Churn: 75 percent of audience members who come once to an organization don’t come back, or do they?

According to various industry professionals, seventy five percent of people who attend a performing arts event once don’t return! This situation is commonly known in the industry as “churn” and is a key reason for great alarm about the future of our audiences.

It is critical for arts organizations to segment these one-time attenders and try to learn what brought them to the theater or concert hall the first time. Were they visiting from out of town and unlikely to return any time soon? Did they have a special connection to a particular show or performer? Were they lured back by better prices through another source?

It seems to me that 75% churn is an overstatement since people may be returning and purchasing their tickets through a third party ticket service. Think about the fact that third party providers like Goldstar, Hot Tix, and the like don’t provide patron information to the organization. This means that anyone who goes to a performance at an organization with a third party ticket is unknown to the organization, except for their name. And if patrons buy tickets for their first performance through the organization, then return with a third party tickets, this appears as churn at the organization itself, even if the patron is right there and hasn’t “churned.”

I don’t know the actual extent of third party ticket sales. A couple of box office managers I spoke with told me that it varies according to their inventory levels, which makes sense, of course. But I fear that this situation is becoming an ever larger problem for the organizations. Not only do they not get full price for their tickets, but they can’t get donations from people who they can’t reach. It seems like we are losing more and more audience members through the cracks of the process, much more than through actual churn. Goldstar and others have become much too powerful, don’t you agree?

We can mitigate this problem to some degree by posting someone at the box office, where people go to pick up their tickets before the show, to collect names and contact information of third party ticket buyers. Yes, this requires that extra staff or volunteers be on hand, but it’s worth it! The patron database is the most powerful tool marketers have, and we shouldn’t allow some of our patrons and their attendance behavior to be unknown by the organization’s marketing department. It is critical to be able to reach out to them in the future.

How do we re-engage the people who have come to our organization at half price with Goldstar or Hot Tix tickets? Maybe we need to lure them back to our own box office with an offer of the same discounted price they paid to the third party seller. We know these people have attended in the past, and have potential to be returnees. We need not give them the best seats in the house; this obviously is not a critical factor to them since when they buy through a third party, they have no idea where their seat location is. This way, the organization won’t have to pay a fee to the third party ticket service and will have the opportunity to develop a committed patron over time.

Arts organizations clearly benefit from the exposure, sale of excess inventory, and other values offered by third party ticket sellers. It’s time to focus on harnessing the weak links in the system and turning them around to the organization’s benefit.

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