Revenue / 08.03.22
JCA’s Alexander Subscribes to the Idea That Subscription Packages Are Ever-Changing
The world is changing, and so are ticket subscription packages. Most, if not all, efforts to reinvent and restore subscriptions to the levels they were 20-plus years ago have come up short. Sure, a guaranteed audience for an entire season of productions would still be nice for most venues. But that’s not where most patrons’ mindsets are now, particularly post-pandemic.
Jamie Alexander, Director at JCA Arts Marketing, knows this full well. Her job has given her a vantage point to the changing tastes of the paying public. She says, “The biggest behavioral change that we’ve witnessed following the pandemic shutdown, at least amongst performing arts organizations, is a decrease of attendance on either end of the audience engagement spectrum. On one end, we’ve seen a reluctance to commit to subscription packages.”
She and her colleagues recently completed a study of 15 major performing arts organizations of varying genres across the U.S. They found that subscription ticket sales were down by 32% in the 2021-22 season relative to the 2018-19 season, the last full season before the pandemic. She reasons that there are several contributors to this, “among them older audiences aging out or becoming reluctant to return while COVD is still active. But we think there is a fundamental shift in how patrons consume the arts. There is more competition for ‘free time’ than ever before, the looming threat of a recession, a general mentality of instant gratification, and uncertainty about the future in a warming world. All of this make subscriptions — where you pay upfront for a series of events that happen sometimes 1.5 years in the future — less appealing.”
At the same time, on the other end of the audience engagement spectrum, the market has seen a decrease in so-called “fringe” buyers — i.e., those who are hesitant about live attendance, but a discount pushes them over the edge. “In the same study, we see a decrease of 21% in the sales of discount tickets,” Alexander says. “This is not because organizations are not offering discounts. We believe it’s because audiences are a bit more risk adverse than pre-pandemic and not willing to invest time and potentially COVID risk on something they are on the fence about.”
Such trending data doesn’t have Alexander down. On the contrary, she says venues should see subscription declines more as an opportunity than a threat, explaining, “Just because behaviors are changing doesn’t mean they have to be changing for the worse for arts organizations. The decline of subscription doesn’t have to mean the decline of performing arts institutions. Yes, subscription model is very helpful in that it guarantees money and audience as an organization plans a season. But it also has its downsides. It binds you to specific run lengths and repertoire that appeals to a specific set of audience. It can create an equity and inclusion problem as it caters to those who can pay large sums of money and plan ahead. We have an extraordinary opportunity to imagine and build a better model.”
She says, “The secondary point is that the answer to declining subscriptions is not a quick fix. You have to engage your full organization, leverage your creativity and do your research to arrive at the right answer. Central to this point is research! Performing arts organizations historically spend a very small percentage of their operating budget on consumer research — we estimate it at less than 0.6% of annual marketing budgets — much less than many for-profit B2C companies. But doing research upfront to understand your patrons’ lifestyles, interests and willingness to pay will land you with a solution that is much more likely to succeed than a stab in the dark.”
Alexander says this is why JCA Arts Marketing has been so focused on research projects (both CRM data analyses and primary research) to help organizations get their offerings right from the start. The team that Alexander leads focuses on helping arts and cultural organizations grow revenue, attendance and audience engagement via data-driven insights.
Alexander worked as a marketer for The Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and the University of Chicago before joining JCA.
One of the research methodologies that she and her team are particularly keen on when addressing the issue of loyalty packages is conjoint analysis. Conjoint analysis is a survey-based statistical tool used to predict consumer behavior. It uses decision modeling to understand the trade-offs people make when purchasing an artistic experience, and places value on various aspects of purchase — such as seat location, prices, package benefits and so forth.
“As a result, we’re able to model how many tickets would be sold and resulting revenue for a variety of scenarios,” Alexander says. “Using this data, we can build audience engagement programs that will leverage audience interests and motivations to move an organization toward its goals.”
Appealing more to younger patrons is also important. After all, they are the future of events and attendance. But their buying patterns are often quite different from their parents and grandparents . . . heck, even their older siblings.
Alexander says, “Programming is everything. In order to engage younger patrons you need programs that interest them. How do you know what interests them? You guessed it, research! Beyond that, we’ve learned from past work that engagement packages for younger audiences that are accessible, create community and create a habit are most successful. At Steppenwolf Theatre Company, we launched the RED card — after various iterations of research on this population — which gave people under 30 six tickets for $100 to use however they liked. The program was a hit and become a national model as a successful alternative to subscriptions for young people. The reasons were because it was appropriately priced and incredibly easy. It also created community and a social aspect, as people could use the tickets to bring their friends and we’d host ‘RED Nights’ at the theatre. And finally, it created a habit in that people could refill their RED cards whenever they wanted.”
Moving forward, Alexander was asked, “Can subscription packages be reinvented —essentially ‘repackaged’ — to better cater to the needs of the changing customer?” She called this the “million dollar question” and acknowledged, “I would be remiss if I gave a concrete answer. We suspect that organizations need to place more focus on acquisition and retention of single ticket buyers and create specific ticket offers or experience packages based on sophisticated audience segmentations. But we firmly believe that one size doesn’t fit all and that suspicions are not truth! We highly encourage organizations to do their research to understand their unique audiences and create repackaged experience of their unique organizations that works within their business models. We recommend avoiding cookie-cutter programs, as cookie-cutter arts organizations will not foster a rich cultural tapestry in the U.S.”
She says, “We believe that an emphasis on creating and curating memorable, social experiences will be part of the next level for subscription and audience engagement. People are craving socialization and connection after the pandemic and are seeking experiences that are worth leaving their homes for. Sitting in a dark theatre where you can’t talk to your buddies often runs counter to that idea. So, it’s in theatrical organizations’ best interest to create an experience that you feel you are sharing with people.”
JCA’s study on audience behavior in 2021-22 will be released in mid-August. Click here to join the firm’s email list if you’d like to be among the first to receive it.
You May Also Like
Want news like this delivered to your inbox weekly? Subscribe to the Access Weekly newsletter, your ticket to industry excellence.
Tags: Revenue , Marketing