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.

Never 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.

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