By Lindsay Anderson, VP of Client Development
Imagine walking down the street and only thinking about each next step in front of you without even looking up or looking around. You continue this pattern without any sense of where you were coming from and where you’d like to go. As you take each step, you just hope that by continuing this pattern you will eventually get to where you want to go. Sounds ridiculous, right? It is - but all too often, venues and producers repeat this exact same behavior when it comes to building loyal audiences. They focus too much on the income chase and bums in seats for each individual show rather than building a long-lasting relationship with the audiences who attend. This is as much in the interest of producers as venues: would you want to tour to a venue with a large, loyal core audience or to a venue that needs to spend more money to generate a new audience for every show?
Putting audiences at the center of everything we do means we’re charting a course for the future. It means we’re looking beyond “the next show” and thinking about the steps to take to build a more sustainable and resilient organization. As leaders, your job is to chart that course and have a plan for where you want to go and how to get there. What if there’s no immediate financial benefit to selling additional tickets? You must do it anyway! Every person who walks through your venue doors has the potential for a long-term relationship with your organization. To get there, it requires venues and producers to behave differently and make data-informed decisions.
So how do we get there? TRG Arts recently surveyed more than 2,000 international arts leaders and learned that 86% of organizations are using annual surveys (at least), but only 15% are acting on the responses received. In order to make decisions about where you need to go, you must listen to consumer data—it’s your canary in the coal mine. Do you really know who your patrons are and who they aren’t? Are you focused on metrics that matter? What shows inspired audiences to attend and why do some never return?
Consumer feedback paired with analysis of buying behavior helps inform the actions organizations need to take. Not everyone fully embraces data, and some may be completely overwhelmed by the amount of data available. Today’s leader must examine what’s working and what could be working better at their organization, and data is an objective way to do that.
You most likely know what genres or events are attracting the highest number of new buyers. Do you know which genres create “sticky” buyers who keep coming back and which genres have high numbers of buyers who never come back? In the name of creating long-term relationships with your patrons, would your organization make changes to what you put on stage if that’s what your data was telling you to do?
TRG Arts works with arts and culture organizations across the UK and North America who are asking questions about how they can impact loyalty, and the role programming may play in that. TRG has analyzed programming and ticket transactions data together to better understand how various genres effect loyalty. We’ve examined what types of genres have the best crossover to inform future invitations and encourage repeat attendance, and we’ve assessed what types of shows the most and least loyal audience members are attending.
Like many arts organizations, Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre believed they had a large and loyal Panto audience. This view was challenged by a 5-year study of patron buying behavior and programming. Panto was the most fruitful genre for building new audiences, but they also learned the attrition rate is equal to the rate of acquisition, therefore year-over-year the Theatre must replace the same number of households it lost. While often a challenge to fill houses, a significant proportion of patrons that engaged with New Wolsey’s ‘Fringe’ programming swiftly became genuine loyalists, delivering significantly higher annual revenue and lifetime value.
Awareness around these data points helped New Wolsey Theatre debunk some of the stories they thought we true, and instead armed them with information to make decisions about investments in future programming, and where to implement robust retention efforts to mitigate the loss of its audiences. It moved the organization to action which resulted in an improvement in retention of first-time bookers from 1 in 12 to 1 in 6. That’s the power data can have.
As you meet with your colleagues this summer, I’d challenge you to engage in conversations that address immediate needs and lay the groundwork for longer term plans. Savvy leaders understand their environment by listening, making data-driven decisions, and ultimately motivating action that gets results. What’s your next step?
This article was originally published in the UK Theatre blog on Monday, June 10, 2019.