How to Build a Successful Long-Distance Relationship… with Your Patrons

Today’s blog post is written by Shasti Walsh, Associate Product Manager, PatronManager.

Long-distance relationships are tricky. Believe me; I travel full-time, I know. On the other hand, they have some unexpected benefits — for example, you’re less likely to take someone for granted when you rarely see them, and the distance presents an opportunity to develop great communication skills. There’s no denying that it takes some extra effort, though. You don’t want to be clingy and email/call/text all the time, but you do want to maintain a connection, and continue to grow your relationship.

Sound familiar? Even if you haven’t been in a long-distance relationship with a romantic partner, it should because it’s not unlike an arts organization’s relationship with its patrons. You don’t see them often (and when you do, it’s brief and intense); it can be difficult to know how (and how often) to best communicate with them; and you might not know how well the relationship is going until they give you a sign (ideally they donate or subscribe, but more often they just disappear).

With that in mind, I spent some time scouring the internet and reflecting upon my own experience to come up with some helpful tips for building strong, successful long-distance relationships. I focused on ones that will translate to the kinds of relationships we’re discussing here, so don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to “talk dirty” to your patrons, I promise.

Make the most of your in-person face time.

You don’t see your patrons that often, so how can you make each interaction as memorable as possible? Human beings have greater emotional connections to voices and faces than text, so face-to-face contact (or a phone call) will always be stronger than an e-mail. So what action items can you take now that will help you the next time you find yourself in the company of a patron?

I suggest coming up with a strategy for how you interact with patrons and share it with your whole staff; a set of “patron guidelines” if you will. And by guidelines, I do mean just that; you want to make sure your interactions feel authentic, so don’t try and script out exactly what your staff should say. Obviously, if you are interacting with a patron in front of a computer (i.e., in a box office), a CRM system like PatronManager can come in real handy with being able to pull up their entire history with your organization. Ask them their thoughts on the last show they saw, or if they’re newer to your organization, ask how they found out about you. Personalize the interaction, and make them feel like more than just another face in the crowd.

Additionally, encourage your front of house staff to go the extra mile by giving them the resources and freedom (a drink voucher, a seat upgrade) to make a patron’s day. For example, if a patron rushes in right before showtime looking flustered, wouldn’t it be a nice surprise if the usher at the door said “I know traffic is terrible, have a drink or snack at intermission on us!” and handed them a voucher as they went in? Showing your patrons that you care about their experience is a great step toward building that stronger relationship.

Communicate regularly (but don’t overdo it), and have a healthy mix of formal and informal modes.

Don’t overwhelm your patrons with generic mass emails, but do keep them informed. Make them feel like they’re part of your insider group — a monthly or semi-monthly newsletter is great for giving that community feel. For any communications outside of a regular newsletter, make sure your messages are targeted for the specific patron or group of patrons you are sending them to. It makes patrons feel like you really know them, and are thinking of them when they receive a show suggestion or a notification that their usual seats have become available. Additionally, when it makes sense, get on the phone and call your patrons! Calling in the age of texting already feels quite formal, so feel free to reserve this for special occasions (i.e., thanking a patron for their monetary gift, etc.)

Alongside more formal communications, you can humanize your organization and communicate en mass via less formal channels. Social media is great for this. A tweet or an Instagram post of something casual and behind the scenes (assembling your annual brochure, building a set, rehearsing a show, etc.) can help your patrons maintain interest and engagement. Sharing little bits of your organization’s everyday life is a great way to keep that connection over “the distance.”

Remember that communication goes both ways.

We put a lot of emphasis on the communication we make outwardly toward our patrons, but it can be difficult to make sure we’re listening to them in return. Often the only responses we track are their donations or ticket purchases, which is a start but doesn’t give them a real voice in the communication process. I know it’s not realistic to sit down for coffee with everyone who comes to your venue, but enabling even small conversations here and there can go a long way.

To start, when you send out your newsletter, consider including a section that invites folks to give their feedback. Or better yet, send out targeted surveys once a season ends, or after each show a patron attends. You could ask for input on the show itself, but also on a variety of other things having to do with their experience (will-call process, bar service, seating, etc.) Any solicitation you do send out should be genuine of course, which means taking the good comments with the bad.

In my mind, asking for feedback serves two purposes: it can give you valuable insight and data, and it gives your patrons an opportunity to contribute (which can in turn increase their commitment and investment in your organization’s success). It’s a simple thing to implement, and your patrons will likely be surprised and even flattered that you’d ask their opinion. And if you do end up using patron suggestions (which you should absolutely do), make sure to tell your patrons “thank you!” They will love to know that their voice actually made a difference, and it will likely lead to further engagement.

It might take a little more commitment and planning, but long-distance relationships can be surprisingly strong and lasting. And isn’t that exactly what we want from our patrons; strong, lasting, healthy relationships that will continue to grow with us?

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