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5 Marketing Innovations for Recession Survival (Case Study)
Nancy Schwartz

November, 2009

Every nonprofit organization serving a geographically-sprawling base struggles to find feasible ways to build awareness and engagement among such a spread out 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, General Manager of Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, NY, shows here.

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 is threatened by the challenge of serving its diverse base as well as by the recession.

Bay Street is a vibrant arts and educational center seeking to satisfy residents’ varying lifestyles, tastes and income levels. The theatre prides itself on delivering shows that “shake up expectations of what theatre 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 are spread over seven towns on the eastern Long Island shore, so aren’t united by geographic community.
  • Residents range 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, is 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. But ads had become cost-prohibitive and, even if it hadn’t been so costly, wasn’t effective enough to keep Bay Street thriving as the recession settled in.

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

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

Knowing that the disconnect between residents’ habits, preferences and wants and theatre 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 requires 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 theatre open the entire year, instead of its traditional closing January through March.


  • Demonstrates to year-rounders that Bay Street cares about their interests and needs, and is a real member of the community.
  • Provides a venue for the community when most others are shuttered.

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


  • Cultivates a new group of potential theatregoers (parents).
  • Fills a community-need for children’s activities.
  • Utilizes an otherwise empty facility.

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


  • Makes any event at the theatre more of a destination. 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.


  • Cost-accessible entertainment for those not likely to purchase a theatre ticket.
  • Builds awareness of Bay Street among attendees, and introduces theatre to them
    via the cabaret.

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


  • Establishing the Bay Street brand as “more than just an entertainment venue.”
  • Drawing first-timers to Bay Street.
  • Emphasizes the theatre’s dedication to the community, a key component of its mission.

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:

Offering stay and dine packages, via partnerships with local restaurants and hotels. The discount lures residents into town, even off season.

  • “It’s a cost-free way to bring in more business. Our partners do some of our marketing for us,” says Mitchell.

Shifting from print ad-heavy marketing to adding posters (cheap and easy to distribute over a broad geographic area) and online marketing to the mix.

  • A more robust website supplemented by a Facebook page, Twitter presence and weekly e-updates engage the younger demographic Bay Street is trying to court, at low cost. Mitchell is still refining these efforts but being there is the first step.

Reinforcing relationships with seasonal supporters through year-round emails and occasional direct mail.

RESULTS: Broader Awareness, Increased Engagement, Diversified Income Streams

Bay Street’s hard work is paying off, with a much bigger network in place just one year later. And, because the theatre is nurturing its relationships with its early (i.e. more traditional) supporters, those relationships are stronger than ever.

The theatre is benefiting from 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 theatre. It’s a big unknown and 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 theatre in the summer.”

However, Mitchell emphasizes that innovative marketing isn’t a miracle cure. In spite of these changes and a 25% cut in operating budget, Bay Street’s income is down. “We know it’s due to the economy because we see it across every line item, from ticket sales to grants and individual giving. While we have built awareness and good will in the community, we hope that it will boost the $500,000 public appeal we just launched,” 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 hard times.

THE TAKEAWAY: 5 Marketing Innovations for Recession Survival

Here’s the beating heart of Bay Street’s recession marketing model. Follow these five steps to see where your organization can go, 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. Everyone is hurting and looking for 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 see if tough times open up new synergies.
  5. Expand service offerings, if even only around the edges: e.g., food or bar service, children’s programs.

About the Author
Nancy E. Schwartz helps nonprofits succeed through effective marketing and communications. As President of Nancy Schwartz & Company (, Nancy and her team provide marketing planning and implementation services to organizations as varied as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Center for Asian American Media, and Wake County (NC) Health Services.

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