Porch Discussion sheds light on marketing impact of PBS special


Members of the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees, senior staff and community met at the Hultquist Center Wednesday morning to discuss the Institution’s recent marketing efforts. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

Taylor Rogers | Staff Writer

George Murphy, Chautauqua’s vice president and chief marketing officer, said he wants Chautauqua to “own” surrounding marketing areas and “attack” problems at the Main Gate, but most of all, he wants to draw people in.

Murphy spoke to nearly 60 people Wednesday on the Hultquist Center porch about the Institution’s recent marketing strategies and the effects of the WNED documentary “Chautauqua: An American Narrative.”

He took 30 minutes to discuss the different ways the Institution is reaching out to new audiences and managing its brand, followed by suggestions and concerns from attendees.

The dialogue was part of the weekly Trustee Porch Discussions, which are held at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesdays.

Murphy opened his talk by saying the number of visitors to Chautauqua was on the decline when he first came here in the fall of 2010. His initial goal was to get three to five percent more people here per year in the next five to 10 years, translating to roughly 50 to 100 more visitors per week.

“It’s a manageable number, and I think it’s something we can go after,” Murphy said.

The Marketing and Communications team at Chautauqua has executed Murphy’s plan through a variety of programs and changes.

Murphy referenced the WNED special “Chautauqua: An American Narrative,” which he said was equivalent to a $10 million ad campaign.

“I thought it was a spectacular piece,” Murphy said. “Especially if you didn’t know Chautauqua, I think it gave you a good breadth of what was going on.”

The impact was palpable, he said. The special covered 85 percent of the country and increased hits to the Institution’s website by 90,000 throughout the following 60 days. About 60,000 of those visitors had never been to the website.

The hits came from all over, Murphy said, though he added that it’s a goal of the department to “own” the surrounding areas of Buffalo, N.Y. Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Rochester and Toronto. The audience in these areas should be familiar with Chautauqua and its programming.

The subsequent challenge is getting those visitors to become interested enough in planning a visit. Murphy said that’s what he’s currently focused on.

He said his team also has been removing some Chautauqua “language” from ciweb.org. Chautauquans communicate with words like “season,” “gate pass,” “pillars” and “parking pass,” but for new people, Murphy said, it’s often overwhelming to try and navigate how the Institution works.

“If you communicate that way to people, you shut them down,” he said.

So they revamped the website to offer more interaction. They added more video and photos and modified the accommodations section of the website with more options and an easier setup. He added they also want to increase ticket purchasing over the Web — the ultimate goal being a simple, complete way to plan a visit before you come to the grounds.

The WNED special also gave Chautauqua an opportunity to get feedback. Murphy said the Institution set up a “call station” so those interested could get more information from the Institution and vice versa.

Those who called were generally “empty nesters,” Murphy said, and they were mostly interested in a short visit. The Institution has since seen a 6 percent increase in tickets purchased for one-night to two-week stays this summer, reflecting the interest expressed at the call center.

But roughly one-third of those who do end up purchasing a short-term (one- to two-week) ticket don’t return every year, and Murphy said he wants to know why.

“I’m not naïve,” Murphy said. “It could be that they can only afford a vacation every year or they cycle between different areas, but it could be they didn’t have a good experience.”

He’s using surveys to determine why visitors come in the first place and then what they think as they’re leaving the grounds. The exit survey is a new addition to the Institution’s marketing strategy.

Perhaps one of the topics discussed most on the Hultquist porch was that of social media. Murphy said the Institution has recently invested time and money on social media efforts, advertising to some special historical and arts-related groups.

“We basically dissected the nine weeks,” Murphy said. “We dissected the four pillars, and we’ve gone on the Web through Google (Ads) primarily, and we’re targeting some very specific people.”

He gave the example of Week Nine’s topic: “The Path to the Civil War.” Social media offers the chance to connect with hundreds of clubs and organizations interested in history.

Murphy said he’s also working on ways to improve customer service, from better and faster service at the Refectory to improving traffic on Saturdays at the Main Gate.

But the most controversial topic covered Wednesday morning was that of the yellow program insert in the Daily versus the program booklet the Institution used to publish the month before the season began. Murphy said he eliminated the program guide because a considerable amount of the information was incorrect, but attendees voiced that it offered helpful information beyond the schedule itself.

Murphy said he will consider bringing back some elements of the program guide in the future.