Will Lester: “Let the Numbers Speak for Themselves”

willlester_165x165_color3Will Lester is Vice President of Network Programs at TRG Arts, a data-driven consulting firm specializing in pricing and patron loyalty. TRG also has the distinction of managing 20 community data networks throughout the U.S. While the networks began as a way for arts organizations to share lists of patron contact information to cross-promote events, they’re now growing into a robust arts community resource, allowing for research on audience buying patterns, demographics and more.

Will is the architect of these networks as well as TRG’s database technology and patron behavior studies. He’s the unofficial “innovator-in-chief” at TRG – the “go-to” person for designing new analytical projects and initiating new partnerships. Recently he has been tasked with formally leading the continued development of the community networks, which have grown exponentially in the last 3 years. Will aims to maximize the potential of those networks, both in terms of how they are used by individual members of the art community and how the community is leveraging the power of collective patron data.

  • “Let the numbers speak for themselves.” That’s the candid message you frequently deliver to clients at the start of a research project.  Is it your experience that arts & cultural organization leaders have a difficult time letting objective analytical research inform their decisions?  Any advice to help those people unclench?  

It’s not so much that they have a difficult time accepting facts found in the data, but I think there’s a knowledge gap about HOW to find the actionable facts in the data. It’s been created by a couple of different factors:

  1.  They don’t teach this stuff in school. Even the best arts management degree programs often do not include the comprehensive, rigorous approach to database marketing, direct response techniques, and data analysis needed to really know arts organizations’ audiences and to motivate their behavior. There’s just so much to know. Consequently these skills are learned on the job without the proper foundational grounding in best practice.  Plus, the high level of arts staff turnover quickly make any resident knowledge of these tools a lost art.
  2. Jobs in arts management have gotten exponentially more complicated. Technology has changed the expected job responsibilities, but there’s often not enough time to learn to do things like direct marketing right and well. Time, resources and the knowledge of where to look are the biggest inhibiters. Shiny new things like social media get prioritized ahead of data analysis and direct response, even though those are more likely to directly impact revenue. Data isn’t always sexy, and sometimes it can take a lot of resources to get it right. But, once you’ve got it right, what it can reveal saves you so much time, money and frustration.
  3. The systems have gotten substantially better, but that’s a barrier as well as a blessing. Regardless of staff knowledge, there is now an expectation that your CRM or ticketing system will give you all the answers. Personally, I don’t know of any that are self-aware. The best systems on the market (and some are EXCELLENT!) still require someone to go in and mine the information.

Coming out of the recession, everyone I talk to says data is the center of their universe, whether or not they’re actually acting on it. It bodes well for the future, but in the short-term, we’ve got to plug the gaps and re-teach.

  •  Tell us about the size and scope of the Community Database.  You’ve amassed an absolutely huge amount of information.  What is the “grand vision” for what that database should help the arts & cultural sector accomplish?  

We now run 20 community data networks, with two important ones on the way. That means there are arts data networks in all but a couple of the top 15 markets in the U.S. These networks operate either on a local (or city-wide) level, on the regional level, and we have three that are state-wide, in Minnesota, Arizona, and New Jersey. At most recent count, these networks contain data on 110 million transactions by 22 million arts patron households from around 1,200 organizations.

As far as the grand vision: Locally, community networks help arts organization members improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their campaigns, as well as acting as an audience research tool. We run these networks in association with local partners, many times the local arts council. It’s a tool for them to understand the size, scale and basic facts about the arts-going population in their market. In that way, it can be an actionable advocacy and policy asset, in addition to helping community stakeholders like funders and board members better understand what’s going on in the sector. And, there’s increasing interest about what this data set could say nationally about arts consumers and their behaviors.

  • Arts & Cultural organization leaders (and aspiring leaders) clearly need to become better versed in the skills of data analysis.  What resources might you recommend to someone who seriously wants to improve their abilities?
  1. The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) is a great resource for effective direct marketing techniques, and they offer free webinars and materials. You may have to adapt what they’re saying to the non-profit world, but it’s a good refresher on marketing basics—and how I keep up with new trends.
  2. Desktop Database Marketing by Jack Schmid and Alan Weber: Alan Weber is my mentor. This is an intro book written a while ago, so some of the references are dated now, but the concepts are the same. This book gave me the foundation at the beginning of my career to do what I do today, and advise our clients on using data to get results.
  3. The TRG blog, Analysis from TRG Arts  Our blog is a great resource on all aspects of arts consumer behavior, informed by our observations and data. We post the latest tips, trends, and research on pricing and loyalty, and we bust myths created by the conventional wisdom of the industry.
  •  I’m really curious…  In addition to solving complex analytical puzzles for clients, do you preserve some personal time (one imagines in a heavily guarded basement laboratory) in which you are working out the answers to life’s (or at least the arts & cultural sector’s) most complex audience challenges?  Is there some “holy grail” type question that you would love to be able to answer?

There are about a billion different questions that I’d love to answer, but the one I’ve been most interested in lately is this: What could we learn from the aggregate data in all of our 20 community networks about cultural tourism? People attend arts events in communities outside their own all the time. Could we observe trends around where they’re going and what they’re seeing? And, could we predict this sort of behavior?

  • What would you say is the top question that EVERY arts & cultural organization should be asking of itself (with answers, presumably drawn from some analysis of their own audience and donor database)?

More often these days, I hear people own up to a lack of knowledge about their data and a lack of time to fully analyze it. For those people, I would recommend first asking the following question: “How many audience members am I LOSING?” In an industry seemingly obsessed with gaining new audiences, we’re going to continue beating the drum around retention. That’s our biggest weakness as an industry. Our research shows that half of the unique audience members the average organization gets in a year are first-timers. So, pat yourself on the back for finding so many new audiences. But wait. On average, only 1 out of 5 of those newbies will come back. Ever. So calculate your retention rate for yourself—for all types of patrons, from the newbies to subscribers to donors. Think of retention as a leaky boat. Ask yourself: How fast is it leaking? Where are the holes?


Hear more from Will in TRG’s webinar “Awesome. Pretty Good. Awful. Which prospects are you contacting?” on Tuesday, July 23 at 2:00 EDT/11:00 PDT. More information HERE.

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