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April 2, 2013

Arts marketing micro-experiments: testing response to an “audio actor bio”

I often tell arts groups that “every marketing thing you do should be some sort of experiment.” If you’re sending out an email, do an A/B test of subject lines to find out what works better. Study what time of day your Twitter posts get the most response. Test if patrons who are given details about your yummy concession items during a curtain speech end up buying more concession items at intermission than patrons who do not hear the description. These are not giant experiments with far-reaching implications. They are not big enough to cause red tape at your organization. But they can yield results that can allow you to improve your tactics.

I call these small tests “micro-experiments.”

Micro-experiments allow you to learn from your actions. Even a small statistically significant result will allow you to adapt your marketing, fundraising or “whatevering” behavior to use the new knowledge. And not only are micro-experiments useful to your marketing efforts, they are just plain fun. Research doesn’t have to be difficult — you can do it as part of your everyday activities.

I recently facilitated a micro-experiment for The Tabard Theatre Company in San Jose, CA. Tabard has received a grant from the city of San Jose’s Office of Cultural Affairs to experiment with new audience engagement techniques, and specifically to explore new ways of communicating the information found in the paper program.

You have all held a paper program and know what information it contains — information on the scenes in the play, an explanation from the director about the show, descriptions of the time period, ads from local sponsors, actor and tech bios, etc. There are pluses and minuses to paper programs. Some people like to take the program home as a keepsake. Others throw it on the floor and waste the paper. Our main question during this process is “In what additional ways can the information that is contained in the paper program be communicated to the patron?” Part of my role is to facilitate brainstorming sessions with a small committee made up of subscribers, design experiments based on their feedback, and implement one experiment for each show at the Tabard theater. During the one-man show, “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder,” we decided to experiment with creating an “audio actor bio” that patrons could listen to by dialing into a number with their phone and playing a recording. Here is how it went:

Micro-experiment: audio-based actor bios

What we wanted to test

We wanted to see if patrons would be more interested in calling in and engaging with an audio-based bio of an actor before they attended the show, or after they attended the show.

Assumptions of our group

We assumed that patrons would be more interested in after seeing the show, because they would have context from the show after seeing the performance and would want to know more about the actor’s background.

What we did

I recorded actor James Creer describing a 3-minute bio about himself. With this .mp3 recording, I created a free account on (the high-definition version of free conference call) and uploaded the audio file into the conference, so that when people called the conference and requested a playback of the recording, they would hear the actor talking about his background and history. Two phone numbers were used — one was emailed to confirmed ticket buyers who had already seen the show the previous weekend (69 people). The other phone number was emailed to confirmed ticket buyers who were planning to see the show in the coming weekend (37 people).

One issue — freeconferencecallhd does not track who calls in to which number, which was needed to count the volume of calls to each number. To overcome this, I created two Skype-based phone numbers in the 408 area code and set them to automatically forward to their respective numbers. This allowed people to call a local number, as well as allowing Skype to track incoming calls. I added money to both Skype accounts to cover incoming calls. We then sent two versions of the email. The emails were different in two ways –each mentioned a different number to call, and one began “Now that you’ve seen the play” while the other started with “As you prepare to see the play.” Here is a sample of one of the emails: [Image: James Creer]

What we found out

People who had already seen the show: 2 calls out of 69 people = 2% response rate People who had not yet seen the show: 9 calls out of 37 people = 27% response rate Although the sample sizes were small, the results still indicate a preference for pre-performance engagement.

Additional thoughts/questions

It seems that this new method of engagement is a better fit for pre-attendance audiences. Research completed in 2011 by Alan Brown and Rebecca Ratzkin shows that arts patrons often experience an “arc of engagement” that includes a phase of “intense preparation” before they attend (Brown and Ratzkin, 2011) and this new engagement method may fall into this phase. Additional experiments should be conducted for other shows to see if the results continue to follow this trend. Some potential explanations:

  • People may naturally be more interested before they attend.
  • People may naturally be less interested after they attend.
  • The quality of the performance could have an effect on the results for the after-show calls.
  • People may not call after the show because they already read the actor’s bio in the paper program (though it was different information).

We do not know if this method of engagement led to additional ticket sales or donations or any other behavior, as those were not part of the experiment (though they could be a part of additional experiments). In short, as with many experiments, we now have some data, and those data will lead to more questions and additional experiments. Want to call in and listen to the bio yourself? We’ve left it online (3-minute audio interview with actor James Creer): Call: (559) 726-1399 Enter passcode: 667582# I invite any of you to recreate our experiment above and report back to me with your own results. If you have any questions about how we carried out the experiment or questions about any of the technology used, please email me and I will be happy to point you in the right direction. The Tabard Theater Company’s next show, “Babes in Hollywood” opens April 12 in downtown San Jose, CA, and will feature a new micro-experiment. I will report on the design and results once complete. What sorts of micro-experiments can you run for your own arts organization?


Brown, A. & Ratzkin, R. (2011). Making Sense of Audience Engagement. Retrieved from