Theater For The Future

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For Free, part II: One Man’s Plan to SaveChicago

November 21, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, Tools

Oh, if we only didn’t need money and could focus on art, right?

There’s been a number of creative web fundraising ideas floating around the storefront community – and theaters have been doing a pretty good job copycatting the ones that are easy to use (though it’s still unclear which ones are most financially effective for arts organizations).  There’s those good ol’ web marketplace affiliate programs like CafePress.com or Amazon Associates – where your patrons shop through your site for swag or targeted products or just plain anything – and the e-marketplace gives you a cut.

More recently, major search engines have gotten into the non-profit fundraising game and created programs like GoodSearch.com which donates a portion of its ad revenue to non-profits that send users their way instead of Google. And (perhaps in retaliation?) Google created Google Grants, which sort of works like free AdWords for non-profits and increases exposure. 

There’s never a truly free ride, of course. Affiliate programs are partially there for the benefit of the affiliate, but there’s a much bigger profit to be had in having minions convert their (high-value disposable-income-weilding) patrons into big, giant streams of fresh, flaming consumerism. As I described in Part I, these programs only generate reasonable sums of money for the affiliate when you start amassing a great big critical mass of users on your own, and before that happens, it’s just a trickle.  

But, Chicago Storefront Theaters don’t have a lot of resources to chase that money, so they participate in these programs on a small scale because they require very little effort beyond the initial setup. A little easy money is better than staring into the void of funding a show on the ensemble’s collective credit cards.

About five months ago, Chicago businessman (and actor) Steve Misetic decided to throw his hat into this ring.  Like most Chicago Theater cheerleaders, Steve was frustrated with the way that Chicago Arts Organizations often have to fight with the rest of the country for the attention of our local big businesses. He noticed that theater companies were throwing their patrons’ money to e-commerce companies in California, while local businesses spend ad money with national firms, and both seemed the poorer for it. The result of this frustration – his brainchild SaveChicago.org (which launches this Friday) – was modeled on the success of other affiliate programs and the success of locally powered sites like Craigslist and Angie’s List.  The basic idea, in his words:  

SaveChicago.org is the first online marketplace where local merchants and local consumers are able to find each other on the Internet.

SaveChicago.org mobilizes the audiences of non-profit organizations into a unified consumer demographic as members of SaveChicago.org.

Local merchants then pay to reach this first ever critical mass of local consumers on the internet.
SaveChicago.org then gives 50% of the money these merchants spend back to the non-profit groups who’ve helped us mobilize these consumers.

SaveChicago.org keeps local advertising dollars local and sustainable by re-injecting the money back into our local economy via non-profit organizations, instead of letting the money escape into Silicon Valley.

The website we have built is a completely state-of-the-art e-commerce site that basically does to local advertising what Ebay did to garage sales. We’re putting local businesses together with local consumers and splitting the money with non-profit organizations. No one has figured out how to do local advertising on the internet until now.

If this sounds at all convoluted, it’s because Steve is trying to bring together three very divergent groups together with a common marketing strategy – local merchants, local shoppers, and at this point, even the non-profits that the site is designed to support. His mission, other than the glory of saving chicago theater and culture forever, is to generate those deliciously sustainable and work-free revenue streams for non-profits on a local level – hopefully to the levels they require to turn off the fundraising (aka “begging”) bullhorn and regain some long-forgotten sense of dignity. He’s also learning the PR and marketing and e-commerce games as he goes (with professional PR support and a killer web developer), and trying to bring together two e-commerce models that haven’t worked together thus far – local savings sites like craigslist and national affiliate programs like Google AdWords – with the goal of creating a revenue loop that feeds back on itself and grows the local ad money pie for the benefit of organizations that can do some good with it.

All this wrangling, courting, and dreaming big has I think created a very interesting situation on the eve of SaveChicago’s launch – at least from my vantage point outside the down-and-dirty planning – and there’s a couple big challenges ahead for the site in its infancy. The first hurdle is to demonstrate a clear need in the community – not a need to support the arts, but a need for shoppers to find deals and for merchants to find those shoppers. Without this incentive, the whole growth mechanism falls apart – Google and craigslist built that kind of national name recognition after years of providing free, innovative services that were more convenient than the phone book and classified ads, respectively. In his initial planning, Steve envisioned companies like Starbucks spending their advertising dollars on his site to reach local shoppers. Put that way, there’s no reason for Starbucks to buy in to website marketing when they’re already reaching plenty of customers right on the street. To generate that need, Steve has created an Angie’s List-esque membership program for shoppers and promised deep discounts from member merchants that can’t be found elsewhere to those members. And Neo-Futurist and SaveChicago.org groupie Mary Fons points out, the merchants that will be the biggest beneficiaries of a program like this will likely be that mom-and-pop cafe down the street that need to get you to patronize them instead of Starbucks.

The second hurdle to make a system like this work is one that papa Google and uncle Craigslist actually created pretty organically, over time – a critical mass of market share. For merchants to want to give these secret, targeted discounts, they need to know that the people using SaveChicago.org will grow their businesses. That kind of patronage doesn’t grow overnight, which creates a third hurdle: To help grow the patron base, Steve will be leaning on the member arts organizations to help promote the site and drive traffic, patrons, and merchants his way, at least until the ad revenue is self-sustaining.

And the biggest hurdle of all? Convincing all three groups that SaveChicago is a brand worthy of their trust. Chicago Theaters are actually quite conservatively-minded businesses for the most part… their risk tends to be small (though proportionally huge to their income), and they tend to feed their creativity into the product, but not so much the actual making of money. The reactions from other industry types that I talked with to Steve’s initial volley of e-mails promoting the site were skeptical at best, and Steve’s language (which was still being retooled for branding and positioning, and of course betrayed his intense personal excitement) didn’t always help:

Subject: SaveChicago.org to make fund-raising obsolete: Launching November 23rd

Could you imagine getting checks in 2011 from a Fund-raising drive completed in 2008?
Take 5 minutes to register your non-profit with SaveChicago.org and earn recurring income from a one-time fund-raising effort.
no cost – no obligation
Launching on November 23rd, 2007

Savechicago.org is the first company in history to attempt to consolidate the supporters of non-profit organizations in order to create the “critical mass” needed to generate real advertising dollars. We want non-profits to stop begging local businesses for the 5% of their ad budget they feel obliged to donate to charity every year. We’ll get you access to the other 95%.

When the spam filters didn’t whisk away his audience, phrasings like “No cost – no obligation” sparked interest but didn’t inspire confidence, despite his best intentions. Since then, Steve has hired a PR rep and refined and focused his language a bit, which will make his merchant patrons a lot happier and his non-profit beneficiaries a lot more trusting. The first checks will also help to change that tune as well. Smirk.

So what does Steve have going for him? Some folks are already way on board, with a non-profit member list that already includes several high schools, hospitals and churches, hotshot neighborhood development organizations like Rogers Park’s DevCorp North, and a few representatives of the theater scene, including Barrel of Monkeys, Rivendell, The Artistic Home, and Raven, which has never shied away from closer neighborhood involvement. Steve’s also aware of what he’s up against. Which always helps.

Plus? I think his idea is truly innovative and creative. If he can manage to implement it, he will at the very least create a locally-based version of an AdWords-like system, even if that doesn’t immediately translate into flowing rivers of cash for his affiliates. That “local” part of the business model is huge – if you’ve ever bought or sold anything through craigslist, you know what I’m talking about. There’s a whole human, dare I say theatrical, element to the transaction because at some point you’re not just exchanging money and goods, you’re coming into contact with a stranger. The time I sold my old iPod to a craigslister was, while brief, an incredibly exciting day for both of us. I used the cash to upgrade to a video model, and I left most of my music on the old one. And I have A LOT of music, so the buyer pretty much jumped up and down at the deal he got. That kind of excitement can only happen on a local level.

There’s a spark of something here – local cooperation, a spirit of being neighbors – that I think needs to continue even if Steve’s web experiment doesn’t pan out. Steve is also going to need to work his butt off to build that trust and enlist help. I know I moved to Chicago because of idealism like that, and I applaud Steve for thinking really big, and taking the big risk. I think there’s a potential renaissance out there for Chicago Theater and interdisciplinary arts, but it will take a big spark and plenty of fuel – and that means we need to build that fire together and share the wealth.

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1 Comments to “For Free, part II: One Man’s Plan to SaveChicago”


  1. Hi Nick,
    Thanks for the thoughtful analysis of SaveChicago.org. A lot of what you said is right on. Just a few things would need correcting, but I’ll limit it to the “what we’re up against” section.

    Hyper-local advertising is expected to grow to $39 Billion in the next five years. The big 3 companies are clawing at each other to capture this market. Case in point is Microsoft paying all that money for a 1.6% stake in Facebook. The valuation was directly related to local advertising. Microsoft thinks, “Facebook knows where people live, and these people are relatively loyal to the site, therefore we can embed local ads to reach them.” This is the best idea that they’ve come up with.

    Google’s recent $700 stock price is directly related to local ads. Wall Street expects google to earn that $39 billion by default. They ask, “What else is there?”

    Google is Google when it comes to simple search. No arguments from me. However, they are not very useful for local businesses, and they are even less useful for local sales.

    The emperor has no clothes, you could say because Google’s “branding” sure has everyone convinced that their system is flawless. I have run across this when talking to people about SaveChicago. One particular person I have in mind would say, “If I wanted to know what’s on sale in Andersonville, I’d just google it.” My response was, “Really? If you don’t mind me asking, what key words are you googling to find that?” It’s just not possible. Google is a tiny bit of what you want mixed with tons of junk results, but people are convinced that the only way to find anything is to google it. That may be true for many things that we search for on the internet but not for local businesses, and certainly not for local sales.

    A marketing line we use to describe this is, “People don’t realize there’s a problem until a solution comes along.”

    Specific example of google being broken is if you google: Dog trainer Chicago. There is one “sponsored result” on Fulton Street that is probably 10 miles from my home. Okay, so google my zip code with it, 60660: I get two results that I could use. One is a mile away from my house, and one is in Roger’s Park. Furthermore, the other results are filled with:

    Become a dog trainer

    “Add your dog trainer business to our “third party” directory.”

    Dog friendly patios in Chicago,

    First Place Dog Training 2519 North Riverside Dr McHenry, IL,

    Fred Hassen dog training with “Sara”, doing a starting and stopping drill. Fred Hassen is the creator of the “No Limitations” dog,

    Yet another dog trainer yellow pages.

    Pet Portraiture Chicago, IL 60660. Pet Portraiture offers a colorful Warhol.”

    It takes about a year of training in this increasingly popular sport before your dog is ready to compete. The United States Dog Agility Association

    You see where I’m going with this? That’s all on the first page of results. And even the two dog trainers within 3 miles of my house, well even those are really just yellow page listings. On Savechicago, I’ll not only find a dog trainer near me, I’ll find the one that posted a “Buy one get one free” obedience class. And if I just keep zooming out of my neighborhood by one degree at a time, I may find an even better deal — all in a few seconds time. So, not only have I found what I want in a fraction of the time that it would take to filter through all the junk, but I’m finding a deal that’s saving me $35. And if the deal is good enough, I may actually go down to Fulton Street if it means I can save $70 instead of $35.

    Then the last point on google is what if I had googled “Dog trainers?” Chicago Dog trainer? Dog training? Dog Obedience Classes? The list is endless as far as what one individual consumer would think is the best way to google that item. It’s a guessing game. Each term gives me a completely different set of results. How can small businesses consider this to be the best way for them to reach the residents in their own community? Why not eliminate the guesswork, make it simple, and save people money?

    It would be foolish to think that there are not weaknesses in Google that we could exploit. SaveChicago offers businesses and consumers a more effective way to find each other than google does, and we split the money with non-profits.

    Thanks for the opportunity to chime in!

    1


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