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Jamie Alexander
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Grow arts and culture revenue

What Arts Organizations Can Do Right Now in Response to Coronavirus


Empty Theatre. Photo by Adrien Olichon on Unsplash.

“Can’t we just skip ahead to the time when this is all fixed?”

This sentiment, expressed recently by a theatre executive about the interruption caused to her business by COVID-19, is perhaps as widespread as the pandemic itself.

For now, cultural organizations are, rightly and by necessity, focused on the short-term. Quick action is required with imperfect information in the face of a substantial negative tilting of the balance sheet and many unknowns. Some will be able to find opportunities to engage with their communities in new ways, but for many it’s a fight to survive.

We cannot know how long the Coronavirus pandemic will last in the affected countries or whether the current shutdown of cultural organizations will be short or long lasting—it is therefore prudent to prepare for both eventualities.

In the coming weeks we will share tools and advice for the next phase, in which you prepare to reboot your organization and generate earned income again. For now, it’s worth quickly recapping the best advice for handling the immediate emergency.

Here are 5 key things to think about right now:

1. When Cancelling Performances: Offer Options

Many organizations are giving three options to those who hold tickets for cancelled performances:

  1. Leave the funds from your tickets “on account” for a future performance.
  2. Donate the full (or partial) cost of your ticket.
  3. Get a full refund.

We feel that it’s important to offer all three of these options both for the benefit of your organization and the benefit of your audience members, many of whom are now also financially compromised. However, here are some tips to encourage patrons to pick the option(s) that most benefit your organization:

  • Instead of (or in addition to) offering to keep funds “on account,” offer to put the money on a gift card. Customers may be unnerved by the idea of their ticket value being held in credit on your system and could be more comfortable receiving an electronic or physical gift card. Customers are also more likely to use a gift card, which will bring them back to your venue when you reopen.
  • Use “nudges”. Made popular by the book Nudge - Improving Decision about Health, Wealth and Happiness, a nudge is a subtle influence on behavior. Perhaps you could activate social influence in cancellation communications and say “xxxx people have already donated their tickets”, or list the action that you prefer people to take as the first and most attractive option. Read more about examples of nudges for ideas.
  • Offer a reward for donating (even if retrospectively!): Customers who donate the value of a ticket are accepting a loss—and since consumers hate to lose out, the donation is a significant gesture of generosity. It would therefore be great goodwill to reward these customers for doing so. Our partner Baker-Richards in the UK is recommending that their clients offer a special membership to those who donated tickets:

Rewarding what may have been an exceptional, one-off act of philanthropy with a membership that includes priority booking…will create goodwill, potentially increase frequency and overall spend, and encourage more people to buy tickets earlier—one of your main objectives when you reopen. This also gives your customers something to look forward to when you are back up and running!

2. When Asking for Donations: Be Sensitive, Be Clear, and SEGMENT.
  • Be Sensitive. Everybody is under stress at this point in time. Nobody knows what the future may hold, and many are worried about their own financial situation.

Consider this when you send appeals or asks for support. Of course, patron support is necessary at this point in time. But hallow asks for support may fall on deaf ears. Consider what you are offering in return for this support. What are you offering to the community while your theatres or halls are dark? What will you offer to the community when you re-open? How are you supporting artists and workers who are now not working?

Smart, sensitive messaging is essential during this time. Here are two good examples of tactful, smart, and sensitive ask we’ve seen from Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Victory Gardens Theater.

  • Be Clear. Clear, concise messaging about why you’re asking for support is essential. If you’re in significant trouble, you should say so—consider personal updates which factually convey what is at danger of being lost. Who will resonate most with your audience when conveying this message? Your artistic director or your biggest star?

You also may need to articulate some sense of your margins. Customers may see a large, successful organization and assume substantial wealth—particularly if they are used to being charged premium food and beverage prices or have seen VIP benefits advertised to high-spending customers. It’s worth emphasizing that your margins do not leave you with large surpluses/profits each year.

  • SEGMENT. Everybody is completely inundated with messages from organizations they haven’t heard from for years about their plans for COVID-19. Try to resist the urge to mail your whole database and contribute to the noise. You may be scooping up cold contacts who have no active relationship with you, which may provoke unsubscribes from contacts who could be useful to you in the coming weeks if properly warmed-up first. Targeted messaging, based on effective segmentation, has never been more important.
3. When Dark: Maintain Connection

Just because your doors are closed doesn’t mean that you aren’t relevant. To be successful through this dark period, you’ll need to maintain connection with your audience so that you gain support and audiences fly through your doors once they reopen.

Several organizations have found unique and innovative ways to engage their audience and fulfill their missions while their theatres and halls are dark, including:

  • Theatre Wit is offering remote viewing tickets to their production of Teenage Dick.
  • The Metropolitan Opera is offering a nightly opera stream to all.
  • The Shed Aquarium, like many museums and attractions, is offering virtual tours, and the penguins are joining!
  • National Cowboy Museum has turned over its social media account to a security guard and he’s awesome and hilarious.

In these extraordinary times, when emotions are running high, it’s more important than ever to connect with your audience and grow your loyalty base.

4. When Remote: Work Well, from Home

Preserve and channel your team’s energies by effective remote working. Reference our blog post about 7 Tips for a Successful Virtual Workforce.

5. Through it All: Have a Leader Dedicated to “Skipping Ahead.”

There is, of course, a great deal of uncertainty. As we’re dealing with the short-term, immediate effects of the pandemic, we’ll also need to start medium- and long-term planning as we prepare to reboot. Where possible, assign a leader, empowered to work across the organization, to break away from short-term firefighting and lead on medium- and long-term preparation.

There are many, many challenges ahead, but there may also be more new opportunities for art and ulture that people haven’t thought of yet. Art has existed for a long time. Organizations may have to re-invent themselves, but art will survive.

Stay safe and sane, friends. We are here to support you should you need any advice (or even just someone to bounce ideas off, or vent with!) on how to get through this difficult time. Feel free to email us at any time at smarter@jcainc.com.

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