Make New Friends: Arts Marketing Innovations

Make new friends, but keep the old.

To me, this sentiment from a familiar children’s folk song succinctly captures the central goal of audience building.  It certainly speaks to Synchronicity’s current focus, as we work to attract new audiences to our three-year-old performance space and build innovative programs without losing sight of our core mission and audience.  Much of what I learned at the 2016 National Arts Marketing Conference tied to this overarching theme: branch out, take risks, try new things, but don’t abandon the tried and true.  This sage advice echoed in sessions on integrating new media, navigating risk, and innovating audience building practices on a practical nonprofit arts budget.

I left the conference with several clear, manageable and affordable steps I could take to advance Synchronicity’s audience building goals, making friends with new industry standards while building on the good practices already in place.

Prioritize photo and video.

Budgetary restrictions have often impacted the quality of Synchronicity’s show photography in the past, but as I learned at NAMPC, visual storytelling is paramount in today’s audience building.  As people sift through the information overload that is a social media newsfeed or email inbox, an eye-catching visual is essential to making your message stand out.  After returning from NAMPC, I went straight into the Excel document where I track marketing expenses and shifted additional funds into the photography line.  Investing in excellent promotional photography has allowed Synchronicity to create more compelling visual content for social media and digital advertising.

While high quality photos and videos are worth investing in, however, a little goes a long way considering the numerous free and inexpensive tools at our fingertips for capturing and sharing visual media.  An actor with an iPhone can capture compelling rehearsal footage for social media, in many cases more readily than a professional videographer.  Our art relies on strong visual elements anyway.  Why not showcase elegant set designs, colorful costumes and bold choreography?  Equipping our artists and production teams to capture and share the production process with handheld technologies has led to an uptick in social media interaction.

Have a conversation.

NAMPC presenters stressed again and again that we should think of social media and email campaigns as a series of one-on-one conversations, rather than impersonal newsletters or marketing pitches.  These conversations need to be clear, targeted and persistent.  One of the most immediately applicable sessions I attended at NAMPC was the Email Marketing Extreme Makeover.  There I got specific tips for making our email contact with patrons more effective.  Subject lines should be fifty words or less (try writing a tweet about your email content and then shorten it as necessary!).  Each email should include one clear call to action, one column, and one image (and make it a strong one: see above).

These tips improve the email’s mobile friendliness and make it more likely that recipients will actually read the email.  The fewer words used to get the message across, the better.  Think of how crammed full your own inbox is!  None of us has time to read a manifesto in every email.  The form the words take matters, too.  I learned that most of us skim emails in an “F” pattern, looking at headers first and glancing along the left margin.  These helpful hints guided me in creating a simple standard email template for Synchronicity, which gets each message across with one bold image and a few choice words.

If you’re feeling anxious about losing all of that copy space, you’re not alone.  I was hesitant to try an email template with fewer words and only one graphic.  But what’s lost in the bulk of each individual email is quickly made up for in the number of emails sent to each person.  Patrons usually buy tickets after the 5th-12th contact, so sending shorter, more frequent emails can be more effective.

That’s especially true if your emails are targeted and segmented, which they absolutely should be.  At NAMPC, I was told to ban the dirty word “e-blast” from my vocabulary.  We are having a one-on-one conversation, remember?  With Synchronicity’s integrated email platform, Dotmailer, I have the ability to segment email lists by patron zip code, how many events they’ve attended, which events they’ve attended, whether or not they’ve opened any of my emails, and more! In addition to selecting who I send each message to, and how often, I’ve also begun utilizing A/B testing.  This allows me to test different subject lines with different groups of patrons to see which ones make more of an impact.  In Dotmailer, I can set emails to resend in 48 hours with a new subject line if the first one didn’t take.  This has facilitated an increase in opens and clicks with very little additional effort.

To recap

Investing in high quality photo and video is essential for compelling social media and email communications.  Quality also counts more than quantity when it comes to email content.  Keep email messages short, sweet and segmented.  And remember, you don’t have to make all of these changes at once.  It’s good to make new friends, but don’t abandon the practices that are working well for you in your quest to innovate your audience building.  A few small, strategic steps can go a long way towards reaching the audiences you want and keeping the loyal patrons you already have.

Happy Audience Building!

Caitlin Thomas White, Marketing Director, Synchronicity Theatre

Take 5 with The Heath playwright Lauren Gunderson  

LG photo by Kirsten Lara Getchall

Photo Credit: Kirsten Lara Getchall

LAUREN GUNDERSON. You might know the name. Besides being a hometown girl, the Decatur-born, San Francisco-based playwright is the most-produced living playwright in America this 2016/17 season. Among all playwrights, she is second to only the late, great August Wilson. Her plays have run on Broadway, off-Broadway and at many of the nation’s top regional theaters.

Locally, you’ve seen her work at 7 Stages (The Revolutionists); Aurora Theatre (I and You); the Essential Theatre Company (Parts They Call Deep in 2001); Theatrical Outfit (Silent Sky); Weird Sisters Theatre Project (The Taming, EMILIE: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight); and, of course, here at Synchronicity Theatre (Exit, Pursued by a Bear). The Heath (a one-woman workshop staging May 4-5) is a much more personal, intimate, personal story. We’ll let Lauren explain.

SYNCHRONICITY: Why do you think this play is what came from you after your grandfather’s death?

LAUREN: Writing about him didn’t come to me right away, but when it did occur, I felt a smooth wave of relief. I felt soothed already, just by the thought of putting his story and mine together onstage. And then during the initial writing and research, I was further invigorated by the work that went into understanding him and my lineage. I interviewed my family. I poured over old pictures. I investigated generations of family lines. My mom and I found old family graves in the backwoods of South Carolina. I even took up the banjo. It was a kind of hero’s journey in miniature for me. It was a homecoming that I had to both create and live. And now I get to tell it.

S: What kind of a life do you see for The Heath going forward?

L: Unclear. At the moment it would seem odd for another actor to play the role, so it is my story to share one audience at a time. I’ve thought about putting the whole thing online in an interactive unfolding story of pictures, narrative and music. That’d be pretty cool.

S: How did the structure evolve, with King Lear, the banjo, bluegrass, etc.

L: King Lear was always the undercurrent of this play for the obvious reasons of age and madness. Within King Lear is the unstoppable storm motif, the themes of natural destruction from within (madness) and without (the storm). I used that ominous approach as a structural element in getting myself and the audience to the brink of this story’s central moment —facing one’s own death, facing one’s own failings, facing one’s own forgiveness. The banjo came long after I started writing the play actually. I was walking on the street and looked up a saw a sign — a literal sign — that said “LEARN BANJO.” It clicked that I could learn my PawPaw’s favorite songs if I did that very thing, so I told that sign, “OK!” and bought a banjo the next day.

S: How has The Heath helped you process your grief and guilt, do you think?

L: I process it every night I perform it, every song I practice, and every line I rewrite. You don’t ever get over grief really, and most of us don’t every fully swallow guilt either. But there is catharsis in sharing it. There is also relief in knowing others’ stories. I hope that is where my experience and the audience’s converge. There is strength in coming to see the coherence of a shared human pattern of losing and learning. That’s life. But life is messy and has terrible timing. So it’s art’s job to create something people can come to, bring their experiences to, share together and go home having met with meaning.

S: What’s next for Lauren, playwright, screenwriter, banjo player, famous person?

L: Oh, Lord, I don’t know. It changes every day. There are a few brand-new play ideas I’m excited about writing, and a few big productions upcoming including my newest play, The Book of Will, which is headed to Roundhouse Theatre, Northlight Theatre and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. My play Miss Bennet is coming to Atlanta’s Theatrical Outfit this November and my Ada and the Memory Engine is coming to Essential Theatre this summer. And my first children’s book, about an adventurous young girl scientist — Dr. Wonderful and Her Dog: Blast Off to the Moon! — launches May 2! It’s perfect for any budding young nerd. LG photo by Kirsten Lara Getchall

To keep up with the always busy Lauren Gunderson, visit her website at