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I was published in a Chinese newspaper! I wish the reason was different, but it is what it is.

A few weeks ago, there was an editorial by a journalist with the Sing Tao Daily News about a HK Phil concert he attended. The writer praised the concert, but commented about the hall not being full and questioned why that would be the case for such fine artists. Following is the translation provided to me of what his article said:

“…Some may say that it was because of the exam period, and the concert tickets were expensive and people cannot go frequently, some also say that there were too many choices in the market. The writer does not have the answer, but he thinks that a good concert should be promoted to the public by all means in order not to waste the good conductor, soloist and orchestra. … How to execute? Let’s talk next time.”

A week later, the same writer published a second article, in which he put forward ideas for attracting more patrons. These included more advertising, discounts for less popular seats, and giving tickets to charity groups. The same article also provided the following comments (again, this is the translation provided):

“After last commentary was published, the writer asked opinions from his friends who work in performing arts groups. They unexpectedly disagree with his opinions. First, investing more on advertisement and media may not be useful. They have done what they could do. The cost may not be paid off. Also, the market of local audience is small and difficult to expand. Second, his friends strongly disagree with his idea of having discounted tickets right before the performances. LCSD tried that several years ago, but it got worse. The loyal fans refused to buy tickets with the regular price, which heavily damaged the ticket sales. Third, giving tickets to sponsors may not receive expected results. The solution may increase their workload and led to another dead end. Fourth, giving tickets to students or people in need may ultimately terminate the ticket sales. Once you start giving out tickets, it will never stop.”

As Director of Marketing for the HK Phil, I decided to respond. The following week, the writer translated and printed my letter. Here’s an abridged version of what I wrote to him — in English:

“… I appreciate your reflections on the attendance and am glad that you recognize there are no easy answers to why a hall is not full. There are many considerations, such as popularity of the artists, an audience’s familiarity or comfort level with the repertoire, price, location, promotion, competition, timing, the economy, and so on. Probably the reason is some combination of these and other factors.

We certainly do try to promote through a variety of methods to attract the largest possible audience. We use print ads, posters, leaflets, e-messages to our database, MTR, buses, outdoor banners, social media and group sales. All of this must be done within a limited budget that is never big enough to really do each concert justice.

The HK advertising market is diverse; there are few obvious mediums for a particular concert and we need to spread our advertising budgets across multiple English and Chinese channels. There is no one place in HK to go for a complete list of what’s on around town.

… As much as we would love to have full houses all the time, we know that this is not realistic. 

… Probably the biggest challenge we at the HK Phil face is the lack of patron data that would allow us to directly target potential audience members. Like the majority of performing arts groups in HK, we must use the URBTIX ticketing system. URBTIX, however, does not share any data on the customers who have purchased tickets for our concerts. While we fully appreciate the regulations that protect patron privacy, it is hugely crippling from a marketing standpoint to not have access to any data that would help us reach ticket buyers who purchased tickets to the concert you attended and would like to hear that artist again; or ticket buyers who only attend Beethoven and to whom I could do a special promotion of our Beethoven concerts; or the ticket buyers who bought two concerts last year and could be encouraged to buy three or four. … I can tell you that this situation is unique to HK; in all other major cultural markets, organizations have been collecting patron data for decades, adhering strictly to privacy regulations while using data analysis to build their audiences. Indeed, some HK organizations have purchased their own ticketing systems that run either separately or concurrently with URBTIX to address exactly this issue.

We are currently beginning the process of looking for options that will help us address this situation. I can also tell you that we are undertaking a large analysis of our ticket sales over the past years to see if we can identify trends that will inform our programming and sales tactics in the future. We take this situation very seriously and are as eager as you to find new ways to build our audiences.”

The editorial writer said he printed my letter in the hope that “it helps draw on collective wisdoms and better promote arts programmes and enrich our cultural life.” It was all very collegial and a positive exchange.

So this is one example of the challenges of marketing the arts in Hong Kong and addressing it will keep me busy for a long time. Two years ago before I left Canada, I would never have thought I would be dealing with this type of issue, let alone being published in Chinese!

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A copy of the third article about this by KY Lau. The caption on the right of the photo says “…it is the challenges faced by many arts groups to obtain and analyse customer information the data effectively in order to establish sales and marketing strategies.” And that’s my name on the left — imagine that!!