A Geographic Gap Analysis Uncovers New Markets for Nonprofits

By Mary L. Johnson, Rachel Cheetham-Richard

The Wilma Theater is one of Philadelphia’s premier theaters. Located on the Avenue of the Arts in Center City Philadelphia, The Wilma Theater’s core mission is to present theater as an art form, engaging artists and audiences in an adventure of aesthetic philosophical reflection on the complexities of contemporary life. The organization accomplishes that mission by producing thoughtful, well-crafted productions of intelligent, daring plays that represent a range of voices, viewpoints and production styles. The Wilma also offers a theater camp for children and provides theater-based classroom residencies with the School District of Philadelphia that integrate theater into the academic curriculum at the middle and high school levels to support reading, writing, speaking, problem solving and critical thinking skills.

The Wilma faces many of the challenges common to nonprofit arts organizations nationwide, including the need to attract and retain stakeholders, whether they are patrons, subscribers, volunteers or donors. To that end, the Wilma embarked on a focused analysis of its core audiences in 2005 that would enable it to describe and understand expectations of existing audiences, identify “gaps” in the marketplace where new potential audiences and donors might be found, and apply this knowledge to enhance the experience for all.

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Performing a Gap Analysis
The geographic gap analysis was performed by Azavea, a geospatial software design and development company based in Philadelphia. Azavea is a certified B Corporation whose mission is to apply geographic data and technology to creating sustainable, livable and vibrant communities. Part of that philosophy is an internal research and development program that enables employees to spend 10% of their time each month on a personal research project that will both engage the employee and extend the capabilities of the firm. Research projects may also include pro bono services for nonprofit organizations. The Wilma Theater’s GIS gap analysis fit into the latter category.

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As part of its ticketing process, the Wilma collects names, addresses and other relevant information about its patrons and stores it in a database. Azavea was able to use this rich source of geographic data to perform a multi-step analysis process that began by geocoding and mapping the addresses of existing Wilma patrons in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland.

Separate maps were created to reflect subscribers, donors and single ticket purchasers for each theater season from 2002-2003 through 2004-2005, plus an overview map of the entire period. Not surprisingly, a large number of Wilma subscribers and donors were clustered in the center city area close to the theater and immediate city outskirts, while single ticket buyers had a much wider geographic distribution.  

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By matching Wilma patrons to their census tracts and block groups, Azavea was able to “stamp” each patron with the demographic characteristics of the surrounding community. The company then compared the demographic characteristics of areas with strong support for the Wilma to areas of similar demographic composition but low support, and therefore identified gaps between potential and actual patronage for the theater. The census variables used in this analysis included per capita income, household income, number of gay/lesbian couples, percent college educated or higher, average family size, people per square mile, median age and average household size. These variables were chosen based on their bearing on socio-economic status and the Wilma’s sense of its own support base.

Of the variables described above, three were chosen for the gap analysis: household income, percentage of residents with college education, and people per square mile. These were chosen because they represented the characteristics in which high Wilma patronage neighborhoods were most different from the region as a whole. To find areas of similar demographic make-up to “Wilma neighborhoods,” Azavea identified census tracts where average household income was higher than $55,000, more than 35% of the population was college-educated, and population density was greater than 2,000 people per square mile. That density figure is quite a bit lower than the average Wilma neighborhood as well as the region in general, and was used primarily to exclude areas of very low density.

The map of census tracts meeting these criteria was then overlaid with a map of the Wilma’s existing subscriber base, revealing those areas with high unexploited potential for support of the theater. Southern Bucks County, northern Delaware County and central Montgomery County, as well as parts of southern New Jersey were identified as the most promising targets for a marketing campaign.

Analyzing Mailing Response Rates
Targeted mailings comprise a significant part of any organization’s marketing budget. Azavea’s next approach to identifying areas for potential market expansion was to use data on response rates from the theater’s annual mailings, and especially examine communities with high response rates but low numbers of mailings.

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Azavea mapped the percentage of mailing recipients purchasing a subscription by ZIP Codes to identify those ZIP Codes with higher-than-average response rates but low numbers of actual subscribers. Several ZIP Codes in the greater Philadelphia region were identified as meeting these criteria. This suggested that the low number of subscribers in these areas was more likely due to the low number of mailings, rather than lack of support for the theater. By increasing mailings to these targeted ZIP Codes, the Wilma had the potential to increase the number of subscribers there.

Using the Results to Generate New Support
The GIS gap analysis and supporting studies completed by Azavea provided important marketing intelligence for the Wilma that has been used in a variety of ways.

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For instance, during the 2007-08 season, the Wilma marketing team used the results of these analyses to support selection of a billboard location to advertise a play. After tracking the number of patrons who mentioned having seen the billboard when asked by a box officer at the time of their ticket purchase, the marketing team reported an exceptional ROI of 177% on this specific marketing activity.

Moreover, the maps of the Wilma’s existing support base provided a powerful tool for soliciting advertisements in the theater’s PlayBill. Businesses located in areas with high concentrations of theater-goers were targeted for advertising space, since the maps clearly showed the neighborhoods that were patronizing the businesses were also patronizing The Wilma Theater. The ability for nonprofits, like the Wilma, to share this type of information with local businesses can facilitate new or increased levels of support, as well as collaborative marketing efforts that might otherwise have been difficult or even impossible to obtain.  

The Wilma Theater registered overall year-on-year increases in both single ticket and subscription purchases in the year following the gap analysis. While it is difficult to determine how much of a role the gap analysis actually played in the outcome, single ticket purchases from the 2005-2006 to the 2006-2007 seasons went up by 14% as a whole, with increases of more than 20% in Delaware and Montgomery Counties in Pennsylvania. The Wilma also noted an increase of 41% overall in the state of New Jersey following a previous year decrease of 18%. On the surface, this seems to suggest that the Wilma’s more targeted marketing focus in geographic areas suggested by the gap analysis paid off. It should be noted, however, that while subscription purchases rose by 4% overall, they fell by 2% in Delaware County and by 1% in New Jersey, which may indicate that single ticket purchases had an adverse effect on the subscription market in these particular locations.

As an Esri Business Partner, Azavea used Esri ArcGIS desktop software to perform the gap analysis and related marketing studies for The Wilma Theater. Results were provided in the form of hardcopy reports and printable PDF maps that the Wilma could refer to or leverage as needed to improve its marketing campaigns and regional outreach. For 501(c)3 organizations in the U.S., the Esri Nonprofit Organization Program offers a variety of free software options that would enable these organizations to perform similar analyses in-house and/or maintain or add to their data in the future.  

For many nonprofit organizations, a marketing or fundraising gap analysis can provide the means to visualize and understand an existing support base, expand marketing outreach, target and leverage new or existing advertising and funding sources, and determine the need for expansion of services, and ideal areas for expansion.

Published Monday, March 28th, 2011

Written by Mary L. Johnson, Rachel Cheetham-Richard

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