Prepare ye the way for the digital season brochure

The season brochure, that bastion of quadruple-proofed specialty paper that brings in a cache of new subscribers every year, has officially gone digital. And not just a PDF with an embedded link to the box office page. Oh no. With sound clips. And conductor interviews. As you may have gathered, I was recently delighted to discover London Symphony Orchestra's online season brochure. When I first saw it, it struck me that this is probably what symphony orchestras have dreamed of doing since the inception of the season brochure—that in the first season brochure meeting, the marketers were essentially thinking, “how can we put the experience of our symphony on paper?”

Here it is—not on paper. And with all the interactivity that an orchestra marketer dreams about.

It’s sleek, wonderfully interactive and will certainly grab the reader’s attentionbut will it sell tickets? That’s the new question marketers must ask themselves with every shiny new social media tool that comes along. An online season brochure is something a customer must seek out on the organization website. (Isn’t getting them there half the battle anyway?) The traditional season brochure comes to them through the carefully orchestrated efforts of the marketing department. So, which version will result in more ticket sales? And more importantly, will the time and effort spent on the digital brochure be worth it?

So here's a funny question to ask on a technology blog: Is direct mail dying? There's more and more evidence that it's not. When I began my career in arts marketing, I thought this was a rhetorical question; my initial impulse was to say yes, letters, postcards, etc. are going the way of the newspaper. But I quickly learned the usefulness of direct mail: the spike in season ticket sales after the renewal mailing went out, the power of a reminder postcard for “pick 3” subscribers, and more. People still respond to direct mail, at least, arts patrons do. Maybe they just like the feel of the specialty paper. But maybe it’s something more.

In this technology-driven multitasking world, it all comes down to one question: What will keep our patrons' attention?

Many arts orgs still send renewals/season brochures through the mail, as they have for years. Arts marketers have conditioned them to expect a thick packet or glossy pamphlet in the early part of the year with an incentive deadline. But what if we changed that? If we sent an email directing them online to look at a brochure and/or renew online, would it be as successful? I would think not. They won't have a context for it, and so many of those emails won't be read.

According to The Non-Profit Times, if a non-profit arts org sends an email, it very optimistically has a 20% chance of being opened. Maybe 5% of total recipients will actually click through to see your wonderful interactive creation. (These stats are older, so if it follows the current trend, we can safely assume it will be lower.) Or, to put it from one individual's perspective, here’s how it works in my inbox: the message enters the daily deluge of emails that I may or may not tag to read. If I have time within the first day I receive it, I read it; otherwise, it slowly makes its way to the netherworld of "older" emails in the inbox, never to be heard from again. I find myself becoming increasingly immune to email appeals, and it seems to be proportionate to the number and length of emails sent by the organization. Same thing with social media "white-noise"--the more I have to read, the less I want to read.

On the other hand, if the arts org sends a renewal packet or season brochure in the mail, the situation is different. If they have been a subscriber for a while, they know what it is and what to do. The single-ticket buyer or first-year subscriber might think the brochure looks interesting and they'll read it or put it in the mail pile. The difference is, people eventually go through their mail pile, and will probably do so sooner than cleaning out their inbox, when the brochure is still somewhat relevant. Furthermore, so many commercial organizations have gone paperless that, at least for me, it's a treat to get something in the mail that's not a bill, especially if it's cool and artsy-looking. I'm less likely to throw it in the trash.

Bottom line: A paper brochure is something that sticks around. Something that a single ticket buyer can grab at the theatre to see what's coming up. Something arts marketers can hand out at arts fairs to people who don't even know the organization exists. It is for these reasons that I believe that the season brochure will not go completely paperless for a very long time.

Feedback, please! I’m interested to hear your experiences with online brochures and renewals.

(sidenote: Sophie, the online multimedia book publishing software featured at the National Summit for Arts Journalism Friday, releases version 2.0 next Thursday. It might be a tool worth looking in for those considering creating a digital season brochure. There are also several videos of other interesting mergings of technology and arts journalism/publishing on the summit's website.)