If You Build It, They Will Come: Activating the Next Generation of Supporters
Today’s blog post is written by Jason Silverman, Sales Development Representative, PatronManager.
Recently, while on vacation, I came across an article in American Theatre magazine that really struck me. Titled “The Turnover Recipe: Add New Voices and Audiences, Stir,” it addresses the massive sea change that’s taking place in arts organizations across the country. This specific passage really grabbed my attention: “Much of the subscription audience that has till now sustained the American theatre is dying off, and there aren’t as many younger people to replace them.” With this quote in mind, looking to your organization’s future, I implore you to focus your attention on your current crop of single ticket-buyers ages 18-35. This may sound obvious, but it’s worth discussing because they are the future of your organization.
As a member of this target age group, I would like to share some insight into what my expectations are when I spend money on an experience. For me, it boils down to three things: I expect to be entertained, feel engaged, and be treated like an insider. In this blog post, I’ll examine a few things you can do to address each of these points, and hopefully, turn some of those single ticket-buyers into subscribers for years to come!
Let’s start with entertainment, your season selection. There’s an assumption that patrons in the 18-35 year old age group will only buy single tickets, not full subscriptions; so there’s no point considering them in the full season selection process. I’d argue that it’s not that they don’t want to buy a full season subscription, it’s just that it seems too expensive for the perceived value of what they’re getting in return. Why is that? People regularly buy expensive tickets to see, let’s say, Beyoncé, for a one night only performance. At most theatre organizations, for the cost of one ticket to a Beyoncé concert, you could get tickets to a whole season of shows!
Young people are buying tickets to see Beyoncé because it’s viewed as a cultural event that’s tailor-made for them. Conversely, they might not necessarily feel like they belong at a major arts institution because the material isn’t being selected to bring them in. Think about it. Why would they buy an entire season subscription when there’s only one show that feels relevant to their interests? When you’re choosing material, you obviously shouldn’t swing the pendulum the other way and only consider this younger generation; but maybe think about what material has the potential to be thought of as a cultural event across multiple demographics within your community.
I do understand that there are a lot of moving pieces at play when it comes to selecting a season (rights, availability, budget, etc…), but that’s where your artistic and marketing departments can swoop in! For example, take a look at the new Oklahoma! revival that just opened on Broadway. It’s still a Golden Age musical. The music is the same. The script is the same. But it’s been re-staged and is being marketed as “not your grandma’s” Rodgers and Hammerstein classic… a cultural event that I certainly don’t want to miss!
Once you get these younger patrons in the door, we move onto the next step, engagement. In a recent blog post called, “A Little Human Touch: Connecting With Your Audience,” a colleague of mine, Senior Account Executive Kevin Patterson, brought up some interesting ideas about audience engagement that I want to expand on in regards to those single ticket-buyers ages 18-35:
- When a first-time ticket-buyer attends an event does anyone greet them at their seat and welcome them? What if, for this younger audience, they were also given a drink voucher to enjoy at intermission? Or an invitation to a “Meet the Cast Over Cocktails” event for patrons 35 and under?
- When a new subscriber or member joins your organization, do they get a call from a senior member of your staff welcoming them and asking why they chose to become a subscriber or member? For this younger generation, in lieu of a rote call, maybe text them a discount code for a future performance, alongside a “thanks for coming” message. It’s not about selling a full subscription to them at this point; just try to get them in the door again so they build a habit of coming to your organization.
- When was the last time your organization randomly selected a group of single ticket-buyers, subscribers, members, or donors and engaged them in a live focus group? I recently was approached by a non-profit that was offering $125 and some snacks and drinks for an hour of time to discuss my theatre-going habits. (To be clear, I would have done this for much less.)
It’s not about desperation, it’s about determination. You need to establish that you are glad these new patrons are there, and that you’re excited for them to return.
Once a new patron has been entertained and engaged by your organization, how do they become a loyal subscriber and eventually a donor? You make them feel like an insider. Let me share a personal anecdote about my experience with a major Off-Broadway theatre company in New York to illustrate my journey from single ticket-buyer to member. When I was an undergrad at NYU, it was a degree requirement to sign up for a student membership at this organization and see every show in their season. It was free to be a student member and, at the time, only $10 to see a play with this membership. This helped me see shows in New York City outside of the classroom that didn’t cost a fortune, and it introduced me to new artists and material that wasn’t necessarily commercial, but worthy of artistic investigation.
After that first year, the requirement was lifted and we were free to either continue or drop the membership. I decided to continue with it; and while I didn’t see every play over the course of my final 3 years in college, I saw most of them. Once I graduated, I again had to make a choice — I could either upgrade to the free “35 and Under Membership,” which came with a ticket price of only $25 per show or I could drop it. I ultimately decided to stick with it and upgrade my subscription because I had gotten into the habit of going to this organization so frequently that it felt like I would be missing out on something if I didn’t attend!
Through each subscription level, this organization made me feel like a valued patron even though I was not paying full price. It was always easy to buy a ticket; I had an exclusive pre-sale window; I had access to some of the best seats in the house; they held special parties for patrons 18-35; I could bring a friend of any age for just $35. In essence, this organization made it as easy as possible for me to see their work! Once I no longer qualify for that young person’s membership, which organization do you think I’ll become a full-price member of? You guessed it, the organization that entertained, engaged, and made me feel like an insider since I was 18!
There are many other things you can do to entice that 18-35 year old age demographic into becoming your next supporter foundation, but an easy way to get started is to look at what your organization is currently doing in regards to the three prongs I’ve laid out above! Once this younger generation feels like your organization is actually making decisions based on their interests, habits, and feedback, you’ll start seeing organizational loyalty that goes well beyond a single ticket purchase.