Roger is not going quietly…

I am not the right person to discuss the implications of the new General Data Protection Regulation, approved by the EU in May 2016, whose draconian penalties apply from May 2018. I have been frustrated by the attitude evidenced by most arts organisations in how they relate to and engage with their attenders, specifically their ticket purchasers, since the 1990s, when email exploded, having learned nothing from the experiences of the direct ‘snail-mail’ years.

I wrote my first book ‘BOXING CLEVER: Turning data into audiences’ in 1993, published by the then Arts Council of Great Britain. Though it pre-dated the use of terms such as ‘Customer Relationship Management’ and ‘Permission Marketing’, it echoed the likes of Don Peppers’ and Martha Rogers’ The One to One Future: Building Relationships One Customer at a Time (also published 1993) and Seth Godin’s later Permission Marketing (1999). It is worth setting out how this is defined. In 2008, Seth re-described it thus:

Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them. It recognizes the new power of the best consumers to ignore marketing. It realizes that treating people with respect is the best way to earn their attention”.

Putting respect into arts marketing is a key value for me. The direct marketing revolution experienced in the UK from the 1970s into the 1980s relied on getting people to sign up to receive brochures and mailings, which in the days of mostly on-the-phone and over-the-counter bookings meant dialogue was needed to comply with the law and obtain the contact details from people. People gave permission to receive what they hoped would be relevant, personal, appropriate communications posted to them in their homes. Later, the rising volume of credit card payments meant some venues started to ‘capture’ customer addresses without necessarily explaining the contact implications, and this started (or amplified) customer suspicions about direct mail, especially when many mailings weren’t relevant, personal, or appropriate communications.

This was when I found I thought differently to many other arts administrators. Running Theatr Clwyd in North Wales, for example, I thought it seemed essential to have more than enough staff to answer calls and serve purchasers, and indeed to encourage them to extend their dialogue to understand and inform the customers better, perhaps advising them of other events they might be interested in seeing, booking them a table in our restaurant, etc.; what I later found was called “up-selling”. Essentially, customer contact hopefully got permission to add people to our mailing lists and started to create the relationship we wanted. My colleague Mike Grensted was then very sensitive to what we might send out to those people to reflect that relationship; wonderfully he once sent our subscribers a photocopy of the marked-up printer’s proof of our next season brochure to give them priority to renew their subscription!

the sales staffing culture seemed to be to ensure the minimum number of people were on shift at any one time

Elsewhere the sales staffing culture seemed to be to ensure the minimum number of people were on shift at any one time, with Box Office queues and call waiting times almost a badge of success. When as a consultant after 1988 I started delivering customer care training and helping arts organisations optimise their sales processes, the fundamental issue was always the time to enable staff to serve customers properly. Many venues had the same staffing levels and shift patterns all year round, depleted by holidays as staff took them, regardless of pantomime on-sales, brochure releases, etc. Yet it was easy to work out that an extra member of staff in most cases only had to sell one extra ticket per hour for the venue to be better off (even based on margin retention). Without the extra people, the sales staff were under pressure to speed through transactions, and door sales were a missed opportunity for getting permissions. One large concert hall contracted me to help them optimise their sales process to eliminate 19 seconds from transactions, since that was the average time making sales calls too long for the staff complement to get through their typical call volumes…

That pressure meant Data Protection got in the way of speeding through sales, and managers and sales staff were reluctant to spend time seeking permission from purchasers when their contact details were captured during payment. I proved that an extra person on door sales could easily help process all the customers so permission could be asked if a venue really wanted to. Our sector did not cover itself with glory when a number of Theatrical Management Association (TMA) members decided to lobby their MPs in the Parliamentary discussions about the provisions in the 1998 Data Protection Act. They received somewhat quizzical replies, advised by the then equivalent to today’s Information Commissioner, pointing out that these provisions were already law in the 1984 Data Protection Act; more honoured in the breach than the observance.

Given the embarrassment, it was agreed with the Arts Council of England, the TMA, and the Arts Marketing Association (AMA) that I should write a “good practice” guide to the 1998 Act – actually an official status under the Act – which was published with a Foreword welcoming it from the then equivalent to today’s Information Commissioner, Mrs Elizabeth France, whose staff in Wilmslow had been very helpful and supportive during the drafting process. The Guide was published and promulgated with seminars around the country, encouraged by the Arts Council England regions and the AMA. Of course, given the law, my emphasis was on getting the right permissions from the customers.

arts organisations essentially asking how they could avoid complying with the law

I began to have to field lots of questions about interpreting the new law, and I maintained my dialogue with the staff in Wilmslow. They did point out to me that they received quite a few calls from arts organisations essentially asking how they could avoid complying with the law! The Act clearly and unambiguously required arts organisations to say who they were, what they would be doing with their customers’ data, whom they would be sharing it with, and to get permission from the customer for the chosen communication methods. Treating customers with respect should make this easy.

There were ways to make the process easier – large printed notices on display in Box Offices, recorded messages before calls were answered, full details printed in brochures and programmes, but the key fundamental was that the customer’s permission be obtained properly. Wilmslow told me of various complaints that people were being contacted without their permission, and they and I deployed some ‘mystery shopping’ to understand what was happening – permission was simply not being asked for. The irony of course is that most of these venues now had computerised ticketing systems which could easily track the ‘permission’ levels and identify which staff were complying with the law. One large venue trained up a new team of staff to obtain permission and indeed sell a paid-for list membership, and simply fired the old team members who did not comply. But the culture of selling under pressure persisted, as did non-compliance, and therefore lack of respect for customers. This seemed a matter of regret to me.

Why did/do some people in the arts talk about “bums on seats”

Why did/do some people in the arts talk about “bums on seats” (horribly “butts on seats” in the US) and treat valued customers whose “hearts and minds” they need to relate to, as if them purchasing tickets is a necessary evil, and returning customers are a necessary nuisance, de-personalising them in the process? Does that explain the terrible mistake of introducing booking fees and charges on top of the advertised price, instead of putting these inside the price? Do we see people just as income providers and not as customers we need to persuade and retain?

Note that for most marketing purposes the 1998 Act effectively pre-dates email marketing and on-line ticket sales, though many arts organisations were early adopters of websites. As the email explosion happened, the EU introduced new rules on privacy and the UK enacted in 2003 the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations, known to insiders as PECR (pronounced “pecker”). Something odd happened. As computerised ticketing systems had already introduced Internet ticketing engines, they had busily ensured their software complied with the 1998 Data Protection Act, and email was just another communication method. Now PECR had a lot to say about permission regimes for email and SMS, but to my surprise was largely ignored – surprise because it introduced an assumption of consent if there was a transactional relationship i.e. an on-line ticket purchase (with various notifications given to purchasers in the process). Odd and ironic that systems weren’t quickly modified and processes changed to enable this easier permission regime.

Email marketing suddenly made direct marketing an inexpensive method – mostly the time spent crafting the message and selecting the targets from the customer database – and the desire to share customer data for e-marketing campaigns, especially between presenting venues and touring companies and artists increased. By 2005 Arts Council England was unhappy at the frequent complaints from touring companies and artists about venues refusing to share data, and Tim Baker of Baker Richards and I were commissioned to ascertain the state of play. We were clear that the 1998 Act and PECR should be enabling data sharing, provided the appropriate permissions had been obtained. We held the view that purchasers would give permission if they were asked appropriately by venues, and the right respectful dialogue and processes could get those permissions.

Essentially, we quickly confirmed that data was not being shared because the permissions were not being properly obtained, with some venues belatedly discovering that with a stretch PECR could justify them contacting only their own customers. This was an interesting moment, because the Information Commissioner, still being helpful, suggested that arts organisations could jointly notify purchasers that their data would be shared with venue and the touring company or artists performing, and permission be assumed from their ticket purchase (this no longer applies).

Welsh National Opera (WNO), under the enlightened direction of Peter Bellingham, were keen to manage their relationships with their attenders, especially those they realised could be attending in any of a number of venues, chasing their repertoire. They did not want to be over-mailing these people, to manage their communications, and needed to understand their behaviour and frequency, so wanted to know who they were, where they went, what to see – the world of big data! By prolonged negotiations, they secured agreement for the data to be shared and appropriate permission regimes to be in place, at all the venues they toured to. It was somewhat laborious and involved manual interventions but it worked. Why am I telling you this? Because when Arts Council England proposed their data sharing conditions for their National Portfolio Organisations, Peter realised he needed to re-visit their data sharing. Deep analysis by Ed Newsome of the data they had, told them something wasn’t working as it should.

I think we hope that most of the established attenders for the arts are in fact repeat attenders

I think we hope that most of the established attenders for the arts are in fact repeat attenders, so will be coming back to buy more tickets. This ought to mean we want to recognise returning customers on-line as soon as they arrive on the website, so we can serve up tailored content. In practice, most websites are set up not to recognise returning customers until they fill in their details to make payment for a new transaction i.e. at the end of the purchase process. (Some system suppliers boast that their system then adjusts the prices in the shopping cart to reflect their status!). This meant for WNO customers that in most cases the procedure of serving up Data Protection notifications, and asking for permissions where relevant, was repeated every time they booked, at every venue.

When Andrew Thomas of www.TheTicketingInstitute.com investigated, he discovered some systems allowed customers to click past the Data Protection questions (possibly an unintended “feature”), and then the system changed/over-wrote their Data Protection status to effectively a ‘not answered’ status, so no permission recorded for anything. WNO discovered that meant some of their most frequently attending customers, such as their subscribers, were not selected for contact, even for brochure mailings as well as regular email updates. This is when the permission regime and the relationship with the customer is likely to collapse. Some of these customers with high frequency attendance patterns but apparent ‘no permission’ status were phoned, and they made clear that booking for WNO and agreeing to receive communications did not mean being bombarded with (what I call ‘shouting louder’ email) messages about booking for that venues’ pantomime; relevant, personal, appropriate communications?

Unfortunately, not only the customers know that. When ACE, The Audience Agency, and I, met the Information Commissioner’s staff to update our guidance on sharing and the necessary permissions, I was reminded that the staff in Wilmslow are, of course, arts attenders themselves, and able to talk from their own experience about booking with venues. A previous Information Commissioner had served on the board of one Manchester music organisation. Our sector’s unsatisfactory ‘do minimum’ compliance is all too visible. The Information Commissioner’s staff remain very helpful, but perhaps not as friendly as in the past.

How did we ever get here? And why does the General Data Protection Regulation apparently so disturb some people? I go back to first principles, that we need customers to volunteer their permission, freely given, and that is the start of our relationship with them, as a valued customer likely to return; that we need to treat customers with respect, as people in a valued relationship.

We want customers to look forward to our brochures and emails, offering them great going-out opportunities, experiences to enjoy and value. My mantra is ‘stop selling and help people buy’, getting them into a relationship with us.

Mark Hazell at Norwich Theatre Royal has made the point for many years that if they know someone is a “friend” he can write and talk to them differently, because being a “friend” means something about their relationship. That is true for all types of relationship, based on frequency, interests, what is attended, who attends, and so on.   We don’t have to keep asking them for their permission. And ideally we would give them an on-line tool to edit and update their records (less messing about for changes of address or email, chance for self-completed profiles and preferences, and more up-to-date accuracy). We want customers to look forward to our brochures and emails, offering them great going-out opportunities, experiences to enjoy and value. My mantra is ‘stop selling and help people buy’, getting them into a relationship with us.

Now our sector seems to be reducing Box Office hours (while travel agents are re-inventing their High Street stores to “help people buy”) and we are pushing for/hoping for more on-line sales. That means we need to re-think websites, and make them mobile friendly, and understand who we are communicating with. When we email them and they read on their phone or tablet, when they visit our website from those devices, we know precisely who they are – so why aren’t we recognising them and treating them as the valued customers they are? With respect?

Obviously I am the wrong person to talk to about permissions, as I don’t understand our industry.

 

Roger Tomlinson

2 May 2017

If you do want help or advice about the application of the General Data Protection Regulation, I recommend you contact Andrew Thomas andrew@theticketinginstitute.com about system processes and website flows and Leo Sharrock leo.sharrock@theaudienceagency.org about the permissions for data sharing, profiling, research, etc.