Friday, June 30, 2017

Email marketing for community theaters


For several years I served on Altarena’s board of directors, and when I first joined, the mentality was that of an “email blast” sent indiscriminately to the few thousand people on the email list. Besides the fact that such behavior is generally illegal now, it’s a poor way to think about email marketing.

In 2004, when e-marketer Eugene Carr wrote Web Sites for Culture (about designing effective arts websites) and Sign Up for Culture (about building email marketing lists), the Internet was already an important channel for arts marketing. In 2017 it seems to be the primary channel. In this post I summarize some still-relevant main points from the latter book.

Mr. Carr runs a company (or used to) called PatronMail, which handles email marketing for many arts organizations. The findings in his book are based primarly on that company’s surveys administered to the participating arts organizations and in some cases to those organizations’ patrons.

With respect to email, although Mr. Carr doesn’t put it quite this way, my takeaway based on the book’s messages is that most theaters make two fundamental mistakes in email marketing:

  1. Not realizing that building up a good email list is not something that happens by itself, but is a campaign like selling subscriptions, which requires corresponding attention to design and execution.
  2. Misusing their email list once they have it.

Building an Email List as a Campaign

Opt-in is a must. You must use a system that allows customers to gracefully opt in or out. Besides the legal requirements of complying with CAN-SPAM laws, people who do opt-in tend to read your email: Carr’s surveys find that only 5% of opt-in patrons report that they delete those emails without reading them. And while it’s technically legal, don’t opt someone in as soon as they buy a ticket on your website: show goodwill by giving them the opportunity to opt in or not. Most modern email marketing platforms (EMPs) such as MailChimp, ConstantContact, etc., require opt-in by default. 

Get signups on your website. Watch a friend visit your theater’s website and try to signup for your email. How easy is it? How many clicks are required? How do the placement, visibility, and ease of use of the signup link compare to those of successful arts organizations in your peer group? 70-90% of visits to arts websites are about event selection or ticket buying; the patron didn’t come there to sign up. Therefore, an ideal mechanism is a clearly labeled, highly visible signup link that triggers a pop-up, so the patron can quickly sign up without interrupting what they came to your site to do. If they have to click over to another page just to get to the signup link, you’ve lost 50%+ of your users.

Don’t rent, sell, or buy lists. Historically, the yield from purchased/traded lists is low, and the cost in patron goodwill is high. (Some people like me don’t even join a list unless there’s an explicit promise that my info won’t be shared with others, and I actually create multiple email aliases so that I can always figure out who sold my email to someone else.) Any signup vehicles should carry prominent language that you won’t sell or trade your patrons’ info, and that every email they receive from you will contain an “unsubscribe immediately” link (which is required by CAN-SPAM anyway).

Get signups everywhere, if necessary by offering small incentives. You can make up inexpensive cards that people can fill out and leave at the boxoffice to sign up for your list; give them out in the lobby before the show, in the parking lot, at the coat check, everywhere. You can tuck cards or an insert into the show program, but make sure it’s slightly larger and highly visible (e.g. using colored cardstock) so it clearly sticks out of the program and calls attention to itself. You can offer simple incentives to signup, both online and with the cards: Get $1 off today’s ticket purchase if you sign up for our list (easy to implement—setup a table where a staff member is collecting cards and handing out dollar bills); get a free cookie or soft drink at the concession stand; and so on. You might even raise your ticket price by $1 to neutralize this cost if you have great response.

Make every “transactional” email include a signup link. Transactional emails are sent to individual patrons to confirm a ticket purchase, pass along performance information, and the like. Create a standard “footer” or signature block for you and your staff’s outgoing emails that includes an exhortation to sign up, and a link.

Ask a few questions. Patrons are willing to answer 2 to 3 non-intrusive questions at signup time, and historically, it’s quite hard to collect such info after the fact even if you have their email address. An ideal thing to ask is what aspects of what your theater does are of interest to them (regular season shows? children’s programs? readings of new works? etc.) and use your EMP’s ability to segment the list accordingly.

Using Your Email List Effectively

Don’t flood. 55% of arts patrons are happy to receive 1 email per month from a given organization, and 25% are OK receiving two or three per month. One organization I really support has the annoying habit of sending many emails per month, most of them announcing additional forms of promotions or discounts for the current production. This makes it seem as if they are desperate to sell tickets, trying any promotion that will stick. Time your email dates strategically and well in advance to coordinate with your show sales cycles. A typical cycle might include a “get your tickets now” email for a production before it opens, a “critics say” email (if the reviews are good) partway into the run, and a “last chance” email before the closing weekends.

One message per email. A single email should highlight exactly one call to action (renew subscription, buy tickets for this show, etc.) This also helps keep email short, making it more likely it’ll be read. The call to action should include a link to a page that minimizes the number of clicks for the patron to follow through. For example, Audience1st allows creating links that take the patron to a Buy Tickets page pre-populated for a particular production or even a particular performance.

Be selective. The organization I gripe about above has another problem with their emails: they are not selective. The only thing more annoying than getting repeated emails with N different promotions for a show, is getting those emails when I have already paid for tickets to that show. First, if I’ve already seen the show, the emails just get in my way. Second, if I paid full price in advance to see the show, seeing email after email describing a promotion that would have let me get the ticket at a discount just makes me feel stupid and makes me want to wait for them to get desperate on their next production so I can save some money. Each email you send is “training” the patron to act a certain way; think about what you yourself would do if you received them.

Have a consistent look, feel, and sender. Use the same well-branded email template for all emails to your list, and always have the same “person” sign it (“Barbara Jones, Artistic Director,” or the box office manager, patron outreach coordinator, whoever—but the one public face of your email campaigns). Spend some time getting the template right and matching your organization’s and website’s brand, since you can then re-use it forever. Most EMPs have rich editors that allow you to develop templates using your own logo assets.

Track your success. Most EMPs let you track open rates, and any links in an email should contain a UTM code so you can track clickbacks. I’ve heard it remarked that because email is so inexpensive to send, it doesn’t matter whether it works well or not. But if someone approached you with a publicity opportunity that would be free but of questionable effectiveness, and might alienate patrons if mishandled, would you accept?

Integrate email with your box office/customer management system

All of the above will be a lot less painful if your EMP (MailChimp, ConstantContact, etc.) integrates with your patron database, so that you can easily target specific patrons for email campaigns and export those lists to your EMP, as Audience1st does. It also ensures that when patrons change their contact info or email address in your database, those changes are automatically propagated to your EMP, and vice versa.

Email can be an effective marketing tool, and even in 2004, audiences 55 and under preferred to receive arts information via email rather than direct mail (and those audiences are now approaching 70), which saves you a lot of money and allows you to do quick targeting. But building a list doesn’t happen by accident, and once built, you have to curate and grow it by thinking carefully about the timing and content of each message you send, rather than thinking about “email blasts”.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Fundraising for community theaters


It’s no secret that community (and many professional) theaters rely on “unearned revenue” (i.e. donations of some kind) for up to 50% of their revenue. And it turns out that people are much more likely to give money if you actually ask them. But not all Board members of such theaters have much experience asking. This concise book is for them: here’s a few highlights from Fund Raising Realities Every Board Member Must Face by experienced fundraiser David Lansdowne.

Write down your organization’s mission as specifically as possible. People don’t give because you have need; so do other causes arguably more urgent than yours. Nor do they give just because they have money: wealthy people don’t just throw money around—they’re as careful about where they put their money as anyone else. People give because they believe in your mission. So you must be able to articulate that mission clearly, and convey fanatical devotion to pursuing it. This is why fundraising consultants and grantwriters can give help and advice, but in the end, your own leadership is best positioned to impassion your own supporters and make the ask.

Lead by example. If Board members entrusted with the fiduciary health of the theater don’t give, how can they ask others to do so? Yes, you volunteer your time, but that doesn’t buy lighting upgrades, pay actor stipends, or cover performance royalties. Volunteers donate time; benefactors donate money; Board members are expected to do both, to the reasonable limit of their means. That means cash.

Announce a quantitative target and deadline, and elucidate the specific benefits of the giving campaign. You can’t just “raise as much as you can”—that sends the message that you don’t know what you’re doing (which doesn’t help you at grant-writing time), and robs the organization (and donors) of the motivation of contributing towards a goal before a certain deadline. How will the money be used? Ideally, it will boost some aspect of the theater to a new place—better overall financial stability, renovating the facilities, providing scholarships for young patrons, or whatever—otherwise the donors will think “They’re just going to go through this money and come back asking for more next year.” (Of course, you probably are going to ask them for more later, but the point is that donations should be fortifying the organization in some way, rather than just supplementing the earned revenue of ticket sales.)

Think in thirds. In campaign after campaign, 1/3 of the total comes from the top few donors, 1/3 from the next tranche of donors about 10x the size of the first tranche, and 1/3 from everyone else. So if your donor pool is (say) 500 people and you’re trying to raise $15,000, you might expect to get about $5,000 from your top five donors at $1000 each, $5000 more from your next fifty best best donors at $100 each, and $5000 from small donations from the remaining 445 people. If you can’t identify the top few donors to fund a campaign, the campaign may be too ambitious at your current level.

Target high-profile, influential individuals who believe in your mission. 85% of all US charitable contribution each year comes from individuals, not grants or foundations. Also, while big corporations and trusts are accustomed to being asked, they are not invested in your mission the way that your best patrons and benefactors are. Within the individual-donor pool, your top 10% of donors will contribute about 90% of your funds. Those 10% are so important that approaching each individual should be considered its own mini-campaign. The best among the 10% are those who are high-profile pillars of the community who will set a visible example by giving that others will want to emulate.

Don’t confuse publicity or programming with fundraising. Indeed, don’t publicize a fundraising campaign until after you’ve secured some foundational donations to start it off. And you may not need to “publicize” it at all, or spend money on fancy collaterals, since your best prospects are already within your community: they listen to your curtain speeches, receive your emails and mailings, and so on. Also beware of putting on “fundraiser shows”: the expenses can creep up on you to where the yield is not really a “fundraiser” at all, even if the performers perform for free. (You have to staff the house, sell tickets, and incur the other fixed expenses of raising the curtain.)

Communicate face-to-face with your prospects. A fundraiser show also doesn’t allow you to get face time with your prospects. How about a cocktail party at a Board member’s house, or a similar setting that maximizes opportunities for networking?

Ask directly, and give them a number. Putting the opportunity to give in front of someone isn’t enough. You have to ask them. This can be a combination of a personal letter, personal email, phone call, face to face chat, or whatever. And when you do ask, don’t ask your best prospects to “give what they can.” Give them a suggested target. The worst that can happen is they’ll give less, and in fact they may try to stretch farther than they otherwise might have once they realize what your need is.

Give them recognition. Donors want to feel they have helped a great organization get better, ideally permanently. Send personally signed thank-you letters (not emails) immediately for any substantial donation. (The Audience1st ticketing and CRM has a neat feature to do a report of “unacknowledged donations” and then record who signed and sent each letter as they are mailed out.) One idea that has worked quite well at Altarena is “Show Sponsorship,” which allows one or more donors to partially neutralize the production costs of a show. Their names appear in the show’s program and they are verbally thanked in every curtain speech during the production, along with the theater’s “big” sponsors like the local bakeries and coffeehouses that contribute products for the concessions stand. (To his credit, current Altarena Board President Joe Mallon introduced this practice because it had worked well at Shotgun Players, where he had been involved before joining Altarena’s Board.) You can also offer your donors free tickets and other treat-them-nice perks (but not free subscriptions, in my view; if they’re supportive enough to give an amount that is large compared to the price of a subscription, they can and should be subscribing anyway).

Cultivate donors long-term. Even small donations (say, $25-50 contributed through your website) should mark someone as a possible future prospect. A good donation system will let you report on previous donations so you can up the ask: “Last year you were generous enough to donate $50. We are hoping we could count on you for a $75 gift this year.” For larger gifts, you will certainly need more than one conversation.

Evaluate the campaign so you can do better next year, according to the above guidelines.

Yes, people get uncomfortable about asking for money. But you’re not asking for money for yourself: you’re asking others to join you in supporting a good cause about which they are as passionate as you and from which you get no financial benefit (indeed, if you’re setting a good example, you yourself are already contributing time and money).

But if you don’t make the mission crystal clear, and ask directly for support of that mission, you won’t get far—probably nobody wakes up in the morning thinking “You know what I want to do today? Write a bunch of checks to causes I like.”

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Don't subscribe now! (part 1)

In two previous posts, I tried to summarize the advice in Danny Newman’s excellent and seminal arts marketing book Subscribe Now!  I’m a big believer in his approach because I’ve personally seen it work incredibly well at the Altarena Playhouse, which grew its subscriber base from about 300 (in 2005, the low to which it had shrunk from about 600 several years earlier) to over 1000 by 2012, with most of that growth in the first few seasons after we started taking subscription marketing seriously.

But Newman’s book was originally written in the 1970s and updated in the 1980s, and there is sentiment among other arts marketing specialists that subscriptions are increasingly a poor fit for modern audiences. This argument is made in the latter chapters of Joanne Scheff Bernstein’s book Arts Marketing Insights. The major points of the argument are these, most of them supported by one or more studies (though whether the theaters and audiences studied were representative of your theater and audience may vary), accompanied by my own reactions:

  1. Up-front subscription is a cost to the patron with limited benefits. In particular, most subscribers state that the guarantee of good seats is the most important reason they continue to renew, while the effective discount on the ticket price is among the least important reasons.
    My reaction: Depending on your price point and the audience you are trying to reach, this may or may not be a consideration. In the Bay Area, where I live, the cost of a subscription to a solid community theater is about the cost of two dinners out. And one decision made at Altarena was that subscribers would also be allowed to cancel and change both their subscriber reservations and their additional single-ticket purchases with no penalty (up to a grace period of, say, 24 hours before curtain), so there are some other benefits.
  2. Younger audiences in particular are accustomed to planning at the last minute and instant gratification, and are unlikely to make plans in advance. The advance commitment required by subscriptions doesn’t fit this lifestyle.
    My reaction: Your subscription doesn’t necessarily have to ask patrons to set all their show dates in advance (though obviously you can’t guarantee specific seats unless they do this). Altarena’s subscribers can choose to either specify dates at the time they subscribe or reserve for each production later on. The Audience1st ticketing system they use makes it easy to generate a list of all subscribers who have not yet reserved for a particular production, so they can get a friendly email or phone call reminder to do so.
  3. Related to the previous point: younger audiences are in fact receptive to going to live theater, as long as you offer a product that fits their lifestyle. Part of that lifestyle is last-minute decisions about what to do and spontaneous social networking with friends to form up groups for those activities, so try to offer a product that allows for that.
    My reaction: This year (2017) the blockbuster musical Hamilton came to San Francisco on its national tour. The local production company, SHN, knew it would sell out, so they promised their subscribers first dibs on tickets. I know a lot of people who subscribed just to see that show. I’m sure that at no time did SHN leadership think “You know, we should make sure not to sell so many subscriptions that Hamilton fills up, since we need to leave some seats available for single-ticket buyers who may want to see this show but don’t represent a likely source of future business for us.” (I’m sure there were such people, and they probably paid for aftermarket tickets.) If there’s an audience whose lifestyle demands great seats despite last-minute decisions to attend and unpredictable group sizes, my answer is “Sorry, no.” I’m not willing to hold back premium seats for a group of people who may or may not materialize and who, if they do come, arguably have no intention of becoming a steadier customer. 
  4. The downside of a loyal subscriber audience is that they come to expect a certain kind of programming, and may go away if you change the mix. That is, your programming becomes beholden to keeping your subscribers happy.
    My reaction: If you are following Newman’s advice and using your subscription as a way to develop your audience as well as attract them—and this includes constantly refreshing your audience with new blood—this shouldn’t be a problem. Yes, Altarena started introducing shows into its subscriptions that weren’t favorites among some older subscribers. But they had attracted enough younger subscribers to more than make up the difference, and producing those shows broadened the theater’s appeal by putting it on the map for even more younger patrons, some of whom eventually became subscribers too.
  5. Given that most people who aren’t hardcore theatergoers don’t attend live theater that much to begin with, they may be reluctant to allocate all those nights to a single theater.
    My reaction: If the theater is convenient to where you live, makes you feel at home because you know the staff and repeatedly bump into other patrons there and develop a friendship with them, and you enjoy their programming and production values, why wouldn’t you go there several nights a year, especially if they go out of their way to treat subscribers particularly well and give them extra perks? Also, many community theaters only produce four to six shows a year anyway, and attending one live performance every two to three months doesn’t seem like a huge commitment to me.
Bernstein suggests that while theaters shouldn’t abandon the subscription model, they should be prepared to rely more on nonsubscribers to fill seats. She suggests strategies for “mini” or “flex” subscriptions that don’t represent as much of a commitment as a full series, or that allow patrons to “create their own” series (although I’ve argued against this for community theaters that do just a few productions per year and are actively trying to develop their audiences). She also suggests the concept of “membership,” that is, paying an annual fee that doesn’t by itself translate to seats but gives you the right to buy tickets at a discount during the season. This seems strange since a few pages earlier she says that the discount price is an unimportant reason subscribers say they renew, but she argues that “membership” gives the patron a “sense of belonging” that may translate to greater loyalty or affinity or goodwill for the theater. (Though having read Putnam’s brilliant but bleak Bowling Alone, I’m skeptical.)

I’m not ready to make that jump. Although I haven’t run the numbers myself for theaters I’ve been directly involved with, I’m confident that the marketing cost (dollars spent per seat filled) is significantly higher for single ticket sales than subscribers. And that’s not even counting the fact that when subscribers bring their friends, even if their friends never upsell, you got free word-of-mouth advertising that turned into a sale. The dollar amounts we’re talking about for buying subscriptions are not cripplingly high as they are for, e.g., opera or symphony subscriptions, so for most people in our target audience, it’s not as if we are asking them to make a major financial decision.

I read both Bernstein’s and Newman’s books, plus the weighty tome Standing Room Only, when I first joined Altarena’s board and we set the goal of making our patron base more robust. I came to the conclusion that we should double down on Newman’s approach and focus on subscriptions. In the next post I describe how it went.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Day trips from the Bay Area

Visiting us in SF? If you have a car, here are some day and 2-day trips not far afield.

Wine country: Napa is closest (~1 hr), but Sonoma/Mendocino are more chill (1.5-2 hours). It’s getting hard to find mom-and-pop wineries there—everything is very commercialized and most places charge for tastings. That said, Mumm has interesting champagne cellars you can tour and a lovely outdoor tasting deck. Avoid weekends at all costs; it’s mobbed. We have maps of the region showing various wineries.

Santa Cruz Mountain wineries: The Santa Cruz/Monterey growing region produces lovely chardonnays and pinots (vs. the zins, merlots and cabs for which Napa/Sonoma/Mendocino are more known). And there are many more mom-and-pop operations that are more intimate and casual. Allow about 1.5 hours drive along the fast route (I-280 to CA-17 or CA-84) or 2 hours along the scenic route (CA-1 or CA-35 along the ridge). We have maps of the region showing various wineries.

Santa Cruz: Hippie/surfer town, amusement pier, and great fish restaurants. Can be a lunch stop on the way to Monterey if you drive that route. Right next door to achingly cute Capitola.

Monterey/Carmel: Its Cannery Row/Fishermans Wharf are no doubt touristy, but still lovely for oceanside dining when weather permits. The Aquarium is world class and includes indoor and outdoor exhibits emphasizing local fauna but with a good selection of exotics too. Expensive to stay here. 2 hour drive by the fast route, 2.5 to 3 by the scenic (coastal) route. Carmel is another ~30 minutes beyond that, and equally cute, though there is less to do; but plenty of good dinner options.

Big Sur: A challenge to get to right now due to the bridge and road washout; extremely remote by any standard. San Simeon/Hearst Castle is nearby but I personally find it less compelling than the crazy scenery. Allow at least 2.5 hours driving each way, plus sightseeing time.

Sausalito: No car required! Take the ferry there from the Ferry Building or Pier 39 (ask us for maps/timetables), or if adventurous, rent bicycles next to the Ferry Building, bike across the Golden Gate Bridge, and take the ferry back with your bike. A nice lunch/brunch stop, and if you have time, visit the fascinating SF Bay Model, constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate whether landfilling the entire Bay would be a good idea (no). ~20 minute ferry ride from downtown SF.

Golden Gate Bridge: The car parking plazas can be a pain, but the true experience of the bridge is obtained by walking or biking across it, which means you either park at one end or bike there (or you can Uber, or take the Golden Gate Transit bus; ask us for directions).

Yosemite: A bit ambitious for a day trip; 4.5 hours each way to the valley. Ask us for recommendations of where to stay outside the park (it can be tricky to get campground space inside the park in high season; there’s a couple of lodges including the beautiful and expensive California-Arts-and-Crafts Ahwahnee, on which Disney’s Grand Californian hotel is based, but they also fill up fast.)

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Subscribe Now! (part 2)

If you have now drunk the Kool-Aid, and have Mission-From-God fervor to build up your subscriber base, I helpfully recap some of the main points (but by no means all of them; you should read it yourself) from Danny Newman’s classic book Subscribe Now.  (If you haven’t yet drunk the Kool-Aid, read Part 1 first.)

Making the case

Your best subscriber candidates are already emotionally invested in the theater. They just need a little goading, and a little overt acknowledgment of their devotion. What are some things you can do for subscribers that cost you little but reinforce the message that they are special?
  • Free cancellations and exchanges (nonsubscribers pay a fee, or aren’t allowed to cancel/exchange). However, don’t allow them to exchange into a different production. See “Many ways to package the product” below for why.
  • Free concessions at intermission (cookies, etc.)
  • Priority access to special events/limited engagements, before tickets are made available to the general public
  • Discounts if they bring friends to the show with them
  • If you’re general admission, early entry into the house to select the best seats, or access to a roped-off “subscriber priority” section of premium seats
  • If you’re reserved seating: Far-in-advance choice of the best seats
  • Reach out to local businesses—those likely to be patronized before or after a show by theatergoers—and suggest cross-promotion. For example, Altarena Playhouse subscribers get 10% off dinner on show nights at participating local restaurants; the restaurants get subsidized ad space in the show program and on the website, and the theater gets another perk it can offer to subscribers.
Note that many of the above rely on your ticketing system being able to implement them. Audience1st supports most of these scenarios.

Exercise: visit the websites of theaters with strong subscriber bases and see what they’re offering, and how prominently the “Subscribe Now” (or “Subscribe Now & Save”) messaging is featured on their sites.

Lastly, just as with donation drives, present subscriptions as an opportunity and not as begging. “We will go under without your subscription support” is an invitation to throw good money after bad. “Get front-row access and other perks at a discount price, while supporting professional quality theater in Your Town USA” sends a very different message.

Invest in the presentation and outreach: patrons aren’t acquired for free

The subscriber brochure is worth investing in: for many prospective subscribers it’s the first and only collateral piece they’ll see, and they’ll judge the theater by it. It should be concise, attractively presented, and have a clear message: Subscribe Now!  It should come with an attractive cover letter printed on a high-quality laser printer using the theater’s (color) letterhead. This is not the place to cut corners on presentation. (Nonprofits can save some money by getting a bulk mail permit.) You can also create a “tri-fold” self-mailer on standard letter size paper, but then you can’t enclose that letter from the AD—perhaps a short note with the AD’s photo and scanned signature inside the brochure can suffice.

Focus the message on why the patron wants to subscribe. Resist the temptation to make the brochure about you; it’s about getting them in the door. (Just like precious restaurant websites that focus on “telling the history of the restaurant”, most patrons visiting the restaurant website want to know “What's on the menu, when can I dine there, and what does it cost?”) Sometimes a theater or its designer will get hung up on principles such as “great art sells itself,” or may be more invested in the “image” of the theater and the integrity of getting that image on every subscription collateral. Fuck that. You are here to sell subscriptions, so the call to action should be unambiguous and obstacle-free: Subscribe Now and Save! Patrons should be free to subscribe online with a credit card, tear off a panel of the brochure to mail with a check, or call a clearly-indicated number and get help from the box office. It shouldn’t take more than one unfolding or page turn to get to the order form, which should have a small number of unambiguously clear choices for what subscription package to order and how to pay.

Patrons aren’t acquired for free. In volume, it costs about a dollar to print and mail a brochure (exclusive of design expenses, but hopefully you can get a friend of the theater who’s good at graphic design to give you a break on that). Emails by themselves don’t work, but an email pitch that comes after the brochure mailing can work as a reminder of that brochure they stuck to the fridge with a magnet while they think about whether to subscribe.

Even a beautiful brochure won’t be read the first time by most people. Plan on doing waves of mailings—maybe once a month or once every 3 weeks during pre-season—and plan on sending more than 1 copy of the brochure per household. (As subscriptions come in, you can generate custom reports that omit people who’ve already subscribed.) A rule of thumb in marketing is that people need to hear a message seven times before they act on it. If you’re doing a combination of email and US mail, carefully schedule and time these to alternate presentations and hit each prospect multiple times.

Remember that even if you mail 4 separate paper copies and intervening emails to a patron to hook them, and maybe even call them as a followup, you’ve still spent less than $5 to acquire that customer (much less if the household buys more than 1 subscription). This is your foundation and your base, and not the time to nickel-and-dime marketing expenses. You have to spend money to make money.

The fulfillment mailing should be beautiful. Even if you’re a 100% will-call house, put something in the package that serves as a tangible token of the subscription. Include a letter signed personally by the artistic director; 1000 letters can be hand-signed in under an hour, and if given an hour and a half, each can include a one-line comment to the customer if the AD knows them personally. The letter should  first congratulate the patron on their excellent artistic taste in choosing to sign up so they can get in on the ground floor of what is sure to be a great season, and then thank them for their support, acknowledging that they’re now part of a special “inside circle” on whom the theater is so reliant, that is, they’re now part of the bedrock of the enterprise. If there are credentials that grant preferential access to seating, or serve as an identifier for discounts at local businesses, make sure you include them.

Include a copy of the brochure. Yes, they got one as part of the signup/renewal drive, but you can’t miss an opportunity to remind them what great shows are coming up this season.

Ask your current subscribers what they like, and find a way to recognize them if they refer new subscribers.

Find out who didn’t re-up from last year. Send them a personal email or letter (not form letter) and ask why. If it seems you can get them back, make them an offer they can’t refuse. The net future value of a subscriber is worth it even if you feel you’re taking a bath on the special offer.

Don’t give subscriptions away for free as a prize or thank-you. The iPod is one of the best-selling personal electronic devices ever, yet Apple has never given any away. Giving something away sends the message that it has low or no value. Instead, give away single tickets, and then offer the lucky winners the chance to upgrade to a subscription (perhaps at a discount price) by paying the difference from the face value of the ticket they got for free. But the subscription itself is valuable, so it’s never free, even to your big donors.

Set targets and track them

How many new subscribers do you want to sign up? What percent of existing subscribers do you want to renew? Does your ticketing system make it easy to check how close you are to meeting those goals? Chapter 5 of Newman’s book has a comprehensive example table summarizing possible goals of a campaign. Here’s an adapted summary of some of the possible campaign items, though not all items will be appropriate for all theaters. Importantly, each item has a target sales figure, so at the end of the campaign you can determine which ones were most effective.

Total subscriptions available to sell: 1000 (an aggressive value for this number would be the number of subscriptions needed to fill 80% of your seats for the season.)

ComponentDescriptionGoal
RenewalRenew 70% of current subscribers. Consider offering “early bird” discount if renew before “official” subscription campaign begins. (According to Joanne Scheff Bernstein’s Arts Marketing Insights, historically 50% of first-time subscribers renew, 80% of two-year subscribers renew, and 90% of longer-term subscribers renew, so 70% is not a bad balanced average.)560
Convert single-ticket buyersIdentify top 5% of single-ticket buyers from previous season(s) and upsell them to 2 subscriptions each. (Assuming ~250 single-ticket buyers last season) “We noticed you attended 3 of our shows last year. Did you know that for the same price, you could be a subscriber this season and attend all 5 shows, plus get a bunch of other benefits?”25
Renew lapsed subscribersFind top 25 people who had previously subscribed but didn’t renew last season. Re-enroll them, with personal outreach/special offer if necessary25
Referral by existing subscribersRecruit top 20 current subscribers (some of whom may also be Board  members, producers, sponsors, etc) to sell 4 subscriptions each, by pressing the flesh in any way necessary; find an appropriate incentive (VIP event, "gold" subscriber privileges at shows, etc)80
Cocktail partiesHost a “friendraiser” event and invite your best nonsubscriber patrons20
Block salesSell a block of subscriptions at a discounted rate to neighborhood organizations, civic groups, etc.20
Board referralGet 5 Board members to write personal letters to 100 friends each; expect 5% return on subscription sales25
CommissionOffer neighborhood/civic/church groups, student groups, service organizations, etc. the opportunity to sell subscriptions on commission. E.g. allow seller to keep 15-20% of subscription price. 100
Student discountAdvertise through music/theater teachers in local high schools and colleges to sell deeply discounted student subscriptions. (Be sure to state that ID will be checked, to prevent misuse of this by the unscrupulous few.)20
Direct mail phase 1Email to entire patron list (assume 2000 names, 0.5% yield)10
Direct mail phase 2Season brochures mailed to direct mailing list (2000 names, 2% yield)40
Direct mail phase 3Email reminder followup to everyone who hasn’t responded in phases 1 or 2 (1% yield)20
Single ticket upsellDuring curtain speech of first production of season, offer single ticket buyers the option to upgrade to a subscription by paying the difference—have forms ready to fill out with space for credit card info or allow payment at box office. 50

Many ways to package the product

Initially it may be important to offer a “subscriber product” (something that makes you part of the “subscriber family”) at various price points. For example, you could offer subscriptions valid only during previews or only at matinees, etc. These folks still get the same benefits subscribers get, but can only attend certain performances. (But keep it simple; experience suggests patrons can be overwhelmed by too many choices.)

However, don’t provide “subscriptions” that are so flexible they allow all the subscription vouchers to be used for one production. That’s not a subscription; that’s a discount. A subscription also develops the patron’s taste and knowledge of theater, provides a solid base of sold seats even for more daring productions, and gives both the patron and the theater a sense of continuity as they see each other regularly several times each season. A “flex subscription” that allows using all of the vouchers for one show does none of these.

Note that many of these campaign strategies require support from your customer relationship management software. For example, identifying your “best prospects” from among current nonsubscribers means you have to be able to mine the data to find repeat visitors; emailing or generating mailing labels for your entire patron list can either be a 1-click operation or a nightmare; and so on. Use software that helps you develop the audience base.

Regarding student subscriptions: Newman strongly recommends these over “student rush” lotteries (and I agree) bceause subscriptions make students first-class customers, and gets them accustomed to paying to support the arts. “Rush” is a cattle call that pits them against each other to compete for a limited number of cheap seats. The messaging is very different. If you message to students through local arts teachers, send the message that you want to include them as first-class citizens in your theatrical community, rather than the message that you are throwing them a bone because they have less disposable income than adults.

In the final post of this set, I describe how the above goals were addressed by the redesign of our brochure (just one element of the subscription campaign, but in Newman’s view, an important one worth spending time on).

Monday, June 12, 2017

Subscribe Now! (part 1)

Subscribe now!

Several years ago when Altarena Playhouse was looking to shore up the theater’s operations and rejuvenate its subscriber base, I read Danny Newman’s classic book Subscribe Now! Mr. Newman is on a mission from God to get more theaters to be able to rely more heavily on their subscribers for both revenue and seat-filling/word-of-mouth. A few aspects of the book are dated (first edition was 1977) but I’ve tried to summarize the most valuable bits of advice here so you don’t have to read the whole thing (though its writing style is fun to read).

The premise is simple: there are two kinds of theater patrons—subscribers and everyone else.
  • Subscribers have shown their faith in the theater by paying in advance for shows they may not even have heard of. They like to feel like they made the right choice by supporting you.
  • They give you a cash injection that helps finance your season. 
  • They will be guaranteed to fill a certain percentage of seats, and will often bring friends.
  • Because they’ve prepaid to attend every production (not just cherry-pick the ones they’ve heard of), they will over time become more appreciative and discriminating theatergoers, and will feel even more invested as “inner circle” patrons.
  • As they spend more time at the theater they will also become familiar with your economic situation, and will be ready to cultivate as donors.

In short, subscribers are angels, and single-ticket buyers are fickle and faithless. You must do everything you can to upsell the latter to the former.

Mythbusting subscription campaigns

  • Myth: You shouldn’t sell too many subscriptions—you’ll anger single-ticket buyers when they can’t get tickets.
    Reality: In 2017, SHN SF sold a ton of subscriptions by making clear that Hamilton tickets would be given to subscribers first. It worked.
  • Myth: Subscribers cost us money because the amount they’re paying per show is much less than face value of a single ticket.
    Reality: Many nonsubscriber seats go unsold, giving you zero revenue. The real number you care about is revenue per seat after the season is over, because once the curtain goes up, any empty seats have zero value. A good rule of thumb is “If you don’t sell it on subscription, you probably won’t sell it at all.”
  • Myth: If single-ticket buyers can’t get seats because subscribers have them all, they’ll eventually stop trying to even come to your shows.
    Reality: This only matters when a blockbuster show draws out people who wouldn’t usually come, and sometimes not even then; and if it does happen then, see above re Hamilton.
  • Myth: Subscribers won’t sign up if they don’t know every show in the season, and/or we’re beholden to them to do particular kinds of programming.
    Reality: Subscribers don’t think in terms of hits and flops but rather good and bad seasons. If the season overall was good, they’ll forgive one or two shows whose material they didn’t like. And remember most people already don’t like your work.
  • Myth: If we have lots of publicity/visibility, we don’t need to rely as heavily on subscribers.
    Reality: No amount of bumper stickers on cars with the theater's logo, or placement/advertising at public events, translates directly to butts in seats. Subscriptions do. Publicity is only useful if accompanied by aggressive follow-up. The message and visibility on its own will not cause tickets to be sold.
  • Myth: There’s too much competition for the same eyeballs because there’s so many theaters close to ours.
    Reality: SF Playhouse sells a staggering number of subscriptions each year and it is smack in the middle of San Francisco’s theater district, within footsteps of the nationally-ranked American Conservatory Theater and a stone’s throw from large houses that stage touring Broadway productions. But they offer a different product than those other theaters.
  • Myth: Even if we don’t have enough subscribers we can always fill seats by offering discounts if the house isn’t well sold.
    Reality: this is a path to becoming overly reliant on discount-ticketing channels, and in addition, many studies have found that this strategy attracts people who want things for cheap, rather than people who are interested in theater and likely to be repeat customers. I’ve written some other thoughts about avoiding discount channels that target the wrong audience.
Convinced? In the next post I summarize some of Newman’s time-tested concrete strategies for executing a good campaign.