?

Thomas Cott: Well, I remember being quite busy, but it was just a different kind of busy and I mean, all those stuff still takes time, but now you spend different amounts of times on different stuff. So we spend a lot of time on digital, for example now that didn’t even exist before. I guess it’s sort of like when you move things around in your closet, no matter how much you take out, there’s always seems to be a full closet. So yeah, your time is always filled.

Erik Gensler: Right. It seems now that there’s just so much more responsibilities for someone in marketing and for a very long time, I imagine it was like you described, there wasn’t of course when the move came from radio to tv, but for I’d say most of the 20th century, it was very much about those mediums, those direct mail, print advertising, radio, sometimes TV if you had the budget.

Thomas Cott: I think that’s really true. I think you have to be an expert now or at least know what you don’t know about such a broader range of things, which is why, and this is a plug for your company capacity Interactive is so valuable I think, to the industry because even if you don’t personally have a deep understanding of how digital marketing works, it’s great to have a resource like capacity to do that work for you, for your company. And I think for my own sake, I’ve always been interested in the next tools for marketers and the next strategies for marketers, but I think there’s not always a lot of time to do that. So I think that’s changed. The field also is trying to just keep up with all the different trends and developments in the field.

Erik Gensler: I don’t know if we take enough time really just thinking about that concept where now you not have to know about those things you always have to know about, but you have to know about things like search engine optimization, search engine marketing websites, content management systems, social media marketing, the list of requirements has dramatically gone up. It’s always changing and it’s not like there’s all of a sudden a lot more money to do this. And so I think it’s increasingly challenging to lead the marketing department of a cultural organization.

Thomas Cott: I think it is. And I think also it’s part of the challenge is translating for the other people that you work with and your board the value of everything that you’re proposing to do. And what’s great about digital marketing is that it’s very accountable. And so if something’s not working, you can either cut it off or switch it and trust other things. You can’t do that with newspaper ads. You can’t do that with a subway poster. You can’t do that with a television ad. You can do some research about the impact of it, but you can’t really measure and you can’t draw a direct line from placing a newspaper ad to a ticket purchase, whereas you can with a digital ad.

Erik Gensler: Which doesn’t mean we’re in a world that is all digital yet.

Thomas Cott: No, not at all. In fact, I think your survey or the field shows that there’s still a pretty low percentage of people’s ad budgets being spent on digital, and that’s true of us at Alia as well. I mean, it’s hard to go from basically zero to a hundred percent of your budget digitally. And I’m not even sure that would make total sense. I think it’s good to have support in other ways. I agree. But I think you can look at your marketing budget in a more sort of strategic way and figure out the value of what you’re doing and make room for more digital spend.

Erik Gensler: When we started working together, we had worked together at New York City Opera and then you moved to Ailey and we started working together at Ailey. And you inherited a marketing budget that was very reliant on the New York Times. And I feel like there was a lot of focus and emphasis from the executive level and from the board to maintain that presence in the New York Times. And you worked very strategically to chip away at that. And I want to talk about this because to this day we have conversations with clients who feel a tremendous amount of pressure from their boards and their leadership to maintain those print relationships. And they’re complicated conversations because especially in other markets, the media organizations, the big newspapers in town, the big radio stations in town have deep relationships with cultural organizations. So cutting from that often means reducing those relationships that have lasted and been around for a very long time. And it’s not like Ailey didn’t have a relationship with the New York Times. I mean, the Times does have a lot of relationships with cultural organizations here, and it’s obviously a very prestigious place to be. How did you navigate pulling away from that, working within a complex organization?

Thomas Cott: Well, it’s a conversation and I think one of the hallmarks of Ailey, and I think one of the reasons that I wanted to work there was it has a reputation for, and I think it’s true, being a very strategic and collaborative administrative company. And that was true of the person who hired me, Sharon Gersten Luckman, and true of my current executive director Bennett Rink, they both have a real passion for making the best use of the resources that you have and that includes people. And so part of the reason I was brought in, I think, was to be kind of a thinker and a strategist and to bring in some new tools. And so I think it was a conversation, and it wasn’t just me saying, this is what we should do. It was Sharon saying it, Bennett saying it, other people on the staff saying it and the board saying it that the world is changing and we need to change with it. I think it’s a process, and it took a number of years to get there. When I first arrived nine years ago, I guess I can say that about two thirds of my marketing budget for city center season was in the New York Times, and now it’s about 20% of our budget. So that’s a huge shift, and that’s got distributed in different ways. But a big chunk of that goes to digital now.

Erik Gensler: And what I think is really how you did it really well is it was always incremental. You’d move a little bit and test the waters to see what the impact was, and each year you’d make changes and test and see how it impacted sales.

Thomas Cott: And I think just from a sheer numbers point of view, the time circulation in the print version has decreased over the last number of years and their digital readership has grown. So that alone tells you maybe that’s where you should be aiming your dollars. So that’s the kind of conversation that you have, looking at the numbers, trying to make data-driven decisions, which I think is the only way you can do it, otherwise you’re doing it on instinct or gut, and that’s never a smart way to make a marketing plan.

Erik Gensler: I mentioned in the intro You’ve Cott Mail, and I’ve been to a number of conferences where you’ve also been in attendance and we’re standing there and someone will come up and see your name tag and they’ll say, Thomas Cott of You’ve Cott Mail. And it’s like being with a celebrity because everyone had your name in their inbox for years and years and years. And I know you made the decision recently that it was time to move on from ucon mail, but I’d like to spend a little bit of time talking about it. And I think, I mean, I knew You’ve Cott Mail before I knew you. Can you talk a little bit about the origin of You’ve Cott Mail, why you created it?

Thomas Cott: Sure. I’ve always been a media junkie, and I’ve always read way too much, partly the way I was built. And my family always read papers and watched the news, and it was just in my DNA, I guess, to try and educate yourself about the world around you. And as I got into the arts world, I really just wanted to know what other people were talking about and thinking about. And in the mid nineties when email became sort of a popular thing, I started sending around articles that I would find to people on staff and at Lincoln Center Theater and maybe a few other friends in the industry that I knew might be interested in it. And they would send it on to their friends and their friends would write me back and say, put me on your list. And I’m like, I don’t have a list. Well, maybe I could start a list. So I started a list and it was literally just that. It was like in my contacts in email service, probably out lucky. And for the longest time, I just sent around the entire article as a single email, and sometimes I’d be sending three, four or five articles a day to people and —

Erik Gensler: It’s just individual emails.

Thomas Cott: — as individual emails. And people would say, well, I, thanks for the stuff, but can you just put it in one email? So then I’d said, well, I can’t just send one long email with five long stories in it, so let me do a little paragraph summary of what it is and I’ll link to the story. And so that’s really where it began. And then it’s like the old commercial, he told two friends and he told two friends, and suddenly you have thousands and thousands of people on your list. And then I started doing themes, which became the next iteration of you’ve got mail where every day there was a different topic and trying to find articles on that topic. And so it sort of became an industry resource for a long time.

Erik Gensler: And how many years did you do it?

Thomas Cott: Almost 20 years.

Erik Gensler: I remember sometimes I would wake up in the morning in the first thing that would be in my inbox would be, You’ve Cott Mail. So I was thinking…

Thomas Cott: What time does he get up?t

Erik Gensler: What time does Thomas wake up?

Thomas Cott: Around 5:00 AM, 5:30? And I would read for an hour or an hour and a half and then start putting it together. Yeah, it was a lot. But I really loved doing it, and I always said I would do it for as long as it was fun to do, and it was fun for a couple of decades, and then it just became an obligation and harder and harder to find new interesting things to point out. I think for better or for worse, in our industry, we tend to recycle some of the same topics over and over again. And trying to find a fresh angle into that was becoming more and more difficult.

Erik Gensler: So it went from daily, it went from multiple times a day to daily to a few times a week, more thought out

Thomas Cott: Exactly

Erik Gensler: and thematic.

Thomas Cott: And then last October I just said, okay, we’re stopping.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. What was the response when you said you were stopping?

Thomas Cott: Well, I have to say it was overwhelming. I hadn’t realized, I guess the extent to which people sort of relied on it and the impact it had on different people in the industries. And that was really gratifying. I certainly didn’t do it for any money or anything. So this was the best payback that I could have ever imagined and far greater than I could have hoped for. So yeah, that was really nice. I got hundreds of messages. It was wonderful.

Erik Gensler: Wow. How big was the list by the time?

Thomas Cott: It was about 16,000 people. Yeah. And what was great about it was was all over the world. It was all different fields within the arts industry, including people who not in the arts industry. I never quite understood why people who weren’t working in the business were interested in it. It was kind of inside baseball, but I guess there was enough sort of lessons that could be translatable into other fields. So I had one person who wasn’t the artist, but now works in the auto industry and was able to apply stuff from cotton mail to what he was doing in the auto industry. So that was interesting.

Erik Gensler: How did you cull through that much information? What tools did you use? I’m just thinking for people who want to replicate this for themselves, or how did you have access to read so many articles so quickly?

Thomas Cott: Okay. I’m going to admit now for the listeners to this podcast, both of you, that —

Erik Gensler: Just like at least three people.

Thomas Cott: Okay. All three of you then. That I actually didn’t use any special tool. It was just me being an OCD person in the morning and I’d bookmark about 200 things to look at, 200 different sites, and I would just toggle through them and see anything new. And I wouldn’t necessarily read 200 things every day, but I would cycle through them pretty much every week and look for things related to a theme that I was looking for. And once I found three or four or five things that were interesting, and that sometimes came really quickly and sometimes it took forever, I would find it. And there was a kind of game involved like, oh yeah, three days ago I saw this story about that and that would match up to this. And then suddenly I had a theme and then I found one more thing, and then I was like, I just need to find one more thing. So it was like a treasure hunt to find the right thing.

Erik Gensler: So you never used an RSS reader? Or anything like that?

Thomas Cott: Never. No.

Erik Gensler: Wow. Yeah. I mean, did people pitch you on ideas?

Thomas Cott: They did, and once in a while I would take the bait, but I was very intent upon not having an agenda or being, that’s why I never took advertising. I didn’t want to be beholden to anybody. I didn’t want anyone to think he’s being influenced by so-and-So it was really just my point of view, my curation of the information that other people were writing. Again, I almost never wrote anything in 20 years for UCO mail. I think it was, maybe you can hear kind of one hand the number of times I personally wrote something for UCO mail. Everything else was somebody else writing about the arts or something related to the arts industry. So yeah, it wasn’t, my genius was, I guess my skill was in being able to identify what was interesting and provocative and stuff. And sort of the baseline thing was what have people not seen? So I wasn’t going to put something that was widely disseminated. Generally speaking, it had to be something that I thought was sort of off the grid for most people.

Erik Gensler: It was curation and aggregation and doing all that work. And that’s a lot of work. So what has replaced that are sources that people who do want to continue to get this kind of information? Where do you go if you say you can only go to a small handful of sites or places for this kind of information?

Thomas Cott: Well, actually, I would encourage people to go to my site, which is uco On the landing page is a link to the list that I used, so you can look through and see what I looked at and still look at, I don’t want to single out any one particular website. I think that would be unfair, but there was about 200 or so that I had regular contact with and see what’s useful to you. Some of it will be more of interest than other things.

Erik Gensler: That’s great. Now, before we move on to You’ve Cott Mail, I just want to talk about the one way you did sort of monetize it towards the end, which I thought was awesome, which was the Charity Water.

Thomas Cott: Oh, yeah. Well, I have you to thank for that actually, because Charity Water presented at bootcamp, and it was right after seeing that presentation that the Digital Marketing bootcamp, was it three years ago? Anyway, whatever.

Erik Gensler: It was two years ago. Yeah.

Thomas Cott: I was so impressed by what they did, and I thought, well, I never asked people for money on youth cotton mail. I don’t charge for the service. What if I asked people if they would support this? And I did it around, I think I did it around my birthday actually, as I recall. And I was really shocked by the amount of money we raised. I think it was like $12,000, which was great.

Erik Gensler: And it was mostly small gifts?

Thomas Cott: Small gifts. So it was lots of people chipping in.

Erik Gensler: And it funded water in a village in Africa.

Thomas Cott: Yeah. So we have all done a good thing in the world.

Erik Gensler: I think it’s just the lesson in permission marketing. It’s that you give people something, give, give, give, give, give. And then when you ask, they’ll give back because you’ve given them so much.

Thomas Cott: And again, I think one of the great things that Charity Water does, it really tells a great story about what the value of your even small gift can make. And they do it in a way that’s so well executed that it really makes it very easy to give.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, it’s a phenomenal organization. And talk about being a media company. They’re the definition of a organization that is a media company that happens to raise money for water and communities. Their video and their social storytelling is fantastic. And I think just a great resource and example for marketers trying to get better at that. Yeah. So let’s turn back to your time at Lincoln Center Theater and the topic of subscriptions and memberships and our consulting work here. I’m increasingly hearing from organizations about their evolution from subscriptions to memberships. And I had an interesting conversation with Jill Robinson of TRG, who doesn’t think the subscription is necessarily dead. It’s a matter of different ways to have increased engagement with cultural organizations. But when you were at Lincoln Center Theater and started this membership model, it was a pretty novel idea. And so I’m interested how that came to fruition, why you did it now. I mean, it’s still looked upon as one of the initial models and most successful models were, in fact, you have to get on a waiting list to even get a membership. So if you can tell me a little bit about that, how it came together, what it is, why you think it worked.

Thomas Cott: Sure. Well, it actually stemmed back, and I think this is really important. It was rooted in artistic vision. Greg Mosher, who was the first director of Lincoln Center Theater, arrived there in 1985 with an idea that he did not want to do a traditional subscription model for the theater because what he had in mind was programming that was going to not necessarily appeal to one particular kind of audience. And if you have a subscription, traditional subscription, you would be basically stuck with one audience coming over and over again, didn’t quite know how to get there initially. So the first season was a two play subscription at Lincoln Center Theater, and it was like any other theater at that time. And the second season, we offered that in parallel with the membership offer, but we didn’t really push the membership offer. And it was kind of like an oh over here, look what was the membership offer?

It was join for $25 and every ticket was $10 that you bought and no obligation to see anything you could come or not come to whatever we put on. And it was literally like a little paragraph in the larger brochure that we did selling the traditional plan. And we sold many thousands of memberships in that little off the cuff offer. And that was the first single that maybe that was going to be the right thing to do. And it wasn’t our original idea. I believe the public theater had tried something like that maybe five, 10 years earlier, but not on the scale that we were attempting to do it at. And then by the end of that first full season, which was the 86 season, we switched entirely to membership and they’ve never gone back. It’s always been a membership theater since then. And what’s great about membership, at least the theory behind membership is that you can sell more memberships than you have seats, basically, because not everyone’s going to come see everything. Although there is a limitation at Lincoln Center because they have two disparately sized theaters. One is about 300 seats and one is about a thousand seats. So you can only oversell as much as you can fit into the smaller theater basically, which is why it keeps being shut down. But at its height, it was about 50,000 members, and I’m not quite sure what the number is now.

And the deal has changed. Obviously the initial deal was really, really cheap. No, I think it’s not quite as cheap, but it’s still affordable. And the idea also is by making something so affordable, you sort of democratize the potential audience for this kind of offer. People who don’t have hundreds of dollars to spend upfront might have $25 to lock in the opportunity to buy tickets at a discount later on. So that was another part of the thinking behind it.

Erik Gensler: And it’s just so smart from a cashflow perspective too, because you get this, and the model of performing arts is so challenging because the cost to maintain institution and the cost to put up these shows requires a lot of cash. And to get cash early on upfront to help fund before the season even starts is amazing. Right.

Thomas Cott: Well, and the other thing was you can enroll members on a rolling basis. So unlike a traditional plan, you get all your money at one point. With membership, you’re getting money all the time, you’re constantly enrolling new people, so that helps your cashflow as well.

Erik Gensler: And it also became this thing of lore like, oh, this amazing deal for Lincoln Center Theater productions to have a membership, but oh, it’s closed. You can’t have it. So people wait for when it opens, and then you get a huge influx of people signing up for this very limited thing.

Thomas Cott: And the closing of the membership happened much, much later, many years later. So there were a lot of years there where you could become a member and people did as a result, people didn’t give up their memberships very much. And so that also created demand as well.

Erik Gensler: Imagine if you do the math, if you’re paying $50 for a membership and say you see one show and say, what does the show cost 50 bucks? So you spend a hundred dollars for one show, but you still feel like you got a great deal and then you’re going to renew it again. I mean, I don’t know the exact numbers of it, but it feels like the organization wins and the patron wins. Exactly. So when I came to work with you at ai, I was really struck by a lot of things. One being that the organization was organized in a way that marketing and development reported to an external relations director that sort of holistically saw patrons across marketing development. And that’s moving. It’s a direction a lot of organizations are moving. And I was really struck by what you said about Ailey, it being incredibly financially healthy, really strategic decision-making. And if you read Michael Kaiser’s book about Ailey and really Sharon Luckman who you mentioned taking Ailey from a place that was almost on the Brinks of collapse to the powerhouse financially healthy, strong organization is today. I’m curious, what do you think is driving, you’ve worked at a lot of organizations, how and why is Ailey so successful?

Thomas Cott: Well, I think there’s a number of reasons. First and foremost, I think the artistic quality of the company is so high, not just the main company, which people mostly know Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, but our second company, Ailey Two, even the work that we do in our school, in our public classes program called the Ailey Extension in our arts education programs, there’s a really high level of artistry that occurs. I’m obviously a partisan, but even as I arrived there, I was able to observe that firsthand. So I take pride in that, but it’s always been that way. And I think part of that stems from Mr. Ailey himself who started a company in an era where in 1958 when the idea of a predominantly African-American dance company was a pioneering thing. And for it still to be around almost 60 years later is proof that what his vision was is still very relevant and still very powerful.

And I think it survived in grade measure because the art is still really strong. In case you haven’t gathered from that comment and things I said earlier, I began my career sort of on an artistic path and the marketing thing was how I supported myself, but I’ve always said I’m a better marketer because I think about the art first. And so it all stems back to what’s on stage, what the vision is for the company, and then you figure out a way to make it work on the business side. That said, I think also AI e has been a standout in the field because we are a very diversified company. I just mentioned four or five different areas of the organization, and they all contribute to the revenue streams of the company. And that’s unusual too. To have a company that is not reliant just on ticket sales for the main company is another way that we have succeeded all these years. So one area of the company has an off year, it doesn’t take us down.

Erik Gensler: That right. It’s like a holding company for lots of different —

Thomas Cott: And it’s all in support of the larger mission. And obviously fundraising is in the mix there as well. I don’t want to deny that, but we don’t rely on any one source of revenue to keep us going.

Erik Gensler: Also, and this is totally anecdotal and as my role in Capacity, and there was a time when I was spending a decent amount of time at Ailey — your office — and I was just so taken by Sharon’s leadership and how she first of all had such a great relationship with the board, and I don’t know the ins and outs of it, but it felt like she drove the board and they trusted her and they believed in her and she brought them in as needed. But it felt like just a really healthy relationship with the board and the board chairman. And we see a lot of our clients get not distracted, but taken off their path because the board gets involved in a way that’s not always so productive. And I thought, I just think of Sharon as being someone as an executive director who navigated that relationship so thoughtfully.

And I thought that plus her focus on communication, where I remember if something would happen, she would gather all the people in her office and would say, okay, this happened. How does this affect press? How does this affect the school? How does this affect social media? How does this affect marketing? And then the third thing, I was really so impressed with her by, and I still remember as a leader, she knew what she didn’t know and she didn’t pretend to know it, but it didn’t stop her from knowing what was important. So she would say things like, I don’t understand social media, but I know it’s important. I don’t understand this whole digital thing, but I know it’s important and I trust you to help me get there.

Thomas Cott: Yeah, I think that’s very true. And I’ve been fortunate in my career to work with and for a lot of really smart and compassionate leaders. I think about my mentor, Bernard Gersten, who was the executive producer at Lincoln Center Theater for almost three decades. And Andre Bishop, who currently runs the theater, and I worked with a lot at Lincoln Center Theater and Greg Mosher and Cora Khan at The New Voice Second Street and Sharon Luckman and now Bennett Rink, all of them share in common the qualities that you’re describing, which is the ability to galvanize the staff around something, connect with the board in a very meaningful way so that we all feel like we are working together towards the same end. And in a way that’s tough, but fair minded and makes you happy to go to work in the morning. I mean, I think those kinds of environments foster good work, and I think they’re all smart enough to realize that you don’t do it by yourself. You do it with the help of a lot of people, but it also takes a great of which she’s a good example to move the organization forward and to again, be curious about what’s coming and to find the right people to execute those ideas.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. I want to turn to a project I know you’re working on funded by the Wallace Foundation around millennials, and I’d love for you to talk about what that project is, why it’s so important and some of the things you’ve learned.

Thomas Cott: Sure. We’re very fortunate to be in a multi-year project funded by the Wallace Foundation. We’re one of a number of organizations across the country in the arts, many of which are working on the topic of millennial audience building. And for our project, we’re particularly focused on our New York audiences and trying to see if there are ways that we can use the tools that we have used successfully in general for our season, to bring in more people in their twenties to our performances, like many large organizations across the country. And we have aging audience issues, and millennials are half the adult population right now. So we have an obligation to connect with as many of them as we can. And this is just a very formal way of doing it, something that we’ve been trying to do for a number of years now. And so we focused on three main areas, programming, pricing and performance, extras in terms of programming.

We did some research at the start of the project to try and better understand what would feel of interest for millennials to see on the Ailey stage. And that was very helpful, and that got incorporated into the thinking of our leader, Robert Battle, and in terms of choosing the works that he chose and programming the works to appear on certain nights. And that was one element that we thought was going to be really important. Pricing also is we did some research to confirm what we felt was already true, which was that people who were not already in our orbit, and this is not just true for 20 somethings, this is true for anybody are less willing to spend a high amount of money for something they don’t know much about. They’re not going to spend our top ticket price if they’ve never been before. So trying to find out what the sweet spot number was revealed in the research, and we did a number of things.

Erik Gensler: Are you comfortable saying what that number is?

Thomas Cott: Sure. I’m sorry. There were two key price points, $50 and $25, which were good entry points for different segments of the millennial audience, I should say. Parenthetically, what’s interesting to note is the actual average ticket price or per cap that people in their twenties were paying at that moment was higher than that, but that’s the people who were already in our orbit. So once we got them, they were willing to spend more for a better seed, but for the newcomers, they needed a lower number to come in. So thanks. And parts of the Wallace funding and also our own decisions, we did make available a lot of seats at these lower price points, particularly to people in their twenties. So we kicked off the season with a young New York Night, which was the second night of our season, and all seats were $25, and we had 2000 young people in the house.

And it was a really wonderful experience, not only because they were a great audience, but because then they went off and told all their friends, Hey, I saw this cool thing. Go check it out. And we had $25 tickets available for the rest of the season as well as seats at $50 that were regularly priced at $90. So there were lots of bargains to be gotten, and we learned a lot about that in our first experiment with that pricing. And the last thing was performance extras, or I guess parties would be another way of putting, it had to be AP, sorry, lots of Ps I’m sure bad to say on a podcast. Yes. We did four events that were connected to the shows that we did during last December season, and they had different strategies behind them. So one was a networking event, one was a meet the artist event, one was a dance class, and the last one was like an after show dance party.

And some of them were at the theater, some of them were at our building, which is a few blocks away from the theater. Some were before the performance, some were after the performance. We were sort of testing formats. And in the research we did after the season, we learned the value of that to us as well. The programming, for example, we thought that relevancy to people’s lives was key, and indeed we were able to present a number of ballets that have content related to social justice and other sort of contemporary themes around relationships and the like. And so those were definitely of interest to people. Also, AI is unusual. Unlike a traditional ballet company, we use contemporary music in a lot of our work, so it’s stuff that people were listening to already, but also I was very gratified that they responded to some of our older works or some more classic repertory, including Revelations, which is the piece that we’re most known for. It had a real impact on the audience, and people really gave us great feedback on that. So that was interesting to see that it didn’t just have to be like a hip hop piece, it could be of any style. I mean,

Erik Gensler: It’s one of the most moving works I’ve ever seen in my whole life.

Thomas Cott: It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was gratifying to see that it was true in terms of pricing. We definitely saw very positive feedback to the pricing that we did, and we will definitely be doing that again. But we also take note of the fact that once we get someone in our orbit that they are willing to spend a little bit more. So that’s also encouraging to me as well. So that indicates that we have sort of a parallel track to pursue, which is trying to get more new people to come in, but also how do you sustain what you’re doing over the course of many years? And the last bit was the social events, and about half of the people said that attending these events would make them more likely to come again. So that was encouraging. So

Erik Gensler: After they had attended the performance and the social event, they half said that the social event was a motivator.

Thomas Cott: Exactly. Yeah.

Erik Gensler: It really does come back to thoughtful segmentation and then the pricing. I think a lot of arts organizations, and this has come up a number of times in the podcast, spend so much of their effort on acquisition and not enough on bringing people back. And so the thought of segmenting new people, perhaps having to invest in that by giving them less expensive ticket prices or add-ons to the performance, and then treating people who have then know who you are differently in terms of how you’re messaging to them in terms of how your storytelling to them with digital tools, this is now so much easier.

Thomas Cott: It really is. And I can’t underscore heavily enough the importance of not thinking of any target audience as a monolith, and to be as customized as you can in your messaging and think about different segments, even within your, we had a very specific target, which was 21 to 30 year olds, which is a pretty narrow slice of our audience. But even within that, trying to find different ways in that would appeal to different people in that age target was really important to us.

Erik Gensler: And how much of your audience is millennial?

Thomas Cott: Well, it depends on where we are, but in New York at City Center, it’s about 15%.

Erik Gensler: And so you’ll be tracking to see if that grows because of this effort. Exactly, yeah. And how did you communicate with them? What channels did you use?

Thomas Cott: Well, as you mentioned, a lot of it was digital. We did the usual things that you would expect us to do, emails and Facebook posts and Instagram posts and Twitter and display ads that were targeted at that age group. But another important thing we did was we identified about 50 influencers in the millennial world who had big followings of people in their twenties. And the sort of value of having someone your age telling you this is cool, is so much better than anything that I could ever have sent out myself. That was another key element to our success.

Erik Gensler: I think Colleen from Know Your Own Bone, she has this company called Impacts, it’s this massive database of consumer behavior and sort of an influencer or hearing from a friend or word of mouth. She can statistically say that that is worth 13 times the value of an ad, right? So if you say, this is such a great performance, you should come see it by taking an ad versus if someone who’s seen it or shared it on social media, that’s worth 13 times the amount.

Thomas Cott: And some of that you can try and make happen. And some of it is just fortuitous. I mean, we were just in la, the company and Beyonce came to see a performance who? She’s a singer, I’m told. Oh, okay. Yeah. And she put on her Instagram account a picture backstage with the dancers, and then another picture for holding up a signed poster. And she’s got a hundred million followers on Instagram, so you can’t plan for that.

Erik Gensler: Did you see a bump?

Thomas Cott: Yeah, I think that’s fair to say.

Erik Gensler: Well, I remember being in your office once and the ceiling started shaking. Were you there for that? And we heard Beyonce and I was like, are they doing, is there a school group doing a Beyonce number or rehearsing up there? And you were like, no, that’s actually Beyonce. Were you allowed to say that?

Thomas Cott: I guess so. You just did.

Erik Gensler: We can cut that out in post. Or not. So we’re living in a really interesting time where the arts have made the headlines because of the federal budget that came down, and obviously Congress makes the budget, but the idea is set by the executive branch, and the budget that was released a couple of weeks ago completely eliminated funding for the NEA. I’m just interested to understand how you think that will play out, how you think the election has impacted ticket sales at Ailey, if not, and what sort of the buzz around the company and in your world from all this has been?

Thomas Cott: Every day since Donald Trump has become president, you wake up in the morning and some new surprise has happened. So for me or anyone to try and guess what’s going to end up in the budget or whatever, anyone listening to this anytime after today is going to laugh and say they didn’t know about such and such. So we don’t want to predict. We don’t want to really predict. But I think this is the first time, as far as I know, that a president has campaigned to eliminate the NEA and PBS and the NEH, and basically any government support of anything culturally oriented that is both historic and scary. Certainly there have been culture wars over the course of my life in Congress, people trying to underfund or defund the NEA has happened a number of times. It’s always been beaten back. And I was going to say I’m hopeful, but the world is so top Tevye right now politically. I don’t really know what the answer is, but I would like to believe that people will understand the value of the really tiny amount of money proportionally that the federal government gives to support the arts in this country that will be preserved in some form. But you just don’t know. I mean, we’re living in a crazy moment right now.

Erik Gensler: We are. It’s very intense and slightly scary, but again, we just don’t know. There’s so much going on.

Thomas Cott: I’ll say the one good thing though that came out of that declaration by President Trump is it really galvanized not just people within the industry, but people who love the arts, to pay attention and say, no, no, we want arts in our lives. We think arts are valuable. And so that’s important. And I think if anything, he did us a favor to kind of not just be complacent about it, but to really make it forefront and put energy behind that and keep people talking about it and fighting for it.

Erik Gensler: I agree, because I was almost thinking that people who are normally so passionate about the arts were so focused on all the other horror shows that were happening. It would be easy to forget about the arts because we’re fine. But now it’s really back on the front burner.

Thomas Cott: And I’d like to believe that we are a country that is capable of more than either or thinking that we can be a yes and country and be in a country that values the arts and wants to say Planned Parenthood and wants to have a strong military and wants to have education because we can. We’re a really strong country and we have a lot of smart people here who can do more than one thing at a time.

Erik Gensler: I think we’ve come to our final question.

Thomas Cott: Oh my God.

Erik Gensler: It goes so fast.

Thomas Cott: Make it a good one.

Erik Gensler: Well, this is your CI to Eye moment, which is the name of the podcast. And so I want to ask you, if you could broadcast to the executive directors leadership teams and boards of a thousand arts organizations, what advice would you provide to them to help them improve their business?

Thomas Cott: I guess in a nutshell, I would say stay curious. There’s a easy tendency for all of us, myself included, to just focus on what is in front of you and to get through the agenda of the day. And you have seven meetings and things to reconcile, and it’s hard to make space in your brain and your schedule to sort of step back. But I think there’s great value in that. And I would say every day, take 10 minutes and just think about the implications of what you’re planning, what’s ahead. Don’t just think to tomorrow or the next week or the next year, but think 3, 5, 10 years down the line and where you want to be and figure out if there’s some small incremental thing that you can do to get yourself there. And part of that includes educating yourself, whether that means obsessively getting up and reading stuff as I did, or going to conferences or just taking someone out to lunch or breakfast and picking their brain. Just make a little space in your day to stay curious about what’s coming up, and I think that will make your work more enjoyable and your organization more effective.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. That’s great. Thank you so much.

Thomas Cott: My pleasure.

Erik Gensler: 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
Thomas Cott
Thomas Cott
Sr. Director of Marketing & Content Creation, Alvin Ailey

To arts administrators Thomas Cott is perhaps best known for You’ve Cott Mail, an emailed digest of news and commentary about the arts he sent for free almost every weekday for over 20 years. Thomas’ career has encompassed producing and administrative roles in dance, theater, opera, and the humanities—from Broadway to the New York Public Library. He’s currently at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater as Senior Director of Marketing and Creative Content.

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