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?

Loyalty point system: It’s well worth the effort!

Given that subscriptions have been eroding in the performing arts industry for a decade or more, there is a strong incentive for arts organizations to identify a new marketing tool to help encourage repeat visits, trial of unfamiliar programs, and eventually donations.

We are all familiar with the so-called loyalty point systems that are pervasive in so many industries. My favorite local pizza spot offers one free pizza after 10 are purchased; the nearby nail salon offers one free service after 10 visits. The airlines often make it so difficult to redeem miles earned and thereby create bad feelings with their customers, so I prefer not to include the airlines’ plans as a good example in this discussion.

Consider this loyalty plan for arts organizations. All current patrons – subscribers and single ticket buyers alike — should be automatically included in the plan, and new ticket buyers should be signed up concurrent with their first ticket purchase. This plan is for everyone. Each organization should set its own parameters regarding the number of points earned for various purchases and the number of points required for greatly reduced price tickets. As an example, offer $10 tickets to any performance, given availability, with 50 points; $5 tickets for specific dates, times, or less popular productions with 40 points; $10 tickets to bring guests for a determined number of points, and so on. I do not recommend giving free tickets, since that will create a problem of no shows; people value what they pay for, even it is a token amount. Benefits other than those that are price-related can also be offered, such as special events with performers in attendance, an invitation to the “green room” during intermission or after a show, and so on. Be creative! Most importantly, find out what your patrons would value.

The quantity of points earned can vary according to several factors. The first factor is the price paid, so that people who purchase higher priced tickets can earn more points. Secondly, the number of points given should be increased as people make repeat purchases over time, so that subscribers and, for example, people who purchase tickets to six shows over three years benefit from long-term loyalty points, or cumulative points. These repeat visits can serve to increase the number of points earned for subsequent ticket sales, so that, say, someone who has earned 25 cumulative points will now earn bonus redeemable points with each additional purchase. Cumulative points will continue to build over time, while redeemable points earned, based on price or other incentives, will be used up as they are redeemed.

With a point system in place, arts organizations can offer bonus points rather than discounts to stimulate sales. Instead of “training” people to wait for discounts to buy tickets, as many arts organizations presently do inadvertently, we can “train” them to earn extra points, which will eventually translate into special offers as a reward. This will keep people coming back for more, and will encourage them to buy directly from the organization’s website or box office since points cannot be earned through third party ticket providers (read: discounters).

One of the biggest problems in the performing industry is that a huge percentage of people who come once do not buy tickets again. Shall we offer a significant number of bonus points to first-time ticket buyers as a strong incentive to come back?

The only possible downside to such a program is the cost of administering it, because the plan cannot be as simple as the punch card or coupon at the local pizza parlor. Accurate, timely records must be kept and all patrons should be able to access their account online to track their redeemable and cumulative points.

According to Gene Carr, CEO of Patron Technology, the financial requirements for arts organizations to manage a point system are minimal. Says Gene, a point system is “not expensive — just complex because you have to manage the points, and the rewards, and market the rewards… so it’s just work.” Of course, we have to pay people to administer all the details. But if we are reducing our discounts significantly, so that we are earning more per ticket sold, and we are building loyalty, thereby selling more tickets over time and possibly garnering more donations, these costs in time are likely to be a very worthwhile and minimal investment for the organization.

Can you think of a reason why this should not be the next wave of loyalty building for arts organizations?

NOTE:             In a recent blog, I included an extensive article written by marketing staff members at Piccolo Teatro di Milano, one of the top theaters in Europe, about their loyalty plan, from which I heavily borrowed in this blog. Please refer to my previous blog entry.