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Two major Victorian festivals have explored new ways to lead their audience through a tsunami of program options.

The trend in major art festivals is to strive for growth and explore new ground, with each edition offering expanded programming, new program strands and innovative experiences. But what if more becomes too much? When marketing an always-bigger-and-better program, how can you ensure that your audience is not overwhelmed by choice?

In 2016, two of Victoria’s major arts festivals explored niche marketing programs that confronted ‘too much choice’ as a barrier to entry. Though they took very different approaches, their aims were identical: to offer patrons a specially-curated gateway into the program that alleviated the burden of choice.

Fringe by fortune teller

The 2016 Melbourne Fringe Festival featured 460 events at more than 170 venues across Victoria over the course of its 18-day program. With support through the Marketing Innovation Fund, Fringe launched the Festival Fortune Teller to help guide patrons through the program — an initiative that reduced 460 options to just a few.

The live action version of the Fortune Teller was stationed at the Fringe ticket booth in City Square, from 2pm-7pm throughout the festival season, asking wary patrons a short series of binary questions to drill down into possible areas of interest. Las Vegas or New York? Galleries or bookshops? Restaurants or airports? Beyonce or Sesame Street? Each answer helped the Fortune Teller to reduce the options, and finally present  three Fringe Festival shows that were likely to appeal.

Fringe patrons could also consult the Fortune Teller online, via a specially designed web application that functioned similarly to the live experience, asking binary questions to drill down into a patron’s particular area of interest. In the online environment, the patron was presented with nine show options, which could be added directly to their shopping basket, or they could opt to ‘play again’.

Across the festival season, the live Fortune Teller did 112 ‘readings’ for potential ticket buyers, delivering a value added marketing experience that integrated beautifully with character of a fringe performing arts festival; drawing people in with an element of theatre with reinforced the Fringe brand. The online application had greater reach, with 2000 people using the application, 783 of which were referred through the Fringe social media channels. Market research showed that 44% of people who used the tool went on to attend at least one event selected for them with 31% of respondents saying that they would not have heard of the event otherwise.

‘The Marketing Innovation Fund provided a supportive framework for an arts organisation with limited resources to take a risk and truly think outside of the box when it comes to engaging new audiences,’ says Fringe Marketing Manager Abby Elisha. ‘We were astounded by the response to the Fortune Teller – it was perhaps one of the most talked-about elements of the 2016 Festival, demonstrating a genuine desire among audiences to begin their Festival experience long before they arrive at their event.’

A fuzzy way into film

As the largest film event in Australia, the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) faced a similar problem to Fringe, presenting a massive and complex program that could be intimidating to some audiences. With support from the Marketing Innovation Fund, MIFF developed a ‘fuzzy search’ option on the festival website – a Digital Program Discovery Tool that provided new, guided ways to navigate a program that featured more than 350 films.

Soft-launched to the MIFF website a month ahead of the festival, the Digital Program Discovery Tool offered three clear pathways into the program. ‘Ideas for Me’ triggered a brief quiz, similar to the Fortune Teller model, that used patron responses to isolate a small selection of suitable films. The ‘Explore Themes’ option gave customers specific themed portals such as romance, amazing music, food and animal’s stories, again presenting a limited selection of films based on the patron’s preference. The final pathway, ‘Ask An Expert’, gave patrons the option to choose from a collection of MIFF ‘best of’ lists produced by film critics and festival staff.

Over the course of the festival, the Digital Program Discovery Tool received 40,000 page views with an average visit duration of 1.36 minutes. More than 72,000 events were triggered by the tool, which had almost three times the level of engagement as the trailers presented on the MIFF website. While specific conversions were not tracked, the festival noted that ‘wishlist’ activity (measuring the number of sessions added and removed) increased by 15% in 2016 while total ticket sales (84,918) exceeded targets (65,000) by approximately 30%.

MIFF rolled out the Digital Program Discovery Tool quickly and with limited capabilities, but the festival is excited about the possibility of expanding the project in coming years, particularly in terms of social media integration.

‘It’s a perennial challenge for audiences trying to navigate the huge MIFF program. The Digital Discovery Tool allowed us to present film selections in a fun, playful and purely online and mobile-friendly format. The popularity and engagement was incredibly strong, and it played a part in the festival outperforming all our 2016 targets,’ says MIFF Marketing Manager Lauren Zoric. ‘The Discovery Tool highlighted the importance of thinking digital-first, and positively impacted on how we are transitioning as an organisation.’

Read more about the Marketing Innovation Fund