Monday, July 17, 2017

Don't subscribe now! (part 2)

In previous posts I’ve summarized advice from many arts marketing books I read when I joined the Board of Directors of Altarena Playhouse. In particular, when I joined our subscriber base was down to less than half its historic high, and we were trying to determine whether to revitalize it (as Danny Newman urgently exhorts) or whether the subscription model had run out of gas for modern audiences (as Joanne Scheff Bernstein has argued).

In the end, we decided to double down on Newman’s model and rebuild our subscriber base. We were fully aware that this would require an actual subscription campaign—previously the theater had simply relied on locals to subscribe to support the cause, and relied on subscribers to keep renewing ad infinitum. Newman warns theaters not to take either of those factors for granted.

Consistent with Newman’s advice, the “main instrument of our campaign” would be a concise but appealing brochure with multiple calls to action to Subscribe Now!  We put a great deal of effort into working with an excellent graphic designer (who was part of our theater community, and donated much of his time) to create this excellent brochure. Although we did several back-and-forth revisions to get the right balance of clarity, elegance, and call-to-action, the work has been repaid manyfold since we were able to re-use essentially the same design every year, and it became part of the brand. The trick was to make the brochure so good that we were proud, even eager, to hand them out wherever possible. I carried a handful with me to work every day. We distributed them to other theaters, local businesses, libraries, senior centers, civic groups, churches. We budgeted for multiple mailings, including one that put the brochure in an envelope with a letter personally signed by the Artistic Director and a followup (if needed) of the “bare” brochure (we designed it to be a tri-fold self-mailer that could be mailed with the theater’s existing nonprofit bulk mail permit).

We went door-to-door aggressively signing up local restaurants to offer subscribers a dinner discount on show nights. Most restaurants were very receptive to the idea of mutual support between local businesses, and one of them, C’era Una Volta, even started featuring an “Altarena Special” on their printed menu—“a delicious combination served quickly to get you to the theater on time.” Brilliant.

A married couple who were longtime patrons and supporters had also recently gotten into the winemaking business. We worked out a mutually beneficial relationship with them wherein they became the exclusive wine suppliers to the theater (for at least a couple of seasons), therefore getting quite prominent visibility at the concessions stand, and they agreed to give subscribers a discount on case or half-case purchases. A booze discount—now there was a subscription perk I could get behind.

In addition to subscription campaign planning along the lines Newman suggests, we had many other discussions leading to policies that would make life especially pleasant for our subscribers. Although Altarena is general seating, subscribers get to enter the theater first, so they get first choice of seats. They can change or cancel up to 8 hours before curtain at no cost, and that includes additional revenue tickets that they’ve bought for friends or purchased for shows not included in the subscription. When they do buy tickets for friends, they get a 10-15% discount on those. They get a warm shout-out during every curtain speech.

Speaking of the curtain speech, I’m amazed how many theaters underutilize it. During at least the last production of the current season and the first production of the upcoming season, a main goal of the curtain speech is to plug subscriptions. The house manager always reminds the patrons that next time they could be the ones getting first pick of seats, as well as getting dinner discounts at nearby restaurants, etc. In other words, she makes them want to be one the cool kids. (By the way, this should make it clear that the curtain speech is a performance, even if only a 2-minute one. Choose carefully who gives it.) All throughout the first production of the new season, we offer single-ticket buyers the chance to “upgrade” to a subscription by simply paying the difference. We have forms ready in the lobby at intermission where they can fill in their credit card number or leave cash or a check; a box office agent processes them during Act II and by the end of the evening we can hand them their subscriber fulfillment package.

The bottom line is that the battle for subscriptions is never over—we were always on the lookout for new perks we could offer. If we got a limited-engagement performer to do a cabaret or one-man show, subscribers would get dibs. If we had a sellout show, we’d hold back some seats from online sale to release to subscribers only, or we’d let subscribers make their reservations before opening up general sales. If we added a production or workshop not in the regular season, subscribers got a discount. Even with these efforts, the dollar yield of subscribers remains much higher, and they gave Altarena a solid base from which to solicit donations and, later, show sponsorships and capital campaigns.

You can read more about our successful campaign, and how the design of the brochure following Newman’s advice contributed to that success, in another post.

I’m still with Danny Newman. Subscribe Now!

Monday, July 3, 2017

Subscribe Now! (Part 3: a successful campaign brochure)

In two previous  posts I heaped praise on all the benefits of having a solid subscriber base, and the importance of investing in a campaign with goals, milestones, and a set schedule to build up that base. At Altarena in around 2007 we set out to thoroughly revamp the campaign, as our subscriber base had shrunk from a high of nearly 700 to just over 300 from lack of stewardship.

We followed closely the advice in Danny Newman’s Subscribe Now! that “the main instrument of your campaign is the brochure.” Working with the great folks at Cairdea Marketing and Design, we came up with a new logo for the theater and a look-and-feel for the brochure that has been reused with only minor changes ever since.

As an example below are the exterior and interior views of the 2012 subscription campaign 8.5”x11” tri-fold. (These are copyright 2012 by Cairdea Design, and used here with permission of the Board of Alameda Little Theatre Inc. d/b/a Altarena Playhouse.) It took many iterations working with our designer to come up with this, but I think it does a good job of capturing a lot of the advice in Danny Newman’s book Subscribe Now!

To wit, looking first at the exterior:



  • The front panel is simple and welcoming: prominent placement of the brand logo and the logos for the shows in the upcoming season, and the first of several placements of the call to action Subscribe and Save.
  • The back panel lists, in what we have found to be order of importance based on patron surveys, the benefits of subscribing. This is the second call to action.
  • The middle panel includes the theater’s nonprofit mailing permit, giving us the flexibility to stick address labels on and do a direct bulk-mailing or to put it in an envelope (since the trifold is a standard letter-size paper, it fits in a regular business envelope, and we had envelopes printed up with the theater logo embossed on them.
Turning to the interior, where most of the content is:


  • The content is brief and direct, and speaks to what the patron wants to know rather than what we want to say about each production: run dates, why it’s exciting (awards it won, etc.), genre (comedy vs. drama, play vs. musical), the audiences for which each production is appropriate (this information is important to our demographic; it may or may not be to yours), and description that’s short enough to get everything into 2 panels—we want them to subscribe, not read a novel. It’s not hard to write the copy by consulting Wikipedia, finding critics’ reviews from major productions of the shows, and so on. As I recall I wrote the copy up until 2012 and I have no PR or communications background whatsoever. At this point in the sales cycle we typically know who the creative team will be for some but not at all shows, so for consistency we usually don’t put that information in this preseason mailing at all.
  • The third call to action is the tear-off response panel (the other side of which is the list of subscriber benefits). There are only two subscription choices, to keep it simple. Once we start the season there will be upgrade possibilities, flex subscriptions, and a separate outreach campaign with a different mailing for deeply-discount student subscriptions, but at this point, the call must be crystal clear and the required action obvious: Subscribe Now.
  • Three easy ways to subscribe highlights the patron’s convenience. The online option is backed by Audience1st
  • There’s a convenient way to add a donation along with the order; there’s a secondary call to action that tries not to overpower the main message of Subscribe Now. This is the one place we arguably deviate from Newman’s “single message” guidelines.
  • There’s an opt-in for our email list. For new subscribers who choose to subscribe by mail rather than online, this saves us (and them) a step.
It’s worth pointing out that we began with an eight-panel (4 front, 4 back) design that could fit on legal size paper. Even though the printing and mailing costs would have been about the same, we found that it was too cluttered and busy, and we were able to remove many elements while keeping the essentials above. To paraphrase Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry, the perfect brochure has been achieved not when nothing further can be added, but when nothing further can be taken out.

We ordered a ton of them—more than we needed, because there was a big price break at around 1,000 pieces, when they switch from laser to offset printing. The result is we were able to stock them generously, distribute them to local businesses and other theaters, take handfuls of them to social events, send them to senior centers and student groups, and more. In the next post I’ll show off some of the supplementary campaign materials.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Box office, get thee a Chromebook

Recently I was helping out a local theater with their box office setup, adding a magnetic stripe reader for credit card processing to their Audience1st setup.

Even though these devices are designed to emulate USB keyboards (which should “just work”), as soon as I plugged in the device, Windows became mightily confused. After a series of dialog boxes where I persuaded Windows there was no need to search the known universe for a specialized device driver, it seemed to work fine.

But when we rebooted the machine, it hung and wouldn’t boot properly. Now we’re in for a who-knows-how-long-or-what-will-happen “Windows repair,” even though all we did was plug in a standard device that had worked fine on other (mostly non-Windows) machines it had been used with. As usual, with Windows “plug and play” becomes “plug and pray.”

If I were outfitting this box office from scratch, there’d be no need for these headaches. Most box office and front-of-house software, including Audience1st, is now 100% Web-based. So here’s my shopping list for Amazon.com (prices as of July 2017):

So for under $125—even less, if you can repurpose a keyboard/mouse/monitor from a previous setup—you can be free of Windows hassles at the box office forever. No malware or viruses to worry about, no backing up of your customer data (it’s all in the cloud anyway), and if you need to print receipts at the box office, the latest Chrome OS prints natively to most Wifi-enabled printers, and Google Cloud Print handles most of the rest.

So there we are. If you’ll excuse me I’m heading over to Amazon to outfit this theater and suggest they donate their Windows laptop to a theater where the box office has ample time to deal with Windows’ temperamental and completely unnecessary vagaries.