TSO boosts database with ‘Escape from Reality’

Sure, most symphony-goers prefer Ravel to Radiohead. But that doesn't mean they don't enjoy winning free stuff....

Sure, most symphony-goers prefer Ravel to Radiohead. But that doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy winning free stuff.

Such was the insight that led the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to mount its ‘Escape from Reality!’ contest – by far the most ambitious promotion in the organization’s history – this past August.

The five-week contest offered as its grand prize a $7,000 ‘Toronto dream day’ that included a stay at the Metropolitan Hotel, lunch at the Four Seasons and, of course, an evening at the symphony. Smaller weekly prizes included CD players, clothes and free dinners at some of the city’s better restaurants.

Some might suggest that this sort of activity is beneath the dignity of a hallowed cultural institution like the TSO. But Michael Buckland, the symphony’s director of marketing, dismisses this notion as pure snobbery.

Every demographic loves getting something for nothing, he says. ‘Our audience is human beings with all sorts of tastes.’

Among the most significant features of the promotion was its use of the organization’s e-mail database to court new symphony-goers – a first for the TSO, Buckland says.

The program was developed with the help of Toronto-based digital marketing agency N5R.com. The symphony invited all 4,000 of its existing e-mail subscribers to visit the TSO Web site (www.tso.on.ca) and enter the contest. Once there, they were asked to fill out a questionnaire concerning their musical tastes as well.

In an effort to generate more leads, the TSO also offered participants the chance to submit additional entries by providing the e-mail addresses of acquaintances who might be interested in the contest. Buckland says this element of ‘viral marketing’ – a term he loathes – was useful because, under these circumstances, people generally recommend acquaintances with similar musical tastes and psychographic profiles.

While the promotional campaign also included direct mail support, Buckland says the emphasis on e-mail was a natural choice. While a lot of direct mail quickly finds its way into the wastebasket or recycling bin, e-mail – because it’s short, sharp and to the point – stands a decent chance of getting read.

‘E-mail gets attention and action even more than written mail these days,’ he says. ‘It has become the dominant source of communication.’

The TSO’s primary target remains the traditional symphony audience: affluent, successful types with two-and-a-half cars and high-quality computers. But when the organization began sending out direct mail and offering telephone reservations a few years ago, it saw a younger crowd start coming to concerts – and Buckland expects something similar to happen as the symphony develops its online efforts.

The ‘Escape from Reality’ contest – which concluded Sept. 12 – was considered something of an experiment, and as such was conceived and executed fairly quickly. ‘It was a whirlwind promotion,’ says John Baird, managing director of N5R.com.

Still, it appears to have been successful. According to Buckland, the promotion helped increase the TSO’s e-mail database to 9,000 addresses. And use of the symphony’s Web site grew by leaps and bounds in the month following the contest. Indeed, online ticket sales for the month surpassed figures for the entire year previous. And 87% of those sales were to people who’d never before bought tickets to a TSO performance.

That’s not to say Buckland won’t do things a little differently next time around. For a start, more mainstream advertising support would have helped. In this case, it was limited to the addition of some contest details to existing TSO ads; a full-scale ad campaign in radio and print would have been preferable, he says.

The symphony would also have been better off with a more glamorous grand prize, such as a trip to New York. Somehow, a Toronto ‘dream day’ just lacks a certain cachet. ‘Toronto isn’t new or exciting enough,’ Buckland says.

As for the future, there’s no question that the TSO will continue to use the Web more in its marketing communications. Ultimately, Buckland hopes to build the symphony’s e-mail database to 100,000 addresses.

The trick will be to stay on the right side of the line separating junk mail from desired communication – a delicate balance at the best of times. ‘We’ll just have to feel our way,’ he says.

The key, Buckland argues, is to ensure that such contact actually adds value for the customer. For example, the TSO might use e-mail to let subscribers know when a concert matching their particular taste profile is coming up – and then take the added step of reserving a seat for them.

‘My ideal is to get people to say ‘Thank you,” Buckland says. ‘If you’ve done your homework right, people will be appreciative.’

Also in this report:

- Make your supplier do the work: With a little imagination and sufficient lead time, it’s possible to wow your customers for a song p.B10

- Just the ticket: What’s new and noteworthy in the world of motivational merchandise p.B12

- Harbinger gets the jump on job seekers with promo: ‘Life’s a Beach’ contest offered candidate chance to win Jamaica vacation p.B14