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Zeroing in on What Matters
Episode 112

Zeroing in on What Matters

How and why to prioritize high-impact work

This episode is hosted by Dan Titmuss.

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In this episode

As arts marketers, it's easy to get distracted by shiny new digital marketing trends or bogged down with low-impact work. In this episode, we cut through the noise and help you focus on strategies that yield the greatest results for your organization.

Media Moment

News outlets, like Axios, have published eye-catching headlines about Google and Meta’s declining ad dominance. The articles are shocking, but should we really panic? Dan sits down with CI’s own Ally Duffey Cubilette to look at how U.S. ad spend is changing and what this really means for arts marketers.

Digital Download

Dan chats with Principal Consultant Nick Nolte about the digital tools and strategies you should prioritize in 2023 and beyond. They’ll cover topics, like first-party data, Google Analytics 4, and SEO-focused content to help you gain high-impact results.

CI to Eye Interview

CI’s Managing Director Christopher Williams catches up with Ballet Austin’s executive director Cookie Ruiz, who shares her team’s unique approach to customer service. You’ll also learn more about their powerful on-site engagement strategy and how it’s turning newcomers into brand evangelists.

Dan Titmuss: Hi everyone and Happy New Year. You might be wondering why you’re hearing a British guy’s voice on CI to Eye, well, let me introduce myself. My name is Dan Titmuss. I’m a senior consultant with Capacity Interactive and your new host for CI to Eye, uh, a bit about myself. I am a actor and screenwriter in my spare time. Um, I love, uh, performing in my one man shows and my favorite movie is A Knight’s Tale, and that tells you more than you probably need to or want to know about me. Uh, I’ve worked with Capacity Interactive since 2016, and over the years I’ve seen many arts marketers get bogged down with shoulds. What shiny new technologies should they be using? Uh, what side projects should they take on? And these shoulds tend to be accompanied by a mountain of opinions about what should be prioritized based on what’s trending.

Uh, and let’s face it, arts marketers wear a lot of hats, but at the end of the day, we can’t do it all. In this episode, we’ll help you cut through the noise and focus on strategies that yield the greatest results for your organization. Today I’ll be talking with fellow senior consultant Ally Duffey Cubilette about all of those alarmist Meta and Google headlines you’ve been seeing. Uh, we’re gonna break down some trends in digital ad spend and figure out where you should be putting your advertising dollars this year. Then I’ll chat with CI’s principal consultant Nick Nolte about the digital priorities you should zero in on in 2023. We’ll cut through the distractions and help you focus on high impact areas like first party data, Google Analytics four, and SEO focused content creation. Finally, CI’s managing director Christopher Williams will sit down with Cookie Ruiz, Ballet Austin’s executive director. She’ll discuss her team’s unique approach to customer service and why it’s important to bring everything back to your mission. She’ll also share more about Ballet Austin’s powerful onsite engagement strategy and how it’s turning newcomers into brand evangelists. Let’s dive in, shall we?

We’ll kick things off with our media moment. Today I’m joined by Ally Duffey Cubilette, a senior consultant at CI specializing in digital marketing and analytics. Hey, Ally, how’s it going?

Ally Duffey Cubilette: It’s going. I’m pretty good. How about you?

Dan Titmuss: Good, good. Thanks for coming and talking about this scary article. Uh, so this article, the headline here is Slow Fade for Google and Meta’s Ad Dominance as an article we found in Axios, written by Sarah Fisher. Um, and the main message of this is that Google Meta, who are sort of like the duopoly of a, of the ad industry, um, especially digital ad industry, um, are gonna bring in less than half of all US digital advertising this year. And this is the first time it’s happened since 2014. So since 2014, they’ve brought in the majority of, of, uh, ad revenue every single year, but this year it’s gone down to 48.4%. So this feels very sort of doomsday, right? It feels very much like let’s all abandon ship, uh, and go somewhere else than Google and Meta. Uh, but it’s not really the full story when we look at the data, is it?

Ally Duffey Cubilette: I would say that, you know, 48% of all digital ad spend is far from ship abandoned. Uh, Google and Meta are still by far together, uh, and separately the largest, uh, comprise the largest pieces of that digital ad spend pie. And so that’s, that’s one point. The, the second is that we have to contextualize this within the overall digital advertising landscape and the, and the share of our media budgets overall that are going to digital, which has been growing. If we, uh, we are looking at a study from Group M that showed that two thirds of total US ad spending is expected to go to digital advertising in 2023, and that’s compared to less than half in 2019. So the, the amount of money that’s being spent on digital in particular in the last few years has grown significantly. And mostly that’s coming from people moving budget from other traditional channels like TV or radio into the digital equivalence of those things. So when we look at that digital pie, that pie is growing. And in particular, these slices for streaming and those other digital tv, digital radio, uh, pieces are growing. And that’s kind of taking up some of, of this perception of Google and Meta’s share. But if we look at the overall investment in Google and Meta, that is much more stable if we look at the actual ad dollars. So I think that’s important to keep that in mind. Yeah,

Dan Titmuss: I think, you know, looking at the digital streaming and O T T, it can feel like a new shiny toy, right? But one of the things that we’ve pointed out, or I wanna point out is that rather than spam being diverted from Google, uh, matter to other digital channels, more budget is being allocated to digital from non-digital channels like traditional tv. So if you weren’t spending money on TV adverts before, the kind of isn’t a good reason to start now just because it’s a new shiny digital thing.

Ally Duffey Cubilette: Yeah, and I was, I was looking back at the CI conducted a, a study in 2021, our ticket buyer media usage study. That was a, it’s a mouthful. Um, but we had asked some questions of arts ticket buyers in that study. Uh, what, what is their pathway to television? And among those responders, uh, 68, 60 5% of them said that they watched cable and broadcast and satellite TV weekly, about the same percentage said that they watched digital streaming without commercials weekly, and only about 36% said that they watched digital streaming with commercials mm-hmm. So when we think about our audience and where they’re spending time, it doesn’t seem like they’re spending a lot of time on ad supportive platform. So that’s, that’s one piece of data. The other, the other thing that has, has changed, of course, is that bigger players have launched ad supported platforms.
So Netflix launched an ad supported platform. Disney Plus has launched an ad supported platform. So I think there’s a lot of buzz around like how we can be involved in that. Uh, and particularly when it comes to streaming an O T T, I think we really want those in instream placements. Mm-hmm. . So an ad like in Hulu where you’re watching something and an ad comes up and it’s full screen, and it’s lovely and it’s very similar to traditional tv. That’s the kind of placement that I want. Um, but Hulu is not, doesn’t have a large share of streaming. Streaming itself has a smaller share of, still has a smaller share of people’s viewing time than traditional tv. While that is growing, uh, Netflix and some of these other ad supported platforms are really up and commerce, and they haven’t ironed out their targeting, their ad buying, uh, or, or even their offer to their own users yet. Mm-hmm. . So that is still very much in development. I think it’ll be interesting to see where it goes. But right now, um, you know, as you said, if you weren’t spending on TV before, there’s not a lot of efficiency or scale to be gained by adding streaming to that mix right now. Mm-hmm. .

Dan Titmuss: Yeah. And like streaming is definitely growing, right? But it’s not even the second biggest portion of that pie yet. The, of like all us digital marketing, uh, digital advertising pie. The second one is e-commerce, and that’s grown, which is making the pie even bigger and the proportion of Meta and Google smaller. Yeah. And that really doesn’t affect the majority of people we work with, uh, like in, in terms of arts, marketing and adjacent things, right?

Ally Duffey Cubilette: Yeah. So that e-commerce slice is Amazon, eBay, Walmart, Etsy, those kind of platforms where I would be happy to see an advertisement for shoes or mascara. But I, I would feel that an advertisement for a, uh, live performance or an exhibit is, is less relevant to that person’s to also the, the end user. Right. I’m really looking for stuff. Um, and what we sell is not, is not stuff

Dan Titmuss: Yeah.

Ally Duffey Cubilette: So the, there’s that, that big piece of this conversation around, you know, digital diversification is just less relevant to, to our industry.

Dan Titmuss: Yeah. The, I think the message here that from our side, is it, this is worth thinking about, it’s worth considering, but it’s also not gonna affect you that much this year or in the next few months.

Ally Duffey Cubilette: Yeah. You know, we’re looking at, at reports of what people spend on advertising. The other side of this is where people are actually spending their time. And we can definitely see that people are still spending the most time on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. So Meta and Google, uh, if we look at social apps, that’s where people are spending the vast majority of their time. Mm-hmm. , uh, so there’s two sides to this, right? Like, where do we wanna spend our advertising dollars and where are we gonna reach people most efficiently? And so there’s definitely still power in Meta and Google for those reasons, just because you, they have such large audiences.

Dan Titmuss: Um, okay. So I’m feeling a lot better than I was, uh, about this article than when I first read it. Ali, thanks for being here.

Ally Duffey Cubilette: Thanks for having me.

Dan Titmuss: All right. It’s time for digital download and I’m here with our principal consultant at CI, Nick Nolte. How’s it going, Nick?

Nick Nolte: Great, Dan, how are you?

Dan Titmuss: Good. Very well. Um, in this episode, we are kind of highlighting what it means to zero earn on strategies that are most impactful as our marketers and as humans, I guess we love new shiny objects, right? Anytime a new platform comes along, anytime, like a new way of spending our marketing money, uh, occurs, it can be tempting to go there. Feel kind of like for fomo, like fear of missing out. Um, so how do you prioritize? How do you take a breath and figure out what are the most important things to be focusing on?

Nick Nolte: I totally hear that. We know our listeners are being pulled in just so many different directions in the day-to-day planning across not only current seasons that they’re in, but future seasons. Uh, we know it can really be tough to zoom out and look at changes in the digital landscape as a whole. And so we’re here to help you prioritize that. Um, we identified seven key areas that will have the greatest impact on your organization this year. Uh, we have lots of things coming at you. Uh, the list includes things like vertical video, uh, brand campaigns, privacy focused measurement, and Google’s machine learning tools. Um, but that’s a lot to dive into all at once. So we’re going to dive into three areas today, and we have a whole series on the blog coming your way. Uh, so make sure to check out the blog for more details as well.

Dan Titmuss: Awesome. So we’re gonna talk about blog content to increase organic traffic, uh, how to implement GA four, uh, which I know a lot of people are talking about and worried about and thinking about, uh, and also talking about first party data strategy. Um, it’s no secret that first party data is going to become more and more important. It’s the future, um, of digital marketing for, for our organizations for sure. Um, especially with like changing privacy regulations, the death of third party cookies, and, you know, the only data in your control is the data you own. Yeah. So what is first party data? Can we define that?

Nick Nolte: Yeah. Uh, first party data is data that your organization owns and has permission to use. So that can include information collected via things like lead generation campaigns, email signups you have on your website, um, signups you may have in person at your venues, you know, collecting customer information along the purchase path or also tracked behavior on your website. And apps. I, I really kind of see the shift toward first party data as an important one in, in keeping permission marketing sustainable. Um, I think that it’s, I think about it as like kind of taking a more active role in the customer acquisition journey and, and making sure that you’re providing anticipated relevant and personal information for your audience. Um, but yeah, in terms of moving toward first party data, uh, strategy, some things to be thinking about and takeaways here are, um, first and foremost really thinking about your lead generation strategy.

Uh, we found lead generation to be an excellent acquisition tool to begin the conversation and foster a relationship with your customers. To do this, I think you need to sit down as a marketing team, maybe even, you know, across departments, uh, all get in one room and really think about like carving out an actual budget to really go all in on lead generation. Uh, you’ll want to set aside a dedicated budget for this effort. Uh, it’s going to take investment, but it’s definitely going to yield rewards, um, and also experiment with various platforms, uh, to reach as many new audiences as you can. Uh, we’ve had a really great success, uh, on Meta, so across Facebook and Instagram with lead generation campaigns, uh, thinking about, you know, making it a fair trade or at least giving, giving people what they want, uh, in exchange for their email address.

Uh, things like, uh, sign up to be the first to know about a season announcement, things like that do really well, um, sign up to get a discount, uh, off of your first ticket purchase. Things that are really gonna reward them with something that they want are going to see the most efficient cost per lead is, is what we’ve seen generally. Um, and also there are different platforms you can be experimenting with beyond Meta. You can be, uh, trying out the Google network. Uh, you can now put, uh, an extension in your Google grant account, um, and your paid search campaigns to collect leads. Uh, LinkedIn also has lead collection tools. Um, so think, you know, also beyond just Meta in terms of collecting leads.

Dan Titmuss: Yeah. There’s also kind of like, after you get the lead, there’s a whole that’s like, it’s just the first part, like this really is a way of like shifting how you think about, about lead generation, because so many times people do lead generation and then think that’s like the end of it, and then just do the same old marketing pushes out there. And like Right. You know, it’s, you gotta think about like how you are treating those leads and why they’ve signed up as well. Right? If someone has signed up for, for saying they’re excited to see the 20, 22, 20 23 season, uh, don’t, like, don’t sleep on that, right? Don’t just add the same email list, like you said, like segmentation and making sure you’re nurturing those relationships, um, and sending out emails with thought, um, rather than just volume.

Nick Nolte: Um, definitely, yeah, you wanna give that new lead a, a great welcome email. That’s just the beginning of the conversation. Uh, definitely wanna segment as you were saying, and give the people what they asked for specifically, like, by signing up for x uh, communication, they should expect X communication from you, right? Yeah. Um, so, uh, making sure to continue to treat leads, uh, the way they should be treated. Mm-hmm. . Um, and also thinking about things like your overall email strategy, like we’re ki we kind of just started to touch on that, but I think this is a great time to really, um, you know, revisit your entire email strategy just to make sure it’s serving you. Um, there have been a ton of changes via iOS 15, uh, meaning that, you know, things like open rates and, uh, just aren’t going to be as reliable of a metric to look at.

Mm-hmm. So I think you should be really kind of redefining your KPIs, uh, your key performance indicators when you’re talking about email. And it’s, it’s a part of the strategy that it’s not just for the marketers, right? Really across organization. Everyone touches email at an organization, which makes it feel a little bit unruly at times because you really can’t be siloed by department. You really need to be thinking about email as going through the whole organization and everyone touches it. And so you really need to all get on the same page with how you’re trading email, what your goals are, what you’re measuring, and redefining really how you’re evaluating its performance.

Dan Titmuss: Yeah. So let’s talk about the second point. GA four, uh, Google Analytics four, the new generation of ga, this designed to help websites succeed without third party cookies. Um, it uses machine learning as a workaround for those, uh, that missing data. So I love the, uh, the blog we have on our, on our site about, uh, analytics, which is like, why should you, uh, switch to GA four? Uh, the short answer you have to, um,

Dan Titmuss: Yeah, right? It’s getting, yeah. Sunset on in, uh, the middle of this year, July 1st, 2023. Um, so yeah, you kind of have to, you don’t have a choice on this, right?

Nick Nolte: Mm-hmm, right? That’s right. It’s, uh, necessary evil. And, uh, I know, I don’t like to say evil, but I do know it, it is tricky and it’s not quite as user-friendly as universal Analytics and, uh, we’ve kind of been spoiled by that I think, for the last, you know, decade or so. But, uh, you know, I think there is a learning curve. There definitely is, uh, it’s possible to learn it and we’re all learning it together at the same time. And so, um, yeah, it’s definitely just, it’s vital to both your overall digital strategy and organizational success. So you gotta get it set up.

Dan Titmuss: Yeah. I mean, the cost and the effort that goes into doing it is worth every penny, right? Because that’s how you measure things, right? You can’t change what you do not measure. And this is the tool for measurement. Um, so it’s worth every penny, right? Is there is like things, think about like deploying new tags, um, thinking about how your ticketing platform, if you have a ticketing platform, um, how that interacts with, uh, with tags and with GA four to make sure you’re like capturing purchases and also not collecting personally identifiable information. P i i,

Nick Nolte: Yeah, it’s a, it’s a, I think it’s a little bit daunting for all of us, but you know, especially for smaller organizations that don’t have like a huge development team, a huge tech team, uh, it is definitely gonna be a, a challenge and you’ll, you’ll likely need some help implementing it. Um, just making sure everything is, everything you do wanna be tracked is tracked. You’re not tracking the stuff you don’t wanna be tracking, like personally, personally identifiable information. Uh, and also there are additional engagement, um, data to help you see a, a fuller website performance picture. So just making sure all of that is set up and, and ready to use is, is gonna definitely be valuable to your organization.

Dan Titmuss: Yeah, absolutely. And also, um, exporting the data that’s in UA at the moment, universal analytics, the, the regular analytics that you’re most familiar with, you can export all that. So you, you have access to that data. Um, but you have to do that before 2024 cuz it’s all getting deleted I think in, in 2024. Um, or it’s not available. I’m sure it lives somewhere , but, uh, but yeah, it, you could, we won’t be, you won’t be able to have it. So it’s good as deleted in 2024. So make sure you gotta export all that beforehand.

Nick Nolte: I mean that, just thinking about that, that’s so much data thinking about, you know, how, how large your organization is, depending on the scale of your organization and also how many years you’ve been looking at universal Analytics. There’s just a ton of data there are, um, that you’re probably gonna want at least a couple years worth to look back at. Definitely. Uh, and so I think the exporting thing is, is definitely going to be paramount to organizations, but it’s also something that, you know, can get really messy really quickly just by the volume of data and, you know, like how, where is it going when you export it? How are you even going to set it up to like use it and reference it is going to be a challenge. So that’s definitely something that we are addressing and, and CI can definitely help your organization out with.

Dan Titmuss: Hmm. So let’s talk about that third point we were gonna bring up today, which is creating compelling vlog content, uh, to increase organic traffic. I am a SEO person, like, I like organic search. Um, I talk mostly about organic search. It’s the majority of what I do at ci. And so I’m always super passionate about blogs and I think, I think the thing that is so important to think about is treating your blog as a search first tool. So rather than somewhere where, you know, a patron who already knows about your organization, goes to your site, clicks on your blog and reads it, uh, we’re thinking about it from like someone from Google who types in a, a completely separate keyword, um, who’s completely like new search query that has nothing to do with your brand, then finds a blog article that you’ve written on Google.

Nick Nolte: Yeah. And it’s so backwards from, I think the way a lot of arts organizations think about preparing blog content is, you know, you kind of start with, okay, my programming, I wanna market this performance, so I want to have my Meta content, I want to have my television commercial, I wanna have my blog posts, I’m gonna put it on the blog. And that’s really, you don’t have to think in that way. I think you’re kind of like putting yourself, you’re limiting yourself if you’re thinking about it that way. So really kind of coming at it by using Google as your helper to really identify what people are searching on. Because I guarantee you people are not going to your homepage and then clicking on the blog and then looking at looking for this one article. It’s just not how human behavior is.

Dan Titmuss: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And I think once, once you start to think about this in this new way, it can open up so many more topics for you to write about as well. Um, to do this, you do have to do some what we call keyword research, which is about like thinking about what people are searching for. Um, there’s a few different ways that you can come up with these topics. Part of that is getting inspiration for ideas and that can be pretty intimidating when you’re first starting off. So one thing we like to do is get like a brainstorming session. So everyone who’s a stakeholder in, in this blog article in this, you know, whoever’s writing about it, get them in a room. Also get anyone on the artistic team, like patrons, whoever wants to contribute just to think about what people might be searching for to do with your topic, right?

At this point, like no idea is a bad idea. After that you can start to whittle it down based on research. And a useful way of like getting in there is thinking about like avatars. So if you are a, um, a classical music institution, for example, you have a few different avatars, a few different types of people who have come, you might have already done this kind of stuffing in market research and other like marketing aspects as well. Classical music nerds who are obsessed with everything. Uh, classical music newbies who don’t know anything about classical music, but, uh, you know, want to come and experience for the first time, um, people who are interacting with your organization mainly on the educational basis. Um, all those three different things are three different avatars that you can kind of think about what they’re searching for. So, you know, a classical music newbie, for example, might be searching how do trombones work, right? This very obvious question that is gonna be obvious to you, but for someone like myself who actually doesn’t know how to tell a trombone works, like that’s actually quite interesting. That’s something I might search for,

Nick Nolte: Right? Or like, who is Beethoven? Or why was Beethoven a big deal? Something like that.

Dan Titmuss: Exactly. Right. Um, I, one of our clients had the just a Guide to Beethoven Symphonies and it was written a while ago, and every month we see it gains traffic for that, that search query. Cuz it’s, it answers the keyword really well. Yeah. This like separate, this way of looking at a blog rating can be really powerful. Definitely. You also don’t, don’t overlook things like AI as well. I know they can seem . I think we’re, yeah, we can we can, we can feel hesitant to use ai, uh, especially as people in the art to understand the value of like, creativity.

Nick Nolte: There’s a lot of like doomsday, uh, talk about AI right now.

Dan Titmuss: Yeah, exactly. And so I would like, I would encourage people to use AI as a, as, as an assistant rather than like this thing you can just plug everything into and publish right away. A few like really good ones. I, I know, um, we have some clients that use Jasper AI for blog writing. Um, I’ve used in the past. I think writer is free for the first 5,000, um, characters. Um, so yeah, play around with it. Look at how it, you can, you can use it for creating paragraphs or blog outlines, uh, because it can be a really powerful tool. Um, okay, so we’ve covered a lot of topics today. Um, if you wanna learn more about these topics plus advice around vertical video brand campaigns, privacy focused measurement, and Google’s machine learning tools, visit our blog, uh, capacity Thanks so much for being here, Nick.

Nick Nolte: Yeah, thanks for having me. It’s great chatting. Dan

Christopher Williams: Cookie Ruiz, welcome to See Eye to Eye. It’s so nice to have you. It’s

Cookie Ruiz: Wonderful to be here.

Christopher Williams: Well, let me get this out of the way, uh, for myself. Um, as I’ve already told you Cookie, I will now tell all of the listeners of CI Eye to Eye that I am a huge fan of yours. I have tremendous respect and admiration for you and all of the work at Ballet Austin. So today is certainly a real privilege for me to spend time with you.

Cookie Ruiz: Thank you so much, Christopher. I appreciate it. And, uh, all of us at Ballet Austin feel the same about the folks at Capacity Interactive, and we are big CI fans as well. So thank you. We’ll, we’ll pass this back and forth today,

Christopher Williams: Thank you. Well, let’s start off with just hearing a little bit about your background and what brought you to Ballet Austin.

Cookie Ruiz: Um, so interestingly enough, my connection to nonprofit work started years ago in very focused areas of social service, uh, issues that were interesting to me and also some things that ha had happened in my life and to the lives of people around me. So I came to the world of fundraising actually, because most of the things that made me righteously indignant or most of the things that caused me to want to make a change in my community, uh, started with I needed to raise money to do it. That is how I landed in the world of nonprofit fundraising. So it was actually in that conversation, uh, that ballet Austin found itself looking at a need to rethink, uh, the relationship they had with the donor public of Austin, Texas. And so I came there with that charge. Um, a year later, uh, the board sort of tapped me on the shoulder when a change was made and asked if I would, uh, run the organization. Told them I thought that was a terrible idea because I had not yet, uh, completed the work that I had set out to do for the organization. Um, and they said that was a really interesting speech, but that would I please accept the role? And I knew then, uh, that I, that I needed to step forward because I, I really believed in the opportunity we had ahead of us. But that was, uh, 26 years ago. So it’s been a, it’s been a good fit.

Christopher Williams: Wow. So I’m so curious, first of all, tell me what’s kept you there all of this time and, um, can you also sort of talk about how important you think fundraising is to have made you successful in your role as executive director?

Cookie Ruiz: Well, that’s interesting, um, because there’s many paths, obviously to becoming an, an executive director. The role of fundraising brings you there by the path of people. Um, and so that, that really is what fundraising is about, relationships, caring really about people. Um, I you ask about what made me stay, I have a very, uh, high energy and very, uh, low threshold for boredom I bore very easily. So the idea that I remained in the same job for 26 years is really quite shocking. But it is an indicator that no two days have ever, uh, been alike. Um, I am devoted to the journey of Stephen Mills, the, uh, choreographer, artistic director of Ballet Austin, and the journey that he’s on with an audience that is really focused on definitely looking at our art form of earth’s history, but really pressing on its future. Um, and I think honestly, because my commitment is so strong to community, um, that it has been in, it has been in the times that we have, you know, brought the community together for things with which they’re very familiar, but it is in those times that we’re unveiling new work or really Steven’s asking the audience to think about something in a different way. It’s those most challenging works that I think are the reason that I am just in love with the work that we get to do together though. Mm-hmm.

Christopher Williams: Um, well, I first was exposed to you and Ballet Austin properly in 2016, I believe, when the dance u s A conference was held in Austin. Uh, and I had the pleasure of sitting in on a session where you were presenting alongside folks from the Wallace Foundation, I believe in my memory. Uh, and you were talking about your work to really sustain future audiences and audiences that resemble, uh, your community. Uh, and that’s where I, I, as an audience member, I was astounded by what you were saying. It was so smart and so inspirational. Um, and that was the very first time I ever wanted to sit down and have a very long conversation with you. So today is really kind of a dream come true for that regard. But, uh, there’s so much, um, for us to learn from the work that you all have done. Um, can you talk a little bit about what that work was with the Wallace Foundation? Uh, and then I think from there we can go into some of the things we wanna ask you specifically about, uh, as that journey has continued,

Cookie Ruiz: Uh, that the opportunity to be part of that particular cohort was absolutely extraordinary and transformational, uh, really for Valley Austin with the Wallace Foundation, our piece of it was breaking down an understanding what makes new work so scary or so threatening, or just of no interest. What is the thing that causes people to just say, ah, I don’t think so. Um, you know, I know that the arts that’s gonna be delivered on stage is gonna be extraordinary every time, but I take personally every state in that house. Um, and of course, all productions don’t fill all seats and they don’t fill them easily. Mm-hmm. . So knowing that we were going to always be a company that was committed to new work and committed to social justice work as well as the other work that we do, how could we, as a, as the front of house team be better at it?

How could we, what were we missing? We just thought this was the most amazing opportunity to sit down and pull that apart. Uh, we became very aware of something that we identified as the uncertainty gap. Mm-hmm. , that was just a process where you’re selling, if we’ve answered your need, you bought a ticket, yay, you’re coming. And then, and then all of a sudden there was a place where it clogged up and people didn’t go any farther. And so then how do you understand? We, we knew that there was an uncertainty gap that stopped that process for us, but not only what was in that gap, but what were the types of things that might move you through. Um, and so then it became a need to understand, well, what is the connection our audience wants with us? Mm-hmm. . So ultimately we really we began to realize for research and research and data mining, that our audience either wanted an emotional connection, uh, a social connection, an intellectual connection, or a kinesthetic connection.
So, um, so that was the way that we began to realize if we failed to speak in the kinds of things that that particular part of the audience they wanted to connect, it was like, I always use the example, one of those dog whistles that you blow and then only dogs can hear it, , if we send the wrong message, it’s just that they heard and they just don’t come mm-hmm. . Um, because very often doing social justice work or doing new work, we would get serious and we would be intellectual, and we would not allow us how this work could also be a lovely evening. And so basically then all the social connectors would stay home. Mm-hmm. , and I’m not surprised because we haven’t asked them to come. Yeah. By making the connection that they need. This audience is not a monolith. And we were very much treating our audience like, all right, you’re coming all y’all xx, all y’all, here’s, we’re gonna do this and here’s, we’re gonna do that, and we’re gonna, you know, one fits all. Um, the whole one size fits all can allow us to really not be meaningfully developing a relationship. Mm-hmm. in some ways, pushing us backwards, but taking a lot of time, making us feel very busy, very fulfilled. We did all these things. Yeah. Um, but some of the things we needed to quit doing.

Christopher Williams: Um, I know you feel very strongly about data mining and you learned, um, some things about churn and your work along the way, and then that’s led to some of the work that you’re now doing, uh, with audiences. Tell us, tell us what you’ve learned about your audience as far as churn goes.

Cookie Ruiz: I feel like this one is really universal. What’s happening over the last few years is lots and lots of companies so delighted that they have all of these, what we would call ’em, world tutorial New-to-files, NTFs, first timers. Mm-hmm. . So these record number of NTFs, and then we were churning them out in record numbers. So just massive numbers of people trying us out, coming one time and never coming back. So as we came to the end of our time, uh, with Wallace Foundation thought, what’s the single most important thing that Valley Ossian could do at this point to continue to grow our audience and to sustain that audience knowing that we wanted to do it through the filter of diversity. Having an audience that doesn’t reflect your community doesn’t make any sense. Like, why would you even do that? So move that filter of knowing, um, that we had to be a welcoming place and we had to think of all all of those issues, uh, we, we decided, okay, let’s do a little debt of mining.

What we learned is that as a, as this, um, individual that was working with us says, you know, you are thinking your subscriptions are going down or not very strong because you’re thinking season to season, September to May. If you pull the aperture out, we can identify through the data that you’ve got secondary subscribers that have developed a different pattern. You just don’t see it because your lens is September to May. So if you pull that lens out and you recognize that, you know, you may think that they keep churning out, you may call them churn, they actually are a secondary subscriber. You just haven’t recognized their pattern. Um, so ultimately we said, okay, we’re gonna go after this. We know from the data mining that if ultimately if we can get people to come back three times in 18 months, we have ’em, um, that they seem to become family.

And that’s not us saying it, that’s history saying it. We just didn’t see the pattern. So we call it magic number three. We just decided what if, what if we actually treated a newcomer like you treat a newcomer coming to your home, um, and what if we reached out? And so I’ll get out of the, uh, subjunctive and just say, what we ended up doing is having a member of our team running the welcome center, which at this point right now, her name is Vicky.

So Vicky creates a directly looking into the camera and it’s like, hi, I’m Vicki Parsons and I am the person that’s running the welcome center at Ballet Austin. Our records indicate that you may be attending a ballet Austin production next week for the very first time. I am so looking forward to meeting you, as is our team. So when you come to the theater, please walk through the door.

I’ll be right there at the welcome center. We’ve got a little gift for you, wanna tell you some things that are going on. We ask you to come early, come an hour early, cuz we’ve got a lot of things to do and I’ll have a map for you and I’ll help curate your experience. But we are just really honored that you’re coming and can’t wait to get to know you better. Boom. 30 seconds, something like that. But all, uh, all, if you were coming for the first time, you got the video from Vicky, not saying, Hey, all you for, I’m like, as of she talking to you, she was talking. Yeah. I love that. The one person then ultimately, uh, we figured out the Tessit tours, ticket scanners have different tones that you can put on them. So we’ve ti decided to create a tone for our first timers.

Uh, if you come through and you’re new, uh, it’s set to the sound of a doorbell. And so we have a member of our team that when they hear the doorbell, um, they just walk forward and say, welcome. We’re so happy that you’re here today. If I could, we have a welcome center right here. We have a gift for you. Um, and that’s usually a piece of chocolate or something small. Um, and then what the job up our team, and we have a full team that’s there. Every member of that team, the first thing they do is look at their watch and if it’s an hour out, then they know exactly how to curate the next hour for, uh, for the Vogues. If it’s 30 minutes out, then what can we do in 30 minutes before the top of show? Um, and then we have, um, a map that we do for each production color coded to that production.

Where, where are all the selfie stations? Mm-hmm. , uh, where do you go? Uh, we have, um, a, um, self-guided interactive, um, area that’s called Bedo Mania that Wallace was a really, a huge part of creating that for us, allows you to see, um, and learn about the production that you’re attending, but also the the next two that follow. There’s lots of things to do once you get there. Um, and so allowing it to be self-guided because we know it’s no one size fits all. Yeah. And so there’s a video also that goes afterwards from Steven, we capture that on trust rehearsal night. Uh, where he says, if the curtain goes down, is my understanding from my team members that you may have attended your first Belly Austin a performance tonight. We’re just very honored that you would select and spend time with Be Austin. We hope you come in, come again soon.

Um, from all of us at Valley Austin. Thank you. And they that within about within the hour, um, at the end of the production. So it’s, it’s been amazing. It is amazing work. It’s really as high touch work. I I’ll say our front of house staff members are close to being as physically tired as the dancers, uh, by the end of a run. Certainly. Sure. Not the exertion that the dancers place on stage, but they’re on their feet the whole time. Um, they’re solving problems. They’re helping people. They’re trying to see someone that just looks like they’re stuck and they can’t figure out something and say, Mia help you. And they’re, you know, walking up to people and engaging in conversations. They’re exhausted.

Christopher Williams: Yes. Emotional labor is exhausting and it has a big payoff. That’s what you’re describing. And, uh, cookie, I just got this piece of research today just, and about an hour before you and I sat down to do this recording and, um, the piece of research was specifically talking about the benefits of welcoming perceptions. It was from Colin Dylan Schneider. And I was like, what? The universe knows that we’re having this conversation. Right. Um, and I’m paraphrasing here, but I just, I have to read this to you because I just like, this is, so what you’re describing, um, thoughtful onsite initiatives to make people feel welcome are not just a social good, but an important business decision. And it, and that decision can pay off in multiple ways. It’s not only the right thing to do for our communities, but also the right thing to do for our organizations. And the wisest cultural executives know that those are two sides of the same coin. And I that literally is at the top of the article. And I read that and I was like, boy, are they describing my next conversation?

Cookie Ruiz: Oh, I thank you for that. But I wanted to read that, that piece

Christopher Williams: Isn’t that interesting. And, and of course a wonderful author.

Christopher Williams: Uh, I know when we spoke previously, you talked about one of the things that you highlighted for me was that in Austin where you are, there’s really bad traffic. And so you really want folks to arrive early and then you’ve got to decide what to do with folks once they’re there. And of course, you’re trying to have, you’re trying to do all this important labor with new first-timers when they’re there. Um, so can you tell our listeners what you learned from the serpentine lines at Disney World?

Cookie Ruiz: So, uh, Frank Kapic is a brilliant man that’s been working in all kinds of creative solutions for many different industries. And he’s someone that we had a chance to meet through, uh, through the, a past several years and has remained a friend. His work at m i t, his graduate work on at m I t, um, related to, um, occupied weights. His theory was an occupied weight passes more quickly than an unoccupied weight. And so, of course, uh, ultimately the way that, as you mentioned, the way that this played out was ultimately he helped develop the serpentine line. If you are spending, you’ve gotta spend an hour to get on that ride, but for the hour, you’re going back and forth and you’ve got the progress and you’re seeing other people, maybe even talking to other people, that time goes more quickly than a single straight line.

So what we did, um, in the work with Frank was we realized we needed to create an unoccupied weight, which was an hour. We needed to get people there an hour earlier. Our traffic is horrible in our city. 185 people a a week have been moving to Austin for like 10 years. And actually it’s not a week, it’s a day. Um, wow. So our, our population every 10 years, uh, doubles throughout the history of the city of Austin, but the infrastructure’s not kept up. Mm-hmm. So traffic is a real problem. It’s also frustrating. I want those dancers to have the happiest audience possible. I want all that frustration to be out of their minds when that curtain goes up. And those beau, you know, that beautiful artistry there to share. So getting them there and having this unoccupied hour of time and now we needed to fill it and, and we’re changing it all the time because also we don’t wanna get bored.

Mm-hmm. So we, we are finding little nooks and think, what could we have there? Like we did, um, one little nook became, uh, during the Nutcracker, during a story ballet, we will probably create a story, a place for one of the characters to be there. One person in this case would’ve been Clara that was not dancing that particular night. Mm-hmm. perhaps reading the story of the Nutcracker and having told her come early to meet Clara and et cetera. So we get really creative, um, with the things that we are doing. Um, and just thinking about, we have the, I ask my colleagues to watch the audience look at the audience. Where are they naturally gravitating? Where do they want to sit, um, in this space? Or where are they standing and, and where are they standing or where are they hanging out where we don’t have anything there?

Um, and, but we had to really break it down and say, okay, let’s go back to those areas of connection. What are all the ways, if all four types of connectors came, are we hitting all those notes? Can they, can they create, can they curate their hour that’s a social hour? Can they create an intellectual hour? Can they create kinesthetic hour, whatever? Um, and, and so ultimately the idea is to, to get them there, give them time. Uh, have people not racing and running into the theater at the very last minute. Um, and then also that they’re doing it, um, connecting to us the way they would like to connect mm-hmm. with not being force fed into, I I don’t wanna know the history of George Valentine, so thank you very much, but no, or I absolutely do wanna know the history of b well they’re to, there it is, it’s upstairs.

Um, let’s, let’s, let’s go have that conversation. Um, so it’s, it, it’s ever changing. It doesn’t stay the same. Um, and it allows, uh, it encourages the power of observation among our team members. And, and I think this all comes together and it, right before the doors open, 10 minutes before the doors open, we have a team meeting. We stand in a circle, and in that circle we talk about the performance that’s about to be held. Um, and then we share, uh, we might, uh, in, in one particular case, uh, this was Vicky said, I’m so excited to tonight. I wanna share with the team. I’ve got this, this, um, mother and daughter, their adult mother and daughter. They’re coming for the, they’ve been in Austin their whole lives. They’ve never been to the theater, never been to a ballet. And it’s her adult daughter’s birthday.

If you see them, I wanna, you know, I, I wanna meet them. And it just so happened that I ended up seeing a mother daughter team it early, and I heard her say to someone, it’s my daughter’s birthday. So I was able to go up and say, are you married? You know, are you from Huk? And she said, Jess, like, Vicky wants to see you . So I mean, it was just so simple little, um, we pass around the circle and people talk about it. I just was able to capture that one. Um, but it’s mm-hmm. , but we talk about traffic’s gonna be bad tonight. When people come help get them help solve their problem. If their ticket doesn’t print correctly, you go down the stairs and get the ticket reprinted. Don’t send them down the stairs just talking about what might be the points of frustration in the performance that night.

But I want the, the newest member of Valley Austin to feel empowered to solve a problem for any audience member. I’m like, you know, you can ask for absolution later. Don’t ask for permission. I love that. Fix the problem, whatever that is. If you can fix it, fix it, and then, you know, it’ll be okay later. Um, and that’s a little bit of, of what’s happened over the time, but the focus has been on understanding that someone’s new before they get there. And then really making every opportunity, if they’re new to Austin, we’re competing against everybody else that’s trying to get, you know, to get them. I want them, I want them to make this organization part of their life. Sure. Um, and so that’s, that’s it’s high touch work. There’s no question about it.

Christopher Williams: And it sounds like you guys are doing it well. Um, my last question, um, about experiences that you’re creating for folks while they’re there with you, um, is something you told, told me about one last we spoke, which was something you learned about music.

Cookie Ruiz: So we, we actually had an audit done of our audience experiences. And this was relatively, um, this was, we were pretty new to the, to our, our challenge with what we, to the challenge that we put before ourselves. Um, that was funded through the Wallace Foundation. So, uh, we felt that, we felt we had a pretty good pre-show and we, we felt that we had it down enough that we were willing to have someone come in and audit us, the people that we get, you know, a good b plus. And, um, oh wow. not even anywhere close to that. And the thing for which we were written up the most was our use of music in the critical analysis that we got is the opportunity and the responsibility we had to create a mood, whatever mood it is that we needed to create, to create that mood by way of music, this music bed.

And that was important for us to control because we wanted people to be in a certain mood and that it needed to be in a crescendo moving towards the, the start of the show and creating a playlist as a decoration as they leave. So they’re coming out, they’re being met with a level of energy, and then we actually get them all the way out into their cars. Um, because what we’ve learned is we needed to not only have it in the lobby, but to pipe it outside. And so by taking the music outside, all of a sudden during intermissions, if people dancing into the stars, wow. Like just going out and dancing to this wonderful music and then also using that as an opportunity, uh, we provide that music bed as an opportunity for people to linger. Um, and so that’s been, we, we’ve seen a big, a big difference when we paid far more attention to the music bed coming and going. Yeah.

Christopher Williams: You’ve, um, you’ve just described so many interesting ideas, um, for people to think about employing in their arts organization. How are you all measuring the success of all of this work today?

Cookie Ruiz: The method that we use to pull in or to reject something from our framework is the Kellogg’s theory of change. And if you, anybody that doesn’t know it, look it up, it’s fascinating. It’s learnable. It’s teachable. In your first column, you’re writing down what you think, you know, you’ve got a problem, you wanna fix that problem, what do you think you know about it? And then, you know, from that point, you’re gonna do research and you’re gonna apply that back. And from that you’re gonna create your activities, which for us became the framework of the various i the various ways that we were gonna engage with people before the sale, after the theater, and then after the sale. So what were all of those activities? And then ultimately, um, then there’s gotta be an evaluation of that. And so there’s some, there’s a data point because it has a measurable data point to it.

If it’s working, you adopt it high five and you go, if it’s not working, you’re like, all of it. I mean, if it’s holistically not working, um, if we miss it that bad, we’ll pull it. We don’t mind that. But for us at this point, very often there’s an element that needs to be redesigned. It worked this much, but this part needs a redesign. So it’s scientific method. You redesign one variable and you retest. And so that really becomes how things come into the framework or leave the framework. So ultimately, I, I, I have this love affair with this very high touch work that we do. It’s so mm-hmm. and we’re really selective on how we bring people onto this team. But ultimately it is very gratifying work. Uh, I, I I, I feel like it’s very gratifying work, but the gratifying work has to show up. It has to show up. Cuz I also really love numbers . Um, and I, I, that sounds like it sometimes could be an oxymoron, but

Christopher Williams: Both and

Cookie Ruiz: I really, really love having a, a measurable way of knowing that we’re moving ahead. Here are some data points that I can offer right now. Cuz we are in the process of doing a longitudinal study of, of first timers, second numbers, third timers, and then the number of people through a cohort. We were creating this large group that comes in through the Nutcracker as a cohort and then trying to convert them within an 18 month period. So it’s a longitudinal study that’s going on. Um, never before in the history of Valley Austin had we ever, uh, when we get to our, uh, final production of the year, which is over, had been over Mother’s Day weekend for as long as I’ve been at Beau. And before, had we sold out every single ticket we put on sale last year, we sold out every single ticket we put on sale.
Um, and this year, uh, I, in, in a way that I can only attribute it to this, I don’t know how else to, and I don’t even know that it is, it, it’s certainly and perhaps an anomaly, but we had 15 performances of the Nutcracker, 32,000 tickets to sell. We sold all of those tickets, uh, before we even opened. That is unbelievable. It’s never happened. I’ve been selling Nutcracker tickets a lot of years, and I know, um, we usually always do well, but it’s, it’s a fair amount of nail biting. Um, a lot of anomaly things happen this year. But, but what we’re beginning to see, not just at Nutcracker time, but at other times of the year, obvious thing I wanna see is the, the new work and the things that, that push us a little. I wanna see those numbers go up. Mm-hmm. ,

And we did get them up over the course of the time with Wallace Foundation. We did make the goals that we have is to really just to get to about 50% houses. And so, uh, we are really focused there. Um, but, but there have been some big things that have never happened in the history of this organization, and I don’t think they happen by magic. And I don’t think that they happen. We didn’t find a widget. I mean, there’s no widget to go by to say, oh, we figured it all out. Mm-hmm. , it’s kind of Noah’s artwork. I’m, and it’s just, it’s um, it’s very gratifying. And, um, um, there’s a, there’s a row, which is the left side of the house, the first row on Saturday night mm-hmm. . And that row is a living example of everything that we think about at Valley Austin because it started on that row 30, 40 years ago, uh, with a, a single mom with a daughter.

And she saved up her money to come to the ballet in a me’s jar. Mm. And it, because for some reason it was important to her, it meant something to her. And then over time, her daughter grew up, had a child, one boy, young, young, young man, he married, um, and his fiance, who’s from interior Mexico, she joined the row and then two babies joined the row. And then the first, the first person Flo, um, left the row, um Oh wow. At the end of her life. And so now we all team goes out and it, it, that’s that at some level, that’s to me really what it’s about. Yes. Is that like, will this art form still be loved and will it, you know, are we in the front of house. It’s not the dancer’s job to get out there and sell this tickets. It’s our job. Um, can we always keep those roads growing? Mm-hmm. , I mean that, that, to me, it’s an extraordinary family. It’s the sweetest family. We, you know, we talk about the deported member every time, you know, with each production and watching the little ones grow now, and now they’re in school. We all know their names. And it, it’s, it’s a Metaphor really for the work of what we’re trying to do. Um, but that, that row keeps us honest. I think

Christopher Williams: Such a heartwarming story. Um, well, we are running out of time and I have one last question for you, which is your CI to eye moment. Uh, this question is, if you could broadcast one message to the executive directors, leadership teams, staff and boards of a thousand arts organizations, what would it be?

Cookie Ruiz: Oh, wow. Um, it’s so important that when we understand sales data and we understand all of the analytical data that we can look at, that we’re running arts organizations and they’re driven by art and they’re driven by artists that have something to say. Um, and that I think that we get in trouble when the business gets in front of the art. And so it is, it is a different choice to be an Art’s first organization, and it is very easy to program by way of sales figures. I feel like if we can be unafraid to let art lead us and keep up with the sales, sure. But let’s now program by way of sales figures. That would be my hope.

Christopher Williams: Beautifully said. Uh, Cookie Ruiz, thank you so much for being on with us today. You are truly one of my arts admin heroes, and I just have enjoyed our time together so much. Thank you so much.

Cookie Ruiz: Christopher, thank you so much. I I really appreciated the time.

Dan Titmuss: Thank you for listening to CI to Eye. This episode was edited and produced by Karen McConarty and co-written by Karen McConarty and Krisi Packer. Stephanie Medina and Jess Berube are CI to Eye’s designers and video editors, and all four work together to create CI’s digital content. Our music is by whoisuzo.

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Until next time, stay nerdy.

About Our Guests
Ally Duffey Cubilette
Ally Duffey Cubilette
Principal Consultant, Capacity Interactive

Ally Duffey Cubilette joined Capacity Interactive after receiving an M.B.A. with a concentration in arts administration from the Bolz Center for Arts Administration at the Wisconsin School of Business. Before that, she worked in marketing and fundraising for non-profit performing arts organizations, including the Cunningham Dance Foundation, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, Pilobolus, and Overture Center for the Arts.

Read more
Cookie Ruiz
Cookie Ruiz
Executive Director, Ballet Austin

Cookie Ruiz has more than 30 years of experience in the areas of strategic planning, organizational development and non-profit fundraising/management and has served as executive director of Ballet Austin since 1999. She holds the professional designation of Certified Fund Raising Executive (C.F.R.E.) by the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Her community honors include Austin Business Journal’s “Profiles in Power” Award, Leadership Austin’s Polly Scallorn Community Trustee Award, Austin Community Foundation’s Beverly S. Sheffield Award for Excellence as a Nonprofit Executive, The American Red Cross “Clara Barton Medal of Honor,” Volunteer of the Year for the Austin Independent School District, the Lone Star Girl Scout Council “Women of Distinction” Award, The Junior League of Austin’s Volunteer Extraordinaire Award and is a 2016 Austin Arts Hall of Fame inductee. Ruiz served as the citywide Chair of CreateAustin, a City Council appointee to ImagineAustin’s Citizen’s Advisory Task Force, and is a graduate of the Austin’s City Works Academy. As a graduate of Leadership Austin, she served four years on its board of directors. Ruiz is president of the board of Texans for the Arts and serves on the boards of Dance/USA, the Performing Arts Alliance, the Mayor’s Better Austin Foundation, HousingWorks Austin, and is a member of the Austin Area Research Organization (AARO). She is also a fellow of the National Arts Strategies International Chief Executive Program.

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Nick Nolte
Nick Nolte
Principal Consultant, Capacity Interactive

Nick Nolte joined the Capacity Interactive team in 2013. Previously, he worked in Account Services at Serino Coyne, a Broadway advertising agency, and before that, in Development at Roundabout Theatre Company and Manhattan Theatre Club.

Read more

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