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).
A number of years ago when the reconstituted board of

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are disabled because the only commenters are spammers, despite Google's best efforts. But I welcome actual comments: Google my name and you can easily direct an email to me, and I'll publish your comment here.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.