I Don’t Subscribe to This Thinking

© xavier gallego morel - Fotolia.com
Sometimes I scratch my head when I read articles that seem to miss the point entirely. Here’s a well-written article about the decline of orchestra subscriptions published in The New York Times. It starts by offering hard data about the decline of subscriptions and goes on to quote Debora Borda (CEO of the LA Philharmonic) saying that subscriptions will eventually die out completely. And then the article makes a left turn and talks all about the problems with programming, as if programming will solve the subscription problem.

We know why arts organizations love subscriptions, and the point is made well here. It’s much more cost effective to market a bundle of concerts rather than sell them one-by-one. And you get the money upfront. And you have predictability as to the size of the house, well in advance. There’s lots of business-focused reasons why to try to stem the tide.

But I want to ask the obvious question: where is the audience in all this?  Where’s the research? Where are the focus groups? Perhaps the best place to start would be by asking the audience what benefits they really value from subscriptions, and build a marketing program around that. If people aren’t buying your subscription program, then start by asking what will make them buy. Of course the elephant in the room is that if you are running at 98% capacity, you can scare people into buying any subscription — “book now, or you won’t get in.” But that’s fear-based marketing.

Let’s hear from one audience member about the value of subscriptions: me. I am not a traditional subscription buyer because my schedule is too unpredictable. This should sound familiar to marketers. But what would get me to buy a subscription is a combination of ease of exchanges, VIP treatment either online or on phone (think VIP Zappos), price incentives, and the ability to store credit.

If I could buy three or four concerts or plays at once, at a reduced price, pick my seats and then know that if I had to change in the future, I could either go online or call and get those tickets swapped for another performance (and I don’t mean going to the box office and returning the tickets by hand – I mean painless and quick exchanges),  AND (here’s the kicker) if I didn’t end up going at all, the value of unused tickets would be applied to next season. Now that’s a program I’d buy into! And if I could be made to feel really special to boot, now we’re talking.

This is all about me. How we start is by talking with our audience members to find out what THEY want. Maybe they are like me, or maybe they have other needs. But if you make it all about them, you may crack this vexing problem.

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