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Apr 14, 2003
Case Study

How the Boston Symphony Orchestra Mixes DM, Radio, Taxi-Tops, Web Ads, & Email to Sell More Tickets

SUMMARY: Best idea in this Case Study: Try a postal (snail) mail campaign to get your current offline customers to order online. Works like a charm. The BSO now sells 35% of tickets online.

Also includes useful email and online advertising tips, and loads of fun creative samples, such as a moving "taxi-topper" ad.

Rich Bradway, Internet Marketing Manager for the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), has two challenges somewhat unique to online selling.

First there is obviously the typo problem. It is not easy getting all those international composer and musician's names spelt right throughout the site and in every email and banner ad.

Secondly, Bradway has to juggle increasing online sales (thus saving money through automation) while keeping the human element (the personal touch) as much as possible.

He explains, "As we embrace new technology, we don't want to lose sight of where we come from. We're not going toward being like the movies where you swipe your credit card to get a ticket printed out. Going to the BSO is an event. You'll hopefully be better for it afterwards."

Historically the BSO sales and marketing staff have based their success on being very, very close to customers.

For example, when Bradway wanted to append age-ranges to the ticket buyer database last year, in-house staff were able to look over the long list of names and say about how old 80-90% of previous direct response ticket buyers were, because they knew them personally.

In May 2001, the BSO invested in real-time ticketing which made online ordering without the fear of missing on a sell-out possible. Previously the BSO had sold about 3% of tickets online. Now Bradway was tasked with ramping up online sales to two different populations:

1. Reach out to potential symphony-goers who have possibly never bought before and convince them to not only buy tickets, but to then continue a long and loyal relationship with the BSO.

2. Gently-yet-urgently switching offline ticket buyers' allegiances from box office, phone and mail order to ordering online.


Bradway's first step was "pretty basic." He had added to all marketing creative as the primary call to action. The phone number was now in second place. Next he took five more steps:

-> Step 1: The Omnipresent URL

In the Boston area, the BSO's URL soon became unrelentingly inescapable. It was advertised heavily on area billboards, taxi-cab moving "toppers" (link to 5 minute sample below), in radio commercials on the classical stations, on college TV stations, on brochures, posters, and in area newspaper ads.

Just in case anyone forgot, Bradway also bought more than 60 other URLs that absent-minded surfers might try instead, such as and and had them all redirect to the proper site.

-> Step 2: Online Campaigns to Reach Surfers

Bradway selected sites to advertise on by using a combination of common sense and server log research. For example, he decided to advertise with sections of AOL-owned sites such as after noting that a huge portion of visitors came from AOL-owned domains.

His three tips to make online ads work:

Tip A: Get picky about placement

Do not buy run-of-site. "We're very picky about where to put our banners. If we have three million impressions to use, I don't want them on just any page. I've researched where placement will be most effective. For example on it's the book section and the money section. On CNN, it's on world news. Ticketmaster's classical events schedule is good."

Tip B: Put multiple links in skyscrapers

"When we advertise Tanglewood on, the skyscraper ad allows us to put in a playbill ad that shows what to expect to see for the coming week" with links to each performance. (Note: MarketingSherpa's heard this multiple-links-work-best factoid from several other sources as well.)

Tip C: Test sponsorships without direct offers

"It's low cost but actually very effective in building awareness," notes Bradway. The BSO's hotlinked logo is posted as the official sponsor of several sections of, including the A&E events calendar search (link to sample of creative below).

"Obviously the click percent is much lower than banners because there's no offer," says Bradway. "However, the fact that they see it there is enough to build brand awareness of the Web site. It's a nice constant."

"The first axiom of advertising is consistency; perpetual imagery. If you show people the same thing over and over they are more likely to be aware of you and convert than someone who only sees it periodically."

-> Step 3: Direct "Snail" Mail to Push Old Customers Online

Web-centric advertising only works if your customers are web-centric.

Bradway realized that many of the BSO's longstanding customers were in an older demographic, many of whom were not Net-savvy. He had to give these people an extra push to get them online at all.

Stephen Belth, President AMN New Media, who conducts research studies for the BSO several times a year, brainstormed up a clever
solution to test.

Why not send all the past customers on the BSO's traditional snail mail list a special personalized letter to invite them to the site? There would be an online-only incentive of some kind; a screensaver or a discount on tickets. (Link to a sample letter below.)

Instead of having a regular promotional landing page, these customers would land on a personalized "intellimercial," a Flash presentation that ran less than a minute and conveyed some excitement about the offer. (Link to two non-personalized samples below.)

The intellimercial was personalized with an audiofile of local classical radio personality Rich Capparela welcoming the visitor by name after they typed in their personal password to access the site. (Note: Belth found software to do this so the announcer did not have to actually record every single name on the list.)

"We did worry that people might be scared, 'How do they know who I am?', so in the snail mail letter we clearly indicated they would be directed to a personal message. We tried to warn them. We discovered people find it reassuring, it's been working pretty well," says Bradway.

Each intellimercial ends with a call to action where the visitor must click, or call in, to get the special offer.

The first campaign was successful enough that now the BSO produces about six new snail-mail-to-intellimercial campaigns a year with changing offers depending on what is hot at the time.

-> Step 4: Careful, Database-Driven Email to Keep Them Online

While Bradway refused to rent email lists outright because he was concerned about safely targeting in his region and niche, he did everything he could to build the house list to send campaigns to.

The BSO has always been database marketing driven, and email list building was no exception. Instead of building his list in a vacuum as many marketers do, Bradway built the list in conjunction with his current database which also includes ticket buying and customer demographic data.

Every online ticket buyer is asked for an email address for the BSO to send ticket confirmations to. However, Bradway is quite firm that just because it is ok to send order confirmations to this address, it is not OK to send anything else whatsoever unless the customer has of their own accord checked a separate box requesting it. (This is a best practice.)

"If they lose trust in us, we're going to break down their loyalty."

Actually there are two options for buyers to choose from:
- Checking a box to get info about related events from the BSO
- and, checking a box to get info about related events from other organizations.

Interestingly, Bradway has not actually ever lent this second list to anyone at all because he is too concerned about losing loyalty. He feels the mere presence of the second box is reassuring to those who might otherwise worry about their email being shared.

Also interestingly, Bradway does not offer a general newsletter subscription. Instead all email campaigns are sent based on preferences. Visitors can use the MyBSO registration form to tell the database what types of music they are most interested in, plus the database also continually updates preferences based on what tickets each registered member actually purchases.

This means individual email campaigns are only sent to customers who are most likely to be highly interested in them.

Which flies in the face of marketers who mail a whole list every offer because email is so "cheap." Bradway believes very strongly that while email may be cheap, customer loyalty is not. Anything you can do to avoid the appearance of spam (up to the point of only sending offers you know they already have a self-selected interest in) is worth doing.

This micro-targeting would astonish most emailers who might feel that demonstrated interest in classical music played in the Boston-area is pretty darn targeted to begin with. However, Bradway says that is not nearly targeted enough.

The actual campaign creative (link to several samples below) appears to be more like a four-color flyer or a slick ad that might appear in an upscale magazine than an email.

Each campaign looks completely different in terms of colors and copy, to keep interest high. Yet at the same time, there is enough of a common thread with length and the BSO logo to keep branding high.

Campaigns are sent about every two weeks, but as mentioned above, only the slice of the database most suited to each gets it. A typical name would not get one as often as that.

-> Step 5: Special Site Sections for Each Major Event

Inspired by the intellimercial success, Bradway asked the Web development team to begin a series of special site sections for each of his campaigns.

Now whenever he is running a special campaign, all clicks go directly to a landing page that focuses on that offer. He also has his Web team update the home page frequently, so anyone who goes there instead of the landing page can still find their way to the offer.

This February, Bradway experimented with a new landing page idea. Instead of just a simple page or intellimercial, he had the team put together an online "conservatory" micro-site with rich informational content all about a particular series of notable upcoming concerts by Tan Dun, the composer who won an Oscar for the music to 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon'.

Every PR and marketing effort for the Tan Dun concerts converged on driving traffic to this conservatory, from PR to print ads.

Bradway's goal was more educational than anything else. "It was to build an enthusiasm for music. We were hoping we'd get maybe 50,000 people to come and see it during the to weeks before and two weeks after the performances." Perhaps some of those 50,000 would be newbies starting down the path of being interested in classical music for a lifetime.


In less than two years, ticket sales have soared from a measly 3% to 35%. Overall ticket sales have grown at the same time, but at a slower pace.

At almost 50%, Tanglewood concert goers are the most likely to buy online, perhaps because attending a concert can entail a several hour drive from Boston or New York so people do not want to risk getting all the way there and not being able to get a seat.

Pops concerts generally sell about 30% online; BSO concerts are higher at 35% online sales.

The BSO has definitely reached new buyers with the online campaigns. Plus, enough old customers have switched to online ordering that the BSO's been able to save money on call center staffing. "On a sale day, it would not be unheard of to have 20-30 people taking calls," notes Bradway. "Now we're down to about 12 because the load has shifted to the Web site."

More results:

- Radio and print is very hard to measure because so much traffic goes directly to the home page, and Bradway notes that you can not make too many generalities because some concerts are far more popular than others. However, overall he expects radio and print campaigns to generate .2% visits to the site with a 10% conversion
rate to sale.

- Because Bradway targets his online media buys so carefully, he has been able to increase general banner click rates to .48% which is roughly double the online average. His skyscrapers with multiple links can get as high as a 1.3% click rate.

He notes that while was great in the past, his clicks have plummeted during the Iraqi War. "No one cared about the BSO. They are going there to read about Iraq."

- The snail mail campaigns generally get a 15-20% response rate of people going to view the intellimercial online. Of these online viewers, about 8% will then convert into buying tickets online. (An additional number may buy tickets at the box office instead, which can not be measured against the campaign.)

- 85% of online buyers go ahead and check the box to get emailed promotions for related BSO concerts. This is a remarkably high number for a non-pre-checked offer. In our experience, it is almost double what other sites normally get.

- Bradway estimates about 10% of his list goes bad every four months, due to address changes, other bounces, and a few people asking to be removed. That is a rate of 30% per year, which is slightly lower than some national estimates.

- The Tan Dun concerts were completely sold out, with 1/3 of tickets sold online during the week before the concerts. The conservatory proved so popular, pulling 92,000 unique visitors in its first three weeks, that the BSO decided to leave it up as an ongoing feature. In the following 60 days, more than 150,000 additional unique visitors visited the conservatory.

Useful links:

Lots of creative samples from various BSO campaigns

AMN New Media - who create the intellimercials for the BSO

MarketingSherpa article: "Email List Hygiene 101 - How to Clean Your List, Plus 7 Ways to Stop Names From Going Bad"

BSO main site
See Also:

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