Joffrey Ballet's win-win with Groupon is a lesson for Chicago's cultural institutions

September 3, 2010
The Chicago Tribune
Chris Jones


On Aug. 18, the Groupon online “deal of the day” offered discounted subscriptions to the upcoming season of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. Within 24 hours, 2,338 people had taken the bait, the Joffrey announced the following day in a press release.

To offer some perspective, the Joffrey had about 4,900 subscribers on Aug. 17. In other words, the ballet company saw a nearly 50 percent increase in its subscription base in one day. And they said subscriptions were dying. Or dead. Nonsense.

The huge success — in arts terms, at least — of the promotion has been taken as evidence of the Chicago-based Groupon's potentially massive impact on culture. That's surely the case. But as Chicago's arts organizations begin to roll out their fall seasons, there are several other useful lessons here for the city's cultural leaders.

There is a great hunger in Chicago for the arts. And the big cultural names in this city — I'm talking the likes of the Joffrey, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Field Museum, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre Company — are now formidable brands.

Formidable. Chicagoans of all stripes want to support and see them. They are a big reason why many of us chose and like to live here. They are the envy of many businesses.

 Notably, the Joffrey wasn't offering tickets for the safe, old “Nutcracker” here. The subscriptions covered the full choreographic gamut from George Balanchine to Christopher Wheeldon to Yuri Possokhov. I'd bet the vast majority of those Groupon buyers weren't looking for anything in particular. I'd bet a good portion hadn't even heard of some of the choreographers whose work they'll be watching. They were trusting the Joffrey, following through on a latent desire to consume more culture and better appreciate what Chicago has to offer, and buying the Joffrey name.

He didn't anticipate Groupon, but this is exactly what the late Danny Newman of the Lyric Opera espoused in his marketing bible “Subscribe Now!” Get folks to trust your name, or view your name as prestigious and aspirational, and they'll happily take a gamble with you on the risky stuff.

But the marketing world is no longer as simple as the one Newman wrote about in 1977. Groupon's killer app is that it markets its clients one deal at a time. You opened that Groupon e-mail and got only the Joffrey, which thus landed on your radar as you sat bored at your desk. Moreover, Groupon hires its own little anonymous army of editorial-style writers — not that it pays them very much — who mostly do a much better job than the marketers who are usually too close to the product they're selling to be able to sell it to complete strangers without self-serving jargon or marketing cliches.

Groupon's third-party editorial style is, at the end of the day, a fake. You're reading real editorial copy here. You're not reading it in your Groupon e-mail, where there are no critical remarks or bad reviews. Nonetheless, there's no question that the outsider style works. Demonstrably, it worked 2,388 times for the Joffrey.

Here's how the Joffrey deal was described: “A ballerina's graceful balance is inspiring to aspiring dancers, captivating to houses of cards, and vexing to bulldozers razing cliffside condor habitats.”

It's a bit much, perhaps, but it sure has your attention. Especially if your other e-mails are PowerPoints, spreadsheets and meeting reminders.

“Grown from local soil rich with diversity, steel slag, and saxophones stuffed with meat, the company grew from an ensemble of six dancers into today's world-class, immaculately produced mainstay,” the anonymous scribe, or (as a Groupon spokesman described it to me) a team of scribes, continued, warming to his/her/their cultural cause.

Saxophones stuffed with meat? Who would not want to subscribe?

There is, of course, one more key thing. Those subscriptions were sold at a deep, deep discount (61 percent less than usual). And because the Joffrey had to split its take with Groupon, the loss in revenue was even greater. This terrifies many cultural groups. But if those seats were going empty anyway, what the heck?

The smarter arts organizations are realizing that you have to give people a deal. No one wants to pay the sticker price in this economy. Raise the ticket prices and you see fewer people. Give folks a break, and they'll maybe pay more next time and buy a profitable drink at intermission. At the Playhouse Square Center in Cleveland, they just completed a big study on why certain orchestra seats were always empty during the first couple of nights of Broadway tours. They decided to fill them at any cost — thus you can now subscribe to seven Broadway shows in Cleveland for less than $100. Those empty seats are now occupied by warm bodies.

Bodies that talk to friends. Bodies that send passionate e-mails.

My family was on vacation with friends the other week in Gatlinburg, Tenn. We were last there in 2008, when my little boy won a free game at the Davy Crockett Mini Golf. He kept the ticket for two years. But when we presented it to the clerk, we were told it had expired. Tears flowed. We were a group of eight — seven full-paying customers. The course was empty. The incremental cost to the owners of that course was zero. Still, the clerk wanted to let us all walk away.

I eventually prevailed with a dour manager, but it was a sour experience. It should have been a win-win. Just like Groupon and the Joffrey.