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5 Marketing Innovations for Tough-Times Results (Case Study)

Every nonprofit organization serving a geographically-sprawling base struggles to find feasible ways to build awareness and engagement among such a widespread group. Add to that the challenge of serving a community that’s half-peopled by summer- or weekend-only folks (and so for over half the year has 50% of its summertime prospects), and you have every nonprofit marketer’s worst nightmare.

But every nightmare has its silver lining, as Tracy Mitchell, Executive Director of Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, NY, shows here.

THE CHALLENGE: Diverse Audiences Hard to Reach and Engage, Much Less Build into a Loyal Community of Supporters

Even with a successful 18-year run under its belt, Sag Harbor, NY’s Bay Street Theatre was threatened by the challenge of serving its diverse base, as well as by cuts in funding and in patrons’ expendable income.

Bay Street is a vibrant arts and educational center seeking to satisfy residents’ varying lifestyles, tastes and income levels. The theater prides itself on delivering shows that “shake up expectations of what theater is, to nudge you to look at the world a different way,” says Mitchell.

But there were two main barriers to Bay Street’s health:

  • Potential audiences and supporters were based in seven towns on the eastern Long Island shore, so weren’t united by geographic community.
  • Residents ranged from full-time locals to more-monied second-home owners, some there for weekends and summers others for summers only. So both the population count and interests vary greatly.

“Our greatest marketing challenge, even in good times, was reaching such a range of residents across the towns,” says Mitchell.

Mitchell also felt confident that there were ways to engage those beyond Bay Street’s traditional supporters (mostly in the 45 to 65 age range).

Marketing-wise, Bay Street had relied heavily on print advertising, placing ads in seven subscription papers for the locals plus many freebie papers (read by seasonal residents) and related websites for all. These ads had become cost-prohibitive yet weren’t effective enough to keep Bay Street thriving as the recession crept in a few years ago.

Mitchell was also faced with the likelihood of former Bay Street patrons cutting attendance. Since Bay Street counted on ticket sales to cover 47% of its operating budget (with the balance coming from donations and a few grants), Mitchell knew she had to find a “way beyond traditional marketing and programming to expand the theater’s role in residents’ lives.”

THE STRATEGY: Putting New Programs, Hours and Outreach Campaigns into Play to Engage More People, More Regularly

Recognizing that the disconnect between residents’ habits, preferences and wants and theater offerings (summer-focused, closed January through March, not cheap) was the heart of the problem. Mitchell delved into refining programming to close that gap, and into marketing those changes more effectively.

And understanding that shaping new programs required experimentation (as well as a good sense of audience wants, needs and habits, which Bay Street had), Mitchell and colleagues decided to introduce a series of (relatively) low-cost programming changes.

Here are the new strategies she introduced to boost audiences and revenue, and the impact of each:

Change: Keeping the theater open the entire year, instead of closing its doors January through March, as had been the rule.


  • Demonstrated to year-rounders that Bay Street cared about their interests and needs, and is a real member of the community.
  • Provided a venue for the community when most others were shuttered.

Change: Scheduling family/children’s programming for non-primetime hours (those are dedicated to theater in high-season months), including a school vacation kids club and serving as a party venue.


  • Cultivated a new group of potential theatergoers (parents).
  • Filled a community-need for children’s activities.
  • Utilized an otherwise empty facility.

Change: Renovating the theater’s bar. Okay, this is not a traditional program but let’s look at it as a program enhancement.


  • Made any event at the theater more of a destination. You could attend a performance and have a drink right there.
  • High profit margin.

Change: Introducing an off-season classic film series for $5 a head; each film followed by a cabaret. Low cost to provide, and to attend.


  • Broadened audience appeal by providing cost-accessible entertainment for those not likely to purchase a theater ticket.
  • Increased awareness of Bay Street among attendees, and introduced theater to them via the cabaret.

Change: Hosting community events; some, like the Oscar Night party, at no charge.


  • Established the Bay Street brand as “more than just an entertainment venue.”
  • Drew first-timers to Bay Street.
  • Emphasized the theater’s dedication to the community, a key component of its mission.

Change: More varied and creative marketing outreach. 

But the Bay Street team knew they’d have to market these new programs hard and creatively, particularly since they targeted those likely not to know the venue. Here’s how they shook up their marketing approach:

1) Offered stay and dine packages, via partnerships with local restaurants and hotels. The discount lured residents into town, even off season. “This was a cost-free way to bring in more business. Our partners did some of our marketing for us,” says Mitchell.

2) Shifted from print ad-heavy marketing to adding posters (cheap and easy to distribute over a broad geographic area) and online marketing to the mix. Bay Street launched a more robust website supplemented by a Facebook page, Twitter presence and weekly e-updates to engage the younger demographic Bay Street was trying to court, at low cost. Mitchell continues to monitor and tweak social media outreach on an ongoing basis.

3) Reinforced relationships with seasonal supporters through year-round emails and occasional direct mail.

THE RESULTS: Broader Awareness, Increased Engagement, Diversified Income Streams

Bay Street’s hard work paid off in generating a much larger network of supporters and patrons within a year. And, because the theater continued to nurture its relationships with its core (i.e. more traditional) supporters, those relationships are stronger than ever.

The theater also benefited from its shift to a greater range of income streams. That ensures greater stability, as there’s some decrease of dependence on any one source. “I guess the biggest question remains who will spend money on theater. It’s a big unknown and every year we begin spending heavily on the summer shows (rights, rehearsal space, sets) in the spring,” says Mitchell.

“So we’re doing what we can do, working to weave our programs into people’s lives, way beyond theater in the summer.”

However, Mitchell emphasizes that innovative marketing isn’t a miracle drug. Even after implementing these changes and a 25% cut in operating budget, Bay Street’s income fell. “We knew it was due to the economy because we saw it across every line item, from ticket sales to grants and individual giving. While we had built awareness and good will in the community, we counted on that boosting our fundraising campaigns,” she says.

Mitchell’s committed, realistic but inspired approach to marketing is a strong model for nonprofit organizations working in all arenas. Her perspective, and focus on creative survival, is the way to go at all times. It’s the only choice in tough times.

THE TAKEAWAY: 5 Marketing Innovations for Tough-Times Results

Here’s the beating heart of Bay Street’s tough-times marketing model. Follow these five steps to generate more marketing results for your organization, at minimal risk and cost:

  1. Launch free or low-cost activities to reach new audiences. Attract people in a belt-tightened world.
  2. Partner with new groups and people. Every organization is challenged right now, and most are more open than ever to new ways to make things work.
  3. Strengthen your ties with your community or base. Double-down on your relationships during tough times.
  4. Gingerly expand your definition of your target market to explore possible new synergies.
  5. Expand service offerings, if even only around the edges: e.g., food or bar service, children’s programs.

What marketing innovations have generated results for your organization in this tough era? Please share them here.

Nancy Schwartz in Fundraising, Strategies and Campaigns | 0 comments

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