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!

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