Anticipation and the Unexpected

As I write this blog, I am eagerly anticipating this evening’s seventh game of the World Series. Although I have lived in the Chicago area most of my life, I have never been much of a baseball fan and, until this past week, haven’t watched the games. But it is incredibly compelling to get caught up in all the current excitement.  Will the Cubs finally break their 108 year drought? (Indians fans: I know you are similarly on the edge of your seats, but I hope you understand my perspective.)

Two keys to the excitement sports fans experience are anticipation and the unexpected. Anticipation is a factor throughout each game: every pitch, every at-bat engages viewers. By the nature of the game, what happens at each play is unexpected, even if viewers anticipate that the relief pitcher will strike out the next batter.

You are probably reading this after the winner has been determined and wondering why I wrote something so time-limited. Naturally, it is because I am pondering how can the arts capture some similar excitement. Of course, we all well know about the magic of “Hamilton” and how even people who rarely attend theater are talking about how they got tickets to see this amazing show, or are boasting about the fact that they have seen it. Even teenagers are excited about “Hamilton,” and some young people I know actually know the words to all the songs, which means they know the entire script, since it is largely sung through.

Such a once-in-a-lifetime (maybe, if we are lucky, once-in-a decade) masterpiece can’t serve as a guide for the rest of us theater managers and marketers who are seeking a bit of magic to excite our current and potential audiences.

Let’s thrill some audience members and create anticipation for others by taking some small steps at our performances:

  • You have some unclaimed prime seats open for this evening’s performance, such as house seats or box seats. Why not offer them to last-minute ticket buyers as a free upgrade — even and especially new single ticket buyers. This will give them an extraordinary and most memorable experience at the performance and one that will certainly be retold to others with enthusiasm and great appreciation of this special privilege.
  • Alternatively, as people arrive at the theater, offer unsold desirable seats to patrons who have tickets in the upper balcony or otherwise less desirable seats.
  • Before the audience arrives, put a note on the seats of select audience members inviting them backstage after the show to meet performers and take a brief tour of backstage activity. You can select these guests at random, or you can be strategic in your choice: for example, invite people you have determined are good candidates to get more involved in your organization, but not those who have already received such benefits.
  • Offer special benefits to people who are celebrating an occasion of their own.  If we know a birthday, anniversary, or other occasion is being celebrated, we can leave a special candy or flower on the celebrants’ seats, offer them a complimentary beverage of their choice at intermission, invite them backstage after the show, or any other benefit that works for your organization to show your patrons that they are special to you. How do we know when patrons are celebrating an occasion at one of our performances? We should collect this information as people purchase tickets and regularly contact subscribers to ask them to email us if they will be celebrating an occasion at a performance.

These types of special offers are bound to generate pleasurable reactions from the unexpected and highly appreciated personal attention, anticipation among future attenders, and therefore, the kind of buzz every organization seeks.

If you implement any of my ideas, or try others of your own along this line of thinking, please email me about your initiatives and their results.  I’d love to hear from you.

Go Cubs!


Birds of a Feather, part two

In my last blog, I wrote about some ways to capitalize on the fact that word of mouth — recommendations from others one knows — is by far the best way to attract people to performances. Today I will talk about two very effective, direct methods for building your audience, capitalizing on the benefits of word-of-mouth: gift certificates and gift tickets for subscribers. These approaches actually function as word-of-mouth recommendations — but with actual tickets or ticket vouchers attached.

In his book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell describes the power of connectors–acquaintances who give us access to opportunities and worlds to which we don’t belong.  People’s reference groups usually have a direct influence on their attitudes or behavior. Reference groups include informal primary groups such as family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers,  and more formal secondary groups, such as religious and professional groups. Often the best connectors are opinion leaders, those people who are respected, whose opinions are valued by others who want to emulate them.

Most people like to attend cultural events with friends or others whose company they enjoy. A study of Cleveland’s cultural patrons undertaken to compare the relative importance of peer group influences and childhood arts education for later arts attendance found that mere exposure of children to culture appears to have little effect on later attendance habits. Rather, adult reference groups are so important that where they are absent, the effects of childhood exposure and education tend to dissipate. Furthermore, since leisure-time activities have a strong social component, group affiliations are highly influential for involvement and attendance patterns.

Gift certificates: A pair of tickets to a particular event, a voucher to be used anytime during the season, a membership (if offered), or a subscription to the organization is a great way for the gift giver to share with his or her recipient(s) an experience the giver highly values and believes that the recipient will also enjoy. Arts marketers can promote gift certificates at holiday time, graduations, and continuously for people who want to gift arts events tickets for special occasions such as birthdays, Mother’s or Father’s Day, anniversaries, weddings or as shower gifts, and so on. Because special occasions occur all year long, the organization should regularly have messages in program book inserts, emails, prominently displayed on the website, and in its social media outlets. (Give the gift of music/theater/dance, a gift that will keep on giving all season long!)

I generally offer discounts to patrons who purchase multiple gift certificates, such as “buy four and get one free,” whether the purchase is for single tickets or subscriptions. The ratio of purchased to free tickets depends on what works best in your organization. Many attenders see this as a one-stop shopping opportunity for holiday gifts for colleagues and for many special occasions. When I attend a bridal shower, I often arrive bearing a cookie jar, filled with the sweetest gift of all: a voucher for tickets to a local theater or a membership at a museum I think the bride and groom would enjoy.

Gift tickets with subscription orders (or for orders of multiple tickets): Performing arts organizations can attract new audience members and offer a benefit to subscribers at the same time. When people subscribe to a series of four or five shows (or more, depending on the organization’s production schedule and goals), the organization can give subscribers a gift of one complimentary ticket to be used by a guest at a performance of their choice, according to availability. A subscribing couple will receive a pair of guest tickets. In this way, the subscribers can host friends for a performance at no cost to them. In turn, the guests are likely to offer to host a dinner before or after the show. This becomes a wonderful, social way for the organization to thank subscribers and to bring in new audience members, many of whom would not have attended without this invitation.

Collect guests’ contact information!: In order to make these programs beneficial for the organization as well as for the patrons, the marketing department must be sure to collect the guests’ contact information before their tickets are distributed so the guests can be added to the mailing list and be followed-up with appropriately.

The most important policy is to keep customers involved. If you involve them, engage them, make your offerings interesting and beneficial for them, they will talk, and they will involve others.



Setting the Right Ticket Prices: My Interview with William Rader, founder of WellAttended

In this interview with William Rader, founder of WellAttended, I discuss how to set ticket prices, ways to upsell tickets, the best ways to offer discounts, and how to add value to tickets. I also explain the best ways to increase your audience attendance with the birds of a feather principle. Please listen by clicking this link:


Birds of a Feather

While we are still relishing the joys of summer and before the birds depart for warmer climes (if you live in the north, as I do), this is a good time to prepare strategies for attracting new audience members to your performances.
We all know that word of mouth is, and always has been, the greatest resource for attracting people to attend shows, so it is in our best interest to capitalize on the “birds of a feather” principle: that people who attend your shows are highly likely to know others who would enjoy them also.
Asking patrons to encourage others to attend your shows is a long-standing common practice. However, many of the efforts I have seen are lacking in two main regards.
1. Marketers send emails to people who have seen a show asking the patron to tell their family and friends about it. The problem here is that most people have difficulty putting into words what made the show special and worth seeing for them. Yet, marketers and artistic personnel are experts at crafting copy about their shows. So send patrons messages that will bring alive the experience in exciting and meaningful ways. Include brief but intriguing stories about the performers, the playwright or composer or choreographer, about the set design, and so on. In other words, help people to tell the story of what they loved about the show and enhance that with enriching details.
2. All too often, I have seen organizations offer $5 off the price of a ticket to anyone who is recommended by a friend who has seen the show. I see this as a negative tactic, for multiple reasons. A savings of $5 is not enough to stimulate someone to buy a ticket they would not have bought otherwise. Even though this is a small amount of money, it sounds like an act of desperation: “We’ll do anything, almost anything, to get more people in the door.” The real problem here is in focusing the conversation on price. Offering discounts has become an all too common and actually a very lazy way for marketers to alert people to the value of the live performing arts experience.

What people really care about is value, not price. If people are motivated to buy tickets, they will certainly take advantage of a $5 discount, but the value of the experience will be reduced in their minds. We need to do a better job of communicating the true value of the art, the experience, the uniqueness, the live event. We need to stop talking in jargon that means nothing to most patrons. I have seen an organization promote an upcoming show as “Midwest Premiere!”  (Who, outside the industry, cares about this?) “Rising star” is overused and basically meaningless. Explain what makes this performer special. And so on.

Spend some of the remaining quiet summer hours creating engaging messages that will bring alive the attendance experience for your potential attenders. Then watch this strategy help populate your nest.

Seating Single Ticket Buyers: Delight them or punish them?

I just came across the notes I took from a webinar I attended last year, which was presented by a well-known and highly respected ticket pricing specialist. This speaker advised arts marketers to give single ticket buyers the worst seats at the most expensive price since, she said, this will encourage them to subscribe and get better seats at better prices. Quite honestly, I cringed when I heard this!

We arts marketers need to value our single ticket buyers. It is our primary task to delight them and give them the best experience possible, according to their own definition of a great experience.

One of the biggest issues in our industry is the huge churn rate: the fact that 70-80 percent of people who attend our performances one time do not return. Maybe they didn’t like the particular show they attended and didn’t want to risk trying another. There are many reasons why people choose not to subscribe to a series. The ticket price is just one factor for for people who face other costs like parking, travel time, the need for babysitters, frequent travel, and more.  I am an avid arts attender, but living in the Chicago area, I have wonderfully boundless options and only subscribe to a few of the many organizations I attend.  Single ticket purchase is not just for the occasional attender!

Subscribers may be the “lifeblood” of many performing arts organizations, but many people like being single ticket buyers, even if it costs them more per ticket, and their ranks are growing every season. TCG (Theater Communications Group) reports that from 2003-2012, subscriber attendance declined steadily, totaling a 22 percent decline. During the 5 years period 2008-2012, average single ticket attendance grew 6 percent.

It is increasingly crucial for arts marketers to develop messages and offers that meet the needs, wants, interests, and concerns of occasional ticket buyers. This means treating single ticket buyers as valued patrons and also means that marketers must redefine what they consider to be a loyal attender–even when more and more people want to select exactly which shows to attend and make their ticket purchase decisions close to the performance date.

For more information on how to attract and retain single ticket buyers, see pages 337-343, Standing Room Only: Marketing Insights for Engaging Performing Arts Audiences. (Joanne Bernstein, pub Palgrave/Macmillan, 2014).

Ticket sales strategies and increasing repeat visits: an interview

Dear friends,

William Rader, owner of WellAttended, interviewed me recently about various performing arts marketing issues. William transcribed our interview in three segments. Please click on the link below to read the third installment of this interview, in which we discuss ticket sales strategies, approaches for bring people back for future events, and for helping audience members encourage their friends to attend a show they really enjoyed.

I wish you all a very happy and healthy new year and a year of success in  realizing your organization’s goals.

Best regards,


Offer value — not discounts — for building loyalty and commitment

Value is a key concept for audience engagement and loyalty building. Let’s consider value — both from the perspective of the patrons and the perspective of the organization, and then draw conclusions about how to better align the value proposition. What do our patrons value? People value attending a play, a concert, an opera, or a dance performance that moves them, that they find stimulating, memorable, interesting, well-performed, informative, familiar, new, a great opportunity for socializing, an important place to be seen, and more. People value convenience: convenience in purchasing tickets, convenience in getting to the venue and parking, convenience in ticket exchanges, or other issues that may arise. People value sharing the experience with others; the social aspect is often critical to attendance. People value getting good seats. In my experience, the top-priced seats sell the best at most venues. What do subscribers value? The most important reason patrons give for subscribing is to be sure to see all or many of the shows in the season; the second most important reason is to guarantee good seats. The distant third benefit to subscribing, according to all my research, is lower pricing. Do people value discounts? Sure. Everyone likes a bargain. But, if we regularly discount from the “regular” price, do people think they are getting a bargain? Do they think the experience won’t be worth more than the discounted price? Do they think the “regular” price is artificially inflated? When we reduce prices, are we suggesting to our potential ticket buyers that the show we are promoting isn’t worth the full price we attach to the ticket? Our prices serve as indicators of the value we attach to an experience. Oftentimes, people can’t actually place a monetary value on an experience until it they have consumed it. Do arts attenders consider that seeing a certain play is worth $40 to them, but not $50 or $60? People who are financially constrained may set a limit as to what they will pay for a ticket. But most arts attenders, who are typically price insensitive, seek out discounts not because they wouldn’t buy tickets otherwise, but because they feel they’ve overpaid if they pay the full price. I fear that with all the discounts being offered (buy early and get 10% off, take advantage of this limited-time price offer and get 25% off, get 2 tickets for the price of 1, etc.) we have trained people to wait for the discounts. Furthermore, organizations typically offer subscribers – the most loyal attenders – significant discounts. In my consulting work, I typically suggest that we eliminate or significantly reduce subscriber discounts. Upon implementation of this recommendation, the number of complaints or loss of subscribers has been negligible. There are many situations where discounting is not only appropriate, but is a very effective strategy for meeting the organization’s goals. I have discussed discriminatory and dynamic pricing in depth in the pricing chapter of “Standing Room Only.” However, the pervasive use of discounting erodes price trust and devalues the product. Patrons want to be valued by the organizations they attend, but do they require discounts to value the organization and its offerings and feel they are valued in return? What do organizations value? Organizations value attracting new attenders, retaining the patrons they have, and building repeat visits over time. Organizations value patrons who are interested, passionate, curious, loyal, forgiving (when those not-so-great shows happen), patrons who bring friends and family, and patrons who support the organization emotionally and financially. Are people likely to donate when they assume the organization does not have a pressing need for the money because it is offering tickets below the stated price? Some pricing consultants say that discounting builds loyalty. Do they mean that lowering ticket prices helps to increase repeat ticket sales? Have they tried other methods for increasing sales than relying on pricing strategies? Has anyone studied donation levels among those who regularly purchase discounted tickets? Pricing too often takes the center stage away from the art itself. Often, we don’t communicate the true value: the art, the experience, the uniqueness. Says art consultant Andrew McIntyre, “Perceived value is established by persuasive communications. Arts organizations’ communications are frequently not persuasive enough. . . And reducing the ticket price until it matches the lowered perceived value seems like a lazy option to me.” Aligning values Aligning values means, of course, that the organization needs to adjust its strategies and programs to more closely meet the interests and preferences of its current and potential audience members. The organization is relatively easy to change; our patrons rarely change their behavior or attitude because we encourage them to do so; they change according to their personal values and their experiences in the larger environment. Loyalty building in arts organizations is not achieved through discounts. People value stores like Walmart for their low everyday pricing. But the products available at Walmart can be bought elsewhere at higher prices. People cannot buy the art we put on our stages anywhere else! Patrons do not value our organizations and their offerings because the tickets are less expensive than the theater or symphony down the road. And we will never be able to reduce our ticket prices enough to compete with high tech options for entertainment. Yes, people want benefits from the organizations and businesses they frequent. Let’s give them benefits that are mutually valuable to both the patrons and the organization. Let’s use a loyalty point system like the one I described in my previous blog. By giving people very low cost tickets because they earned them with repeated ticket purchases, we are giving our patrons more of the performances they value. By doing this, the organization is benefitting by getting more people back in the hall more frequently, thereby building involvement and more likelihood for making contributions. Build loyalty by giving people more of what they come to us for: great performing art experiences! What could be better or more effective?