Saturday, April 2, 2011

Who loves you? Not most people.

Most people don't like what your theater does.

That is: most people aren't theatergoers, period, and unless all you do is Mamma Mia year after year, most of those people probably don't like what you do.

During my time on Altarena's Board (2004-2011), there have been a couple of very challenging transitions during which I inhaled several very good arts marketing books (and some bad ones). Somewhere in there I read about how a certain car company surveyed its customers about a particular truck model: 80% of the customers hated it, but the 20% who liked it really loved it and wanted to have its children.

That's why I don't buy the argument that just because there are so many small theaters in the Bay Area, there is too much competition.  That would be true if all those theaters offered substantially the same product at comparable prices.  If there's something your theater does differently and/or better than others in the eyes of your patrons, your product is different. And if no one else offers that product as well as you, you're golden.

The trouble is that that differentiating thing can be elusive to identify.  It's not just the choice of material: Altarena has done (and continues to do) many "old chestnuts" like Cabaret and Death of a Salesman, but patrons tell us the intimacy of the space and the directorial choices that exploit that intimacy distinguish our productions of those well-explored shows.  And beyond the performance itself, patrons tell us there is a "neighborhood feel" to  hanging out in the theater, and that keeps them coming back too.

The key phrase is "patrons tell us".  A couple of years ago we started doing something new: we identified "star patrons"—longtime subscribers, key donors, patrons who are also performers—and started inviting them to the theater after hours, one-on-one or in groups of two or three at most, to have some wine and cheese (total cost: about $20 per occasion) and just tell us their thoughts on what they liked about the theater and what we could be doing better.  We thought about having these meetings in a nicer location—say, a local restaurant or bar—especially because between shows the theater lobby would be full of set-building materials, costume racks, etc.  But, mindful of the earlier feedback that patrons enjoyed feeling like they were "part of a family" when they entered the theater, we decided to have them in the theater lobby after all—indeed, we even had to have one of them in a dressing room because the lobby was full of auditioners that night!  But in the end, I think it was the right thing to do because inviting those patrons to spend time in the space as "collaborators" and not just as paying customers made them feel even more invested in the theater, despite (or because of?) the austerity of the surroundings.

I've become a big fan of these "friendraiser" events.  They cost little (but they do cost something, so think of it as an investment in your own patrons) and have big payback potential.  Since I'm an engineer, here's my tabular representation of your patron base and how it relates to "friendraising":

May like your workDon't like your work
Have heard of youInvite to friendraisers; target for promotionsCut your losses
Haven't heard of youReach out via friendraisersMost people

The top-left quadrant are your high value customers.  Even if they're not subscribers, maybe they've purchased single tickets for a lot of shows recently, or maybe they've received comps or discount tickets through outlets like Goldstar.  (Price doesn't matter at this point: discount tickets are probably available to lots of shows, but they picked yours.)  Or maybe they attend only 1 or 2 shows a year but they also donate.  Use your CRM system to mine your patron records for these people, so you can get them into a room, get a couple of glasses of wine into them, and ask "Why do you like us so much?" You  may surprised how much they can tell you about why you are so great, and how much that can help shape your brand and messaging to attract others who will feel the same way.

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