Black, White and Read

3 Dec

New York Theater Workshop sends a bold membership self-mailer

In a down economy, it’s tough to sell memberships and subscriptions via direct mail. Now imagine trying to compete against dozens of other similar companies who offer similar products and even operate within the same small region.

Thankfully, this quandary is unique to only a handful of cities and sectors, one of them being off-Broadway theater companies in New York City. “In New York, there are a lot of off-Broadway theater companies … so I think the biggest challenge is to get across in the direct mail piece what separates you from the others,” comments William Russo, managing director for New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW), a theater dedicated to showing new work.

NYTW sent out a 9˝ x 5¾˝ self-mailer in the beginning of August to current members, lapsed members and prospects. The mailing folds out into a 10-page brochure plus a two-page front and back order form. There is no reply device, and Russo says that doesn’t stop theater members from filling out the order form and faxing or mailing it in. Members also can sign up online or over the phone (Archive code #580-707474-0909).

Russo says a high percentage of NYTW’s members, mostly from the New York City and tristate area, are also members of other local theaters. Russo, along with ad agency the Eliran Murphy Group, put together simple but striking copy and images that send a strong message about NYTW and its 2009-2010 offerings.

The front of the outer is a red panel with black accents announcing that the mailing is from NYTW and offers tickets to a four-play package. Then, in the middle of the front panel, in large white, blocked-out text, is a one-word endorsement from the New York Times, “ESSENTIAL.” Russo says he kept hearing people saying that, in this economy, consumers were cutting back down to necessities and essentials. “That word [essential] captured not only who we are, but said it in a way that if you were a theater lover, that this theater is essential to the New York theater scene,” Russo says.

Inside the mailing, on the first spread, there is an expanded version of the New York Times quote that puts the word essential into larger context: “NYTW is an essential part of the New York cultural landscape,” it reads. The front panel goes on to discuss past productions and gives readers a general idea of what they can expect from the theater. The red, black and white theme is carried throughout the front spread and the entire mailing.

Following the opening spread are four more spreads, one for each production. Each spread features a photograph or image that captures the essence of the production. “What our ad agency wanted to do is come up with something that is very simple, iconic and uncluttered to represent each play,” Russo says. For example, on the spread advertising an adaptation of Carson McCuller’s “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” there’s a dark photograph of the back of a man’s head, which contrasts against a white background. Paired with the photography and images are brief descriptions of each offering.

The NYTW mailing offers a four-play membership at $190. Members can receive one ticket to each production or a four-ticket “SmartPass” to be used in any combination. Russo says most members purchase two memberships. There is also an option to give at a higher level, with gifts of $1,500 and above qualifying as “Insider” members. Russo says very few recipients respond to the direct mail at an Insider level, but he likes to include the information on the order form to increase general awareness of that option.

According to Russo, the NYTW usually hopes to get a 1 percent return from the mailing and accompanying telesales, which go out to part of the mailing list. There are no email efforts sent out for the four-play offering because Russo finds it difficult to send an email message for multiplay offerings. “I think there’s too much information to impart, and I don’t think people spend that much time reading an email. I have tried it before, and it was never effective,” he says.

Looking ahead to next year, Russo believes he will send out a similar format and design. “The look might change somewhat … the whole concept of the direct mail piece with this kind of offering is going to stay the same.” As this year’s campaign comes to a close, he plans to do a back-end analysis to see which lists worked the best in an overall goal to mail to more targeted “core” lists next year. IDM

Idea In Action: Wise Photography Choices
In its 2009-10 membership mailing, the New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW) sent a self-mailer packed with simple iconic photographs and images. William Russo, managing director for the theater, says that in previous years the creative team would try to use the same images from the direct mail campaign for all of the play’s other promotional materials. “I’ve gone away from that because what can be effective in this brochure … might not be the best thing to sell the show on an individual basis,” Russo says.

Originally published in the December issue of Inside Direct Mail.

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