Case Study: Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Case Study: Chicago Symphony Orchestra

71% New Subscription Net Revenue Increase

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The Scenario:

Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) had a strong subscription program overall. “The CSO has a very loyal subscriber base—once we bring them into the fold, they stay with us,” Kate Hagen, Marketing Manager, Patron Retention, said. Hagen and her colleagues had created a comprehensive program which had successfully retained both long-term subscribers and those in their first few years at rates well above industry averages.

For example, the CSO created the Surprise and Delight program for first year subscribers, which involved surprising them at their seats with a personal “thank you” from a staff member and a small gift like a CD or drink coupon. In 2011–12, 65% of first time subscribers renewed. (TRG finds that this group typically renews at just 50%.)

Since the economic crisis in 2008, the Orchestra had seen a downturn in subscriber acquisition for the Main Series, which was the principal classical series. Renewals had been stable even through 2008 thanks to CSO’s industry-best retention efforts, but by the end of 2011 the Orchestra still needed to turn the tide on subscriber acquisition.

For years CSO had used TRG Arts for database services, including response reports for various campaigns. In the autumn of 2011, CSO engaged TRG for one-day sprint workshop to aid them in planning the subscriber acquisition campaign for the 2012–13 season. CSO’s goals included increasing response rate and making their overall subscription revenue goal, which they hadn’t hit since the 2008–09 season.


CSO’s net subscription revenue (subscription revenue minus campaign expenses) from new Main Series subscribers increased by 71%. The campaign was far more efficient:

  • Chicago Symphony Orchestra saw a 71% new subscription net revenue increaseCSO reduced the total pieces mailed by nearly 30%, but increased responders by over 55%. The overall response rate doubled over the previous year.
  • The overall ROI of the campaign increased by 83% to 204%, while the cost of sale decreased by 30%.

And, for the first time since the 2008–09 season, CSO hit their overall subscription revenue goal.

In her own Words:

Kate Hagen and the CSO marketing team took TRG’s data analysis and customized recommendations and made them their own.

TRG asked a lot of good questions when we said, ‘We want to think about acquisitions differently, because it’s not working.’ Keri and her team’s ideas brought about new thinking about our audiences and opportunities we could be capitalizing on. They proposed a plan, which we then embraced. Having people there to step back and see the big picture, to ask questions and challenge institutional assumptions was enormously helpful, and probably the biggest value we got from TRG.

Kate described some of the specific strategies that contributed to the campaign’s success:

Timing is (almost) everything

We launched a month earlier than we had the last two seasons, simultaneously with our renewal campaign. The more time you have to sell, the more you’ll sell!

Customized messaging

We increased the number of groups to which we customized messaging. In the past we had only targeted one-year lapsed subscribers and current multi-buyers. We still targeted those groups this time, but we enhanced the messaging they received. We also went deeper in lapsed subs and for the first time, specifically targeted our Create-Your-Own (CYO) buyers for an upgrade to fixed-seat packages.

We didn’t
just send a brochure. Those targeted groups got packets with special messaging—and all materials in this packet were coordinated. Plus, the email and telemarketing offers were aligned with the messaging in the packet. We also tested messages on brochures, so we could see what was working and what wasn’t.

Chicago Symphony OrchestraWhich offers worked

As far as the offers that worked, the introduction of fee-free exchanges for all full series subscribers was huge—especially when paired with the savings for subscribing. That discount was one of the things that mattered to people, in addition to seeing great concerts. Offers did well when they directly related to what the segments would like/value. For example, the “enter to win box seats for Tristan and Isolde” offer was most successful for trade lists with the opera.

Just keep tracking

I’m fanatical about metrics. When it comes to subscriptions, I track sales day-to-day compared to the last 5 years and against our goal. When I have a projected response rate on a specific group of patrons, I monitor that regularly to see if I need to give that group an extra push like an email, postcard or telemarketing call.

In tracking this campaign, I found our biggest opportunity with the CYO buyers. At the CSO, we treat our CYOs as a multi-single ticket package, rather than as a full subscription. They receive a lesser discount and fewer benefits than fixed-seat packages. We do this because we know from our data that full Main Series subscribers are more likely to renew each year and to become sustaining donors after five to seven years. So we went to the CYO buyers and said, ‘Hey, you’re not getting the best discount, and you could get all these great benefits like fee-free exchanges, too.’ It was the first time we’d actually singled them out to ask for an upgrade as opposed to just sending a brochure—that was a TRG recommendation. We only expected a 1% response in first round of mailings, and got 2.56%. So, we went back to them more aggressively in next round of mail and telemarketing.

Running TRG’s response and conversion reports after campaigns is another thing that helped us measure success. I spend time everyday looking at data in a granular way to drive marketing activity. Knowing that TRG is there looking at the same data from more of a distance to give additional perspective to our campaign is a constant help.

About CSO:

Founded in 1891, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is consistently hailed as one of the greatest orchestras in the world. In collaboration with renowned conductors and guest artists on the international music scene, the CSO performs well over 150 concerts each year at its downtown home, Symphony Center and at the Ravinia Festival on Chicago’s North Shore. Music lovers outside Chicago enjoy the sounds of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra through its radio broadcast series, best-selling recordings and frequent sold-out tour performances in the United States and around the globe.

Posted April 28, 2013

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