Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, New York, NY

Dance Theater Capitalizes on Users’ Networks

“Almost everything we do online is complemented with a direct mail component.  When we do both, we get better response rates from both.”

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, New York City’s iconic modern dance company and school, uses appealing offers to entice fans to recruit their own networks to get involved, generating ticket sales and donations.

One of the most striking fundraising successes reported by a survey respondent was Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Director of Marketing, Thomas Cott, who stated that “We raised $200,000 in three months during a campaign primarily based in digital and social media.”

Cott explained that this was a $200,000 competitive grant that Ailey won by garnering the most votes on a website of the Members Project from American Express.  But the reason that the dance company had any chance of winning this huge prize was that it could marshal their large cadre of Facebook fans who not only voted themselves, but also urged their networks of friends to do so.  Their enthusiasm surprised Cott: “Several thousand fans even signed up for email reminders to vote each week.”Currently featured on the Ailey Facebook page is a sweepstakes contest featuring the chance to win a pair of tickets to the company’s opening night gala event co-chaired by Iman and First Lady Michelle Obama.  To enter the sweepstakes users click on a Facebook app that alerts one’s friends that they entered the contest, and if one of their friends enters too, they earn an additional entry in the drawing.  It is efforts such as this that has won Ailey over 140,000 Facebook followers to date.

Another way Ailey harnesses the power of the networks of their fans is through a Group Builder Tool – an easy way for people to invite a group of friends to attend a performance together.  The group leader simply picks date and price point/seating option they will offer to their selected contacts and the tool takes it from there, Evite-style.  The tool provides an automated, low-hurdle alternative to traditional group sales, in which organizers had to commit to delivering a minimum number of ticket-buyers and collect money from all of them.

Ailey completely redid its website just about one year ago.  Thomas Cott says, “The old one looked like an organization chart.  We did focus group and survey research that helped gear the site to serve many constituencies; students, ticket buyers, media and others.  We also wanted to cross-pollinate across different groups of patrons.  Most visitors only know the area they are involved in. We also look at user behavior on the site.  If someone leaves a page without interacting with it, signing up for what’s offered on it, we send them a response email or banner ad reminding them about the opportunity.”

Some of what they learned influenced how the institution is structured.  Amanda Nelson, Deputy Director of Development, described how “the marketing, public relations and development departments have all merged into a single external affairs unit.  Absolutely, online communications developments propelled that change.”  According to Thomas Cott: “We no longer view donors differently from ticket buyers.  They are now all patrons.  That has been a big revolution.”

Email strategies have also been refined.  Cott says, “Rather than doing email blasts to promote ticket purchase, we have become sophisticated about email targeting, design, the subject line, the time of day it’s sent, what day of the week.  We test one approach versus another.  Invisible pixels embedded in the emails allow us to track them all the way through transactions. We have demonstrated that this fine tuning results in significant percentage increases in results.  We focus on the user experience and try to make things user-centric vs. Ailey-centric.”  Amanda Nelson added, “If you get an email and don’t open it we often will re-package and re-send with a different subject line, and we do it in an automated way.  For email promotional offers we now develop not just an email message but a whole process.”

Proof points:

  • Ailey harnesses the power of the networks of their fans to propel ticket sales and win big grants.
  • The no-barriers, hyper-linked nature of digital communications can influence organizational structure, breaking down departmental barriers that can inhibit cross-pollination of connections with patrons.
  • Testing subtle characteristics of email campaigns pays off in higher results.

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