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Early every morning, long before she wakes up, Courie Weiss receives an email from Groupon inviting her to take a trapeze class, sample a spray tan, join a museum or watch a musical at a deeply discounted price.

And in a day or two, that deal expires. So if she doesn’t move fast, that 80 percent off opportunity will be gone for good.

For consumers like Weiss — plugged into social media, budget-oriented, and not the type to plan ahead — these daily emails from Groupon, LivingSocial and other online discount sites are where arts research begins and ends.

Weiss skips theater and other entertainment websites, because all the information she needs is already on Groupon: maps, schedules, descriptions and the ability to buy cheap tickets with a few quick clicks.

Weiss, a property manager who splits her time between San Diego and Los Angeles, is exactly the kind of patron theaters want to hook. She’s a theater buff, receptive to marketing, accustomed to spending about $100 a month on arts and entertainment. But wooing her dollars isn’t easy. She is bombarded by advertisements, protective of her leisure time and unwilling to compromise her bottom line. She has only gone for one arts deal this year — a musical.

Meet the arts consumer of the moment, and perhaps of the future. Out with the silvering season-ticketholders and in with the Groupon subscribers — more than half a million of them in San Diego. They’re willing to give your Salomé a shot and see your Shakespeare. If they like what you have to offer, they might tell their friends and keep coming back. As long as the price is right.

Calculating the balance between setting ticket prices and developing new audiences isn’t new, as we’ve been exploring in this series. Beyond Groupon, about a dozen other companies like LivingSocial and Travelzoo sell discounted arts tickets online — many for just a day.

Together, the deeply discounted, short-term internet sales are changing the timing, context and way in which audiences and arts organizations connect.

In San Diego, all of the 12 arts and culture organizations I spoke with sold tickets on a discount website at least once in the past two years.

These sites charge different flat fees and percentages for listing a deal with them. But their pitch is the same: We’ll raise awareness about your venue and introduce connected, tech savvy people to your art. We don’t promise to fill your coffers, just your auditorium or gallery. What you do to turn those last-minute bargain hunters into full-price ticket holders is up to you.

‘It Was an Experiment’

Batter and icing flies in a cupcake shop overrun with orders that don’t even cover costs. A yoga studio overflows with more than 1,000 yogis-in-training who signed up to take $2 classes.

The bottom-dollar prices on Groupon can be hugely damaging to businesses. A brash deal can smother a business with thousands of low-value transactions and not guarantee any return visits.

Performing arts venues are somewhat protected from this, because they can only sell as many tickets as their auditorium holds. But they face other challenges.

One is alienating subscribers or members — those people who pay in advance for packages of performances or a year of museum access. Theaters and classical ensembles fear punishing their most loyal customers by offering the seat next to them for half-off. Or worse, tempting them to trade status and stability for savings.

Another difficulty is encouraging consumers to spend beyond the value of the coupon. A coupon-user might visit a restaurant with a friend who buys a full priced entrée. A salon can pitch a matching pedicure. But theaters and museums have little else to sell once people walk in. New customers don’t buy tickets to future shows on the spot.

And the biggest challenge: Groupon keeps half of whatever revenue it raises. The other half goes to the merchant. Since Groupon’s prices are already deeply discounted — at least half off, and sometimes up to 90 percent off —merchants see only a sliver of their normal asking price for every deal purchased.

For arts nonprofits, that is a lot of potential revenue to sacrifice. Already, ticket prices don’t cover all of their expenses.

So arts organizations are using Groupon for marketing purposes, not to boost revenues.

“We see the money that Groupon takes as an exchange for getting the word out to a larger audience, said Robert Smyth, producing artistic director at Lamb’s Players Theatre. “We really see it as advertising.”

Groupon spreads information to a massive email list. The company wouldn’t confirm how massive, but an arts administrator who has used the service said the mailing list has approximately 700,000 people in San Diego.

The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego used Groupon to introduce a new membership deal in 2009. A single person membership, gift bag and guest passes cost $35, down from $85. More than 220 people signed up, equaling at least $7,700 in sales. Groupon and the museum split the revenue.

If the museum had sold those packages at full price, it would have earned $18,700, but that would have taken a lot longer to achieve. While the dollar value for the deal was low, the publicity value was high, a museum manager said.

“Groupon was a great marketing tool to promote the fact that the memberships even existed,” said the museum’s marketing manager, Rebecca Handelsman.

Using some of the other, smaller deal sites may mean less publicity. But their subscribers may be more interested in arts. Goldstar takes a smaller cut and lets merchants post deals on short notice. It has 75,000 subscribers in San Diego, but they’re all interested in arts and entertainment. San Diego Opera and San Diego Symphony managers said they found best results with another site, Travelzoo.

Michael Rosenberg, managing director of the La Jolla Playhouse, said the theater has tested Groupon twice this year, most recently in August. “It really was an experiment. We wanted to see what would happen.”

What he found: “From a financial perspective, it doesn’t help us out that much … From a marketing perspective, we would look again to see how their (mailing) list has grown or changed over time.” Through Groupon, the theater sold more than 400 tickets at $33 each. If Groupon and the theater split revenues, that means the theater kept $16.50 per ticket, down from $66 at full price.

Was it worth the sacrifice?

It’s too soon to tell if they’ll get repeat visits, Rosenberg said.

‘They’ve Experienced My Art for Half the Price’

Once a mass discounter — Groupon or any other — gets the word out and people show up for a deal, it’s up to merchants to convince people to come back and pay full price.

Beverly Lambert, chief executive of Orchestra Nova, a chamber orchestra with a playful side, said she started out being suspicious. “My concept of Groupon and LivingSocial was that people used them when they were having a hard time selling seats,” she said. “I didn’t want that image out there, because we don’t have trouble selling our seats.”

Eventually, staff members convinced her that “the younger generation is out there looking for new exciting things that they’re never heard of. That’s why we went for it.” The ensemble has offered deals on several discount sites, and now it’s doing audience surveys to measure their effectiveness.

Lambert and other arts administrators said they are optimistic that once people witness their groups perform once or twice, they’ll recognize the quality and be willing to pay full price.

Building paying audiences — that’s the goal. And that’s where things get complicated, because when someone buys a half-price ticket and keeps getting new offers every day, why would she ever spend more?

“There’s no way I could pay full price,” said Weiss, the Groupon and LivingSocial user. “I work hard to make my money, and especially now that we’re in such difficult times, I’m going to cut wherever I can.”

Planning ahead is equally inconceivable. “Our schedule changes minute by minute, so it’s really hard to buy tickets for scheduled events,” she said.

Besides, she can find “an excellent seat” for very little money on very short notice.

This optimism has the art world on edge.

“I can get all these young people through my doors, but they’re not going to come back unless there’s some sort of discount,” said Steven Roth, president of The Pricing Institute, an arts marketing consulting firm.

“They’ve experienced my art for half the price of what other people would pay,” Roth said. “They have to like it a heck of a lot to say, ‘Sure I’ll pay twice what I just paid for that.’ I’ve just set the bar pretty low of what the value of my art is.”

Only a few organizations I spoke to saw repeat business they could clearly attribute to a daily deal site. Subscriptions were even rarer. Marketing research backs this up. A study of 150 businesses that used Groupon, published in 2010 by the Social Science Research Network, found that less than 15 percent of customers returned after redeeming a Groupon.

But then, hoping someone commits to seeing several more shows at your theater after buying one online deal is “like going on one date and asking someone to marry you. It’s a little fast,” said Stephen Baker, marketing manager of the San Diego Symphony.

Baker has stayed away from Groupon, trying to fill Copley Symphony Hall using traditional marketing methods, social media and other online discounters.

“People don’t just get up in the morning when they turn 50 and say ‘Let me subscribe to the symphony,’” he said. “It’s a process. It takes time.”

Roxana Popescu is a San Diego arts writer. She has a Ph.D. in comparative literature with a focus in art history from Harvard University. You can reach her directly at roxana.popescu@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter at @roxanapopescu.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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