Dennis Marasigan on the science of arts marketing
DOGBERRY - Exie Abola (The Philippine Star) - February 4, 2013 - 12:00am

The column I wrote on the problem of sparse theater audiences (“The Case of the Disappearing Audience,” Dec. 24, 2012) provoked some lively discussion on Facebook among some friends and acquaintances. One person who offered thoughts of great substance was Dennis Marasigan. I knew him then as an artist of many skills: actor, director (most recently at last year’s Virgin Labfest), stage manager, lighting designer. He used to be artistic director of Tanghalang Pilipino and president of Philstage (he initiated the association’s annual Gawad Buhay! Awards, for which I served as juror during its first two years). He has appeared in many films and has also directed four indie ones, including the acclaimed Sa North Diversion Road. These days TV work occupies his time. Small projects with GMA-7 have led to bigger ones. He was movement director in the teleserye Amaya and now fulfills the same role in the network’s just-launched series Indio.

I didn’t know that another expertise of his is arts marketing. In fact, Dennis has a master’s degree in public administration focusing on arts policy; he is a dissertation away from obtaining a PhD. He received grants from the British Council to study audience development and has taken up residence in major British and North American performing arts companies. In these parts he has taught arts marketing at UP Manila and given seminars and workshops.

His journey into this particular field began in 1994 when he became head of theater operations at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. In 1997, he moved from operations to performing arts, which put him in charge of programming. In 2001, he moved to marketing, where he stayed till 2006.

I recently asked to meet him to know his thoughts on theater marketing, and he graciously agreed. We met for a lunch that lasted more than three hours, and Dennis shared so many ideas that I have had to break this column into two parts. (There’s actually material for a third, but I’ll leave it on the cutting room floor.) The second installment arrives next week.

PHILIPPINE STAR: Tell us what marketing is, and is not?

DENNIS MARASIGAN: First things first: when arts people talk of marketing, they usually have it wrong. “A lot of times,” Dennis says, “I encounter people talking about arts marketing not really understanding what marketing really means.” What people often mean by marketing — advertising, sending press releases to the papers, announcing shows in online social networks — is actually promotions. And promotions comes, or should come, at the end of a long and systematic marketing process, a process that includes an assessment of one’s product, pricing strategy, place decisions (product availability and distribution), branding (or positioning), and people. If the earlier parts of the process are done well, then promotions, which should be the finishing kick, will succeed. But don’t expect it to if you haven’t gone through the rest of the process. Because marketing is not just promotions; it is the process by which you come to understand the relationship between your product and your customer.

Also, for marketing to succeed, institutional buy-in is necessary. He has been practicing and teaching arts marketing for over a decade now, but most who attend his classes or workshops don’t go into arts marketing, or they are merely marketing staff, not administrators or artistic directors. About three-fourths of marketing decisions, he reckons, are made by administrators or creative directors (whether they like it or not, whether they are even aware of it or not), not marketing people. So those who know marketing are not in positions of power, and those in power don’t understand marketing well. 

It’s a truism that the market for arts events such as theater performances is small. But Dennis shows how much larger it is than one might think. In the United States, he says, the population breaks down thus: 30 percent physically can’t attend (they’re too young, too old, or behind bars); 50 to 55 percent have no arts experience and will be very hard to persuade to attend arts events; 12 to 15 percent are likely to have had such experience and might be prevailed upon to attend; 3 to 5 percent have had such experience and understand its value. It’s this last segment that needs little provocation to attend, and this chunk of the population is what arts marketing should target. All throughout our conversation Dennis kept going back to “the three percent” that theater companies should be working on. If mapped onto Metro Manila (population: 12 million), three percent means 360,000. The most wildly successful theater production of recent years, The Phantom of the Opera, which filled the CCP’s Main Theater every week for three months, probably drew less than half that number. And we aren’t even talking about the 12 to 15 percent who can be converted into enthusiasts. Goes to show how much untapped potential there is.

Information underload

As head of the CCP’s theater operations in 1994, Dennis found himself in charge of selling the institution’s many venues. He used questionnaires given out by ushers, who were at his beck and call, to discover out what his audience was like. Some findings: the average visitor made two trips to the CCP a year and traveled no more than an hour (which, at that time, meant no further than the Ayala-corner-EDSA intersection, or just a little past UST on España). When she watched a show, foremost in her mind was the question, “Who’s in it?” and next, “What’s it about?”

As he studied the CCP audience (which he did continually until 2005, soon before he left marketing), Dennis came to a major discovery: information about the institution’s shows was inadequate. The word simply wasn’t getting out; people (even those already watching CCP shows) didn’t know what was playing or forthcoming. Solution: revise CCP’s Calendar of Events, a schedule in one booklet to be given away, to make sure events and performances are announced far in advance.

It wasn’t as easy as it sounded because of the implications for the institution’s in-house performing groups. They had to decide on shows and schedules at least six months ahead, forcing them to think long term. The information needed to be accurate (a problem in the past).

Also, the calendar couldn’t stay in the building; it had to be brought to where potential audience members were. CCP’s marketing efforts focused on its regular patrons, identified and monitored through a database assembled from the ground up, and targeted a catchment area within a five-kilometer radius. Nearby targets included hotels. (Roxas Boulevard is replete with hotels, he says. Do their guests know what’s playing at the CCP?)

Dennis also knew he needed to turn his marketing staff into product specialists. They had to be educated on their own products. (Did the folks marketing, say, the concerts of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, or PPO, know the difference between a concerto and a symphony?) After all, he asks, how can they sell what they don’t know?

The ladder of involvement

Not all audience members are the same, their level of participation equal. Dennis described the “ladder of involvement” this way: At the bottom, you merely taste the product. New products have few buyers, so companies need to make it easy for prospects to get a taste of what they’re selling. (Hence, the CCP Open House, or Pasinaya, early in the year, in which each company offers a preview of its season. Tickets to the shows are already available.)

After trying it, you want to increase your investment. You go watch a full show with friends. Later, you become willing to try a new thing, watching a show sight unseen. At this point, it becomes crucial that the company make contact with you, the buyer, to affirm the effort you’ve invested. After all, you want to feel that you’re important to the company, and that they appreciate you.(With the help of surveys and observant ushers, Dennis identified returnee audience members, then wrote them letters and met with them in person.)

Later you may wish to buy a season ticket. (Dennis would write to subscribers to announce upcoming shows, then again afterwards, to thank them for going. If a season ticket holder missed a show, he would write and say, “We missed you . . . ” The message to the subscriber: the company knows you and cares about you.)

As you move up the ladder, you transform from buyer to client, and it becomes necessary for different people to attend to you. Low-level staff may be sufficient for one-off ticket buyers, but the deeper your involvement, the higher up the hierarchy the people attending to you need to be. (It also becomes necessary for everyone in the institution, both in the creative and business sides, to attend the shows. He hates it when, say, marketing heads and PR directors never show up at performances.) The last step is the one from participant to ambassador. You don’t just buy season tickets; you sell them to your friends (with benefits for yourself, of course).

The process seems simple enough, but it’s a long one that takes at least seven years, Dennis says. And if the company drops the ball at any point, they lose you; a mistake in the process can reset it. And it will cost 10 times as much to get you back.

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