Patricia Nicholson and SMART Marketing

Smart Marketing (Strategic Marketing for the Arts) is a Chicago-based arts telemarketing services firm founded by Patricia Nicholson in 2005. Patricia and I worked together at Arena Stage in the late 1980s, during Zelda Fichandler's last few years before her retirement. I've recently worked with Patricia on a few campaigns that did quite well, but I was feeling curious about her thoughts on the challenges and future prospects for telemarketing in a landscape where digital marketing is dominating,  

Beth Hauptle: Patricia, you founded SMART Marketing in 2005, following a lengthy and successful run as Chief Marketing Officer at a number of prestigious arts organizations like Arena Stage, LaJolla Playhouse, Goodman Theatre, and Joffrey Ballet. Why did you do it and did you know at the time it would work?

 Smart Marketing is based in Chicago and serves arts organizations across the country. Photo by Sawyer Bengtson

Smart Marketing is based in Chicago and serves arts organizations across the country. Photo by Sawyer Bengtson

Patricia Nicholson: On both sides on my family, I’m descended from independent business owners – merchants, grocers, farmers, and ironically according to the 1850 census, a “huckster.”  So the idea of opening my own shop has always been in the back of my mind.  When I reached one of those scary milestone birthdays, I figured it was now or never, and off I went!  Did I know it would work?  I don’t recall ever thinking for a minute that it wouldn’t work, but as it’s evolved Smart has become a completely different company from what I envisioned 12 years ago.  In the beginning I thought Smart would be a marketing consulting firm that did a little telemarketing on the side.  But as word of mouth spread about our affordable telemarketing services, that side of the business started to grow, and during the recession we grew every year as arts organizations looked for new ways to maximize income.  I eventually gave up the consulting side of the business, and today Smart is focused solely on providing telemarketing and telefunding services to non-profit arts organizations.

BH: What do you see as the major changes in the area of telemarketing for the arts in the past ten years?  

The most impactful change has been the advent of the Do Not Call list at both the state and federal level.  While non-profits are exempt (up to a point) from the restrictions imposed by the list, it does add another layer of complication to our lives, particularly since DNC regulations differ from state to state.  Another change is the explosion of bad actors in the field – telemarketers who take most of the money for themselves, or who are flat-out frauds – and the heightened efforts of law enforcement to curtail nefarious activities.  Because of this, people are more wary today, so we have to take pro-active measures to reassure patrons that we’re a legitimate partner to the organization, and provide an easy way to fulfill their purchase if they decline to give us their credit card info.  Given all the shenanigans in the field, I applaud people who ask us to prove our legitimacy – they’re doing their due diligence, as they should!

BH: Now that so many people are just on mobile phones, how has that affected the business? It would seem people are less thrilled getting calls on their mobile phones?

 "But as word of mouth spread about our affordable telemarketing services, that side of the business started to grow, and during the recession we grew every year as arts organizations looked for new ways to maximize income." --Patricia Nicholson  Photo by Neal Kharawala

"But as word of mouth spread about our affordable telemarketing services, that side of the business started to grow, and during the recession we grew every year as arts organizations looked for new ways to maximize income." --Patricia Nicholson  Photo by Neal Kharawala

PN: That’s really not an issue anymore.  In the “old days” we all had plans with limited minutes, so people could get quite exercised about getting a call that used up their time.  Now that most people have unlimited plans and have given up their land lines, we’re not getting complaints anymore about calling someone’s cell phone.

BH: Can you talk data for a moment?  How have contact rates changed in ten years? How have close rates changed overall? Any other overall data trends you can share?

I think if you were to plot a decade’s worth of contact and close rates on a graph, you’d find that overall they’ve been fairly consistent.  There are momentary wobbles, of course.  During the worst part of the recession, contact rates spiked because people were traveling less and home more, and have now normalized. And contact rates in urban areas where patrons are being regularly contacted by multiple arts organizations are a challenge.  But that’s always been the case, so we just dial more and dial faster.

I think the other data trend we’re noticing is in the area of packaging.  People’s schedules are increasingly crunched, and they’re less willing to spend time/money on something they’re unsure of, or that stretches the boundaries of what they “like.”  Because of this, mini-packages are becoming the wave of the future, and that presents its own set of problems.  You need to sell twice as many mini-subs just to stay even.  And because the patron is seeing less at your venue, they may not yet have a deep commitment to your organization, which puts increased pressure on the marketing department to create a kid-glove environment that will encourage long-term commitment from this fickle group.

BH: What information would you need from an arts organization in order to assess whether they were ready for a telemarketing campaign?

PN: There are two key things we assess:

First, do you have enough leads to make a campaign viable?  You don’t need to have tens of thousands of leads to consider telemarketing.  We’ve done plenty of successful campaigns that only had 2000 leads. But they need to be recent leads – within the past 3 seasons.  Beyond that, the close rate drops dramatically, and it doesn’t make sense to pay callers to prospect what are essentially dead leads.

Second, and this is the trickier point, is the institution ready to adapt based on the trends we uncover on the phone?  Our job isn’t to go after the low-hanging fruit.  Your brochure does that.  Our job is to contact folks who are reticent, find out why that is, and address the patron’s concerns. We’re often the first (and sometimes only) personal contact a patron has with your organization, so we’re able to ferret out trends that our clients aren’t yet aware of. 

 "That, I think, is the great strength of telemarketing – we keep the personal connection alive, giving patrons a forum to get their questions answered, their fears allayed, or their frustrations heard." --Patricia Nicholson (Thanks to Pacto Visual for this great photo. Patricia does love her cats.)

"That, I think, is the great strength of telemarketing – we keep the personal connection alive, giving patrons a forum to get their questions answered, their fears allayed, or their frustrations heard." --Patricia Nicholson (Thanks to Pacto Visual for this great photo. Patricia does love her cats.)

BH: As technology advances, what do you foresee as some future challenges for arts marketing?

PN: The whole point of a challenge is to engage creatively to overcome it.  That’s where we are with technology – we’re facing a new set of challenges, and adapting our approach to address them. 

For instance, the way we get information today has conditioned us to only try things that fit within the narrow bounds of what we already know.  That’s a huge challenge to organizations that are selling entire seasons, or selling new work.  What to do?  Present yourself as their human “Recommended for You” list.  Find a facet of each event that speaks to what the patron finds interesting and lean into that. 

One of the great benefits of technology is that many arts organizations are now using high-powered CRM systems in the box office, so we have multiple data points to help us understand what the patron likes and adjust our approach accordingly.

At a macro level, I worry that the arts are in danger of losing their personal touch.  Technology is a means, not an end, and I think we risk losing sight of that as we get spiffier bells and whistles.  I think we sometimes get so wrapped up in data points and open rates and click-throughs that we forget there’s a living breathing person on the other end who has needs and interests that we can serve and objections that we can address.  That, I think, is the great strength of telemarketing – we keep the personal connection alive, giving patrons a forum to get their questions answered, their fears allayed, or their frustrations heard.  As long as there are people, telesales will be a critical part of any successful marketing strategy.