Millions of Americans are now caught in an awkward, pandemic limbo, between anxiety and apathy with a healthy dose of anger and blame mixed in. As lonesome as many people are, if you have something to sell them, they are likely to tell you to just leave them alone. And even if you do capture a moment of their attention, they're disinclined to make purchase decisions anyway, other than buying too much toilet paper. States may be in assorted stages of reopening, but it's pretty hard to imagine the world rushing back to business as usual when millions of people aren't even sure about their own job and employment prospects.
Our time horizons have shrunk, our vision forward is blurred at best, and the overwhelming uncertainty of so many things in our lives has had a paralyzing impact on the emotions and behavior of a huge portion of the population. The inescapable fact is that our overall willingness to make any material commitments has been badly shaken. It's become abundantly clear that there is a direct and exponential correlation between the expected length of any given commitment and the increasing unwillingness to enter into any such undertaking.
Ask me what I'll be doing next week, and I have a fair idea. Ask me how the next year looks at the moment and I haven't a clue. So, when you want me to re-up for practically anything, you'd better be talking about moments and not months. I might be up for a concert or a show that's right around the corner but forget about signing me up for an annual subscription or a whole season. So many expenditures, investments, and donations that were minor and automatic just a few months ago are now material and worth a second or third look.
Culture and the performing arts -- theater, music, museums, and even sports -- are among the first and easiest places to make cuts in our more constrained spending. Unfortunately, the financial structures of so many of these institutions are largely front loaded. They're dependent on recurring annual subscriptions, year-end contributions, and/or season ticket purchases that provide the early development capital needed each year to create their programming. Money matters more than ever today and, if these institutions plan to survive and even thrive, they have to make a new and concrete plan to go for the gold.
This won't be an easy task for many of these groups because, for the past decade, the economy's been flush and they've mostly been "telling" rather than "selling." That's not gonna work going forward. They can certainly appeal to people's better angels and pitch the mission and the long term. Or suggest that -- sight unseen -- donors pony up and buy some "virtual" tickets for the gala while reminding them that they never attended events for the food anyway. Good luck with that tried, but no longer true, approach. Right now, for too many folks who were traditional givers and spenders, the choice between chicken in the pot and a charitable contribution isn't even close. Charity, in tough times, begins at home.
To succeed in this new environment, organizations have to forget about pitching their grander mission for the moment, go where the money is, and make whatever deals are necessary to keep the funds flowing and the doors open. If you're no longer operating in a few months, your mission won't really matter much. Now is the time to start figuring out new strategies to tap the key folks who can make a difference in the future of your club, charity, company, or congregation. You need to get ahead of the crowd of competitors, anticipate and create compelling and differentiated offers, identify the best prospects, and make your move before things become obvious to everyone else.
I'm not talking about addressing all the folks, or even most of the folks; you need to focus on those few (and often new) folks who can make an immediate difference and who have the means, appetite, and interest in acting now. These are not patient people or ones who are used to waiting, or not getting, exactly what they want. Give them a great deal and a compelling reason to act and act immediately. They can decide quickly and step up. Keep in mind that they may not be your usual suspects. Money doesn't care who makes it.
These newbies may be driven by different and less grand or eleemosynary motives and, frankly, you need to be fine with that. Initially, it's all about them -- not what you're selling, but what they're willing and interested in buying. Access, exposure, and exclusivity are essential drivers in their lives. Give them an offer they can't refuse and let their instincts, their desires, and their selfish emotions dictate the results. When the dust settles, you'll still be standing, well-funded, and frankly pleased with the results.
But there are no rewards without commensurate risks. Each organization will need to develop and fashion its own best solution and decide just how far to push the envelope. Here are a few critical things to consider.
There's never enough of anything important to go around. You need to create your own scarce items. That could be seats in prime and highly visible locations. That could be special access to events, performers, and other celebrities. That could be special clubs or venue locations for amenities like food and drink. Few and far between.
You may need to create prime and highly desirable inventory by accelerating, not delaying, your annual renewal and subscription requests to free up seats that prior owners no longer want or can afford.
Don't offer to defer prompt, full payment or offer installment solutions. The folks you are targeting don't need layaway plans. In fact, they value their time and exclusivity far more than money. You're not in the bargain business -- you're offering the very best.
Raise the prices for the premium packages to make sure it's clear to all that these are rare and scarce offerings and well worth paying up for. And, most important, that they are available to only a few special parties who can afford them.
Remember the bottom line: When you're trying to sell something that no one absolutely needs, you have to be selling something else that matters a great deal to them. Status, scarcity, and sex are the big three. For arts and cultural organizations, two out of three ain't bad.