No I Won’t Marry You, We Aren’t Engaged Yet

Today’s guest blog post is written by Kevin Patterson, Senior Account Executive, PatronManager. 

As both a person who has spent a career leading and working for arts organizations and a dedicated patron of the arts, I understand the challenges and struggles of building a sustainable arts organization. Recently, while on vacation, my family attended a performance by one of the finest orchestras in America today. For the purposes of this blog, I will leave them anonymous, but suffice to say, we had an absolutely incredible experience. My teenage daughter, a violinist and violist, was particularly blown away by the soloist in the Brahms violin concerto.

Several weeks later as I was taking my daughter to her weekly violin lesson, my phone rang. It was a volunteer from the organization. The caller asked me for my name, to confirm my mailing address, and then launched into a two to three-minute appeal about an educational program they were doing in their community (how many students it serves, how valuable it is to keep this program going, etc.) I was then asked if I would consider making a pledge between $150 and one million dollars!

I was utterly gobsmacked by this; the organization had completely set this volunteer caller up to fail. I had attended a single performance, was from out of town, and the organization hadn’t yet tried to engage me in a meaningful way. So, seeking to learn more from the volunteer (who was extremely helpful during the call), I asked if she would share some information with me:

  • Besides my name and address, what other information did she have about me? She responded saying that she had a record that I had attended a performance on X date, and had purchased 3 seats (the record showed my section/seat numbers).
  • Did she know that the concert had been my very first ticket purchase? No.
  • Did she understand that I didn’t live in her community, but in another state? Yes, from my contact record she knew where I lived.

I finished by asking how many one million dollar gifts she had received by calling people? She said that she wasn’t aware of anyone ever pledging a gift of that magnitude by phone. Furthermore, she told me that if she were lucky, she might only get a few small gifts from two to three hours of calling each night. I then asked her if she were in my shoes, would she make a donation? Hesitantly, she said probably not.

Unfortunately, this scenario is all too common. Organizations are missing a huge opportunity by not investing the time to engage with their patrons. Instead, they drive to make earned or contributed revenue goals that render the relationships between their organization and their patrons almost meaningless. To use an analogy, the organization wanted to move from a first date to marriage and estate planning without even bothering to get to know me first!

So, let’s reframe this patron experience into a journey that would have led to a better, more engaged outcome.

A First-time Ticket Buyer Patron Journey Model

  • I go to the organization’s website and make a ticket purchase
    • The organization makes a note that I am both a first-time ticket buyer and live outside of the community
  • I receive an email ticket confirmation
    • It might also include information about the organization or other pertinent details about my purchase
  • I receive an email with week-of performance information
    • This might also include recommendations on restaurants near the theater, parking instructions, information about a pre-show talk/talk-back, etc…
  • I attend the performance
    • A member of the staff comes to my seat and welcomes me to the event
  • I receive a thank you email for attending the performance and a survey asking about:
    • My overall experience
    • My reason for traveling to the community
    • My interests
    • My demographic information (used for grant-reporting purposes)
    • A discount code to attend a similar event in the future

Based on the answers to the survey, the organization could then follow-up with additional information and target key programs of interest to me. And if I end up using the discount code provided to make any additional purchases, the journey continues, and further steps may be taken by the organization to engage me more.

So using the above model as a guide, the organization from my anecdote missed the opportunity to get to know me better. The information about my daughter, for example, might have been learned earlier and then used to create an informed ask that was personalized to my experience. Instead, the lack of engagement caused me to not make a donation.

Having an understanding of different audience segments, crafting a carefully thought out patron journey, executing during the actual experience, and following up with an offer to act as a guide to engage with a patron further, are all important steps in building patron retention (and future brand ambassadors). There are no shortcuts to success, but given time and commitment, an organization will reap the rewards of loyalty and sustainability.

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